Creativity is an interesting concept in sports. Ottawa’s lineup over the past week might be confused by many as a creative solution by Dave Cameron to his team routinely being outshot. But it’s not. It’s a reliance on grit, toughness, and some sort of nebulous understanding of defensive prowess (plays in the bottom six/lower pairings, therefore he’s defensively-minded) in hockey that lots of coaches fall prey to. To truly think creatively about hockey requires a different understanding of what it is defenders and forwards do during the course of a game and how skill impacts how both groups work together to create offense. So this isn’t creative on Dave Cameron’s part. Zack Smith is not a top six forward nor is he a line one winger. He is, at times, a useful fourth line player, but for that designation to stick he needs to keep penalties to a minimum and his astronomical shooting percentage needs to continue to orbit Saturn. As neither of those things are likely, the case for him being effective in the right role isn’t a solid one, let alone an argument to give him more minutes. The case for Mark Borowiecki at forward is much like the case for Mark Borowiecki on defense: it shouldn’t be made. At least on defense Ottawa’s lack of depth makes it somewhat understandable that Boro makes his way into the lineup, but he’s simply not a forward at this or other professional levels.
Those who like to point out Dave Cameron only made appealing lineup choices last season because players like Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, and Zack Smith were injured are being a bit disingenuous. Those injuries took the burden of certain decisions off the coach, but there were interventions from behind the bench that played into the team’s short term success under Cameron. A somewhat elevated role for Mike Hoffman, increased playing time for Mark Stone, and riding the Andrew Hammond wave are all things I don’t think Paul MacLean would have done. Some key healthy scratches here and there and you have a historic winning streak.
While there’s no excusing current lineup decisions, especially the roles for Smith and Borowiecki, if Cameron had his whole roster available, we’d most likely see a preferred lineup with Clarke MacArthur and Milan Michalek in place and Smith and Boro as far away from the top six forward group as possible. Neither injured player is going to return anytime soon so the question becomes one of doing the best with pieces available.
So what is Cameron doing with Prince? I don’t know. For the record, I think he should be in the lineup, and I think with current injuries, he’s your best bet to fit with Ottawa’s top six group. That said he’s a rookie known for his offense, not necessarily his defensive game, and Cameron’s established a pattern of rightly or wrongly (wrongly) holding offensive players to a higher standard in this regard. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s ok to expect more from players like Mike Hoffman, I do, I just think you give them a role that lets them rise to the opportunity. I’ve written about this before in relation to Prince and Cameron’s apparent preference for Matt Puempel, but I still think that’s part of what’s going on here.
I think it’s also possible Shane Prince isn’t Ottawa’s favourite prospect. His waiver eligibility may have forced the team’s hand in training camp and his rumoured trade request last season probably didn’t sit well with Ottawa’s brass. I don’t think this means Ottawa treats its prospects poorly. I think they’re more in line with league averages than we’d like to admit. I mean, I can think of organizations where it’s a lot harder to get a shot (Detroit) and the team costs its young players two or three years of NHL salary in the process by marinating and slow cooking them in the AHL smoker like they’re a prize-winning bbq recipe. I think this is an organization that actually ‘rewards’ prospects for doing things the ‘Senators way’ (I guess that’s a thing). See the David Dziurzynski call up or that Boro contract. Puempel got a long look.
No, the biggest knocks against Cameron are moving Hoffman up and down the lineup, the Chris Wideman stuff, and this past week’s lineup. If his minutes are still top six forward minutes, I don’t mind moving Hoff around so much. He’s been one of Ottawa’s best this year, he’s a spark plug, he creates, he scores a lot, and he helps balance scoring. For this team to be successful they need more than one line going and Hoffman’s demonstrated he doesn’t need an adjustment period to click with various linemates. The Wideman stuff, from fans at least, was a bit much at the start of the season. Sure I’d rather have him in the lineup than either Cowen, Boro (or this season Ceci and Wiercioch) but I think it’s ok that a coach took a few games to decide if an NHL rookie deserved a full-time spot in the lineup. We’re not talking weeks or months, but a few games. Not ideal in the short term, but also not an international crisis. As for this week, yep, Cameron’s made some bad decisions, though resorting to grit and toughness game plans centering on players like Boro and Smith is a pretty conservative coaching move in some respects. Playing a player out of position when you realize something is out of whack and you’re getting outshot by a considerable margin may seem creative, but it’s not. Relying on guys with conservative games when things get tough is not exactly a unique solution in the NHL and is the type of strategizing I think many NHL coaches resort to.
This is not a creative league and those in coaching and management generally punish or at least don’t lend their full backing, to the creative (see Hoffman). Unfortunately, to solve what truly ails this team (incredibly crap defense and the loss of Mac and Michalek), coming up with a creative solution is necessary.
That such a solution hasn’t presented itself from a coaching stand point isn’t surprising. Our defense is a hydra, if you bench Cowen you still have to play three struggling blueliners. If Hoffman plays on the first line, then you still have a hole on the second. If you move Smith around, then your surprisingly effective fourth line is weakened.
While many among us now actively wish for a coaching change, a recent, cautionary tale out of Pittsburgh should give us pause. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford fired Coach Mike Johnson over the weekend as a result of the Pens season-long struggles. However, even Rutherford had to admit, he shared some of the blame for not assembling a better defense group. Dave Cameron’s in a similar position. It seems highly unlikely he’ll be fired if the Sens hover around a playoff spot, but if he does become the fall guy, it will make little difference. Most of his decisions are decisions most NHL coaches make and coaches still can’t bolster the blueline or add scoring depth.