Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised by this…

A quick glance around the Sensosphere ™ this morning and it seems like we’ve settled on the notion that Ottawa’s baffling slide is due to a sudden lack of motivation. It’s as if the whole team suddenly came down with chronic vitamin D deficiency, which, being from Ottawa and it being February, I wouldn’t be surprised by. (I’m suddenly listening to nothing by Husker Du and drinking 19 beers after work every night.) But then again, I’m skeptical.

Ottawa threw 49 shots at James Reimer on Saturday night, and while not all of them were quality chances, I can’t see any discernable difference between the effort level of these Ottawa Senators and the ones who were winning games they had no business winning just a few weeks ago. While the early season successes had a lot to do with everything going right at the same time, now the inverse is true.

1) The goaltending is still mostly bad

Even with Anderson playing the hero in December and stealing a few wins for the team, they’ve now allowed the first goal in a staggering 287 straight games (might be off by a few games, but it’s close). Combined with the goal from center-ice against Boston, the goals at inopportune times, and the seemingly thousands of close calls, this is all eerily familiar: the team is as deflated as they were by Brian Elliott’s unreliable goaltending last season. The tragic part is that at least Elliott was making peanuts and wasn’t signed for four years…I’m not ready to throw Anderson under the bus yet, but there’s no denying that something’s broken right now. Would it really be all that bad to give Auld, who hasn’t played since 1981, a game or two?

2) Players once overachieving have turned into ghosts

Zack Smith was once on pace for 20 goals – fantastic for a third line center. Nick Foligno was having a resurgent year, and looking like a 50 point player. Milan Michalek was leading the league in scoring (for a few days). Jared Cowen was playing 30 minutes a night and looking good doing it. Sergei Gonchar was looking like he was close to a 50 point defenseman. Greening and Condra were scoring big goals at the right times. Karlsson, Spezza and Alfie were dominant at times. Even Butler was scoring the odd game winner. It’s not so much that all of these players have gone cold; perhaps it’s that we became too used to this overachieving. Except for Michalek. That dude cannot be this bad all of a sudden – one point in his last five games!

3) Other teams have stopped taking the team lightly

How many backups did this team used to see? How many times would a dominant team come out and muster 19 shots against Ottawa, only to realize too late that they were letting the game get out of hand? When you’re 6th in the conference (or once were), they stop with the gimmes. Ottawa is seeing the best other teams have to offer, and to put it plainly, they’re not good enough to compete. Now that the playing field is level, you’re not getting anywhere if you’re not going to at least win games against the Islanders and Leafs in your own barn.

4) The team’s ‘work for it’ system is the same system everyone else uses, except most of them have about $18MM more in salary on their roster

I wrote about this a long time ago, but I remember reading an ‘anonymous GM’ quote about how hard Ottawa planned on riding these kids, and how it would be difficult for them to keep it up late in the season. I think we’re seeing this become prophetic – you can’t outwork the other team unless you’re being underestimated or your team finds another level. It’s not reasonable to assume another level every game, so it comes down to skill and a better system. At this point in the season, it’s looking more and more like a simple trap in the neutral zone is enough to produce turnovers. Passes aren’t making it through. Ottawa’s defence is slow. It’s not that they aren’t working hard; hard work isn’t enough in the best league in the world. MacLean needs to respond by out coaching the opposition rather than going back to what worked when legs were fresh.

5) Ottawa’s powerplay is awful

Not sure what else needs to be said here. It used to be top five – yet another reason why Ottawa was winning games where they were also allowing four or five goals. Now it’s down to 18th. (Its PK is even worse at 22nd.)

It’s not all doom and gloom – Ottawa could turn this around. Even playing .500 hockey from  here on out puts them in a playoff position. But in the last two weeks they’ve stumbled from a 90% chance at the playoffs to 50%. We’re down to 27 games and a coin toss. And for all the quotes from Murray that this team isn’t going to fall off because they just work too hard, it’s discouraging to think management became as ensorcelled by the early season run as the rest of us. With the team primed to take a run at Tuomo Ruutu (goodbye first round pick), and their best prospect out the door already, I don’t know that they haven’t pushed all their chips forward this season.

I’ve probably got a much longer post in me somewhere about how Ottawa is squandering a once in a decade chance to rebuild properly, and how we’re destined for ten year’s worth of bubble team hockey as a result, but for now I’ll just say that what we’re seeing now is likely closer to what a team of eager young players is capable of producing. Hopefully this is just a late-season sag, and they’ll go back on upswing just in time to really push back in the first round of the playoffs. But in the meantime, saying that they just aren’t trying seems like a bit of a cop out.

4 thoughts on “Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised by this…

  1. Personally, I’m obviously disappointed, but I also think this may be the best thing for the team. Another first round, 5 game playoff exit is not what we want.

    On the flippity-flop, it’s no secret that 102 percent of the team’s success rides on Spezza, and he seems a little injured right now.

    How ridiculous would it be if the Leafs made the playoffs and our boys didn’t? Making the playoffs is our thing! Their thing is giving up first round picks and then tanking so that the Bruins can draft Seguin.

  2. Pardon me if I’m highjacking your blog…
    I wanted to add: I’ve never liked the 5 year rebuild. It’s great in theory, but in the end what seperates the Oilers from the Red Wings/future Sens is the ability to draft well, particularly in the later rounds. We were a playoff team (or close) when Murray drafted Karlsson, Cowen, Stone, etc.
    We had a year of painful suckitude and Murray did a fantastic job of maximizing the value. I still think we’ll be fine.

    • No worries – hijack away 🙂

      I’m not an acolyte of the five year rebuild by any means. I think they tend to replace innovative new hockey systems and metrics. If you have the same system everyone else has, and you need the same big Canadian kids as everyone else to make it work, then you’ll need five years of stinking to get the draft picks. I don’t think that’s where we are – yet. But I’m also not convinced that we don’t need a solid launch to the rebuild – meaning one, two years at least – to build a contender. What I mean by that is basically hold on to your picks and prospects, even if it means the team finishes lower this year.

      As for the Sens being good at drafting in later rounds, I think that remains to be seen. There’s promise there, but Murray traded away a lot of draft picks when he took over, and guys like Stone look great in the World Juniors and WHL, but I’m not convinced that they’ll work out against NHL defenses, especially when we’re talking power forward style of play. The guys who have worked out so far – Karlsson, Cowen, basically – were both drafted high. It doesn’t mean that Murray doesn’t deserve some credit for drafting them over other players, but it’s not like they were steals at 15th and 9th overall.

      I don’t think the team needs to tank out every year, but I do think that they need to hold on to picks, and they will need at least 2-3 years of the same quality drafting to compete for a cup. It’s hard to win every draft, so 2-3 years can become 5-7. It might be premature to separate Edmonton from Ottawa at this point. Sure, Edmonton sucks, but they’re in the third year of a rebuild. If they sign or trade for a top two defenceman and some goaltending, I could see them contending in another few years. It looks like they’ll draft another top five player this year, and it will be defenceman. Ottawa won’t stink for years, but I do think that if you don’t use the good will of your fan base and ownership to rebuild while you can, then you end up with another mediocre team who makes the playoffs some years and other years doesn’t, gets their ass kicked by higher seeded teams, and keeps saying “anything can happen.” Basically, we’re not the Oilers, but we’re also not the Red Wings. We’re the Leafs. At least, that’s what I’m afraid of.

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