Tanks for the Memories: A Long History of the Worst Kept Secret in Hockey (Part 1)

Tanking is the process of trading veteran players who can net some return (younger players, prospects, picks, or emotional relief) in favour of dressing younger, inexperienced players still learning the game at the pro level or veterans who have earned the Not Good label in hopes of getting the first pick in the draft. Lots of fans, media folks, and organizations object to tanking. I don’t object to it on principle but there are lots of reasons to hate the process: you’re favourite players are getting shipped out, you’re not going to the playoffs any time soon, and losing sucks. However, I don’t understand those who object to the process on some sort of sportsmanship or moral grounds when we collectively, actively ignore far greater transgressions by those within the game.[1]

Tanking isn’t going anywhere, it isn’t unique to NHL nor is it particularly new.

The NBA instituted a draft lottery in 1985 after rumours the Houston Rockets, among other teams, had deliberately lost in an attempt to secure the first overall pick. The weighted lottery was added in 1990 in response to problems with the envelope system (fans wondered if it was incredibly rigged). The weighted system in the NBA gives the team with the worst record only a 25% of landing the first pick, but the best chance of any non-playoff team. Still, the weighted system didn’t stop tanking and teams have become more and more open about the process in recent years. The NBA attempted further reform to the draft system in 2014 to discourage the practice, but the changes didn’t have the required votes to pass.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that follows the NHL that the league was slower to realize what was going on. The tanking story usually starts in the mid-1980s with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux but the idea of valuing elite, young, affordable talent over past their prime veterans while simultaneously cheating the system is actually older than that.

The NHL Amateur Draft was a relatively new process (it was instituted in 1963) when the league expanded for the first time in the late 1960s. Some of the new teams, California, Los Angeles, and St. Louis in particular, made egregious mistakes with the greatest draft shark in the game: Sam Pollock. Pollock, GM of the Montreal Canadiens, used a combination of scouting and guile to trade mostly established players for high picks. Picks weren’t valued as they are today and established players probably had a certain appeal in new markets. The threat of high draft picks bolting to the WHA, which began play in 1971, added extra uncertainty to drafting top prospects. Essentially, Pollock helped tank other teams, acquired their high picks, while winning four Stanley Cups from 1967-68 to 1972-73. Pollock used those high picks to draft Steve Shutt and Hall-of-Famers Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson, setting the Canadiens up for a run of four straight Stanley Cups in the late 1970s.

But that’s not really tanking because expansion teams are bad and he didn’t run his own team into the ground! Setting aside the early success of the St. Louis Blues and the Philadelphia Flyers, yes teams like the Golden Seals were bad. But Pollock was proactive and manipulated the situation to his advantage, ensuring the right team finished dead last. He knew he wanted Lafleur in advance and made a trade with the Seals a year before the 1971 draft when Lafleur was eligible. Pollock sent Ernie Hicke (who the Seals would leave unprotected in the 1972 Expansion Draft) and Montreal’s first round pick in 1971 to California for Francois Lacombe (who would go on to be a WHA journeyman), the Seals first pick in 1971, and cash. That’s right, California owner Charlie Finley, who negotiated the trade, paid for the privileged of being on the losing end of one of the worst trades in NHL history (Jerry Jones Team Building ModelTM ftw).

However, midway through the 1970-71 season, California just wasn’t bad enough. So Pollock made a deal with the worst team and likely owners of the 1971 first overall pick, the Kings, to make them slightly better. Pollock traded Ralph Backstrom, a former Calder Trophy winner and perennial All-Star in the 1960s, who was no longer in Montreal’s plans, to Los Angeles for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin. Backstrom was rejuvenated in Los Angeles and was just enough of an offensive threat to help push the Kings out of last place, leaving the Seals with the worst record and the Habs with the first overall pick. This is the Pollock Tank Method where other teams do the tanking for you and you win eight championships in 12 years, while only missing the playoffs once. It relied on a relatively new drafting system, an influx of inexperienced GMs and owners, and an ever-present threat from a rival league. This method will never happen again so I hope you enjoyed this story.

***

Fast forward about ten years and we get to a more familiar kind of tanking: the Pittsburgh Penguins playing like shit for the right to draft Mario Lemieux. The Penguins were bad, attendance was low, and the team was in financial trouble. There were rumours the franchise would fold. The Pens finished last in the league in 1982-83[2] and were on the way to another terrible, forgettable season the following year.

But in Pittsburgh’s terribleness, was opportunity. Unfortunately, they just weren’t bad enough. The New Jersey Devils were also dreadful and in last place. So over lunch one day, GM Eddie Johnston and head coach Lou Angotti hatched a plan to lose as many games as possible. Goaltending prospect Roberto Romano was sent down, one of the team’s good players, Rick Kehoe was hurt,[3] and Johnston traded another, team captain Randy Carlyle, for picks at the trade deadline.[4] Angotti remembers a game when the Pens took a 3-1 lead in the first period only to have his GM burst into the dressing room during the intermission to ask what he was doing. The Pens managed to lose that game 6-3. Pittsburgh lost 18 of the last 21 games of the season, include the final six by a goal margin of 36-15.

Did it work? Yes. The Penguins finished with a record of 16-58-6 and 38 points, three points back of the New Jersey Devils, securing the first overall pick. The Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux and the Devils landed Kirk Muller. Now, Muller was a good NHLer, a captain, and a future Cup-winner. But he wasn’t elite. While Mario didn’t don the Pittsburgh jersey at the draft, he did come to a contract agreement with Johnston shortly after.[5] Unlike recent tank attempts, the goal of this tank was to save the franchise from folding, and drafting Lemieux secured Pittsburgh’s future (he would save them again from bankruptcy in 1999). The Devils protested the Penguins tactics, but to no avail and draft reform was still a long time coming.

And there were casualties. Pens coach Angotti wouldn’t return for the 1984-85 season and wouldn’t coach again in the NHL. Johnston left the Penguins in 1988. Most importantly, the Penguins still weren’t any good.

What this tank didn’t do, however, was make the Penguins appreciably better.

After finishing dead last in the league two years in a row, the Pens finished sixth in the division in 1984-85, and second last in the league. In fact, during the first six seasons of Lemieux’s NHL career, the Pens finished higher than fifth in their division only once (losing in the second round of the 1989 playoffs).

The Pens needed some trades but also a lot of luck. It was Pittsburgh’s good fortune that two-time 40 goal scorer and two-time Norris Trophy winner Paul Coffey had a contract dispute with Oilers GM Glen Sather after the pair won a third Cup together in 1987. Coffey held out and Sather wouldn’t budge.[6] In November 1987, Sather surprised the hockey world when he traded Coffey, and two other players for a package from Pittsburgh in which 1985 second overall pick, forward Craig Simpson, was the centrepiece. Simpson scored 56 goals that season[7] between Pittsburgh and Edmonton, where he played with future Hall-of-Famers Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier. Simpson would never reach those heights again and was more a 30 goal, 60 point player in Edmonton. Coffey had two season of 100+ points in Pittsburgh, and another 90+ point season while always averaging well above a point-per-game.

Several key trades, in addition to the Coffey trade, pushed the Pens from atrocious to contender to champions. Midway through the 1988-89 season the Penguins acquired number one goalie Tom Barasso from the Sabres for Doug Bodger and Darrin Shannon. At the 1990 draft, Pens GM Craig Patrick shipped a second round pick to Calgary for five time 40+ goal scorer and future Hall-of-Famer Joe Mullen.[8] Injuries limited Mullen’s playing time during the 1990-91 regular season, but he was a key contributor in the playoffs. The following season he had another 40+ goal season (42 goals, 87 points) and the Penguins had another Cup. Pittsburgh acquired another, point-per-game offensive defensemen for peanuts early in the 1990-91 season. Larry Murphy was a key performer for Canada at the 1987 but was coming off two disappointing and injury-plagued years with the North Stars (a team I totally forgot he played for). The Pens acquired him for two journeymen defenders, Jim Johnson and Chris Dahlquist.[9]

The deal that put the Penguins over the top happened at the deadline in 1991. Patrick traded offensive star John Cullen, Jeff Parker, and 1986 first round pick Zarley Zalapski to the Hartford Whalers for defensemen Ulf Samuelsson, Grant Jennings, and forward Ron Francis. Cullen never produced at the same rate, battling injuries and cancer, Parker played four games with the Whalers before suffering a career-ending knee injury, and Zalapski had a productive, if unspectacular, NHL career. Samuelson was one of the dirtiest, irritating players to play against, and his nickname was Robocop.[10] But they also got a future Hall-of-Famer, one of the best two-way players (future Selke winner) and one of the top-10 offensive players in league history in Francis.[11]

With their first round picks from 1983 to 1990 the Pens drafted a selection of mediocre players, with the exception of Lemieux. The Penguins used those picks to select Bob Errey (1983), Craig Simpson (1985), Zarley Zalapski (1986), Chris Joseph (1987), Darrin Shannon (1988), Jamie Heward (1989), and Jaromir Jagr (1990). Of the group, only Jagr was a star (actually a superstar and best player in the league for a time). However, the Penguins were able to trade some of these players for veterans they could actually use.

80s politics also helped the Penguins build a contender. When Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” it would change hockey forever.[12] The Penguins were just one of the many beneficiaries of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. As communist regimes fell in Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 it changed a lot of things, and hockey was no exception. The makeup of hockey changed forever, with an influx of European players. Veterans from professional teams were now coming in greater numbers but now prospects could be drafted without the need to defect. This meant that you couldn’t just take a flyer on Dominik Hasek in the tenth round of the NHL Draft anymore like Chicago did in 1983. NHL teams needed to enhance their European scouting and be able to make proper evaluations on European players.[13]

Social upheaval came to Czechoslovakia in November 1989.[14] By the following month a new, non-Communist government had formed. What this meant for the Penguins was that 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr could be drafted the following summer without defecting. The Penguins left nothing to chance, selecting Jagr fifth overall. Jagr helped the Pens win a Cup as a rookie and set the franchise up for the next decade.

Finally, they got their hockey ops in order. After Eddie Johnston left in 1988 the Pens made another misstep at GM: hiring Tony Esposito. Esposito lasted a year and a half before he was let go. Craig Patrick replaced him and he set the franchise on the right path. The Pens went through three head coaches before Patrick took over as interim head coach in 1989. Patrick hired another soon-to-be member of the Hall of Fame, Bob Johnson in 1990. He led the Pens to their first Cup, but was diagnosed with brain cancer in the offseason, dying in November 1991. Patrick named as Johnson’s replacement the team’s Director of Player Development and winner of five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, Scotty Bowman. Bowman coached the Penguins to another Cup in 1992, his second Cup with the team, because that’s kind of what he does.

The Pens Cup-winning teams of 1991 and 1992 had six Hall-of-Famers[15] and only Lemieux was homegrown. The other five were acquired through trade, with the exception of Bryan Trottier who signed as a free agent. This was a team built through trades (lopsided deals) and that was only possible once they got their front office in order. So yeah, the Lemieux tank worked but in 1983-84 the Pens weren’t actually planning a rebuild because they were facing extinction. There was no plan beyond play horribly, draft Lemieux, live to see another day. Building a contender and Cup winner, however, took some luck, smart hires, and shrewd dealing.

***

Fast forward seven years. Eric Lindros was a Very Big Deal in the months leading up to the 1991 draft. That might not seem like something special to newer and younger fans who remember Malkin or Ovechkin hype, foaming at the mouth for Sidney Crosby, Tyler or Taylor, Fail for Nail, and the most recent McDavid-Eichel anticipation. As much as Lafleur and Lemieux were obviously coveted, Lindros was the most hyped draft pick ever heading into June 1991. In a way we have him (but really the media) to thank for what we do to top prospects now. I mean, he played for Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup as an 18-year-old alongside Wayne Gretzky and co.[16] He was a Very Big Deal.

The Quebec Nordiques were very bad. So bad that they sort of became synonymous with losing. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, for most of the 80s they were a pretty good NHL team. Prior to the 1987-88 season, the Nordiques had missed the playoffs only once in the NHL, during their first season in the league, 1979-80. In fact, Quebec’s rivalry with Montreal wasn’t simply provincial, it was based in heated playoff battles. Over the course of six seasons in the 1980s, the two teams played each other four times in the playoffs, with the Habs eliminating the Nordiques every time except the first meeting in 1982.[17] Quebec went from first in the Adams division in 1985-86 to fifth in two seasons. Dale Hunter, the fifth-leading career scorer with the team, was traded after the 1986-87 season beginning an exodus that would see most of the team’s veteran talent move on. Anton Stastny, one of three Stastny brothers to play for Quebec,[18] returned to Europe after the 1988-89 season. Finally at the trade deadline in 1990 the Nordiques traded franchise career points leader Peter Stastny and runner-up career points leader Michel Goulet within a day of each other after a decade with the Nordiques.[19]

Quebec finished in last place in 1988-89 and again in 1989-90, winning just twelve games that season. If there was any team primed to tank for a talent like Lindros, it was Quebec, who had already jettisoned their best players. But it wouldn’t be that simple.[20] Quebec walked away with the best player in the 1987 draft when they selected Joe Sakic 15th overall.[21] Joe didn’t get the tanking memo and scored 48 goals in 1990-91 with less support than a training bra. In 1989, Quebec made Mats Sundin the first European to ever be selected first overall. Sundin had a good rookie season in 1990-91 finishing with 59 points in 80 games.[22] And that was basically it for Quebec’s offensive punch. Tony Hrkac[23] was third in scoring with 48 points.[24] The ancient Guy Lafleur (remember him?) chipped in 12 goals and 28 points.[25] The Nordiques were bad and seemed destined to secure the first overall pick for the third straight year.

The only problem was they just weren’t bad enough.

Fortunately, Floyd Smith, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was willing to help out. It’s not that the Leafs are inherently generous by nature, it was that they managed to fuck up the 1991 draft well in advance. Despite being one of the worst teams in the 1980s, the Leafs were desperate to finish as high in the standings as they could in 1990-91. On the surface of things, that might seem odd. Toronto was bad and Lindros would have transformed the club instantly. He was also reasonably local (he grew up in Toronto) and the Leafs have a history of coveting hometown stars.[26] But the Leafs didn’t have their first round pick.

Why?

Because Floyd Smith, who’d taken over from Gord Stellick[27] in the summer of 1989, made a move early in his tenure that would negatively shape the franchise until the present day. Rather than hold on to as many upcoming draft picks as possible,[28] Smith traded the Leafs 1991 first rounder to the New Jersey Devils for Tom Kurvers (aka the Original Phil Kessel). An offensive defenseman, Kurvers was coming off what would be his best season in the NHL (16 G, 50 A, 66 P in 70 games). He produced at a similar rate in his first season with the Leafs (15 G, 37 A, 52 P) and helped the Leafs make the playoffs. If the Leafs had just traded their first rounder in 1990, this probably wouldn’t have gone down as one of the worst trades in team history.

But 1990-91 started off slow. The Leafs were bad but Kurvers couldn’t get going either. He was limited to 19 games and had just three assists. So in January 1991, Toronto shipped him to Vancouver for Brian Bradley.[29] Bradley had a decent start to the year with Vancouver (31 points in 44 games) but mustered just 11 assists in his 26 games trying to help the Leafs avoid the basement. Smith spent the season trying to avoid the dire consequences of the original Kurvers trade. He made 13 trades during the 1990-91 season[30] picking up 14 players and assorted picks.[31]

So if the Leafs weren’t actually tanking, does it follow that the Nordiques were? Well, the proof is in a deal the two teams with each other in mid-November. Quebec sent Aaron Broten, Lucien DuBlois, and Michel Petit[32] to Toronto for Scott Pearson[33] and a couple second round picks (that never amounted to much). The veterans Quebec sent to Toronto weren’t good, but it still weakened the Nordiques and the return package didn’t help their NHL team that season.

So did it work? Yep! The Nordiques were terrible and finished in last place for the third season in a row. Expansion team San Jose picked next, and New Jersey, owners of the Leafs first rounder, picked third drafting the actual best player in the draft, Scott Niedermayer. Everyone got what they wanted, especially people who like to watch the Leafs suffer, or at least made the best of a bad situation. Everyone except for Eric Lindros that is.

Before the draft, Lindros signaled he didn’t want to play for the Nordiques, believing that it’s “isolation” and the French language would limited his marketability.[34] Quebec drafted him anyway. Lindros one-upped Lemieux when he both refused to put on the Nordiques jersey and wouldn’t agree to terms with his new team. The team’s president, Marcel Aubut, insisted that Lindros would be the centrepiece of Quebec’s resurgence or he wouldn’t play in the NHL. Lindros spent the 1991-92 season in the OHL back with the Generals and also represented Canada at the Olympics. He kept busy. The Nordiques wouldn’t budge.

It wasn’t until the 1992 draft[35] that the Lindros situation was resolved. The Nordiques agreed to a trade with both the Flyers and the Rangers for Lindros.[36] The Flyers filed a complaint and the deal went to an arbitrator who sided with the Flyers 11 days later. The package Quebec did receive from Philadelphia included Steve Duchesne, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, Peter Forsberg, the Flyers first round pick in 1993 and 1994, and $15 million.

The deal was transformative. Hextall was moved for a pick used to draft Adam Deadmarsh. The Nordiques drafted Jocelyn Thibault with one of the picks they got from the Flyers and he was flipped to Montreal, along with Martin Ručinský and Andrei Kovalenko, for Patrick Roy and Mike Keane.[37] Roy was integral to Colorado’s two Cup wins in 1996 and 2001, when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Forsberg won the Calder in 1995 and both the Hart and Art Ross in 2003. However, tanking for Lindros was transformative because the Nordiques traded him, acquiring a player of similar calibre in Forsberg and players the team would use to acquire members of the Colorado core. But this wasn’t the plan and it wasn’t the move they wanted to make.[38]

Obviously, the franchise got the player they wanted so the tank worked. But drafting The Next One didn’t stabilize a financially precarious franchise in need of a new arena[39] because Lindros never dawned a Nordiques jersey.[40] Peter Forsberg may have had the better career, but he was never going to reach the mega star level that Lindros would have if he had played his prime in Canada, a player who was both best in the league and Canadian. While the Lindros trade won Colorado two Cups, the delays of Lindros not agreeing to terms with the Nordiques and for the pieces from his trade to bear fruit, hurt Quebec.

It’s also hard to ignore that the franchise’s best player was drafted four years earlier when the team was still good. Nor would any of this had happened if the Leafs weren’t actively trying to help Quebec tank to avoid further embarrassment. Tanking for Lemieux saved the Penguins franchise, but tanking for Lindros didn’t have the same success in Quebec.

That brings us to 1993, the Ottawa Senators, and the tank that would change hockey forever. More on Daigle and contemporary tanking in Part 2.

 

[1] Oh wait, yes I do. Tanking is in a roundabout way an attempt to creating a winning franchise. Condemning an athlete’s (or team’s) racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or other discrimination usually gets in the way of that. But hey, let’s lose the right way.

[2] Without even trying!

[3] Not on purpose, just a happy coincidence.

[4] Important to distinguish Carlyle the player from Carlyle the coach from Carlyle the philosopher. Carlyle the player was “probably the worst player to win the Norris ever” according to my dad.

[5] What a show that would have been. In the first televised NHL draft Lemieux refused to wear the jersey of the team that just drafted him because they couldn’t agree on a contract. For all the handwringing we get now when a player at the end of his ELC asks for a trade, we sort of forget the several instances in the past when rookies often said “nope” immediately to the team that drafted them.

[6] After the Coffey deal it would become increasingly evident that Oilers owner Peter Pocklington’s cheapness could be relied on. He kept the salary of the league’s best player, Wayne Gretzky, artificially low (and thereby keeping the salaries of Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, and Grant Fuhr low too). Gretzky was sold traded to Los Angeles the following summer and NHL salaries would never look the same again.

[7] Who didn’t? It was the 80s.

[8] Holy hell this was a steal. Though Mullen, an American, did want to return to the States.

[9] My kingdom for a time when you could acquire two top pairing defenseman and the only player of note you gave up was Sportsnet analyst Craig Simpson.

[10] This alone makes it a Pens win.

[11] Future way too old Toronto Maple Leaf, Ron Francis.

[12] Haha just kidding. I’m pretty sure Ronald Reagan didn’t give a crap about hockey and attributing the fall of European Communism to him is incredibly disrespectful and dishonest to the thousands of Poles, Czechs, Germans, Russians, etc. on the ground risking everything for a different political system. But crediting him with this has really helped prop up Reagan’s horrible legacy and Neo Liberalism as a Good Thing in the U.S. so that’s nice. Now, David Hasselhoff on the other hand…

[13] Sounds straightforward right? Would it surprise you that the newly-minted Ottawa Senators were preparing to head into their first NHL draft in 1992 (also, coincidentally the first draft since the Soviet Union fell in December 1991), without any European scouts until John Ferguson Sr. the Sens director of player personnel, pointed out that it might be advantageous to hire a few. Probably a good idea, since the Senators drafted Russian superstar Alexei Yashin with their first ever draft pick.

[14] It’s called the Velvet Revolution, look it up. There’s a poetic justice to a player who wears 68 in honour of the Prague Spring coming of age during the Velvet Revolution.

[15] Paul Coffey was only on the 1991 team. The number will increase to seven when Jaromir Jagr retires in 37 years.

[16] Canada didn’t take an 18-year-old Sidney Crosby to Turin in 2006 for comparison.

[17] This sounds familiar. Sigh.

[18] The 1980 defection of brothers Peter and Anton brought Quebec instant respectability. When older brother Marian joined them the following year, the Nordiques had the best brother line in NHL history.

[19] Oof.

[20] It never is.

[21] The Leafs took Luke Richardson at seven. So yeah.

[22] Pretty similar to Jagr’s goal and point total from that year, also his rookie season.

[23] Who?

[24]Actually he was a journeyman NHLer who split his career between the NHL and the minors. I remember his hockey cards because he had very thick, full, blond hair. No helmet baldness here.

[25] But then he also smoked cigarettes between periods.

[26] Think of all the pointless Jason Spezza and Steven Stamkos rumours and the disappointment over missing out on Tyler Seguin and Connor McDavid. Leafs love a local so it’s not just an Ottawa thing.

[27] Yeah, the radio guy. His claim to fame as Leafs GM was being the youngest ever to hold that title. The 80s were rough for Toronto.

[28] Perhaps it’s because when the Leafs had three first round picks in 1989 (drafting Scott Thornton 3rd, Rob Pearson 12th, and Steve Bancroft 21st) they picked three players from the Belleville Bulls leaving many to joke that the Leafs scouting budget that year had been enough to cover the gas for the two hour drive on the 401. With Harold Ballard as owner, it was certainly a possibility.

[29] The Leafs left Bradley unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft so essentially it was a 1991 first rounder for a guy who was picked up for free by Tampa Bay.

[30] That’s a lot.

[31] These trades actually did provide some of the depth players for the successful Leafs teams of 1992-94. Dave Ellett, a defenseman with offensive upside, Peter Zezel, a checking centre, and defenseman Bob Rouse.

[32] Broten was underwhelming in Toronto and Petit and DuBois chipped in offensively. Perhaps the greatest outcome of this trade was that Petit was part of a package including Gary Leeman, Jeff Reese, Craig Berube, and Alexander Godynyuk (who was also in Die Hard) to the Calgary Flames in January 1992, for Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville, Rick Wamsley, Ric Nattress, and Doug Gilmour.

[33] Pearson spent the rest of the season with Quebec’s AHL team and bounced between the NHL and the minors during his career.

[34] It was definitely more complex than that. Lindros had always been a player determined to control his own destiny. When he was drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in junior he refused to play for them and was traded to the Oshawa Generals where he did wonderful things (as my many Oshawa-based relatives remind me). Lindros’ parents, Carl and Bonnie, were active in his career and contract negotiations (Carl was his agent) and this definitely rubbed hockey people and the media the wrong way. Flyers GM Bobby Clarke called Carl abusive and claimed he meddled in team affairs. However, on multiple occasions the Flyers medical staff misdiagnosed their son’s injuries, and pressured him to play hurt, including a life-threatening collapsed lung in 1999. Lindros was expected to be on the team’s flight after suffering the lung injury, which likely would have killed him; he received medical attention only at the insistence of teammate Keith Jones (this was a well-known story in the late 90s and early 2000s which is seven layers of messed up when you consider this neglect was known and yet Lindros was still vilified for not rushing back from injuries and prioritizing his safety). Most likely, Carl Lindros and Bobby Clarke are both assholes who couldn’t get along. The French language has been a barrier for some NHLers, stopping them from playing for the Canadiens or Nordiques but Quebec in the early 90s was a different place politically. 18-year-old top prospects might not have been following the ongoing constitutional debates that had preoccupied the Mulroney government since Meech Lake, but growing fears of separation couldn’t be ignored. The province’s second referendum on separation was only four short years away in 1995 so there were concerns about the direction of the team and the province.

[35] And some insistence from the league president to resolve the situation if you believe Wikipedia – and we do!

[36] One wonders if the Rangers would have broken the franchise’s 50-year Cup drought had their trade been accepted. New York was rumoured to have offered Tony Amonte, Alexei Kovalev, John Vanbeisbrouck, Doug Weight, three first round picks (1993, 1994, and 1996) and $12 million. It’s ok, Lindros would eventually make it to the Big Apple.

[37] Hahahaha what a steal. Also, there’s a deal that never would have happened if Quebec hadn’t moved to Denver a few months before and then maybe all of this would have been for nothing.

[38] It does make you wonder why some teams that have been bad for a while (see Edmonton) don’t trade someone from the bounty to address roster holes.

[39] Think a star can’t land a new stadium? Talk to Lemieux and Crosby in Pittsburgh, or Junior in Seattle.

[40] He would of course wear Flyers, Rangers, and Leafs jerseys during the course of his career. All the teams that originally coveted him.

Hearing is Believing

There are plenty of valid theories on why the Sens have fallen flat since returning to action after the All-Star break. Not enough scoring punch, average goaltending, coaching failures, management issues, and of course, the generously porous defense. The Sens blockbuster trade with the Leafs for defenseman Dion Phaneuf has not yet brought a win.

But the true culprit of this slump has been ignored: Julia Robillard has forsaken us.[1]

Since February 2 (the date of the first Sens game post-ASG break), when a new Robillard Hearing Centres commercial that did not feature Julia aired, the Sens are 2-4. Ottawa surrendered 6 goals against Pittsburgh, was blown out by the hapless Oilers, mustered nothing against the Red Wings Petr Mrazek, and fell behind Colorado 3-0 before attempting a failed comeback last night. Yes, the Sens blew out Tampa and the Leafs since the ad aired, but even in these trying times, there are rules and Julia wouldn’t let us lose to teams wearing blue and white.

It seems like only yesterday[2] that we were celebrating the opening of the new Perth showroom with the Robillard clan. It marked the pinnacle achievement of Robillard ads. As the commercial explores the benefits of the new location, Julia, a mainstay in these ads is nowhere to be scene, until she triumphantly returns to close the commercial while confirming the worst-kept secret in capital region advertising: Julia is a diehard Sens fan. Resplendent in a Sens heritage jersey dress, she rightfully ascended to Sens celebrity royalty along with Anne Murray, Rihanna, and Zayn Malik (sorry not sorry Matt Perry).

Think how far we’d come: it was only a few short years ago we were being asked during play stoppages and intermission breaks the non-rhetorical question “do you like pizza?” as if the answer could possibly be anything other than “I like pizza”. Now, we had Julia proudly declaring her Sens fandom. Hearing truly was believing.

And yet there were signs of trouble. That glorious heritage dress ad featured the least screen time for Julia in an ad to that point. It was as if she was preparing us for the new, terrible reality we now find ourselves in. It’s not that the new ad is bad. On the contrary, the new ad features a Robillard customer telling viewers how Robillard products have changed his life. Hearing definitely is believing in this ad. It’s just without an appearance from their spokesperson, it’s nowhere near the same experience. Collectively, Sens fans are waiting for Julia’s return. We know in our hearts things won’t turn around for the team until she does.

Help us, Julia Robillard, you’re our only hope.

 

[1] If there’s a reason she’s no longer appearing in ads, we’re sorry Julia and the WTYKY gang is thinking of you.

[2] It was last month

Bobby Ryan, Coded Language, and Prejudice

(CW: prejudice and racism)

On the surface of things, Bobby Ryan’s answer to who he’s cheering for in Super Bowl 50 tomorrow might have seemed innocuous. He was just expressing a preference for one team, one set of players over another. He’s an NHLer with an understanding of what makes for a great professional. He just doesn’t like dabbing. It would be easy to read it this way.

Ryan’s been welcomed into the Ottawa community with open arms. In his three seasons with the team, he’s ingratiated himself to fans and the media alike, with his low key personality, honesty in interviews, and willingness to take responsibility for his and the team’s failings. He plays through injuries. He interacts with fans on social media and is willing to pose for pictures. He does a lot of things you want a player to do.

But he also has a pattern of racial prejudice expressed online and in the media that reflects the racist framework of North American pro sports like hockey. In today’s Ottawa Sun, a piece ran in which an informal poll of the dressing room asked which team the Sens players wanted to win tomorrow’s Super Bowl. Some expressed a desire for a Broncos win to see veteran Peyton Manning go out of top. However, a few players admitted to actively rooting against the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers. Clarke MacArthur commented that Carolina has “Just too much show after every play,” and Bobby Ryan echoed his teammate’s frustration. I don’t know if MacArthur’s comments are indicative of a professional conservatism often found in Canadian hockey players. They might be, as it’s certainly possible to dislike the Panthers and Newton for reasons other than race. But Ryan’s comments stand out because of how he pushed the issue and his personal history when it comes to topics of race. Here’s the relevant section from the Sun:

“I’m not a big Cam Newton fan,” Bobby Ryan said of the Carolina Panthers quarterback. “As a player, yes, I think he’s unbelievable. But I can’t stand the stuff he does.”

Over-the-top celebrating?

“Yeah, it’s idiotic,” said Ryan. “You’re up by 30 last week and you’re still doing it all over the field.”

Particularly annoying to Ryan (although apparently not to Mark Stone) is the dab, a dance move Newton has made even more popular that sees him stick both arms out to one side and bury his nose in the bent elbow.

“Guys do it around here now, which is really disappointing,” said Ryan. “It’s seeped its way into the NHL and I’m not a big fan.

“I don’t know the origin. I feel like it’s a song that’s been played, but you have to ask Stoner because he loves it.”

Prejudice and racism are easier to spot when people hurl slurs and are explicit in their language. It’s why it’s easier to denounce Donald Trump as racist but why we struggle to see why leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement take issue with many of Bernie Sanders policies.

Ryan doesn’t use slurs so many will just see these comments as a preference for the celebration style of Manning instead of Newton. Except it’s not. This is coded language, designed to obscure that race is the objection here. During the media frenzy that is the build up to the Super Bowl, Newton’s celebrations, pants, sandals, and general fashion sense has been interrogated in ways they never are for white athletes. Newton is just the latest in a long line of black quarterbacks who have been subjected to harsh criticisms their white counterparts never received. Interrogating personal choices such as fashion or on-field celebrations of black athletes is an attempt by mainstream media, professional leagues, and fans to control expressions of black masculinity, often perceived to be threatening. When white athletes, coaches, league officials, and media members talk about how to “act like a pro,” it is most often an attempt to discourage expressions of difference, whether it be sexuality, gender identity, religion, or in this case, race. “Act like a pro” more often means, “act like us” – white, cis, straight, and male.

It’s funny that in his concern for professional conduct, Ryan did not mention Manning’s longstanding misogyny, his documented sexual harassment, and his continued refusal to leave his victim alone. Peyton is viewed as professional; his substantial promotional work for pizza and insurance helps cement that image despite what we know about him. Another former NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers, celebrates touchdowns with a wrestling title-belt gesture to cheers. Cam Newton is not granted similar leeway. Instead, Ryan attacked Newton’s ebullience after scoring plays, which as someone who has watched Bobby’s euphoric celebrations after each of his Ottawa goals, seems hypocritical. Bobby can fist pump, jump into the glass, shout, and hug teammates because his intensity is never viewed as threatening. He’s white. This also provides Ryan the protection to criticize a black athlete for a practice he himself engages in.

Ryan’s dismissal of dabbing is similarly coded and not a principled stance against appropriating black culture. Rather, his ignorance of dabbing’s roots in the hip-hop community and his refusal to acknowledge its current popularity are in some ways a rejection of black expression as valid, as culturally relevant. It’s a rejection of black culture’s influence on the professional sports landscape.

This isn’t a simple difference of opinion rooted in the respective distinctiveness of football as compared to hockey. Players of colour have been subjected to similar critiques in the NHL as well. P. K. Subban’s enthusiastic goal celebrations have been denounced by some Senators in the past and frequently by mainstream hockey media. When Ryan took ownership for his late slump last season by stating “I just suck right now,” it was seen as leadership. When Subban explicitly expressed his frustration at Montreal’s lengthy ongoing slump last month, it was a “profanity-laden tirade” and comments from his parents were sought. But when Erik Karlsson swears, the media doesn’t turn it’s focus to Sweden to consult his mom and dad. In both Subban’s and Newton’s cases what fellow players and media hope to contain is their expressions of individuality, what they hope to maintain is white privilege.

If you’re concerned that this examination of Ryan’s comments is a stretch or an overreaction, please note it fits a pattern of behaviour with the Sens winger. Last year when the Sens were visiting St. Louis, Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing. These activists and community members were protesting the murder of black teen Mike Brown by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Ryan callously tweeted that the protests were interrupting his pregame nap. It showed disdain for both the protesters and their cause. It would have been a perfect metaphor for white privilege except it wasn’t a metaphor, it was real life.

Ryan’s prejudiced behaviour on twitter goes beyond his tweets. His “likes” are a dumpster fire of racism. They reveal a penchant for agreeing with the worst racists active in American politics right now. He’s liked tweets about Donald Trump preventing Muslims from entering the United States and racists tweets about Barack Obama. There are more examples. This is a pattern, this is prejudice. Like everyone, he’s entitled to his opinions. Like everyone, he’s not above criticism.

Bobby Ryan is polite. Bobby Ryan scored a goal and got a kid a puppy. Bobby Ryan was kind to you when he posed for a photo at the grocery store. Bobby Ryan has done all of those things.

But Bobby Ryan is prejudiced and he’s made that pretty clear too.

Nothing is served by ignoring this pattern in Ryan’s behaviour. Equally, nothing is gained from refusing to interrogate how Ryan’s actions fit within the larger racist framework of professional sports in Canada and the United States. When playing the game the right way is so often code for playing the game within acceptable white standards of behaviour, we will continue to have players like Ryan maintain those standards, and continue to attack players like Newton and Subban who challenge such arbitrary norms.

 

 

All the Offseason Signing Questions You Have, Answered*

*Except the one you constantly ask.

Look, the future of Mike Hoffman is probably the most important question Bryan Murray has to answer in 2016. If they can lock him up long term, you do it. But if they can’t, or at least strongly suspect they can’t, Mike Hoffman might feature pretty prominently in a trade for Jonathan Drouin Kevin Shattenkirk or some such useful piece to improve the top-6 blueline. And while it’s the question most Sens fans want answered, I honestly don’t know how it’s going to go down.

So this post isn’t about Mike Hoffman, instead it’s about all the other burning offseason questions about which RFAs/UFAs the Sens should bring back.

But first, quick shout out to Bryan Murray. Whatever you might think of Bryan, he’d never royally screw over one of his players the way Arizona GM Don Maloney did yesterday. He’d never do the league’s dirty work the way Maloney, Nashville GM David Poile and Montreal GM Marc Bergevin did either. He hasn’t been perfect, but even in his most prominent disagreements with players, he’s never traded someone 4,000 miles away from where they want to be out of spite while calling it a hockey move.

All salary info from General Fanager

The burning questions

Chris Neil, Shane Prince, and Patrick Wiercioch

This is an odd sort of grouping of players, but I think for various reasons these three will cause the most stress on management and fans to work out (after Hoffman). A year ago, it seemed like the Sens would be moving on from Chris Neil, if not at the trade deadline when he suffered injury, then at the conclusion of his current deal. In all honestly, I started hearing Barbara Streisand’s voice sing “Mem’ries, light the corners of my mind, misty water-colored memories, of the way we were” when Neil was on the ice (the question remains, who was our Robert Redford!?) But then a funny thing happened. Neil opened the 2015-16 season strong and here we are, more than three months later, and he’s still going strong. Yes, much of the value the fourth line brings can be attributed to his linemates, but Neil has looked quicker, better, and more productive than in recent seasons. Sure he still leads the team in minor penalties, but he’s settled down since a not overly disciplined October. Does it make sense to lock up a fourth line player who will be 37 in the summer? No, but offering Neil another two-year deal was always more about his longevity with the team and what he’s meant to the community. If he can repeat his play from this season (a tall ask) it’ll be ok and any new deal will likely look a lot like his current deal.

Shane Prince is easy in some senses because he’s a young player who’s still an RFA. He’s part of why the fourth line has spent a lot of time in the opposition end and he produces points at one of the best rates on the team. No brainer. It’s going to have to be a one way deal and he’s going to get a bump in dollars. I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets a one year “prove it” deal and Prince strikes me as the type of player to bet on himself.

Patrick Wiercioch might be the most interesting Sens player to watch. He’s played better of late, but has had a disappointing season to date. Any perceived value he built up with his strong finish to 2015/World Championship appearance has been squandered. Wouldn’t be shocked to see him shopped (and have no takers) at the deadline. Why give up an asset for a guy the Sens have repeatedly offered when you think he might be available for less in the summer? Of course, he won’t come free, he needs a new deal. He’s still an RFA, but he made $2M this season and established NHLers in their 20s pretty much never take pay cuts. PW on a three-year deal with a salary ranging from $2.5M-$3.5M (especially when you bring the advanced stats into the negotiations) doesn’t seem too farfetched but does seem like a deal that might make Murray and co. pause (aka the Jared Cowen EffectTM). I don’t know what the future holds for PW, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it takes place somewhere else.

The Automatics

Max McCormick, Cody Ceci, Fredrik Claesson, Chris Wideman, Matt Puempel

McCormick and Puempel have had decent looks at the NHL level this season (and last in Puempel’s case) and seem like decent enough bottom-six NHL players. McCormick is doing all the things on ice that the organization would expect from Neil’s heir apparent. Puempel also has the benefit of being a former first round pick. They’re controllable, won’t be making that much more, and are cheap, controllable replacements. I wouldn’t be shocked if one or both sign a contract that pressures the team to keep them at the NHL level in 2016-17.

Claesson is interesting in that he seemed completely overlooked by the organization until this past month and suddenly looks like he’s a natural and appreciated part of the blueline. Yes, he’s been sheltered with Karlsson, yes he’s made some bad giveaways, and yes he has the smallest of sample sizes in the NHL, but when it comes down to it, he won’t be commanding a huge raise. With the Senators hopefully moving on (dumping) Jared Cowen at the deadline (endless laughter) or in the offseason (likely our sad reality) and with Chris Phillips’ inevitable retirement, the blueline is less cluttered in 2016-17. Claesson easily fits a 5-7 spot on the depth chart but won’t be paid like a Cowen (more like a Boro).

Cody Ceci is where things get interesting. It’s clear the organization loves him and he’s a former first rounder and a local boy. Things are looking good for Ceci to get paid. And that’s fine, he deserves a raise on his ELC. He’ll probably have just over 200 NHL games when the season ends and is still only 22; these are things NHL GMs value. It’s not a question of if Ceci gets a raise, but rather how much and for how long. I think PW’s current deal (AAV $2M) is an acceptable range for Ceci (though I suspect 2 years instead of 3 more likely). The goal with Ceci’s new deal should be more like PW and less like Cowen.

Chris Wideman is going to get a raise and locked up for a couple seasons. He will be seen as a cheaper PW (in relation to the new deal PW is going to sign). I wouldn’t be shocked if Wideman replaces Wiercioch in the eyes of management.

The Alex Chiassons

I don’t really know what Murray is going to do here. I know a lot of Sens fans think he’s a lock to be re-signed because of his inclusion in the Spezza deal but I don’t know how much Murray cares about that. Chiasson isn’t dead weight or anything, doesn’t make a lot of money, and wouldn’t get too much of a raise. He’s a fine fourth line player, but they’re not really the type you should be going out of your way to sign. I think he’s been better this season, but his lack of goals and points in going to hurt him (like it hurts us). Would prefer a Bingo guy (Puempel or Schneider, who also needs to be re-signed) get his spot.

Bingo RFAs

I don’t follow Bingo closely and there are Bingo experts you should certainly be reading (Jeff Ulmer at Silver Seven for starters). All I can say is that if I was a betting person, Alex Guptill won’t be re-signed.

Why I loved the Daley x2 and Scuderi trades

The quick and snarky answer for why I loved the trades that sent Trevor Daley to Chicago and then to Pittsburgh for Rob Scuderi is that the Senators, in need of defensive help, avoided acquiring one or both of these bad options. That’s terrific from an Ottawa perspective.

The longer answer for why I loved these moves is because these trades illustrate how difficult it is to both improve your team and trade from a position of weakness in the NHL. For all the talk about how NHL front offices still have trouble accurately assessing a player’s worth outside of traditional stats like goal and point totals, GMs are fairly adept at recognizing when another GM is in a bind.

Chicago was predictably in cap hell this past off-season and would need to move a few notable pieces to be able to dress more than 14 skaters when the season started. Patrick Sharp, a four-time 30+ goal scorer, with multiple Cup wins, and an Olympic gold, things GMs generally salivate over, was made available. Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who’s generally regarded as smart and a cap maven, knew this and set the bar high for Sharp: a first round pick in the most anticipated draft in years, an A-level prospect, and a top-six forward still on his ELC. Now Sharp, on the wrong side of 30 and making nearly $6M, wasn’t going to command such a lucrative haul, but it was a big ask designed to pry a prospect and high pick or some variation out of another team. It’s pretty standard practice. The problem was no one bit. What the other GMs saw was the Cup champs were in a bind and why help them out unless you get a sweet deal. In reality, Bowman had to give up one of his own well-regarded prospect in Stephen Johns to send Sharp to Dallas for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt. A win for Dallas and not a good salary dump for Chicago.

So it was a bad deal. But it also seems just as obvious that Bowman didn’t want to give up Johns and would have made a better deal if he could, but was stuck and took the lesser of two evils.

There are reasons Daley didn’t work out in Chicago (he isn’t that good, they expected him to fill a role he wasn’t capable of filling, Joel Quenneville wasn’t a big fan etc.), but at least Bowman wisely tried to move on from a player who wasn’t working quickly. Again, the asking price was set fairly high for a player of Daley’s age, calibre, and cap hit: a second round pick and a prospect/young player (of the Shane Prince and Matt Puempel ilk in Ottawa’s case). After being part of the rumour mill for weeks, Daley was eventually traded to Pittsburgh for 37-year-old and frequent healthy scratch, Rob Scuderi. While Pittsburgh retained a third of Scuderi’s salary (saving Chicago $1M off the cap) for this season and next, Scuderi is simply one of the worst defenders in the league at this stage in his career and he’s under contract until 2017.

How could this happen to a smart, with it, analytics-accepting GM and architect of the first, cap era NHL dynasty? Because other GMs knew he was up against it and wouldn’t budge an inch.

All of this reminds me of the Jason Spezza trade. Yes, the rumoured deal to Nashville (including Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, and the 11th overall pick, used by the Preds to select Kevin Fiala) would definitely have been better in the short term as Hornqvist is a legit top-six forward. It may still be better in the long term. But Spezza didn’t want to go there and he controlled the move. Unfortunately, Dallas was the only option.

Could Ottawa have made a better trade with Dallas? Sure. Could Bryan Murray have insistent on receiving a first round pick instead of a second? Sure, though I suspect Stars GM Jim Nill, generally regarded as a Very Smart Hockey DudeTM in his own right, knew Murray had no other option unless he wanted to risk losing Spezza for nothing, so Nill obviously refused. Should Bryan Murray have asked for pre-NHL breakout John Klingberg? Absolutely! It’s possible he did! It’s also exceedingly possible, Dallas had some understanding of the players in their development system and didn’t want to give up a potential star on defense, deciding instead to give up a player from a position of depth.

It wasn’t a good trade. Could they have waited it out and tried to trade Spezza at the deadline? Sure but the fear of a Spezza injury probably prevented that.

Wanting a better outcome is understandable. Wanting your team to make trades that improve your team makes sense. But expecting a GM to win when they’ve been dealt a losing hand isn’t realistic. GMs know the score and can tell when a team’s in a bind. Stan Bowman knows it, Bryan Murray knows it. Sometimes they lose.

Creativity, Dave Cameron, and the Everyday Nature of Ottawa’s Problems

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.

 

Shane Prince gets the Mike Hoffman treatment and other thoughts

(Content warning: 12&13 discuss Patrick Kane, domestic violence and sexual assault)

  1. Matt Puempel was sent down today and joined the BSens. It’s hard to say that it was a move necessary to get Puempel additional playing time as he’s been consistently in the lineup and played decent minutes. It makes more sense that he was sent down because he hasn’t done much when in the lineup. Maybe Ottawa wants to bring up another winger from Bingo or something or get a different look at someone else. It’s clear that Puempel hasn’t made the most of his opportunities.
  2. Why was Puempel a fixture in the lineup for so long if he wasn’t exactly noticeable? He’s essentially hipster Curtis Lazar. Puempel’s smiley, plays a two-way game, is responsible on the ice, and has been given leadership responsibilities in rookie tournaments and pre-season. The essence of coachable. Oh, and a first rounder too.
  3. It’s not that I think Shane Prince isn’t coachable, but it’s not a stretch to suggest the organization isn’t enamored with him (that rumoured trade request out of Bingo probably doesn’t help). Think some of it is just style of play though. Last season Mark Stone was a darling and Mike Hoffman was inexplicably dropped down the lineup. The rational was Hoffman’s defensive awareness or lack of it and the preference for the two-way Stone suggests there are some rookies Dave Cameron and co are more comfortable playing.
  4. Now, I don’t think there’s anything in Prince’s game to suggest he shouldn’t be playing and he’s at least been better than 25, 15, 90, and 27 when he’s been in the lineup. Prince even made the fourth line look good when he played with them. He’s absolutely someone who can help this team and with the various top-6 vacancies (McArthur, Stone, and Hoffman) is someone who can actually keep up as part of the top 6. However, he’s an offense-first type of player and given his inexperience at the NHL level, I’m not shocked he’s been kept out of the lineup. I think it’s the wrong move, but think that’s what’s going on here. Cameron has questions about his defensive game so he sits.
  5. Craig Anderson needed to be better. And he is. Andy is a zone right now and that’s a good thing because Ottawa’s defense is still porous.
  6. Excited to watch Ottawa play the Stars this week. I still have some questions about Dallas, but watching that high-powered offense play Ottawa’s defense should be…interesting. Good thing Andy is playing better.
  7. Mike Kotska was called up after the unfortunate injury to Patrick Wiercioch. I don’t follow the BSens closely so what follows might be complete crap, but it seems like the right move regardless of whether he plays or sits in the press box. He’s a vet with ample NHL experience for a call-up (70 games) and he’s used to splitting time between the AHL, NHL, and press box. His development isn’t going to be harmed if he sits out a few weeks and it’s hard to imagine he’d produce worse results than some of the combos the Sens have put out there this season.
  8. It’s got to sting if you’re Freddie Claesson though. He’s been in Bingo for a while now (it’s his fourth season with the BSens) without a sniff of NHL action. He’s a left-shooting defenseman and the Sens, like most teams, have a glut of those. He doesn’t have the offensive upside of guys like Wideman or Wiercioch or the size of someone like Cowen. He feels like someone who’s not really in the organization’s long term plans.
  9. Ottawa’s fourth line had a really good game against Columbus. However, Ottawa’s bottom 6 hasn’t been as good this season as they were to finish the season in 14-15. There’s only so much you can do with that fourth line that must include Chris Neil and Zack Smith. Where it’s really hurting is on the third line. I think Michalek is having a decent year, but Pageau has slowed from his start and Curtis Lazar is still young I guess. During the run last season, Ottawa was a great three-line team and they need to get back to that.
  10. Jared Cowen physically contained a slumping Voracek last night with a couple big hits which is an achievement for Cowen. But it reminded me of a lot of other “Cowen back in the lineup” games. Remember when he came back from injury against Carolina, had a big hit on Jeff Skinner and a fight? He makes a big physical statement then the physicality just sort of goes away, he doesn’t use his size effectively in his own end, and just reminds you of the old Cowen pretty quickly. It’s because Cowen doesn’t get so much of what’s going on around him and rejects the valid criticisms of his game. It’s an adrenaline rush, not an actual adjustment.
  11. Don’t love Garry Galley in the booth. He celebrates a lot of things about hockey I don’t like. He was big on praising Cowen last night but failed to emphasize miscues like giveaways and failed zone exits. That’s not a criticism specific to Galley, lots of analysts don’t notice or comment on this stuff in real time. I get that it’s hard, but it’s also their job and just leads to more interesting and useful analysis.
  12. Speaking of commentators, Nick Kypreos made some pretty offensive comments regarding Patrick Kane during Saturday night’s Chicago-Vancouver game. Kypreos was referring to Kane’s offensive totals this season when he said Kane “wants to shove it down peoples’ throats”. It’s a totally inappropriate phrase given the rape investigation surrounding Kane to start the season but it highlights larger issues in the hockey broadcasting community. For starters, those who go on TV to discuss NHL hockey on regional or national networks need more training for how to discuss topics such as domestic violence and sexual assault professionally and respectfully. Unfortunately, such incidents aren’t going away and it’s thankfully getting harder and harder for mainstream media to just ignore these cases. Do your job and do it better.
  13. But it also illustrates what too many in the broadcasting community believe: that assault victims lie and the true victim is Kane in this specific case. I’m sure networks like Sportsnet are telling their employees not to discuss certain things about Kane’s rape investigation. But if employees like Kypreos really believed domestic violence and sexual assault are serious crimes and that victims (not just perpetrators) need to be treated fairly, they’d take steps to ensure they talk about assault and rape investigations differently. If they really stood with victims, with women, the unscripted parts of Hockey Night in Canada or weekly intermission panels wouldn’t refer to Kane shoving anything, they wouldn’t use language that suggests consent is optional. They wouldn’t use chicken shit terms like “incident” to describe violence and rape or talk about players like Kane overcoming “adversity”. But that’s what they do. If TV’s hockey experts didn’t think all women were liars, they wouldn’t frame excellence on ice as proof of Kane’s innocence off ice. But that’s what they do and that’s what Kypreos did last night. It matters not to pundits like Kypreos that Kane was on pace to win the Art Ross last season before his injury; that he’s contending to do so this year justifies all of Kane’s actions, Chicago’s gross incompetence and revolting behaviour, and the league’s continued negligence.