Alex Ovechkin protects the puck from big-bodied shutdown defenseman Erik Karlsson
Nearly a month ago, I asked what the Senators blueline would look like without Anton Volchenkov and Andy Sutton. Well, with the trade for David Rundblad and the signing of Sergei Gonchar, we have part of the puzzle figured out, but something that worries me is that Ottawa has gone from one extreme (not enough offensive defensemen) to the other (not enough defensemen capable in their own zone).
For the sake of this argument, I'll assume that prospects Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch do not make the big club at the start of the season. As it stands, Ottawa has one-way contracts given to Chris Phillips, Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Matt Carkner, and Brian Lee. That's five out of six spots used up already, but that ignores Erik Karlsson (who is, of course, a lock on the back end) and Chris Campoli (a Restricted Free Agent who is headed to arbitration).
Regardless of which combination of Campoli/Lee/Carkner is playing at a given time, the problems on the blueline become immediately apparent when one thinks about the team's top-four at even strength or the penalty kill pairings.
Looking to the top-four, all of Gonchar, Kuba, and Karlsson can be considered marginal defensive players at this point. Though one can pair up with Phillips to help protect the goaltender, there will always be some combination (Gonchar/Karlsson, Kuba/Gonchar, etc) that has the potential of being eaten alive by other team's top-six forwards. I suppose there is always the option of spreading an offensive defenseman across all pairings (Gonchar on the first, Karlsson the second, Kuba the third), but that still leaves Karlsson or Gonchar playing with Campoli or Lee, neither of whom are known for being strong in front of the goalkeeper.
The same problem is made even more noticeable when you consider the penalty-kill -- Phillips and Carkner are clearly capable of blocking shots and playing a man short, and Kuba is adequate, but I don't feel safe with Karlsson, Campoli, Gonchar or Lee trying to defend that extra attacker.
These concerns about next year only get worse in the near future, as Chris Phillips' contract is set to expire at the end of the season Though the Senators will certainly be inclined to sign him again (and I sincerely hope they do), they'll also have David Rundblad and Patrick Wiercioch who are both expected to be ready for the big league, and both bring a decidedly offensive outlook to the team. Gonchar, Karlsson, Wiercioch, Rundblad, Kuba, Lee, Campoli... thank goodness that Jared Cowen and Eric Gryba are prospects that could prove to be strong bodies on the backend, because otherwise
Pascal Leclaire Brian Elliott Robin Lehner is liable to have players run him over every shift.
I like that GM Bryan Murray is trying to address the team's lack of mobility on the back end, however I'm not sure it should come at the expense of solid defensive play. Yes, the Penguins won the Cup with Gonchar, but they also had Gill and Scuderi. Sure, the Hawks won in part because of excellent puckmoving defensemen, but Keith and Seabrook are just as capable in their own zone. Let's hope that the Senators manage to take a decidedly offensive-minded crop of defensemen and develop some effective defensive skills, or this could be a team that allows as many goals as it puts up.