As an Ottawa Senators fan, you probably spend a lot of time yelling at clouds.
You know the ones I'm talking about. The dark, ominous clouds that always seem to loom over Ottawa’s team: there is never enough money, our window is always closing, and the hockey establishment is forever against us. And so we shake our fists and yell, and the rest of the hockey world laughs.
It seems like we've been doing a lot of yelling at a lot clouds of late. To begin with, it was a difficult offseason for Senators fans. For instance, we didn’t cope particularly well with the death of God (or his relocation to Detroit, or whatever). Moreover, an ownership situation that seemed rock-solid in April has become a real source of worry. It is widely acknowledged that the team payroll is too small to support a sustained cup-challenge, and based on the message put out by the organization, there is not much hope of reprieve on that front. With a number of big contracts coming up for renewal in the next year or two, there is good cause for some furrowed brows amongst fans.
Still, despite our offseason woes, Senators fans were pretty excited to see what this team could do with some new additions and its star players back and (reportedly) healthy. There were a few worrying signs in an opening-night win against Buffalo, but they were mostly chalked up to "rust" and "chemistry" issues. The Senators even got out to a 4-2 lead in Toronto in their second game. Then everything went wrong. And I mean everything: bad turnovers, stupid penalties, awful defensive lapses, poor penalty killing … the list goes on and on. Our "shots against/shots for" over the last three games is 139/79, which looks disturbingly like a blood pressure reading showing hypertension (a diagnosis that will be all too common in Ottawa if the current level of play is maintained).
All of this has, of course, led to panic amongst the Senators faithful. Radio, Twitter, and comment forums are inundated with the hysterical ravings of Senators fans looking for someone or something to blame:
DARK CLOUDS! A STORM IS COMING! DOOM! THE TEAM IS MOVING TO SEATTLE! WE TRADED A LOTTERY PICK! PULL ANDY! TRADE SPEZZA! CALL UP ZIBANEJAD! BENCH NEIL! NEIL FOR CAPTAIN! DRUMS IN THE DEEP.
My first inclination is to join in. But as much as Sunday night's Anaheim game made me want to tear off my clothes, smear myself in chicken blood, and run naked through the streets screaming about the Senspocalypse, the truth is that it is still early days, and there is no need to panic just yet. So would you please stop yelling at those clouds, come in off the lawn, put some goddamned pants on, and let "Roger" fix you a nice cup of piping hot Ovaltine and tell you how everything is going to be okay?
The fact is, we probably hit rock bottom some time right around the Neil penalty at the end of the Anaheim game. I won’t guarantee anything, but a rational look at the facts tells me that things are about to take a turn for the better.
First, there can be little doubt that the Senators will profit from the end of their current road trip. A six-game road trip to start the season is never easy, since it robs the team of a chance to build some confidence playing in front of the home fans. This particular road trip was especially difficult, with the quality of the opposition being unusually high: as of Monday night the combined record of the four teams that have beaten the Senators is 18-4.
As our own B_T highlighted in his preview of this week’s games, the Senators’ next three opponents are not the powerhouses that the last three have been. Moreover, after one final stop in Phoenix, the team finally gets to come home and play its long-awaited home opener on Thursday. That doesn’t guarantee anything, and the team has a lot to figure out before we can be confident about its chances going into any game, but a homestand against some relatively weaker teams will make things easier.
In the meantime, the Senators’ extremely capable management and coaching team will not be sitting idle. Bryan Murray is talking about making changes, and Paul MacLean has already been active on that front. Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s struggles did not go unnoticed, and he was effectively benched on Sunday night. Bobby Ryan was moved to the far-more-successful Turris line. Robin Lehner was given a chance and single-handedly started a goalie controversy in less than 24 hours. Bigger changes are probably on the horizon. We can probably also expect to see Jim O’Brien and Mika Zibanejad before too long (say…Thursday?). Other adjustments will be made until the on-ice product improves. While not everything can be fixed easily or quickly, it is perfectly reasonable to hold some faith that the reigning Jack Adams-winning coach can right some early-season wrongs.
Stupid penalties are sure to be a major focus. Some penalties are unavoidable because the margins between a penalty and a good defensive play are razor slim (think of Wiercioch's interference penalty on Sunday). Some are just bad luck, like Lehner’s double-minor against San Jose. Others, like your average hooking call, are the product of a player or team being outskated and outplayed. These are all hard to do anything about (at least, without bringing in faster players), and are unlikely to disappear any time soon. But it is the stupid ones that are the problem, and it is the stupid ones that provide a hope for improvement. The Senators have taken a lot of these, with Chris Neil being the most frequent offender and Jason Spezza being the most surprising (and disappointing). You can bet that Paul MacLean will address these plays. And in that, there is hope.
Despite everything, there is also a lot of reason to be optimistic about the future. We have two great goalies. Kyle Turris has emerged as perhaps the best second line centre in franchise history, and Clarke MacArthur has emerged as a (possession) force on his wing. Patrick Wiercioch has struggled at times, but has also shown the potential to be a very good NHL player. And despite your greatest fears, there is no reason to doubt that Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson will continue to heal and get more comfortable on the ice, and will eventually return to playing like the world-class players that they are.
The crux of things is this: put this team on home ice, subtract a few penalties per game, and add two of the best players in the world playing to their potential, and suddenly things don’t look so bad.
The financial issues clouding the team’s future are not going away any time soon, but that storm is not going to arrive for a while. In the meantime, Senators fans need to keep their peckers up: there are plenty of blue skies on the horizon.