Until Daniel Alfredsson announced his decision to come back next season, hockey news was dire in the nation’s capital.
The lowlight came approximately two weeks ago when there was actually constructive debate as to whether or not the organization gave up on Bobby Butler too early. Yes, Bobby Butler, he of the, “if he is in your team’s top six, odds are, your favorite team is not very good” variety.
That is what this offseason has come to.
Regrettably, we just entered the month of August and the thing that we usually look forward to, the annual rookie tournament that takes place in September, has been cancelled because of the potential work stoppage. Without such a distraction to tide us over until the beginning of training camp, we’ve been reduced to wringing our hands in hopes that the league and the PA can come together on a new CBA in short order.
At this point of the offseason, uncertainty of what the new CBA will have in store, it is not like we can even hold out hope for another roster move to satiate our appetite for hockey news. Given the (hopefully) inconsequential minor league signings that round out the Binghamton roster and the Senators flirting with the maximum number of contracts that they are permitted to dole out, the recognition that Senators management is content with the current state of its roster seems more and more apparent.
Sure, maybe things could have different had Alfie unexpectedly decided to retire and I suppose the new CBA could throw in some new wrinkles and create the opportunity for more roster activity. It’s far more likely however, that if there are any significant changes to this roster, changes will have come from within.
Much like last season’s acquisition of Ben Bishop to push Robin Lehner, the organization has been championing the importance of internal competition as part of the growth process. While much of the attention has focused on where promising prospects like Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone will fit, for the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on the potential competition for a first line winger spot between Guillaume Latendresse, Milan Michalek and Jakob Silfverberg.
As a head coach who often employs the paired forward tactic (he doesn’t look at lines as a set trio comprised of a centre and two wings. Instead, a pair of forwards are the constant with the third member of the line being selected from a rotating a group of wingers), Paul MacLean joins the ranks of coaches like Alain Vigneault, Ken Hitchcock and Mike Babcock who have been recognized for using this strategy.
Since the day he was acquired as part of the trade package that sent Dany Heatley to San Jose, Michalek has been entrenched with Jason Spezza as half of the team's first line duo.
Until last season, it was a pairing that had limited success. Through bouts inconsistencies and injury, Michalek had difficulty meeting expectations; tallying 40 goals and 67 points in his first two seasons in Ottawa. In 2011/12 however, he finally started seeing the scoresheet with more regularity – scoring 60 points and a career high 35 goals.
Yet despite these improved totals, I’ve often wondered since July 1st whether it’d be in Ottawa’s interests to move Michalek to the Turris/Alfredsson line.
Earlier this offseason, you may recall a piece that articulated a number of points that advanced the notion that it may be in Ottawa’s best interests to consider trading Milan Michalek this summer. With his age, inflated production numbers, contract situation and a number of young forwards who are on the cusp of competing for top six roles, you could not have blamed the organization for trying capitalize on a weak free agent market and explore what kind of return that they could have fetched for the Czech forward.
Now with that being said, there is a greater likelihood that Bobby Butler will be brought back this season than there is of Michalek being dealt. If the Czech forward’s going to get moved, it’ll likely be a move to the team’s second line – a place where his defensive aptitude and skillset may be a better fit.
Skeptics of the suggestion may scoff at the idea and point to last year’s numbers, wondering why it may be in Ottawa’s best interests to move that kind of production away from the team’s best offensive center.
Last season, MacLean relied heavily upon the strong puck possession skills of the Kyle Turris/Alfie second line duo to shut down the opposition’s best offensive forwards; whereas the Spezza unit benefitted from: a) being frequently paired with Erik Karlsson; and b) a high offensive zone start rate (note: Michalek was at 61.5% and Spezza at 59.3%).
Despite playing the bulk of his 5v5 shifts playing with Karlsson and Spezza, Michalek’s puck possession numbers are middling. It’s no coincidence that whenever the first line languished, MacLean would tap Alfie on the shoulder and send him over the boards. Unlike Michalek or Colin Greening, Alfie could help Spezza ease Spezza’s burden. Too often when the first line is struggling, it’s because the offence has to run through Spezza to create its chances. When he’s off his game, he’s like a collegiate student running around his campus bar in an effort to pick up women minutes before it closes – forcing passes in effort to score.
Per DobberHockey, 34 of Michalek’s 60 points came at even strength while playing on a line with Spezza. Michalek may have benefitted from a career high shooting percentage of 16.5% -- that conveniently coincided with his second highest regular season shot total (and highest while playing for the Senators) – but when taken into context with how unlikely it is that Erik Karlsson replicates last season’s even strength production, the odds of Michalek’s offensive numbers regressing towards his career norms are presumably quite high.
Whether it is in Michalek's place or at the expense of a prospect like Silfvergber, I would be very interested in seeing this guy...
...get an opportunity to play with Spezza.
Over the past two seasons, Latendresse has only played in 27 NHL games and prior to signing in Ottawa, the Montreal native had to pass a physical. In other words, relative to Latendresse's health, Michalek's an ironman. An optimist may suggest that these injuries have prevented a physical presence like Latendresse from putting too much mileage on his body but staying healthy is obviously going to be a major factor in how much Latendresse can contribute this season with the Sens. Fortunately, in the event that he can’t, it’s not like his contract term or cost is a burden on the organization.
As Jonathan Willis wrote for Oilersnation.com,
He’s young, big, often physical, and more importantly he’s a pretty good possession player who has consistently been a high-percentage goal-scorer over his NHL career (on 568 career shots, Latendresse is a 14.3% shooter; he’s never been below 12.0% in a single NHL season). He fits team need perfectly.
When he has been healthy, Latendresse has shown some goal scoring ability. With a playmaker like Spezza, he hopefully improve upon his offensive totals. (Albeit, he needs to significantly increase the number of shots that he takes.)
Under the right circumstances, he should be able to approach 20 goals and 40 points and at the very least, he would certainly add the puck possession dynamics that the first line sorely lacks when Alfie is not on it. By using Latendresse on the top line for his puck possession skills, it affords MacLean the flexibility to continue using Alfie with Turris so that the second line isn't marginalized.
Butler Close to Signing with SEL Team...
According to @steffeG, former Senators forward Bobby Butler is negotiating a contract with Skelleftea of the SEL. This news comes days after Bobby Butler's father told the MetroWest Daily News that his son had received interest from four Eastern Conference teams and teams in Sweden and Russia. If true that Butler is close to signing in Sweden, it's easy to surmise that none of the NHL clubs that had expressed interest were keen enough to offer a one-way contract. At least in signing with Skelleftea, Butler can earn more money than the AHL salary he would have received had he signed a two-way deal.
We can be sure the Senators are having the same internal discussion now. Placing Michalek on the second line would improve speed, size, defence, discipline and net presence over Foligno/Condra/Butler. If this were coupled with an improved Turricane and not too much regression with Alfie, improved possession metrics should follow.
Moving Michalek to the second line, however, would be a luxury afforded by some combination of Latendresse playing consistently to his potential or one of the young guns showing they're ready to complement Spezza by winning board battles, clogging the crease, sniping setups and making good puck decisions to drive possession. Many of the Sens prospects are projected to have these qualities on paper, so we all have to wait for training camp to see how close they are. While not a great playmaker, I would argue that Greening created space for the playmakers on the first line with speed, physical play and doing dirty work in the corners. My hope is that Zibanejad will fill this role with more skill.
On a side note, that Lats glory shot is worse than Sportsnet.ca advertising a link to 'body shots' with a naked women directing viewers to pictures of Jose Bautista.
Not following your logic on this one, Nichols. How does putting a puck-possession winger like Latendresse on a scoring line make that line better and putting a scoring winger on a puck-possession line keep it from being marginalized?
Can you elaborate on what you're saying?
@mparisi79 Of course, lost in this discussion is how exactly Peter Regin fits in moving forward. Can he be a center or is he better suited to playing the wing? Perhaps he's the good defensive forward/puck possession guy whose game is better suited to one of the top two lines.
It should be an awesome training camp/exhibition period for the Senators with plenty of intriguing names/stories to follow.
@mparisi79 I'll start by reiterating that I like Michalek as a good two-way forward who can contribute in both ends of the rink. He's fantastic on the backcheck and was an effective presence in front of the opposition's net last year.
Now with that being said, I'm admittedly not sold on what he did last season. I think it's a bit of an outlier.
Perhaps more importantly, I don't necessarily think that he needs Spezza centering him to produce numbers that are in line with his career norms. I think his up and down game, willingness to go to the net and speed allow him to produce independently of #19; especially if he produces on the PP. Conversely, his defensive aptitude may make him a better fit for the second line that is regularly used against the opposition's best players...
Or maybe I'm wrong and I'm overvaluing Latendresse (and am naive in thinking that he can stay healthy enough to contribute and be productive).I had a Twitter DM discussion with @wham_city and he's unconvinced that there's enough statistical evidence to prove that Latendresse is a better player at driving possession than Michalek.
It's a fair argument.
At the very least, I'm curious to see what he can do and I'd be hopeful that a few players will get an opportunity to play with Spezza in camp and the exhibition season. We'll have to wait to find out what kind of player Latendresse can be for Ottawa, but today's piece featured some spitballing on my part - designed to drive some discussion during these boring days.
My main concern is that Alfie's puck possession skills are a crutch when Spezza's not going and when he gets bumped to the top line, Turris' line suffers. (Granted, Alfie getting bumped often happens when Ottawa's down in the score.) Hopefully players like Silfverberg or a Latendresse could help in that regard so there isn't that temptation to use Alfie.
I've always felt that a deeper team is a more dangerous one if it's not all front-loaded.