Drew Hammond

Senators and the ‘sophomore slump’

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As exhilarating as it may be to nail that debut album, expectations only build for the follow-up.

Let’s take a look at key Ottawa Senators trying to avoid the sports version of one-hit wonder status.

Dave Cameron – Plenty of coaches burst onto the NHL scene only to hit a snag after that “new car smell” wears off. (Guy Boucher is sadly nodding.)

Cameron produced dramatic results after taking over in Ottawa, most notably finishing last season with a 23-4-4 run to make the playoffs. Cameron received a contract extension for his work – and his role in the turnaround cannot be denied – but now he’s being asked to make lightning strike twice.

Unless, of course, this group is for real.

Andrew Hammond – Naturally, it’s no coincidence that the Senators were red-hot at the same moment that “The Hamburglar” became a secret sauce sensation.

The 27-year-old made history and a ridiculous amount of stops, going 20-1-2 with a remarkable .941 save percentage. Hammond may be at the greatest risk of a huge dive in production, as nothing about his numbers at lower levels really predicted a breakthrough.

Actually, Craig Anderson being the probable No. 1 guy could go a long way in helping Hammond ease into life as a full-time NHL goalie.

Mark Stone – The sixth-rounder (178th overall in 2010) seemed to swap bodies with another player when 2014 turned to 2015.

In 34 contests from October through December, Stone managed 8 goals and 17 points. From January to the end of the regular season, he scored 18 goals and 47 points in 46 games.

One can expect the 23-year-old to cool off a bit, as his 16.6 shooting percentage should subside. The key question is “How much?”

Mike Hoffman – His production came more steadily than Stone’s, yet the 25-year-old’s in largely the same situation. Both saw big upswings in their numbers, each has a bit more than 100 regular season games under their belts, and they likely should enjoy space to grow under Cameron.

It’s reasonable to anticipate a moderate dip, although his more consistent production (and a more moderate 13.6 shooting percentage) imply that he could be pretty reliable.

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Here’s the thing: all four Senators sophomores are vulnerable to a slump, especially in the eyes of those with sky-high expectations. On the flip side, those who give them a little room to breathe may find that the team made some lasting discoveries during that astounding run.

Ottawa Senators ’15-16 Outlook

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What happens after the honeymoon period wears off?

The Ottawa Senators may be a great test run for such theories in 2015-16. After all, there was a stark difference between the team that left MacLean making sardonic jokes on his way out the door to the one that stormed its way into the postseason under Dave Cameron.

So, what happens when Cameron gets to hold a training camp with this roster? Also, what happens if their goaltending is merely average after Andrew Hammond’s stupendous, burger-earning run?

One interesting thing to consider: some credit Ottawa’s turnaround with Cameron as much as they did with “The Hamburglar.” The possession improvements from MacLean to Cameron were occasionally drastic, but the common theme is that younger players like Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone emerged while veterans faded into the background.

Perceptions change, but the personnel’s largely the same

There are exceptions (see: Robin Lehner’s exodus), yet the Senators are more or less the same team after a quiet summer. It’s interesting, then, that it’s still difficult to forecast this team’s future.

Hoffman, Stone and Mika Zibanejad saw big gains under Cameron. Kyle Turris proved that he can be a top center in the NHL. More will be expected from Bobby Ryan while Erik Karlsson is, well, Erik Karlsson.

The offense looks like a solid strength, but Ottawa’s roster faces plenty of questions. The defense sees a huge drop-off beyond their top pairing of Karlsson and Marc Methot while Hammond could easily generate a goalie controversy with probable starter Craig Anderson.

In other words, by defying expectations in 2014-15, Cameron and the Senators raised the bar awfully high for next season. Will they fall short of that mark?

Sens’ biggest question: Defensemen not named Karlsson

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Let’s face it: most teams would see a big drop-off between Erik Karlsson and the rest of their defensemen.

Even so, whether by choice or budgetary constraints, it seems like “same old, same old” for the Ottawa Senators’ blueline beyond their Swedish superstar.

(OK, that’s unfair to a very nice defenseman in Marc Methot, but the general outlook remains pretty shaky.)

Take a peek at their projected pairings, via the Ottawa Sun:

Methot – Karlsson
Patrick Wiercioch – Cody Ceci
Mark Borowiecki – Chris Phillips

Other options who might bump depth guys: Chris Wideman and Jared Cowen

That doesn’t exactly jump out as a group that will smother the opposition (or consistently, effectively move the puck out of the zone failing that), does it?

It’s not just a matter of looking iffy on paper, as the Senators range from middle-of-the-pack to the bottom 10 in various defensive stats. After all, we can only really speculate regarding just how much Andrew Hammond’s fast-food Cinderella streak truly covered up some own-zone blemishes in 2014-15.

Even if you make the case for the occasional piece beyond Karlsson and Methot, it’s tough to imagine an honest GM being happy staying pat with this group. The Senators seem like they’ll need to live with “Karlsson and everyone else” for another year, nonetheless.

With the emergence of Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, Ottawa’s offense seems far more formidable, and Craig Anderson + Hammond make for an intriguing combo in net.

As brilliant as Karlsson is, you get the impression that this defense may force the Sens to outscore their problems.

Poll: Anderson or Hamburglar in Ottawa’s net?

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Now that they shipped Robin Lehner to Buffalo, the Ottawa Senators face a more typical situation in net.

On paper, it’s actually pretty straightforward, especially if you’re looking at money. Craig Anderson is, theoretically, the clear No. 1 while Andrew Hammond stands as the probable backup.

Of course, the No. 2 guy also happened to save the Senators’ 2014-15 season and earn a lifetime supply of Mc-whatever-he’d-likes, so perhaps it’s not that simple.

A quick breakdown of Anderson vs. Hammond

Again, one would assume that Anderson, 34, at least gets the early edge.

With far more experience and a $4.2 million cap hit for the next three seasons, he makes the most logical sense. He’s also upped his game since coming to Ottawa, averaging a .920 save percentage in that span.

That said, you sort of know what you’re getting with Anderson, while “The Hamburglar” looms behind a mask of intrigue. Hammond only boasts 24 games of NHL experience at age 27, yet he was sensational. Ottawa needed just about all of his 20-1-2 run to make the playoffs, and that cannot be forgotten.

It’s plausible that this could end up being a platoon situation at times, but let’s narrow things down a bit: when Dave Cameron needs a win, which goalie should be turn to? Who should be in the net in a win-and-you’re-in regular season situation or a Game 7 in the playoffs?

Note: in tribute to Hammond’s out-of-left-field run in 2014-15, you can write in a different choice if you feel like the Senators have another random sensation waiting in the pipeline.

Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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If you want a hockey example of “be careful what you wish for,” look no further than Robin Lehner.

He’s getting what he likely pined for during his time with the Ottawa Senators – the No. 1 gig – yet he’ll face a challenging situation in Buffalo.

It doesn’t help matters that Sabres fans cringed at the cost of acquiring Lehner.

Lehner cost a first-round draft pick in a loaded draft while the Senators also managed to unload David Legwand’s contract. The 24-year-old may need to do a little convincing early on.

A bumpy 2014-15 season

Whether it was crafty veteran Craig Anderson or fast-food sensation Andrew Hammond, Lehner couldn’t snare the starting gig in Ottawa, and things only got worse when concussion issues ended his season altogether.

It’s easy to forget that Lehner sports a perfectly respectable career save percentage (.914) because his 2014-15 season was so unsightly: 9-12-3 with a mediocre .905 save percentage.

Long story short, Lehner has plenty to prove after a bumpy start to his NHL career.

source: AP
Via AP

A big opportunity, but a huge challenge

That said, he’s definitely getting a fair shot with the Sabres and GM Tim Murray. Murray was nothing if optimistic about acquiring the big Swede, as the Ottawa Sun noted after the trade.

“I think Robin needed a change of scenery,” Murray said. “I think he’s a very talented, big strong, young man that is just scratching the surface and, hopefully, we can bring the best out of him.”

Some might roll their eyes at the idea of a change of scenery making a difference, yet it’s not without precedent. Steve Mason’s resurgence in Philadelphia argues that a struggling netminder can thrive after a career Etch-a-Sketch shake.

Granted, it won’t be easy; Lehner’s essentially going from a holding pattern in Ottawa to a trial by fire with Buffalo. What do you think: will he sink or swim?