2010-2011 NHL season preview: Ottawa Senators

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danielalfredsson1.jpgLast season: (44-32-6, 94 points, 2nd in Northeast Division, 5th in Eastern Conference) If anyone thought the Senators would be fifth in the East at the start of last season, we all would’ve happily called them liars and been done with it. Instead, the Sens took advantage of well-timed win streaks and rode the goaltending hot hand in Brian Elliott.

Head coach: Cory Clouston’s first full season was a successful one and his tenure in Ottawa has been a surprise hit. After taking over with 34 games left to play in the 2008-09 season, Clouston’s teams have been more than solid and downright pesky to deal with on a nightly basis. That said, consistency is the bugaboo for the Senators and locking that down will be Clouston’s next trick.

Key departures: D Anton Volchenkov, F Matt Cullen, D Andy Sutton, F Jonathan Cheechoo. All right, so they won’t miss Cheechoo, but losing Volchenkov is a big blow for the defensive play of the team. Cullen and Sutton were deadline acquisitions lost to free agency.

Key arrivals: D Sergei Gonchar, D David Hale. Gonchar is the one big signing the team made causing a definitive shift in how they will handle their work along the blue line. Switching from a defensive stopper like Volchenkov to an offensive-minded power play quarterback like Gonchar puts the emphasis on offense for the Senators. Gonchar had 50 points for the Penguins last year. The Sens top scoring defenseman last season was Filip Kuba with 28 points. Upgrade time, y’all.

Under pressure: It’s almost unfair to pick him, but Jason Spezza carries a lot of the weight in Ottawa. After a crazy summer that saw rumors about him supposedly wanting to be traded because of having difficulties dealing with the Ottawa fans and media (yes, really) to all those issues being settled finally, there’s no doubt that the relationship is a bit strained.

Spezza already plays in the shadow of Daniel Alfredsson and with Mike Fisher having a breakout year last season, Spezza has become the third or fourth banana in Canada’s capital yet still takes the heat as if he was the prime minister. Life sucks sometimes and, in the paraphrased words of Denis Leary, perhaps Jason Spezza should just get a helmet. Playing to his potential would give Ottawa a very dangerous top line. Playing while sulking helps make the Sens very inconsistent.

Protecting the house: If one thing is going to be the undoing of the Senators this year, it’s goaltending. They’ll start the year with Elliott and Pascal Leclaire dueling for the No. 1 job, but in reality will just split time until someone proves that they want it bad enough. Waiting in the wings in the minors will be prospect Robin Lehner who has turned some heads during the preseason. If things bottom out fast with both Elliott and Leclaire, don’t be shocked if Lehner gets a call to see what he can do to keep the Sens going.

Defensively, Gonchar leads the way and young Swede Erik Karlsson has stolen some of the spotlight away from the likes of currently injured Filip Kuba as well as Chris Campoli. While Kuba is out, Campoli figures to get a lot more work as does ‘Prime Time’ Brian Lee. Long-time Sens stalwart Chris Phillips is still holding down the fort in Ottawa and making the Sens decision to keep him over Wade Redden a couple years ago look that much smarter.

Top line we’d like to see: Milan Michalek-Spezza-Alfredsson. OK so this is the top line we’ll see this season. Of course, a lot of that hinges on how well Michalek returns from surgery and how healthy Alfredsson can stay. Never mind the mental mettle of Spezza in all this, this is a scoring line that should be able to run with any top line in the NHL. That said, there’s still an awful lot of ‘what if’s’ that surround this unit. They’re basically a microcosm of what it’s like to be the Ottawa Senators.

Oh captain, my captain: Alfredsson is the face of the franchise and you’ll have to behead him like the Highlander to make him not be captain. He leads them by example and whether or not you’re a believer in his style, the fans in Ottawa would at least follow him into any fire. You’d have to think the players feel the same way after all these years.

mattcarkner1.jpgStreet fighting man: The Sens main combatants are defenseman Matt Carkner who fears no punch and agitator extraordinaire Chris Neil. Carkner dropped the gloves 24 times last season, meanwhile Neil did so just 13 times. To say that there’s not a fight that Carkner doesn’t like would mean you were lying through your lack of teeth. Those of you thinking that pest Jarkko Ruutu would make this list would be wrong. He’s merely a dangerous pest with just two fights to his credit last year.

Best-case scenario: The top line has a complete breakout season with Alfredsson regaining his old form and helping Spezza and Michalek have career years. The injury bug that plagued the Sens last year goes away while young forwards like Nick Foligno and Peter Regin fulfill their promise and become solid second- and third-line performers. Mike Fisher picks up where he left off last year. Gonchar helps the team become more effective on the power play and one of either Elliott or Leclaire takes the reins and becomes the consistent goalie the Senators have always desired while leading the Sens to a division title and deep run through the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Alfredsson shows his age and Spezza struggles under the pressure of having the captain not do well on his wing. Elliott and Leclaire both play miserably while the defense shows how much it misses Volchenkov and his leadership. Regin and Foligno both tread water while the Sens desperately seek some kind of extra help while their top line struggles. Not even Robin Lehner can save the season and the Sens miss the playoffs after not having enough hot streaks to get them through.

Keeping it real: The Sens can be a very good team. Not a great team, but one that flies just far enough under the radar to not get noticed while continuing to win games and land at the low end of the race for the playoffs. The Senators had a lot of good luck go their way last year not to mention clutch scoring to avoid going to shootouts. Banking on that helping you out two years in a row is a fool’s bet. This team truly will only go as far as the goaltending will take them as the rest of the team is decent.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Senators are a perfect 3. Playing in the weaker Eastern Conference helps make things a bit easier to deal with and while lots of things can break right to get Ottawa into the playoffs and possibly win a round or two, lots of things could go wrong and sink this team hard. Too many questions that could go either way make the Senators a perfectly average team.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin, Aho dazzle in duel; Scheifele on fire

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Three stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

More on this can be found here.

The tl;dr version?

Ovechkin scored his second hat trick in as many nights, extended a point streak to 13 games, a goal-scoring streak to five games and inspired an epic comeback for the Caps.

Yeah, nothing to see here.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

He was playing in the same game as Ovechkin, and had a night that will get lost in Ovechkin’s theatre.

Aho had two goals and two assists and was the orchestrator as the Hurricanes built up their 4-1 lead. It ended up being all for nothing, but Aho now has 11 goals and 33 points in 31 games this season. He’s a special player.

3. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele scored a howitzer on the power play in the first period, assisted on Mathieu Perreault‘s goal to give the Jets a 3-2 lead and then scored the overtime winner to cap off the three-point night.

It was the third time in 16 days that the Jets have beaten the Chicago Blackhawks. The Jets are now the top team in the Western Conference with 44 points.

Scheifele has had much to do with that. He’s on a four-game multipoint streak and has 20 points in his past 11 games.

Highlights of the night

Ovi’s hatty:

He makes this look so easy:

Laine release alert:

Factoids

Scores

Devils 5, Golden Knights 4 (OT)

Coyotes 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

Penguins 5, Bruins 3

Senators 4, Red Wings 2

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 5 (SO)

Blues 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)

Jets 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)

Oilers 4, Flyers 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Another Ovechkin hat trick inspires epic Capitals’ comeback

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Alex Ovechkin entered God Mode on Friday night to lead the Washington Capitals back from a 4-1 deficit in a 6-5 shootout win.

The only thing that Ovechkin didn’t do on the night was score the shootout winner, which he had a chance.

Still, Ovechkin recorded his second hat trick in as many games and helped spark an epic comeback from the Capitals who, at one point, didn’t look like they showed up in Raleigh.

Instead, Ovechkin continued his assault on the NHL with goals No. 26, 27 and 28 in 31 games this season to extend his point streak to 13 games.

Get this: the last time The Great Eight had a point in 13 straight was in his sophomore season in 2006-07.

Get this, too: he’s scored now in five straight games (nine goals during that span), the first time he’s done that since his rookie season in 2005-06, where he scored in seven in a row. At the rate Ovechkin is going, he might eclipse that record.

He’s on pace for 72 goals, too.

He’s 33.

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote that Ovechkin isn’t slowing down earlier this week, and that remains true as the weekend begins.

All of this scoring from Ovi has meant a four-game winning streak and first place in the Metropolitan Division after a not-so-great start to the season.

Carolina probably deserved better in the game, or at least Sebastian Aho certainly did.

Hidden amongst Ovechkin’s heroics was a four-point night from the young Finn. The Hurricanes built up that 4-1 lead with the work of Aho its focal point. Then they gave up four straight before tying it in the last half of the third.

Carolina couldn’t convert on an overtime penalty and then couldn’t score more than a goal in the shootout to lose in its sixth round.

But enough about the losing team. The night belonged to Ovechkin in the end.

He’s pretty good, we hear.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How should Rangers approach the trade deadline?

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Whether by design or not, the New York Rangers have been better than expected so far in 2018-19.

Despite waving the white flag of rebuild, they’re only one point behind the Islanders for third place in the Metro, which would help them sneak into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With five of their next six games at home, they might even make that jump, at least briefly.

But, honestly, it still seems like the Rangers should be sellers come trade deadline time.

Just about every stat points to slippage, if not a collapse. They remain one of the weakest possession teams in the NHL, but you can go simpler and merely look at their -10 goal differential so far this season.

So, the Rangers should sell … but how far should they go?

Let’s run down some of the most interesting considerations, from the no-brainers to more far-fetched scenarios, like actually trading Hank.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Mats Zuccarello: 31 years old, $4.5 million

It looks like the veteran winger-wizard could return Friday, which would mark his first game since Nov. 23. It also seems like Zuccarello realizes a trade might happen, as he discussed with Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post.

“There’s no secret that it’s out there. For me, I prepare for everything, try to do my best as long as I’m here. Hopefully I’m here for a long time. If not, it’s nothing I can control.”

The Norwegian forward doesn’t have much power over the situation, but the Rangers have the power to get maximum bang for their buck if they do part ways with Zuccarello.

Before he began his injury absence, Zuccarello was on a five-game pointless drought, and he failed to score in seven of his last eight games, managing a goal and an assist in one productive game during that span. Despite that slump, his overall season numbers are reasonable (10 points in 17 games), and it wouldn’t be surprising if he surged into the trade deadline.

Considering his reasonable cap hit and track record as someone who comes in at 53-61 points during a healthy season, Zuccarello would be a boon for virtually every contender looking for a skillful rental.

For all we know, the Rangers could convince him to come back after a brief run somewhere else, which doesn’t seem outrageous after seeing Zuccarello describe New York as his “second home.”

That scenario would be a “eat your cake and have it too” scenario, as the Rangers could land some assets, but not go too long with a rebuild, if they got Zuccarello back.

Either way, trading Zuccarello seems like the right call. If I were a contender, he’d also be  a very, very desirable target.

Kevin Hayes, 26, $5.175M

In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reported that the Boston Bruins might have some interest in Boston native Hayes, which wasn’t the first time the team was connected with the player. Friedman also pointed to Colorado as a team that could really use some more support at center.

While Zuccarello could be “pumped up,” it’s hard to imagine opinions going any higher on Hayes. He has 21 points in 30 games this season, including two goals and two assists over his last two contests. At this .70-point-per-game pace (about 54 points over 82 games), Hayes could very well shatter his career-high of 49 points. He’s getting easily the most ice time of his career (19:14 TOI average), and Hayes’ possession numbers are at least strong relative to his teammates.

Is this a straight-up “pump-and-dump?” I have no clue, but the Rangers should be giddy if they can get serious assets for Hayes.

In the case of Hayes (in particular) and Zuccarello (to a lesser extent), the Rangers might also be willing to retain salary to make a trade work with a cash-strapped contender. After all, they’d only be on the hook for a portion of that cap hit for the remainder of this season, so it wouldn’t block future efforts.

(According to Cap Friendly, the Rangers are retaining one of two possible salaries, as they’re absorbing $900K from the Ryan SpoonerRyan Strome trade through this season and 2019-20.)

TWO YEARS LEFT

Chris Kreider, 27, $4.625M expires after 2019-20

The Rangers have quite a collection of players with two years remaining, but Kreider’s the headliner because he poses such interesting questions to New York.

If they wanted to move Kreider, you’d expect a hefty return. The winger presents something for everyone. Old-school types should like his nastiness. Analytics-minded execs will notice that his underlying stats have basically always towered above his teammates. His size is a strength, and just about everyone should love his speed relative to that formidable frame.

His contract is also wonderful for a contender: it’s a bargain, and you’d get two playoff runs out of it. If the agitating winger rubs people the wrong way, at least the term is short enough that you could cut ties. Just about perfect.

Those very factors should also register with the Rangers, especially if they’re looking at this as an extremely quick rebuild. If I were running the show, I’d hesitate to move Kreider, unless the ransom was just undeniable.

Vladislav Namestnikov, 26, $4M through 2019-20 and others

The Rangers have quite a few other two-year deals they could move. Getting more for Namestnikov would only increase the quantity of assets they’ve garnered from moving Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.

There are other, cheaper options, too. Someone might like Jesper Fast, 27, at a cool $1.85M. Jimmy Vesey (25, $2.275M) and Ryan Strome (25, $3.1M) could fit into more complicated trades. Similarly, Matt Beleskey’s $1.9M cap hit might work for cap fodder.

THE WHOPPER

Henrik Lundqvist, 36, $8.5M through 2020-21

Back in a May episode of The Hockey PDOcast, former Rangers staffer William Kawam described essentially being laughed at when bringing up trading Lundqvist during a discussion that a bunch of team execs, including Rangers GM Jeff Gorton.

The Rangers were courageous in sending out a rebuilding press release last season, but are they trade-Lundqvist brave? I’m not so sure. Especially in the event that Lundqvist wouldn’t want to relocate, which would limit options to local rivals, like the goalie-needy Islanders.

But it’s a topic that should be broached, however gingerly, for a wide array of reasons.

And it’s not just about brushing their long-time icon aside. Lundqvist wants to win a Stanley Cup, so a change of scenery would make sense for the competitive goalie. (Granted, that argument wouldn’t go too far if the only option really is the Isles. Yes, they’re better than expected, but a contender? That’s a tough sell.)

There really might not be a better time for the Rangers to trade Lundqvist and still get something back for him, particularly if he actually would leave his comfort zone. A wide array of teams would find their ears perking up by the concept of landing Lundqvist. Imagine how much interest might rise if the Rangers ate at least some of that $8.5M cap hit to make something work?

So, there’s already a lot of demand for goalies, from the Islanders, Flyers, and Hurricanes to, perhaps even the Flames?

If courageous enough to do so, the Rangers would be wise to be proactive, especially if the Blackhawks decide to bite the bullet with Corey Crawford and/or the Kings embrace reality and move Jonathan Quick.

It helps that Lundqvist’s enjoyed a pretty strong 2018-19 season, at least for a 36-year-old. King Henrik has a .916 save percentage through 23 games, and that’s with a tough mini-stretch (nine goals allowed in two contest) putting a slight damper on his numbers.

Moving Lundqvist would require “ice water in the veins,” yet you can argue that there might not be a better time to do it than between now and the 2019 trade deadline.

***

The Rangers could get really creative with this situation, if they’d like.

Would they absorb problem contracts from contenders either during the deadline or during 2019 NHL Draft weekend, maybe taking a bribe to accept the last year of Ryan Callahan/Patrick Marleau/etc.? Might they go even further by stomaching even tougher, longer deals (Brent Seabrook? Milan Lucic?) if they view this as a rebuild that requires more drastic surgeries? Things could get really interesting if they instead convinced someone else to take on Marc Staal or Kevin Shattenkirk.

One thing’s clear: the Rangers would likely miss out on some golden opportunities if they did nothing.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights are red-hot, but have some issues

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After a bumpy start to their second season, the news has been mostly good for the Vegas Golden Knights lately.

By beating the surprisingly feisty Islanders 3-2 on Thursday, Vegas is now measurably hot, winning nine of their last 11 games. Plenty of underlying numbers indicate that this could very well be a team to stay, or at least one that can really make opponents uncomfortable with their frenetic pace.

Unfortunately, you can also see a red flag pop up for the Golden Knights here and there.

Few players fit the dichotomy of the Golden Knights’ short-term/long-term situation quite like Marc-Andre Fleury.

On one hand, “MAF” has put together a commendable 2018-19 so afar, a run that makes it easier to accept his middling save percentage of .909. While his individual stats have been up and down (just check his strong November vs. weak October and December), Fleury’s been an absolute workhorse, appearing in 29 of Vegas’ 33 games. He edges Craig Anderson for the most games played and minutes played so far this season, and both goalies are getting up there in age and wear-and-tear (Anderson is 37, Fleury is 34).

The Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes the troubling history for workhorses in recent postseasons (sub required):

Of the 13 starting goaltenders that have hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup since the beginning of the salary cap era in 2005, none played more than 70 games in the regular season. In fact, only two of the 13 played more than 60 games. Fleury is currently on pace to play 72.

Last season, we saw wizard-like Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (now 24) and eventual champion Braden Holtby (now 29) admit that they were worn down, and both of those netminders have faced way fewer pucks over their careers than “The Flower.”

To some extent, this might be part of Gerard Gallant’s M.O. with goalies. During his years with the Florida Panthers, he seemed comfortable with leaning fairly heavily on Roberto Luongo, who logged 61 and 62 GP at ages 35 and 36. That’s not monstrous, yet it’s also more than ideal; it feels akin to an NFL team handing far too many carries to a RB, arguably shortening that runner’s career in the process. Could Luongo’s workload partially explain his health struggles? Maybe.

This isn’t to say Gallant is outrageous, as Malcolm Subban‘s really struggled this season, generating a lousy .859 save percentage in five appearances. It would be easier to criticize Gallant’s choices if he … had other good ones.

Still, there’s likely a safer medium between throwing away starts (if Subban can’t rebound) and running MAF into the ground, as Friday game against the Devils represents Fleury’s 12th consecutive start.

The Fleury situation is far from the only curious one, as it seemed like Max Pacioretty might be a healthy scratch. After some digging, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen unearthed that Pacioretty might sit instead of playing through an injury:

At this point, the goal is to parse coach-speak. After all, Schoen reports that Gallant said that “there’s nothing wrong” with Pacioretty. That could mean that this is merely a minor issue, or it could mean that it would have been more of a coach’s decision.

Overall, it’s still a situation to watch. Pacioretty has absolutely had his relative struggles during his first campaign with Vegas. “Patches” only managed two goals and zero assists through 10 October games, but seemed to right the ship with 16 points in his last 18 contests. Granted, in the last three games, Pacioretty was held without a shot on goal twice (though he managed four SOG in that other contest), so maybe there are subtle signs of struggle.

It’s a bummer for hockey dorks (raises hand) that Pacioretty could miss Friday’s game, as Paul Stastny is slated to finally return. Many of us were intrigued by the prospect of seeing a seemingly rejuvenated Pacioretty with Stastny, particularly since Alex Tuch has been pretty fantastic since he got back into the swing of things upon recovering from his own injury.

Alas, it looks like we’ll need to wait a little longer, unless the Golden Knights decide to let him play through his minor injury and/or minor struggles.

Overall, things are looking up for the Golden Knights, but they’re not perfect. Luckily for Vegas, you could say that about virtually every other team, including Friday’s opponent in New Jersey.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.