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.