After two games Ottawa has two wins over division opponents ahead of tonight’s home opener against the Canadiens. There’s a lot to be thankful for on this holiday weekend but there’s also a few things to talk about. I have some thoughts that are by no means comprehensive (admittedly I was drawing during both games) but are worth a mention. Opinions on why the Turris-Stone-Hoffman line should only be used as a last resort, why the way the second line has looked means Ryan and MacArthur both need to be in and stay in the top six, and why Curtis Lazar isn’t ready for an increased role yet, but to simplify things, this will be about Patrick Wiercioch.
As much as Wiercioch’s play and Cameron’s faith in him have seemed to resolve the issue of whether he should be in the lineup (he obviously should and not just because of the Senators other options), with regular playing time comes increased scrutiny. Cameron elected to go with Wiercioch’s partner Cody Ceci on the second powerplay unit with Erik Karlsson in the third against Toronto (EK was on the point with a combo of Turris/Ryan on the first unit) and with Ceci as the second defenseman for 3-on-3 overtime. Ceci’s skating ability makes sense for the fast pace of OT (Methot too), but the powerplay time is more interesting. In the season opener, Ray Ferraro talked for some time about Wiercioch running a powerplay during his career and PW’s proven to be a good possession player, so why wasn’t he on the powerplay in the third?
I don’t think one period in the second game of the season is indicative of a larger trend or a sign that Dave Cameron has somehow lost faith in PW. More than most coaches, I get the sense that Cameron connects these mini demotions with actual coaching and development unlike some of his contemporaries who make quizzical decisions that seem vindictive or committed to various antiquated ideas in the game (the code, deferential to veterans, styles of play etc.).
If I had to guess what was problematic about PW’s game last night I would say it was his soft play. Calling PW soft isn’t meant to suggest that he should play a hard, physical game like Jared Cowen tries to play or hit like Mark Borowiecki. Rather, Wiercioch is a kind of defenseman increasingly valued in the game: one who facilitates possession and transition while having the passing skills to excel in a more fluid understanding of offense and defense. PW doesn’t need to hit, but he needs to play harder. By any definition, EK is a small man in the NHL, but his size doesn’t mean he’s easy to play against. He’s deft at using his stick; in lanes but also as part of a checking repertoire that leads to turnovers. Moreover, he’s able to absorb contact while maintaining possession of the puck. He also uses natural gifts like his speed and vision to keep the puck away from opponents and generate offensive opportunities. PW doesn’t skate like Karlsson (few do) but he does have some natural advantages he’s not using right now and that was on display against the Leafs. On the Leafs first goal, PW was hit behind Ottawa’s net and turned the puck over in front of his own net. He wasn’t the only player who deserved blame on that goal but he was part of the problem. There were also a few examples in the first two periods of PW turning the puck over. Turnovers happen and they’re not the end of the world and just part of the business of generating offensive in the NHL. But I think turnovers bother coaches more when they’re not part of something creative, or taking a risk to generate offensive, but when they’re the result of soft play. Wiercioch is 6’5” and while he’s a wiry 200 pounds, his size does give him leverage which he wasn’t using when the puck got taken away from him a few times with little more than a stick check. Focusing on this isn’t focusing on the negative, Wiercioch’s skills are fairly well documented at this point. But drawing attention to the holes in his game makes sense if you want him to take the next step.
He doesn’t need to be Scott Stevens, but he needs to be harder to beat in 1-on-1 battles when he’s in possession of the puck.
Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for reading!