To kick off the week following Sunday's win over the Boston Bruins, Senators GM Bryan Murray made an appearance on yesterday afternoon's edition of The Drive.
During the course of the interview, Murray discussed a variety of topics including: Spezza's health, avoiding the Penguins, Chris Neil's fight with Milan Lucic, and their first-round playoff opponents.I
if you wish to listen to the full interview you can do so here, or via streaming the embedded audio below.
As always, my thoughts in bold.
On being gratified and satisfied on making the playoffs…
“Well, I think that’s the biggest thing of all. Not many people early in the year picked us to be in the top eight (in the Eastern Conference). I think there was some insinuation that maybe we kind of fluked our way in a year ago and then to have all of the injuries that happened over the course of time, it’s really… it is gratifying. It’s really pleasing, from my point of view, to see a young group like this get in and play so well down the stretch, really.”
Can you really blame the pundits for their skepticism?
The 2011/12 Senators were a team that was blessed by good health and career years by its best offensive players and they still finished eighth in the Eastern Conference. Assuming that just one or both of these factors would not go the team’s way, it was completely reasonable for people to expect this team to have difficulty replicating their success in 2012/13.
But, this team persevered and overcame injuries and the persistent lineup shuffling thanks to some great goaltending. Looking at Ottawa’s current goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson, the two combined to post a .940 save percentage at even strength and an absurd .933 save percentage while their team was killing a penalty. For those wondering how the Senators managed to go from: a) the 24th worst goals allowed per game rate in 2011/12 to the second best in 2013; and b) the 20th ranked PK unit to the league’s best; now you have your answer.
On any updates regarding Jason Spezza…
“Nothing really. Jason is going… he hasn’t skated for a couple of days. He’ll get back on the skates here and… he’s been doing a lot of work in the gym. We don’t know a timetable; whether anything positive will happen or not. We’re hoping that at some point, (he’ll return), but we just have to wait and see.”
According to the HNIC coverage from Saturday night, Spezza skated for the second consecutive day on Saturday morning, so at least it seems on the surface that some progress is being made.
On it being a minor miracle if Spezza becomes available in the first round…
“I would think so. He is working… I know he’s worked real hard in the gym with the medical people and our training staff but he hasn’t done, probably, enough skating yet to really tell if he can get back in the very near future. Until we see that happen, I don’t think Paul (MacLean) is inclined, even if (Jason) was ready, health-wise, to play to put him in until he’s thinks (Jason) is ready to play.”
With the emergence of the Zibanejad/Silfverberg line and Kyle Turris’ improved production despite gaining the attention of the opposition’s best defensive pairings, I’m already salivating at the prospective matchup problems that Spezza’s return would create.
On whether the extra day off will help the Senators…
“Well, we hope it does. We had a lot of games, as a lot of teams did, down the stretch. I think getting the extra day, Paul was able to let (the players) get away from the building totally today, come back to meet and practice tomorrow and then go to Montreal. But I think (the extra day) does (help). I think when you’re talking about some of the guys on our team in particular, with bumps and bruises, it gives them just a touch longer and that may be real beneficial.”
Having left Sunday’s game against Boston with a lower body injury, we already know that Chris Phillips is one player who is dealing with some sort of ailment. I don’t really know too much more regarding the status of Ottawa’s health but any length of time before the start of the series gives Spezza and Karlsson that much more time to get right, can only be good.
On Karlsson fast-tracking to the being an elite-level and person…
“Well, he’s an elite person, there’s no question, and an elite player. I think the day we drafted him, we saw that. He came and sat at the table with the scouting staff and myself for two days and greeted each and every draft (pick) that we made over the term of the two-day period. So you knew something special was there, but for him to make the effort that he did to get back and play this year, after the accident or injury that he had, very definitely speaks volumes for him. As I say, he’s an elite player but an elite person and a special person as well. He cares greatly about this team and I think he’ll really step up come playoff time.”
Of the Senators’ 2008 draft class – Karlsson, Patrick Wiercioch, Zack Smith, Andre Petersson, Derek Grant, Mark Borowiecki and Emil Sandin – only Sandin has never played a game for the organization at the NHL-level. The Erik Karlsson Greeting Effect.
On Chris Neil stepping up against Milan Lucic…
“Lucic was running around a little bit; as a few of the Boston players were early. On the first goal, Condra got run real hard from the side by Boychuk and then Lucic took a run at, I think, Turris. And I think Neil addressed that and after that, the game settled down. Our good young players were able to play and it speaks, again, volumes about Chris Neil. I mean, it was a tough fight. Both guys hung in real hard. Certainly the last couple of punches that Chris threw settled down Lucic after that and (the Bruins) just played regular and we were able to play and of course, win the hockey game.”
Neil can fight and play functional minutes. What a concept!
On the Boston game being a character win and exemplifying the narrative of the whole season…
“Well, it did and again, right after the (Philadelphia game) where we certainly played better than Philadelphia did, we just for some reason, couldn’t find a way to score. I guess teams that play their second goaltenders against us must really question themselves because we make them look good some nights. But, we go in (Boston), and you’re right, we’re winning 2-0, playing a really good game and in seventeen seconds, the lead disappears and we find a way to hang tough and win. A couple of great plays at the blue line and a shot and a rebound, and those are the kinds of things that you have to have to win big games and going into the playoffs, it certainly sets us up fine.”
It’s a great point about the lead up to that Pageau goal. The speed and accuracy of the 85’ Methot and Karlsson passes that straddled the blue line were unbelievable.
On seeing a lot of north/south hockey when the team faces Montreal in the first round…
“I think so. It’s going to be a speed series. I think it will be the most fun series (to watch) probably of all them going on. I think both teams have real good character people. We move the puck really well. (Both teams) have stars on the blue line. It’s certainly going to require good goaltending, there’s no doubt about that. I think this is going to be exciting for the whole, you know, being that it’s Montreal in particular, exciting for this city here to step up now and help these guys -- being the great fans that we have here – to really step up and help motivate this team to win.”
On going into Montreal and it being a special feeling going in to play the Canadiens…
“It certainly is and the city of Montreal has been so supportive of the Canadiens and they have reason to have that happen. But for this franchise now, I think this is a real boost for us. I think maybe we’ll sell some tickets to the children of Canadiens fans that we can convert back into being Ottawa fans. I understand the Montreal fan. It’s been a traditional franchise and we have to earn that right and we want to do that by starting in this series.”
Bell Centre still looks the best on TV, and will look even better if they steal 1 and 2.
On how big the circle is around P.K. Subban’s name on the whiteboard…
“Well, I don’t think there’s anything… he’s a real fine player and he’s going to be a very important player for them. His mobility on the blue line and his shot really make him a guy that we need to focus on for defensive reasons for our sake. In turn, I think we’ve got our guy who, point-wise, will hopefully match that and more. But very definitely, he’s a good player and he tries to be physical and we’ll try and address that if need be. But, I think it’s going to be exciting because Subban is on one team and Erik is on the other.”
Subban vs. Karlsson is the established running narrative going into this, let's hope it lives up to the hype.
On the implications of divisional play next year and this playoff series upping the rivalry…
“Yeah, this is a great matchup for us and not only because Pittsburgh, on paper, are the team in the East that it looks like everybody is picking as a favorite but for us to be able to take one step better than last year, at least -- where we finished eighth last year – to move to seventh. We were one point out of fifth, I believe, so the growth of the organization is good but this exposure to Montreal, again, I believe is going to be real beneficial for us.”
On it taking six more years to finish in first place…
“No, I think that this is a… we kind of thought, three years, that when we started this a couple years back, we thought three years from now, we’ll be a playoff contender. We’re certainly ahead of schedule and hopefully this will really be a great growth time for us and after we win a couple of series in this few years playoffs, we’ll be real proud of what has happened here.”
In such a weird season in which key pieces of the lineup went missing, the most important takeaway from this year is already the amount of growth and development that this team’s young players have had. The fourteen rookies that Ottawa has used to this point, is astonishing and they have not been bit players either. Many of them have had key roles and have more than lived up to their billing. Whatever lessons learned and experience they gather in the playoffs will only help moving forward.
On avoiding Pittsburgh in the first round…
“Well, that certainly wasn’t our preferred matchup, put it that way. And we thought Saturday night, when we played the Flyers, we could have won that hockey game and then you kind of go into Sunday’s game with at least that in the back of your mind. But when we didn’t win Saturday night, I think there was a real sense of urgency to get where we got to at least. Whether it’s the right thing or not at the end of the day, we’ll see. Playing Pittsburgh right now, I think you get a round in and you feel better about your team and there’s a little growth in some of your younger players because of going through a series. And if we get to the next round then and meet them, I think we’ll handle it better.”
Winning a round would be real swell, six years is a long time ago.
On whether the Senators have had a young player from the summertime who Bryan didn’t expect to be here and have the impact that he has had thus far…
“No, I really thought Mika would make it. He’s really grown, there’s no question. I think at the start, we wondered if he should go back to Binghamton and play a little bit more. But he got better and better and has played well. As we say, we kind of felt Silfverberg would be NHL-ready and he hit a wall for a little while but now he’s back playing pretty well again. Wiercioch we projected and he wouldn’t have got the chance, I guess, had Cowen and Karlsson hadn’t of gotten hurt. But, he took the chance and really stepped forward. Eric Gryba, we didn’t think would be on our team right away. He came in and filled in and now he’s almost a regular in the lineup. So there’s no great surprise, but it’s very pleasing that a number of them have been able to do it.”
Patrick Wiercioch has been a revelation this season and considering his production, his decision-making abilities with the puck and his shot, he’s a great internal candidate that affords the organization the flexibility to re-think a decision on whether or not to pursue an extension with Sergei Gonchar; allowing the organization to allocate its payroll to fill a greater need.
On the job that the coaching staff has done in Binghamton…
“Well, the whole staff, Steve Stirling and Luke (Richardson) down there, they were just outstanding. They communicate, they push the kids, they encourage them. I really believe that he was very, very happy to lose some of those players to the NHL. Most coaches down there don’t want that to happen. They like to keep their lineup. But Luke has been very, very aggressive in getting guys ready to play for us and when they come up, they’re more than ready to play. So he’s done a terrific job, but it’s just unfortunate right now they are in a bit of a hole in the playoffs and they will have to bounce back. But I’m very, very happy with the coaching job and there’s no question (Richardson) has a future in this business, if he wants it.”
Again, 14 rookies have seamlessly made the transition to the Ottawa roster. Not enough credit can be given to the Binghamton coaching staff and the trainers and player development experts who have had a hand in their professional growth.
On an evaluation of Cory Conacher’s play thus far and the matchup with Montreal helping players like him and Pageau…
“Well, there’s no question Cory has a chance to be a good player in this league. The handicap of course is that he’s not a real big, strong guy, so we’re hoping his speed is an offset in this particular series. I guess it’s like every young player, just play a little better in your own end and the rest will take care of itself. Pageau is sort of different in that his game is head and hands. He’s so clever. He wins faceoffs for us. Maybe, if you’re talking about a surprise, he’s probably the one guy who’s a big surprise. We thought he was a good player when we drafted him. We thought for sure he’d have to play in the minors for a full year at least and have another summer of strength and conditioning. But, he has stepped in and after last night, we really like him a lot.”
It’s tough to evaluate Conacher based on such a small sample size of games, but there’s been enough evidence in his underlying numbers and play to suggest that he has the ability to stick as a top six forward.
That aerial pass he made to spring Erik Condra evoked memories of Forsberg and/or Kopitar.