Monday, October 02, 2006

Muckler gets it sorta right

The Ottawa Senators trimmed the final layer of fat today, making the last set of roster cuts.

The point of interest for everyone for the last week, and the primary debating point on Ottawa sports talk radio for that period, was the decision between disappointing Russian rookie Alexei Kaigorodov and journeyman AHL sniper Denis Hamel. They had polar opposite camps. While Kaigorodov struggled during his first chance to shine, Hamel made the most of the opportunities given to him. For me, it was a no brainer. Keep Hamel and let Kaigorodov develop his North American game elsewhere. Turns out, there was a C option I didn't think existed.

Ottawa has decided to carry 22 players, among them both Kaigorodov AND Hamel.

What does this mean? I haven't figured it out yet, but my initial response is that it’s pretty foolish.

What’s clear is that the Sens didn't want to lose either. The fear is that if Kaigorodov doesn't make the team, he'd go back to Russia and with as hard as they fought to get him out of that mess, they would never get a second chance to bring him over. Despite my best attempts to dig deep into the situation and get the truth, I'm still clueless about his status. The initial reports were that if he didn't make the big club, the agreement with his Russian Super League team was such that he would have to go over there. However, reports floated that this was not the case and he was over here regardless, AHL or NHL. The fact he's signed a contract seems to make me think it has to be the latter.

If that is the case, the Sens have made what I consider a pretty big mistake.

They tried Kaigorodov on the Alfredsson line. They gave him a chance and, while it was only the pre-season, to say he failed would be putting it lightly.

And let's be real: given his skillset, the only place for Kaigorodov to play would be on the top two lines. Where they currently have him penciled in, on the fourth line, is a complete waste of both his time and the clubs.

We saw with Jason Spezza what a few years in the AHL can do for a developing player. As much as the comments may have stung, Jacques Martin's remarks back in 2002 that Spezza was still a boy playing with men was 100% on point. He went to the AHL and his balls dropped hockeywise, and he came back a man. There are still kinks, but the difference is vast. In the A, he was given the ball to run with and built up a tremendous amount of confidence dominating that league.

This is what Kaigorodov needs. A spot on the fourth line, playing 7 or 8 minutes a game does him little good.

There is a theory out there, and one that I think holds some weight, that the Sens, regardless of how poorly he played, were going to keep "Kai" around. Given how much hype was heaped on him, they couldn't admit defeat and send him packing.

If that's the case, Hamel has sure made a clusterfuck of their plans. Make no mistake, he played his way onto this team, and did so despite the organization wanting otherwise. And if he could've cleared waivers, I absolutely think they'd have sent him on his merry way to upstate New York with the rest of the them.

Because while Ottawa may have made up their mind about what kind of player he is, I have to assume some other team, a club not as talented as Ottawa, would've taken a run at him. That may be where Serge Payer lies. He had a strong camp and improved his standing within the organization. I wouldn't be shocked if another team scoops him up and gives him the fourth line checking center job that was pretty sewn up with the Sens.

Still, kudos to the organization for not cutting Hamel. I was certain they'd find a way to fuck it up, and they proved me wrong. Bravo.

Now that we know the team sorta, what's the line combos we go into Wednesday night with?

There is a significant divide amongst the fanbase as to the first line. I'm of the opinion that, for the time being, it's better to keep the Big Line apart. The first line is, obviously, going to be Jason Spezza at center with Dany Heatley on his left side. I'd pencil in Patrick Eaves to play right wing. It's a trio that played together, off and on, throughout last season, and Eaves rose the occasion every time. Despite being much smaller than both Spezza and Heatley, Eaves brings a physical, balls-to-the-wall attitude that seems to allude his more high profile teammates. Some might make a case for Dean McAmmond given how well he played with Spezza and Heatley in the pre-season, and the veteran presence as well as defensive responsibility he'd bring, and it's hard to argue with those points.

The second line is set in stone. Mike Fisher stepped in when Kaigorodov flopped and was terrific with Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Schaefer. He and Schaefer are no strangers to each other, as along with Chris Neil they made up Ottawa's third line for most of last season, a line that on a lot nights was Ottawa's best, and on almost every, was the hardest working. Some, myself included, questioned whether Fisher had what it took to be a true #2 center. You can't deny his work ethic or his dedication, but I was unsure if the natural skill required was there, and desire doesn't make up for that entirely. I always viewed Fisher as not quite good enough to be a #2 center, but too good to be a #3, which in theory is a perfect situation to be in. Fisher will get his shot and you'd be foolish to bet against him. Schaefer is coming off his best season as a pro, and there's no reason to think he can't do better with more ice time and an increased role. And Alfie is Alfie.

All of this doesn’t mean the Big Line is dead. There can be no disputing the chemistry that those three players have, and it would be foolish to let it waste away. It has to be used appropriately. In situations where the team needs a big goal, those three should absolutely get tapped on the back.

The third line needs to provide a lot of energy. That's what Schaefer-Fisher-Neil did last season, and the trio of McAmmond-Antoine Vermette-Chris Neil, on paper anyway, brings a lot of jump, significant offensive capabilities, and, ideally, plenty of fight. Vermette had 20 goals last season playing on the fourth line. As a result, his fans called for the French Canadian to get a bigger role. Yet everytime he did, he played poorly, leaving many to assume that he worked best in a minor role. I was one of those people, and part of me still is, but at some point, he has to be given a shot to prosper or plummet, and for an extended period. Neil scored a career high 16 goals last season, and though some of you downplay those goals by saying half of them were tips or juicy rebounds with gaping cages, the reality is, Neil got his goals by doing something we've all been clamoring for from this team: he stood in front of the net.

The fourth line, I think, should be Hamel-Chris Kelly-Brian McGratton, leaving Kaigorodov on the outside looking in. Hamel can play D reasonably well, is physical, and has proven himself to be a capable goal scorer. Chris Kelly is one of the more useful players on the team, and when there's an injury he can move up, but for even strength I like him on the fourth line. And, crazy as this sounds, I believe McGratton will have a very good season. Okay, stop laughing. He's worked his ass off to develop his game and, yeah, he'll never be a top six forward, I think he's capable of a regular shift without hurting the team.

So that's how it breaks down. We'll know the answer to these questions Wednesday night, but it's pretty cut and dry from where I sit.


At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Dennis Prouse said...

They've just got to buck up and send Kai to Bingo. He simply won't develop here. If he bolts back to Russia, then he bolts back to Russia -- he'll hardly be the only second round pick to flame out in NHL history. In fact, even the majority of first rounders in most years never go on to sign a significant second NHL contract. Just take a look at the first round from over the last ten years or so, and you'll see what I mean.

As for Hamel, Vancouver in particular would have been on him like a fat kid on a Smartie had he hit the waiver wire. No way could the Sens even contemplate sending him down, not after the season he had last year, and the camp he had in September.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hamel truly diserves his day and thanks to the brass for finally giving it him. As for the Russian star in waiting, yes Bingo has his name-o.


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