Thursday, September 28, 2006

Even in the pre-season...

It's still VERY sweet to beat the Maple Leafs at the ACC.

There were a couple of good things to take out of last night's W:
1) Mike Fisher did not look a bit out of place on the second line alongside Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Schaefer, furthering confusing the situation with Alexei Kaigorodov. Previously, I stated I would prefer Fisher on the third line, but he sure looked like a second-line center on this night. Combined, the trio racked up seven points and were, far and away, the best line the Sens rolled in the Hog.
2) Ray Emery was terrific and is making life very difficult for Bryan Murray (and in turn, John Muckler). While he hasn't downright sucked, Martin Gerber has yet to assert himself as the bonafided number one goalie. To say he's been ordinary would be an understatement. Meanwhile, Emery has shined more often than not and if the job truly wasn't Gerber's regardless, as Muckler said back in July when he signed the Swiss 'tender, then I would think Emery has to be considered for the starting job. Economics (as in the fact Gerber makes $3.7 mil per season) might play a factor, but if it's all about who's playing better, there can be no disputing that Emery is the frontrunner on that criteria alone. In the third period, he was sensational.
3) In addition to scoring another goal, Dean McAmmond had a strong outing. Having another speedster in the line-up can never hurt.

On the flipside, it was another piss poor performance from the Russian that was supposed to save us. Murray gave Kaigorodov every chance to succeed even though he took him off the Alfredsson line. He was lined up with red hot Denis Hamel and Patrick Eaves, who has an uncanny ability to find the net, and yet he still didn't generate much in the way of offensive chances.

We'll see how things go tonight when Montreal comes town.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Decision day sees no surprises

The Sens trimmed the fat this morning, reducing the roster down to 28 players. No real shocks on who didn't make the grade, though I'm sure a few fanboys online will shed some tears at one particular demotion.

Firstly, a gang of players were sent back to their junior teams. Cody Bass was sent back to Mississauga, Nick Foligno to Sudbury, and Tomas Kudelka to Lethbridge of the WHL. All three had good spurts in this pre-season but none made a definitive impact or played well enough that you thought they warranted consideration for the big club. Yet.

Bass is a kid I've followed for some time now. He brings a ton of work ethic, tenacity, and do-or-die to an organization that doesn't have much of it. In the Pittsburgh game a week ago, Bass played very well but wasn't able to maintain that level of play for the rest of camp. Still, he's not even 20 yet and another year in the OHL, perhaps followed by a season down in Binghamton, will really help his game. I'm excited about where he'll be two or three years from now.

Foligno is built along the same lines. The odds of him ever developing into a top six forward aren't great, but he seems tailor-made for the third line, chipping away at the opposition and scoring big, timely goals when they're necessary, something I imagine that's in his DNA.

As for Kudelka, he's also a few years away, and the team has such decent depth on the blueline that I can't see him being in a Sens uniform for some time.

Sent to the fledging Binghamton version of the Sens were goalies Jeff Glass and Kelly Guard, defencemen Neil Komadoski, Charlie Cook, and Neil Petruic, and forwards Jeff Heerema, Arttu Luttinen, Brian Maloney, Grant Potulny, Danny Bois, Andrew Ebbett, Chanse Fitzpatrick, Cory Pecker, Bobby Robbins, and Ryan Vesce.

The one name that will likely upset, or at the very least disappoint some is Luttinen, the (allegedy) gritty Finnish winger who many vocal pundits online expected to make the club this season. I never quite bought into that hype, but based on how others were billing him, I certainly thought he'd make more of an impact than what I saw Friday night against the Sabres, where he was mostly invisible.

And while Luttinen has been presented by his fans as a tough player, he's still yet to play a single real game of North American hockey, so maybe a year of that will help round out his game and 12 months from now, perhaps with some roster spots available, he'll be better suited to make a run at a job with Ottawa.

That said, I know a lot of you are sad. Don't fret too much.

The other name of interest is Jeff Heerema. I wonder if he's where Denis Hamel was a year ago. Penciled in as a minor leaguer and nothing he does in the short term can change that. I'd think a guy who scored 74 points in 77 games on a pretty rotten Binghamton team last season would at least survive the first cut solely based on that, and the club wanting to get a better look at him, but shows what I know. Even if he has had a pretty ordinary camp thus far, doesn't 74 points give him some leeway?

I know I, for one, would've liked to see how he fared paired up with some of the regulars in a pre-season game or two, but like with Hamel, perhaps his destiny was written before camp even began. I do know a lot of the moves the Sens made this offseason were about strengthening a very weak Binghamton team, a team that struggled badly last season, and I'm sure Heerema and his 74 points are a big part of that, but let's see what he's made of and if he has anything to offer the big club in the immediate future.

In the nets, both Glass and Guard had solid pre-seasons, doing themselves favors in establishing some notorioty among the fanbase. Glass in particular was said to be ridiculously good in Saturday night's win over Philadelphia, and might be the goalie to watch in a few years.

The remaining club, if you're curious, is:
G Ray Emery
G Martin Gerber
D Wade Redden
D Chris Phillips
D Andrej Meszaros
D Joe Corvo
D Tom Preissing
D Christoph Schubert
D Anton Volchenkov
D Michal Barinka
D Andy Hedlund
D Tomas Malec
D Jamie Allison
F Daniel Alfredsson
F Jason Spezza
F Dany Heatley
F Mike Fisher
F Patrick Eaves
F Peter Schaefer
F Antoine Vermette
F Chris Neil
F Chris Kelly
F Dean McAmmond
F Denis Hamel
F Alexei Kaigorodov
F Brian McGratton
F Josh Hennessy
F Serge Payer

There aren't many jobs to be won, and I suspect they're keeping the Josh Hennessys and Michal Barinka's around to get better looks at them and see how they fare when playing with and against better calibre talents, possibily so they know who to pencil in as the first call ups when the inevitable injuries occur.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A mixed bag weekend

The Sens played three games in three days this past weekend, losing only one, and the end result is more names added to the injured list, a struggling Russian, and one Senator making life very difficult for the coaching staff.

First, the walking wounded: with both Peter Schaefer and Daniel Alfredsson already on the shelf as a precautionary measure with groin injuries, two defencemen who will sorta need to be healthy if the Sens plan to prosper this season got themselves hurt.

Fortunately, the aching groin that forced Wade Redden to leave Sunday evening's game in Halifax against Toronto doesn't appear to be serious.

However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Sens will be without Joe Corvo for an estimated four-to-six weeks with a broken foot. It seemed like an innocent enough play, and when he was taken off the ice, I would never have thought the injury was serious, yet here we are. It's times like this that having a Christoph Schubert calibre rearguard as your 7th d-man comes in handy.

Truth be told, Corvo was not impressing me in the least bit prior the foot injury. He looked slow, sluggish, uninspired and made poor decisions with the puck in the pre-season games I saw. This doesn't mean I was demanding a trade, or questioning the signing (a lot). However, I sure would have been much more comfortable if Corvo blew me away during those first insignificant games he played as a Senator.

The pairing between him and Redden looked awkward, and seemed to be affecting Redden's game as well. That's strange, because all last season, Redden juggled defensive partners and throughout it, maintained a high standard of play, able to adjust to whomever was beside him on the blueline.

What will be interesting to observe is who gets to play with Redden during the first part of the regular season now that Corvo is out. The pairs looked to be locked in, with Redden alongside Corvo, Chris Phillips teamed with Andrej Meszaros, and Tom Preissing and Anton Volchenkov making up the bottom pair. Now that's out the window. Bryan Murray seems to be in love with the idea of Phillips and Meszaros, so odds are, it'll be either Preissing or Volchenkov playing with Redden. I suppose Schubert is a possibility, but that'll be a lot of minutes for a guy who wasn't even considered good enough to be in their top six d-men.

Smart money is on Volchenkov getting the nod. He and Redden have played together for some time, with mostly good results, and having some familiarity back there will help with the other pairs being so new. If that ends up being the case, it'll be an odd twist of fate for the "A-Train", who had been the subject of trade rumors. Many people, myself included, wonder about the economic sense of having a fifth defenceman being paid $1.25 mil on a team counting every penny due to limited cap space, and when it looked like Alexei Kaigorodov wasn't coming off, it made sense to suggest John Muckler should dangle Volchenkov in front of GMs in hopes of getting that elusive second line center.

All of that said, the idea of Preissing paired with Redden intrigues me. I was never too hot on Corvo and Redden, as they seemed too similar (Corvo a poor man's Redden) to work, while Preissing seems to have a better all around game. However, when they threw $2.6 mil at Corvo in July, that all but guaranteed they'd be giving him top four minutes. We'd love to think salaries have no baring on who gets ice time, but if you truly believe that, I have both land AND a bridge to sell you.

Also a major highlight of the weekend action was the continual disappointment that is Alexei Kaigorodov. I'm someone who was willing to cut him some slack as far as immediate impact, because coming from Russia to North America is a significant adjustment for the kid to make, and even I'm let down by his play. For those of you who were convinced he's the messiah that would take this team to the next level, solve their problem on the second line, and put up Ovechkin type numbers his freshman year, you must be feeling suicidal.

There's no way to spin his play thus far as anything but piss poor. He's looked downright lost on the ice on a lot of occasions. The Wednesday night loss to Toronto was a nightmare, the worst possible scenario, and Friday night versus Buffalo, the guy just wasn't a factor. That was an improvement over the previous game, because he didn't embarass himself, however, when I notice prospects who are expected to make up the third line in Binghamton more than the supposed savior, there are problems.

I'm not calling the kid a bust yet, but he has a small window to impress and he's shit the bed quite severely thus far.

I wonder if that even matters though. With the way he's been built up, he sort of has to make the team. His destiny is set in stone and these games may not even be of any importance besides getting him acclimitized to the NHL. Sending him back to Russia would be a colossal embarassment to all involved, and one I have to think the organization wants to avoid at all costs. Something tells me all that "his job isn't guaranteed" talk is just that, talk.

And speaking of sealed fates, how about Denis Hamel. Are you any more confident the guy will make the team even after scoring five goals, because I'm sure not. Having witnessed Hamel score a natural hat trick Friday night, and receive a standing ovation from the (alleged) 16,000 for it, I still think they'll find a way to send him back to Bingo in a few weeks.

Hamel, for whatever reason, is perceived by the Sens (and seemingly every other NHL team) as a career minor leaguer. A guy who can light it up down there but who's not well suited to thrive in the NHL. He has other opportunities and didn't make the most of them, however, his game looks to be much improved since then.

The argument made by people who think Hamel shouldn't make the club centers around two things:
1) Pre-season success means nothing (and they reference Brandon Bochenski)
2) Hamel has to play on the top lines

Let's address them individually.

The first one is true. Pre-season success is of little significance. But using Bochenski as a reference point isn't fair to either Hamel or the departed former Senator. Hamel scored over 50 goals in the AHL last season. The year before that, he netted 39 when there were a ton of NHLers in the league due to the lockout. This isn't some flukey September where luck is getting the better of things.

The second is one I believed for a while, so I can't fault those who still do. The perception around Hamel is that he's a goal scorer with little else to his game. If that was the case, then playing him on the fourth line would be asking for trouble because his skillset isn't suited to play in that position. But Hamel isn't just a goal scorer. He happens to do that very well, but his game includes an above average defensive prowess and a willingness to play the body. If there is a hole on the third or (more likely) fourth line, then he's as fit to fill the void as anyone else in the organization.

Essentially, what it comes down to is politics, and as a fan, who just wants whatever it takes for this team to win occur, it's frustrating to observe. A kid from Russia, highly touted, has never played a single pro game on this side of the Atlantic and gets a job handed to him. It was up to him to play his way off the team, and not center Daniel Alfredsson. Meanwhile, a rough and tumble 29-year-old who's proven himself capable of lighting the lamp has to play like the reincarnated Rocket Richard to get this team's brass to even consider him for a job.

It sorta sucks, but that's life in the big leagues I guess.

Seeing the way the fans responded to Hamel, you'd think it would be a P.R. nightmare to have him not make the team now, but I remain confident they'll find a way to fuck it up.

Touching on the other bases from the last couple games:
- Ray Emery looked solid Friday night and made a number of impressive saves. He looks to be finding his mid-season form with ease.
- Speaking of mid-season form, Jason Spezza is turning the puck over like it's February already. It was discouraging because the rest of his game has been strong however these silly giveaways erase all the goodwill he establishes with his solid play the rest of the time.
- Dean McAmmond didn't look at all out of place alongside the aforementioned Spezza and Dany Heatley Sunday night against the Leafs. McAmmond will likely start the season on the third or fourth line, but I like having him on deck to mix things up when necessary. He brings a veteran presence to that line that's difficult to get in other combos unless it involves Alfie.
- I also liked the game of Brian McGratton on the second line that game, lined up for a lot of it with Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly (last year's fourth line for much of the season). McGratton's game has come a long way and the idea of him playing six to eight minutes a game, as he has aimed for this season, isn't as laughable as you might think.
- Michal Barinka had a strong game Friday night. Very physical, good in his own end, and didn't make any mistakes when the rubber was on his tape. He looks NHL ready to me, so I'm excited about having him on the farm as the first call up. Despite being a big body he can skate and seems to have good hockey sense.
- For all the hype he gets on the HF Boards, Arttu Luttinen sure hasn't done much to impress me. Where's all this toughness I heard about?
- Thoughtless, ill-timed penalties cost them Friday night's game. Let's hope these are just the guys getting the rust of their collective systems.
- Kelly Guard's gold pads rule. That is all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Why even play the games?

The nerds behind the PC game Eastside Hockey Manager simulated all the NHL games for the coming season and came to a startling realization: the Ottawa Senators are gonna suck, bad.

Their simulation saw the Sens (as well as the Leafs, Oilers, and Canucks) miss the playoffs. Yikes. If I took these things seriously I might be concerned, but when I read that they also had the Chicago Blackhawks finish 3rd in the Western Conference.

If the Hawks win their division, I'll get my Werner Herzog on and eat my shoe. Seriously.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Hockey in September doesn't suck

I saw the majority of the Sens-Pens game from Halifax tonight that ended with our beloved Sens taking the W 5-2. Some quick thoughts:

- the chemistry between Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Patrick Eaves looked to be in mid-season form. Now that we have Kaigorodov penciled in alongside Alfie, it makes sense to keep this trio together to start the season. I LOVE the jam and determination Eaves brings to the line. It’s somewhat startling that the guy is oversized by the other two, more high profile players yet Eaves plays like he dwarfs the much heralded pair, however, until the kid’s body breaks down, we need to reap the benefits of his complete lack of common sense.

- a strong game from Ray Emery. Wasn’t tested significantly but made some impressive saves and showed very little of anything resembling rust. Kelly Guard was less inspiring, but didn’t hurt himself out there either.

- it’s absolutely unfair to judge someone on one game, let alone a game of the pre-season variety, but boy did Joe Corvo fail to impress me, and I doubt I’m alone. With the money they threw at the relatively unknown rearguard, expectations are high, and I hope this wasn’t a sign of things to come this season. I’m willing to cut the guy some slack for the entire pre-season because it’s a pretty serious adjustment he’s trying to make, but the club can’t afford for that learning period to be too prolonged. He needs to be more aggressive physically and be smarter with the puck if he plans to be worth that $2.6 mil the Sens threw his way.

- Danny Bois got himself noticed with his physical play, on a line with superpest Cody Bass. Solid performances from both.

The Sens return to action Wednesday night at the Cor…. ScotiaBank Place with our friends the Maple Leafs coming to town. I assume it too will be on the tube in some form, but if you’re like me, just hit up your local watering hole and I’m sure it’ll be showcased.

Some roster notes to make mention of include the first look at Alexei Kaigorodov, lined up with the captain, as well as the sorta debut of Josh Hennessy, who I’ve started to think will be the sleeper portion of the Havlat deal. Tom Preissing will pay dividends this season, but Hennessy looks to be someone who will be a factor for years to come sooner than later. As well, Martin Gerber and Jeff Glass split the pipe time. Gerber is looking to rebound from a so-so outing in the scrimmage the other night that caused many cynics to chime in with their doubts about his legitimacy as an elite goalie, while Glass just hopes to do something to make the Sens brass remember he exists.

On the other side, no Mats Sundin means a chance to really beat up on the Buds. Fun.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The more things change...

There's nothing better than staying away from hockey coverage for a month, and coming back to a story about the zany New York Islanders. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and also, like I haven't missed a thing.

Of course, I'm talking about the lunacy that is the new contract they signed Rick DiPietro to. 15 years. $4.5 million per.

If you've been sitting with baited breath, waiting to see what I think about it, I'll feed the need: the New York Islanders are out of their friggin minds.

It's a terrible contract from an organization who continues to solidify their status as the laughing stock in a league full of quite a few contenders for that crown. Their moves back the way the Chicago Blackhawks have managed their team over the last 10 years look good. I'm sure, somewhere in the Windy City, a Hawks fan read the news and said, well, it could be worse. We could be fans of THEM.

I've seen some defend the signing by saying if DiPietro turns into the elite goalie most seemed to think he would when the Isles picked him first overall so many years ago, the contract will be regarded as a steal. I suppose that's true, but dishing out long-term deals for what a guy might become, with little evidence that destiny is likely, is foolishness only found on Long Island.

I'd love to pin this idiocy on Garth Snow, who I must admit I love whipping at every turn, but this looks to be a move from above. If you recall, this same contract was talked about last summer when DiPietro needed a new deal then too.

Back then, I was unsure if it was wise, and was more intrigued by the precedent it might set. A year later, there is no confusion.

The reality is, there is no way this can go well. If DiPietro does become that new Patrick Roy/Martin Brodeur hybrid Charles Wang seems convinced he will be, he'll be grossly underpaid at $4.5 million and more than likely be quite resentful of that fact. If he doesn't, they have a massive financial albatross around their neck in a league that now has a salary cap and thus requires every penny pinched regardless of market size.

What I think this is about, ultimately, is an organization still unwilling to admit they made a mistake.

The Islanders unloaded Roberto Luongo, who's much closer to the status of next franchise goalie than DiPietro, to make room for the guy, and in the process, when selecting the American netminder first overall six years ago, passed by a couple pretty great players in Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik, who I have to think most fans of this circus would prefer over the guy with the rich new contract.

The Islanders organization, upon drafting Rick DiPietro, billed him so significantly as the next big thing that unless he did become Dominik Hasek dominant instantly, it was hard to view the guy as anything but a bust. He was destined to fail and the way they've handled him hasn't helped.

Make no mistake. He's a decent, above average goalie. But if you were to make a list of the best 10 goaltenders in the NHL, would his name even chart? I know he wouldn't crack my list.

The Islanders built DiPietro up and instead of resigning themselves to the fact he just hasn't become (yet) what they hoped, they continue to cross their fingers and assume it's just around the corner. I'd love to give them the benefit of the doubt, and figure they know what they're doing, but with this club, and these knuckleheads, that would be even more insane than the contracts a rich, jock sniffing billionaire with a hard on for athletes gives out.

And to think, not even 30 years ago, this organization was the toast of the league.


UPDATE: When reacquainting myself with what's been going on in the hockey blogsphere, I came across what Tom Benjamin (who I'm glad to see hasn't retired to the cave for good after all) had to say about it

I don't think it is fair to bring the Yashin contract into it because that one is a different kettle of fish. That was foolish and I don't think this one is nearly so bad.

I disagree. The Yashin contract looks laughably awful now, five years later, but I don't think it was as misguided as this.

As strange as it sounds in 2006, back then, Alexei Yashin truly was considered by most people to be (in the regular season anyway) one of the best hockey players in the world. He was 27 years old and had already put up nearly 500 points, almost a point a game average for his career up to that point.

The silly part of that contract was a a 10-year committment to a guy who had already renegged on two deals up to that point in his career. The money was steep, but it was around what elite players were being paid and most people thought Yashin was in that class. His previous two NHL seasons saw the Russian finish 11th and 6th in league scoring.

It's quite amusing and enjoyable as a Sens fan to see what the hated Yashin has become since the trade took place, but don't let the last couple years allow people to rewrite history.

The Yashin contract, however excessive, could be defended on some level because they were getting a guy considered to be among the NHL's best, at a time when the franchise, having missed the playoffs for who knows how many consecutive years, needed to do something to make a splash.

In contrast to the DiPietro contract, that one looks downright sensible.

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