August Rush… To Get It Over With

For the past few weeks, the struggle to find pertinent and entertaining Senators news stories has reminded me of last summer’s Dany Heatley situation. Like an honest Heatley explanation, nothing seems to be forthcoming. Unless yesterday’s news that Rick Wamsley has been hired as the team’s new goaltending coach quenches your thirst for Senators information. (Ed. note: Frankly, it saddens me. That’s not to say that I have anything against the guy who’s best known for being a throw in in that infamous Douggie Gilmour to Toronto trade. It’s just that with Wamsley’s hiring, it essentially puts an end to the John Stevenson Bad Hair Era in Ottawa. RIP – July 28th, 2010.)

In a one-sport town like Ottawa it’s been unquestionably difficult to fill the pages and appease this city’s hockey starved fanatics. It’s the days like these that really makes me wonder whether this offseason has been one of the worst from a coverage perspective in team history. If last summer was the Summer of Heatley, this year it’s the Summer of Refurbished Associated Press Clippings. The same mundane stories seem to get recirculated from the mainstream media, to the forums and alternative media websites. When much of the offseason focus is drawn towards the incumbent fourth liners and the prospects who are trying to push them for a roster spot, it’s no wonder that stories like the Jason Spezza trade request and Fisher/Underwood are getting so much run. There’s simply not that much else to discuss…

It’s for this reason that it has become clear that in retrospect, last summer’s Heatley saga came as a blessing in disguise. No, not for the fans who had to endure watching their city and franchise have their images be dragged through the mud by a selfish malcontent who refused to leave the comfort of his Kelowna home. Thanks to the powers of social networking, the internet and the general dickheadedness of most (if not all) Maple Leaf fans, we had to endure the wrath and teasing that comes naturally when a star player wants to leave the market. And after years of watching the likes of Chara, Hossa, Havlat, Heatley and Randy Robitaille leave, Sens fans have justifiably been very sensitive about having Ottawa labelled as a city where no one wants to play.

So although this summer’s been generally devoid of drama and storylines, fans should be loving it. However, for the writers or anyone who attempts to cover this team on a consistent basis, it’s been agonizing. I miss the fact that last summer, for every day and in seemingly every publication, there was some content worthy of discussion. 

Thankfully, with each passing day, we’re this much closer to the start of training camp. And with the official announcement that Kurt Kleinendorst has taken over the head coaching duties for the Binghamton Senators, everything seems set. The roster and the coaching staffs are in place. \(Ed. note: And if you needed further evidence that the hockey season is almost here, Twitter fiend, Dany Heatley Speedwagon has demonstrated that he can write more than 140 characters.)

With everything lined up, perhaps there’s no better opportunity to present my list of 20 reasons to be excited about the Senators for the 2010/11 season.

Without further ado…

1) Milan Michalek’s ACL

It’s not often that someone would get excited about the return of a player coming off major knee surgery. However, Milan’s no ordinary player. He stated this week that he has resumed skating and he firmly believes that he will be ready for the start of training camp. What makes matters interesting is that Milan had a hard time skating on two legs last season. Whenever he would carry the puck into the offensive zone, he had a tendency to inexplicably fall on his own accord. Imagine what he can do on one leg? The combination of unintentional comedy and frustration that will come from Milan’s return is going to be off the charts. I can’t wait.

2) Contract Years

With their contracts set to expire on July 1st , 2011. The trio of Alexei Kovalev, Chris Phillips and Pascal Leclaire are headed towards important seasons. In the case of Phillips, he’ll be counted upon to be a steadying presence on the blueline. Will the loss of his former defensive partner – Anton Volchenkov – to free agency adversely affect him? Will he be able to transition smoothly to his new partner? Will he take a hometown discount to remain a lifelong Senator?

Given the circumstances, many will lazily look at Kovalev’s impending unrestricted free agent status and say something along the lines of, “He’s a Russian entering a contract year. Of course he’ll be better this season.”  Looking past his free agent status, a deeper look at Kovalev’s numbers reveal some consistency. In four of the past five seasons, Kovalev has put up a varying 65, 84, 65 and 49 total points. However, in these same seasons he’s produced 32, 35, 31 and 35 even strength points respectively.If the addition of Sergei Gonchar can help return Kovalev to his previous power play point norms, there’s reason to assume that he can turn into the prominent power play specialist that this team needs. And if he doesn’t, whatever. He’s gone at the end of the year anyways and management can use the $5 million in cap savings to improve the team.

Between his performance against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals and the aforementioned hiring of Rick Wamsley, I may have some naive beliefs that he can return to the form that he once exhibited during that one glorious season in Columbus. Naturally, this belief will leave me once Leclaire inevitably hits the IR for the first time this year with some minor injury. Regardless, this season may be one of Leclaire’s final opportunities to establish that he can be a reliable number one starter in the league.

3) Chris Kelly’s Hockey IQ

I have to admit, I’m never going to be the president for the Ottawa chapter of the Chris Kelly fanclub. Mainly for the reason that his IQ, much like Mike Fisher’s heavy shot or Wade Redden’s first pass, is vastly overstated. It’s just one of those things that the mainstream media love to talk about. I call it the Gord Wilson effect. I can’t help but feel like almost every NHL team has a checking line center like him. Or maybe the over saturation of the topic has made me take his hockey mensa for granted. Regardless, he deserves some sort of credit for carrying Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Neil to one of their most productive seasons ever.

Which leads me to…

4) Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu

Gritty. An unnerving ability to get under the skin of their oppenents. These two third liners have a lot in common. Yet, despite these similarities, these players have some important differences. For one thing, Chris Neil never has any idea for why he is the recipient of a penalty call. Every call against Neil ends with the infamous Chris Neil Penalty Face. (Ed. note: A mixed look of incredulty and confusion. Like he just found out that he made a terrible financial investment. The result? Priceless.) Ruutu, on the other hand, often heads off to the box smiling. Proud of what the referee didn’t see him do. On the ice, you know exactly what you’re going to get from Neil — veteran leadership and those raising the roof gestures that come after each one of fights on home ice. With Ruutu, you never know what he’s capable of doing out there. Whether he’s biting fingers or inciting Adam Mair, I wonder how Luke Richardson lives with himself knowing that it’s a joke that Ottawa has to protect Ruutu all season long.

5) A Fixed Power Play

For anyone who watched the majority of the team’s games last season, one of the most frustrating things to watch was the ineptitude of the power play. (Ed. note: Or Ryan Shannon’s inability to put the puck in the net.) With a 16.9% success rate, the Senators finished the season tied for the 22nd worst rate in the league. There’s some hope that the continued development of Erik Karlsson and the inclusion of Gonchar can dramatically improve matters. If not, maybe Greg Carvel, who has exhibited an uncanny OJ Simpson’esque ability to escape judgment, will eventually be held accountable.

6) More Carrie Underwood

…because I could totally dig more Don Brennan Sun exclusives. 

7) The Media
Ah, the local media. The bane of many a Sens fan’s existence. Case in point: The Ottawa Sun’s sports editor, Tim Baines, felt compelled to write this entry on his own blog in response to the criticisms that his newspaper received over the course of this summer. (Ed. note: Thank you to whomever felt compelled to plug our podcasts in Tim Baines’ comment section.) In some circles, the the media members of this fair city are portrayed as villains for some of the stories and angles that they sometimes pursue. Is it fair? Probably not but I do get a kick out of it.

8) Eugene Melnyk

Last season, The Euge criticized Jim Balsillie for the way that he tried to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and get into the NHL’s version of the gentleman’s club. The season before he encouraged anybody that says we should blow up this organization should get their own bomb and blow themselves up.

It all begs the question: What will The Euge say this season?

9) Mike Fisher

If Mike was a NFL player, he’s likely the kind of toolsy player who would have seen his draft stock soar during the combine workouts that take place before the Entry Draft. Size and speed? Mike has both. Strength? Fish has it in spades. The Wonderlic test? He somehow managed to wheel Carrie Underwood. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here.

Unfortunately, Mike’s never been able to put it all together. He’s forever been a tease of talent. It’s the reason why Bryan Murray gave him that big contract following the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. Like Murray, we all expected him to get better and get to that 30 goal and 60 point thresholds that he should be capable of. Take last year for example, Mike had set himself up to shatter his previous high in points. (Albeit, he still did post career marks.) Early in the year, the game had slowed down for him. He was holding onto the puck that extra split-second and allowed himself to make the smarter and better play. However, towards the latter stages of the season, he reverted into that robotic player that we’ve all grown accustomed to. You know, the one who skates down the wing as quickly as possible. Then he puts everything into his shot. Which almost always misses high and wide. Without skipping a beat, Fish skates into the corner to retrieve the puck and either hits the defenceman with as much force as possible to create a turnover or chases the puck possesor down the length of the ice… and repeat.

Every year I keep thinking that maybe this will be the year that Mike breaks out. Fortunately if he doesn’t, there’s always next year.

10) Peter Regin

Without any leverage, Regin essentially had to come to terms with what management was offering before his arbitration hearing. Inked to a two-year, $1 million per annum deal, we can now enjoy the next two years knowing that we have a cost effective offensive contributor who can play on the top line. Will Regin be able to continue the play that he exhibited in the playoffs? Will his highlight reel goals translate into more production? Regardless, he’s the best homegrown offensive forward that this organization has drafted since Jason Spezza.

11) Alfie!

The captain’s point production has dropped for the third consecutive season, but that doesn’t mean he’s done. As the consummate team player, when he’s not contributing on the ice, he’s ensuring that Erik Karlsson is tucked in past past bedtime. Am I concerned that his willingness to play through significant injuries (Ed. note: like last year’s sports hernia) will take its toll? Absolutely, but that doesn’tmean that I’m not going to stop tuning in to watch him play.

12) The Eastern Conference

Has anyone else noticed that the rest of the Eastern Conference hasn’t really improved much? Besides the expected improvements from young teams that are building from within (Ed. note: the Isles, Lightning, the Leafs and to a lesser extent, Atlanta.), no team in the East has resolved the question marks that stemmed from last season. Philadelphia still lacks a goalie. Washington’s roster is riddled with flakes. Pittsburgh continues to surround its number one center with two bad wingers that makes Ottawa’s old Ministry of Offence line look good by comparison.

13) An Offensive Blueline

“It’s great to block shots but I would like the other team to block shots. And you do that by having the puck, helping your forwards get the attack going and by being creative, particularly from the (defence).”
~ Bryan Murray

Gone are the physical prowess and shot blocking ability of Anton Volchenkov and Andy Sutton. I’m sure at some point this season, I’m going to miss their qualities. However, I can tell you right now, I’m not going to miss them doing their best Omar Khadr impersonations and pass the puck around like it’s a grenade.

In their place, an emphasis has been placed on a quick puck moving style that should help facilitate the transition game. Sergei Gonchar and a healthy Filip Kuba will assume A-Train and Sutton’s roster spots. Add in growth and maturity of Erik Karlsson, who’s entering his sophomore year, can only help. (Ed. note: Please no sophomore slump. Please no sophomore slump. Please no sophomore slump.)

Although this summer’s moves do leave the team a little light in the grit and physicality department, it’s indicative that Bryan Murray and the rest of the braintrust feel that it’s cheaper and easier to acquire a defensively inclined blueliner than it is to overpay to retain the services of Volchenkov and Sutton. Whether this philosophical change will positively impact the team’s success on the ice, remains to be seen, however, this change in direction of the blueline has me intrigued. At the very least, there should be hope that this new up-tempo style will translate into a more entertaining style that sees the team score more goals. And if it doesn’t, the blame will lie directly on management’s shoulders.

14) December 2nd

Sometimes it’s a little hard to believe that we cared this much about a player who plays the game like he’s the right-winger on a table top hockey game. Skating in straight lines. Avoiding the corners. Useless once the puck is out of the offensive zone. Dany Heatley, what a beaut. It’s weird how when he left, it struck me that for a player who lit the lamp quite as frequently as he did, we never really knew a thing about this guy. Players like Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Chris Phillips, Marian Hossa… I feel like I know these guys and what they’re all about. With Heatley, I never had the same connection. As the December 2nd date approaches, the amount of animosity and media coverage is going to be incredible. And that’s before we experience the crowd reactions and the game outcome. Hopefully he’s healthy enough to play when the time comes around.

15) Filip Kuba

If Filip Kuba were on the dating market, he’d clearly be in the friend zone. He’s not the kind of player who you’re going to lose a lot of sleep over if he leaves town. (And for good reason.) Despite his relative size (6’4″, 226 lbs.), he rarely asserts himself physically against the opposition. Instead, he relies upon strong positioning and he can best be described as one of those players who does things well but nothing exceptionally well. He’s the kind of player who people can often take for granted very easily. He’s like a third or fourth starter in a baseball rotation. A Jeff Suppan if you will. He may never be a flashy or dominating player, but at least you can count on Kuba to log meaningful minutes on the second pairing without it really ever hurting the team.

16) Jason Spezza

With Jason Spezza, there’s always a littany of factors surrounding him. Take last offseason for example when I predicted that by trading Dany Heatley, Jason’s dependency on his right-winger would diminish and cause him to develop into a more complete and dynamic center that this team needed. As Ottawa’s highest paid player, expectations are always exceedingly high for the number one center. Will he be able to make the players around him better? Will he stop overthinking and investing so much energy into wondering how he is portrayed and focus more on hockey? If he can avoid the nagging back injuries that have plagued him, can he put together his best season? Can he do all of this while everyone’s holding their collective breath until the first instance when Jason turns the puck over to see how the fans and media react? Will they come down on him harshly? Or will some early season success create a groundswell of support that could push a Keep Spezza Rally to over 15 gatherers? Now that his NTC is in full effect, how Jason handles the criticisms moving foward is paramount to this team’s future success.

So for a player who so desperately wants to be the man, Spezza has a real opportunity here. If he can put all of these distractions behind him and become the player that we all expect him to be (Ed. note: Stevie Yzerman. Hello!), he can forever change his reputation. If he can’t and decides to follow in the footsteps of Dany Heatley, he would simply be reinforcing the stereotypes that have plagued him his entire career. Either way, I’ll be watching.

17) Bryan Murray

Regardless of how you feel about Ottawa’s general manager, you can’t deny that he can surprise you with a trade or signing. Unfortunately, like most NHL GMs, his transactions have come with some mixed results. Although it’ll be some time before we can properly evaluate whether or not it was prudent to move high draft picks for the likes of Chris Campoli, Mike Comrie, Andy Sutton and Matt Cullen, the acquisition of David Rundblad already looks like it’s paying dividends. Considering that the player who St. Louis drafted with Ottawa’s 16th overall selection, Vladimir Tarasenko, has apparently signed a contract to play in the KHL.

Even if you can’t overlook some of Murray’s mistakes, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that through some strong drafts and some inexpensive collegiate free agents, on paper, this is the best collection of depth that the Senators have seen at the professional level (Ed. note: both NHL and AHL) in years.

18) The Cupboard Is Full

With the amount of depth and prospects who are on the cusp of cracking the big squad’s roster, one of the most prevalent stories heading into camp is the expectation that the likes of Patrick Wiercioch, Bobby Butler, Roman Wick, Jared Cowen, Robin Lehner, Eric Gryba, David Hale, Corey Locke and Cody Bass (Ed. note: remember him?) will push some of the incumbent veterans. (Ed. note: And who knows? Maybe Jim O’Brien will make an appearance.)

Like in every season, injuries are bound to occur. But unlike in years past, we no longer have to worry about filling the void with John Muckler remnants like Josh Hennessy.

As an aside, I’m excited about the possibility that Jared Cowen could make a case for himself at camp. By all accounts, he had a strong rookie development camp and now that’s he’s more than a year removed from his ACL surgery. Prior to his injury, he had the pedigree of being an expected top five draft selection and now that he’s had a summer to do the proper strength and conditioning on his healthy knee, more should be expected of him. With Chris Campoli having signed a one-year contract, a defenceman roster spot is only being kept warm for him.

19) Cory Clouston

With any coach, you’re going to have your armchair cynics. It’s not uncommon to find fans who critique his constant line juggling or the handling of the goaltenders. But you can’t ignore Clouston’s results. Since being promoted to the head coaching position, he has gotten them. Even in light of last year’s injuries and the loss of a two-time 50-goal scorer, Clouston managed to lead his club to a 5th place finish in the Eastern Conference. With any luck, he’ll have Ottawa competing for the Northeast Division crown.

20) …Because There’s Nothing Else to Talk About?

We live in Ottawa. What else is there to get excited about? Public transportation? A new mayoral election? The return of CFL football? Help me out here.

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