With their 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning last night, the Ottawa Senators have arrived at the half-way point of the 2011-12 season. Virtually no one predicted the team would be as successful as they have been: A 21-15-5 record has Ottawa sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference (although they've played more games than just about any other team in the East), with a high-powered offence often covering up for defensive gaffes and sometimes-poor goaltending.
With the first half of the season in the books, it makes sense to take a look at the individual performances of the players on the Senators, and look at who's been good, who needs to improve, and who we're likely to see the best second-half from. After the jump, check out our 2011-12 Mid-Term Report Card for the Ottawa Senators.
Grades for each player is based on a compilation of factors. Most important is the player's performance to date as compared to how he was expected to do, but also factoring in are that player compared to similar players in the same role on other teams and the player's importance to team success.
Alfie's defying his age with his play this season, and that reality has been a huge reason for Ottawa's emergence as a two-line team for the first time in a long time. His health has mostly held out so far, and in 35GP he's already scored 31P (13G, 18A)--equaling his point total from last season, but last year it took him 54GP to do so. He's headed to the All-Star Game once again, and is a lock to be a team captain, and definitely deserves the honour.
Anderson's season started quite poorly, and he's periodically put in some stinkers since then--games against Pittsburgh in November and Montreal in December spring to mind--but in general, his numbers are improving steadily. Still, with a save percentage barely at 90 and a goals-against average over three, he's got a ways to go to meet the lofty expectations of him based on his play last season. But things are looking up: He won the Molson Cup in December, and his game on Thursday clawed his goals-against average above 90% for the first time this season.
He was brought in to give Anderson a bit of support in the crease, but Auld is having his worst season statistically as a professional goaltender and hasn't helped this team at all so far. His save percentage is just 87.5, and his goals-against average is closer to four than it is to three--basically, it's terrible. Auld didn't even win a game until December 16, and even in that game he allowed four goals. If there's one positive, though, it's that Auld has never been this bad--which leads me to believe his second half will be markedly improved.
After a great second half and Calder Cup run, Butler was expected to join the Senators as a top-line player and provide reasonably consistent offensive production playing alongside Jason Spezza. Those expectations were probably too much, but the fact remains that Butler has been surpassed on the depth chart by just about every other player on the NHL roster, and even some guys who were slotted for an AHL roster spot (including Kaspars Daugavins). I don't think it's too much to say that the biggest factor in Butler's continued spot on the NHL roster is his one-way contract. The reasons he's receiving a passing grade are twofold: First, he's taken the demotion in stride, and honestly appears to be working hard to do what Paul MacLean is asking of him; and second, his play has been slightly better lately.
Carkner hasn't had much of an opportunity this season, but he's playing about as well as was expected so far. He's only taken one minor penalty this season, proving he can play solid, physically imposing defence without putting the team short-handed. His Corsi rating isn't great, but he's quickly compiling blocked shots and hits you expect from a bottom-pairing defenceman. He's not yet trusted with much short-handed is time per game, but as he gets into mid-season shape (he was very late to start the season, after all), I expect that responsibility to increase.
AnaCondra started the season on the third line, mostly as a role player with a huge role on the penalty kill. Recently, though, he's caught the favour of MacLean with his play and was bumped up to the second line with Alfredsson and Kyle Turris--and fits in quite well there. Along with his positive Corsi rating is his team-leading plus-minus rating of +10, and a solid 16P (7G, 9A) in 40GP so far.
Cowen has certainly been one of the most pleasantly surprising players on the Sens' roster this season, not just with his strong defensive play but also his 11P (4G, 7A) so far. His strength is incredible, and seeing him out-muscle much more experience players like a wily veteran is pretty fun to watch. His play was especially remarkable while the team was without Kuba and Sergei Gonchar, but since then his role (and, interestingly, his success) has tailed off to some degree. Still, he's been great for the team so far, and his emergence likely factored into the decision to trade David Rundblad.
Few would have expected Daugavins to play much of the season for the Senators, and he didn't start the season in Ottawa. But when he was recalled, Daugavins forged a place for himself on the roster with some energetic and--more importantly--defensively responsible play on the third and fourth lines, not to mention his role on the penalty kill. He won't blow anyone away with his finesse, but unless something drastic happens you can be pretty certain Daugavins will stick around in Ottawa.
It's been a great season for Foligno, and he's on pace to shatter his career high in goals, assists, and points. His best success seemed to come during his short stint as a centreman, but he's still doing well on the wing. One area for improvement, though, is his work on the powerplay: Despite being a regular on the second powerplay unit and averaging more than a minute per game on the man-up, he only has a single point (a goal) with the man advantage. Ottawa's powerplay efficiency is near the middle of the pack in the league, but it's heavily weighted towards the first unit; if Foligno can make the second unit more potent, the Sens' success would pick up even more.
It's been one heck of a bounce back season for Gonchar, and his improvement has mostly been at even-strength. He's close to matching his point totals from last season in half as many games, and more than half of those points are at even strength. He's playing better defensively, too, and looks a lot more like the guy Bryan Murray expected when he signed him to that three-year, $16.5M contract in 2010.
Greening started the season like a bat out of hell, but slowed down significantly since then--and has been bumped off the first line and well down the lineup in the process. He's still having a good season offensively, but has fallen well out of discussions for the Calder Trophy (which were premature, anyway). He's developing into a great power forward but, as could be expected, ins't there yet.
I don't think much needs to be said about Karlsson, really. He has been the best player on the team all season, and is likely the most important part of the Senators' offensive breakout this season. The offence regularly revolves around the young defender, and he's the go-to guy on the powerplay and in overtime. He's leading all defencemen in the league in scoring, has a ridiculously high Corsi rating on the year, and has been the team's best all-around defenceman. His production has improved steadily in his first two seasons, but season three is a breakout year on his road to becoming among the league's elite offensive defencemen.
Many were unsure of Konopka's place on the team when he was signed in the off-season, but he's come in and become a solid fourth-line faceoff specialist and enforcer. To start the season he seemed to think he'd have to fight nearly every game, but since concentrating more on his play with the gloves on his game has improved. He's scored three goals, which is surprising, and is on pace for a career-high in goals and points. The biggest thing for Konopka, though, is his faceoffs: He doesn't take that many (he's fourth on the team in overall faceoffs taken), but his winning percentage is tops in the league, and he takes plenty of important draws, especially while the team is short-handed.
An odds-on favourite for most improved player from last season, Kuba's been remarkably important to the success of the Senators this season. He's second on the team in TOI/game this year, behind only Karlsson, and is tops among Sens for SH TOI/game. But he's also putting up points, with 3G and 7A so far. He's second on the team in blocked shots and as critical as people are (myself included) about his aversion to hitting, he still keeps his opponents in check effectively. He's certainly improved his value on the trade market, but in the process he's raised plenty of questions about whether or not the Sens should consider trading him at all, considering how important he's been to the team's first-half success.
Lee has had moments of strength this season, but still hasn't shown himself to be a player the Senators need in the lineup on a given night. Despite his size, he still seems to struggle containing players and clearing the front of the net, and his decision-making is often suspect. He still leaves us wanting the same Brian Lee who stepped into the 2008-09 Senators and played some very solid hockey. (Tellingly, Lee played more ice time per game in 2009, as a 21-year-old, than he's playing this season as a 24-year-old.)
This year's been a breakout season for Michalek, too, at least as a goal scorer. With 19G already, he's well on his way to setting a new career high in goals, but Michalek needs to work on his consistency, and will probably have to fight through a lot this season as people continue zeroing in on him as the goal-scorer on his line. Still, his play this season--especially early on--was integral in powering Ottawa to the playoff spot they sit in today.
Neiler's having a strong season this year, whether playing on the team's third or fourth line. His stats are about in line with his career average (although they're one pace to be better than last season, and are already better than 2008-09), but his impact on the outcome of games has perhaps never been greater. Although it's far from a nightly thing, Neil regularly provides a big hit, a dominating shift, or even a strong fight to energize his teammates and push them back into the game.
Big Rig Phillips is having a better season than he did last year, but that was a virtual certainty given how abysmal he was last year. Solid play by all of Gonchar, Kuba, and Karlsson has bumped Phillips down to the second (and sometimes the third) pairing in the lineup, which is pretty well where he fits today. But it's safe to say the Senators can expect more from Phillips: He's fifth among defencemen in TOI/game, and averages less than even rookie Jared Cowen does per game. He plays lots on the penalty kill, though (and has two short-handed assists, notably), and leads the team in blocked shots and is right up there in hits.
I'm not sure what Regin did to earn such bad luck, but he's certainly paying for it. A shoulder injury has likely sidelined him for the rest of the season, leaving him with just 10 games played this season. He played well in those games, but competition for the second-line centre position has only heated up while he's been rehabbing his shoulder injury.
If there's a more surprising success for the Senators this season than Z. Smith, I can't think of him. He's already scored 12G, which is more than most people expected he'd get through the whole season--and we're just at the halfway point. His play on the team's third line has made it a legitimate threat every game, and his contributions on the penalty kill have been very important. He's also really helped fans forget about Mike Fisher by replacing a lot of what the fan favourite used to bring to the team--with a little bit more edginess, to boot. It's hard to predict what Z. Smith's career potential is, but he sure is looking good right now--and this year will be his first full NHL season.
The only player who rivals Karlsson in importance to this team is Spezza. He's on pace to have his best season since 2008, with 41P (15G, 26A) in 41GP. He's got a terrific Corsi rating, has been integral in gaining and retaining pressure in the offensive zone, and it probably playing the best all-around hockey of his career. He does still have some minor blemishes to his game, hence the imperfect grade, but his leadership in taking this team on his back is extremely impressive.
It's been a short semester for Turris so far, but he's slowly re-gaining his confidence, skills, seasoning, and comfort level at the NHL level. He has six points in just eight games with the Sens, and three of those are in the last three games. His presence offers stability on the second line, lets them match up nicely against most team's second lines, and balances the top six forwards on the team. I'm of the opinion that the best is yet to come for Turris, but so far he's done quite well.
Winchester's been almost as unlucky as Peter Regin over the last couple of seasons, although not quite. It's tough to grade him on his shortened semester this first half of the season, but working in his favour is the stability he offers to the fourth line, his penalty-killing abilities, and pretty solid point totals considering his ice time.