I have come to a few revelations this holiday season: One, I realized that Innis & Gunn, a Scottish oak aged beer is delicious and two, the Hockey Gods have invariably had it in for this season's version of the Ottawa Senators. There's simply no other explanation for the inordinate number of bad things that have transpired this year.
It started in the summer time when the front-running Dany Heatley requested a trade. At the time, I thought it was the great news. Ottawa could rid itself of a physically gifted but mentally deficient player who had no interest in becoming more than the one-dimensional, numbers obsessed player who cared only about his own production and statistics. After Ottawa went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007, Heatley fell into that athlete trap that typically followed a team's success. He always wanted more. More money, more first powerplay unit minutes, more cross-ice passes for one-timers so that he wouldn't have to skate and exert effort in the offensive zone. And when he wasn't getting enough of one of these things, he picked up his ball and went home to Kelowna. A place where he remained recluse and selfishly threw his former coach under the bus and single-handedly killed his inherent back-to-back 50-goal trade value around the League. So you can't blame me for being a bit resentful that Ottawa only received Milan Michalek, the expensive and unsurprisingly unproductive Jonathan Cheechoo and a 2nd round pick in return for Heatley.
And who could forget this team's anemic powerplay or the team's inability to draw a penalty. Bryan Murray and Cory Clouston are being portrayed as whiners by the national hockey media and Alexei Kovalev isn't upset that he wasn't selected for the Russian Olympic team because he said he wouldn't mind "having the 10 days off." . (Uh, Alexei...what about those first 30 plus games of the season?)
Sure, there have been some good stories on this year's Senators team. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the ridiculously productive season that Mike Fisher has had thus far. However, had you told me before the season that by late December, that Ottawa would be sitting in the seventh playoff spot in the Eastern Conference while Spezza/Shannon/Cheechoo/Kovalev would have a combined 15 goals and that Matt Carkner was logging top four minutes on defence, I'd have thought you were crazy. And the injuries! Oh, the injuries. How this team has managed to cope and keep its head above water despite encountering significant injuries to Pascal Leclaire, Nick Foligno, Anton Volchenkov, Filip Kuba, Chris Neil, and Shean Donovan is either a testament to Cory Clouston or it's an indication of how inherently flawed each of the Eastern Conference teams are. Or probably a little bit of both.
Regardless, the Senators currently sit in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference with 42 points but they're also only eight points ahead of the 29th ranked Edmonton Oilers. A small enough margin in which one bad losing streak could not only have the Senators looking on from outside of the playoff picture but also looking up at the rest of the NHL standings. It's a possibility that becomes threateningly realistic now that they're without their number one center, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, their heart and soul. Chris Stevenson is reporting that Alfie has suffered a shoulder separation and will be out 4 to 6 weeks. When you compound Alfie's injury diagnosis with Spezza's 6 to 8 week absence, Ottawa must face the prospect that they could be without their two best offensive talents for upwards 26 games, the amount of games that will take place between now and the February 14th start of the Olympic break.
According to Bruce Garrioch on Off The Posts, Ottawa's record when Alfredsson does not play -- 6-18-1 (.260) -- isn't flattering. Without Spezza and Alfie in the lineup, Mike Fisher's line will now garner the attention of the opposition's best defensive tandem moving forward. The question of whether Fisher can continue to produce in light of these circumstances is likely be the decisive factor in whether or not the Senators can stay competitive enough to remain in the playoff picture.
From a short term perspective, the aforementioned two injuries could be devastating in a oh shit, I may have taken some painkillers and driven my Lincoln Navigator into a fire hydrant and tree and I may have been saved by my Swedish wife who smashed out the back window with a 9-iron kind of way. But hey, at least it's slightly less embarrassing.
I know there are going to be a slew of bleeding heart Senators fans who are going to be agonizing over the losses of Spezza and Alfie and to a certain extent, rightfully so. It would be nice to see the Senators back in the playoffs after the way the past two seasons have ended dismally. However, there's also a lot of good that can come of this and have lasting ramifications on the team's future success. It gives the organization an opportunity to develop young offensive players like Peter Regin by giving him top six minutes and responsibilities. And maybe, if the team is lucky, Ryan Shannon can shed his Muckaltian label and contribute with a goal. (Ed. note: Shannon scored while I was writing this piece.)
Personally, I'd love to see a line featuring Michalek, Regin and Shannon that would create some matchup problems against the opposition with their collective speed. Maybe given the increased pressure and larger roles, some the rest of the Senators can learn to be a little more resilient. And by more resilient, I mean toughen the fuck up so that the next time the Captain gets rocked, someone goes out and takes a liberty on an opposing star player. Or better yet, I hope they learn to play with the urgency that they exhibit whenever they play the Buffalo Sabres.
Bruce Garrioch's suggestion that Ottawa needs to trade for an aging veteran like Ray Whitney is not the right choice for this organization right now. Neither Spezza or Alfredsson will be put on long-term injury reserve, so where Bruce thinks Ottawa's going to get the cap flexibility to take on a contract like Whitney -- $3.55M for season -- is beyond me. Ottawa does not even have the good fortune to be in a position to be give up young prospects or draft picks to secure an eight place finish in the East. And similarly, it does not take a Senators savant to notice that while the Ottawa organization has some intriguing forward prospects like Andre Petersson and Jakub Silfverberg, the organization is devoid of an elite forward prospect. Considering that defensive prospects like Jared Cowen and Erik Karlsson probably won't log significant top four minutes until the 2011-12 season, it'd be nice to have a young and talented offensive forward who the organization could move forward with in conjunction with their development. Besides, if Ottawa starts losing games like everyone suspects, they still have a chance to catch Carolina...
...Relax. I'm just kidding. I'd never condone for the Senators to tank the rest of the season just so that we can wind up with a higher draft pick. That being said, I'd still prefer to see in house alternatives and continued development and if that meant that Ottawa would take its lumps for the duration of the season, I would be okay with that. And please spare me the talk that people won't pay to not watch winners in this city. Ottawa's still in a playoff position and people still haven't paid to watch them thus far. Besides, I'm a firm believer that if a hockey market had a good understanding of the direction of their organization, they would still pay and support it. Look at the Blackhawks, or the Capitals, or the Penguins. You cannot convince me that a young and exciting team could not sell in this market.
Aside from Mike Fisher's season thus far, this season just hasn't been in the cards for the Ottawa Senators. Hell, even my respect and appreciation for Fisher has been marred a bit by this article that indicates that he likes the rock band Creed. It's just been that kind of season with circumstantial bad luck in every turn. But now isn't any time to start feeling sorry for ourselves, it's a time to make fun of other Sens fans who are running around like Chicken Little and complaining that the sky is falling. The sky isn't falling, it's just an opportunity to test and gauge how well our team can handle some adversity. No longer can this team be dependent on Alfredsson and Spezza to carry the offensive workload. To have any chance at success while they are out, they're going to have to fluidly rely on one another but they're also going to have to outwork, outmuscle, and outhustle their opponents for every single game night. And in the long run, Sens fans will be better for it.