WARNING: I thought 2500 words about things.
1) I think the narrative against Jared Cowen has reached new levels of both hilarity and absurdity. Erik Karlsson is playing some of the best hockey of his career alongside--yes--Jared Cowen, but don't tell that to those who have already made up their minds about Cowen being a bust. They'll jump onto statistical soapboxes to tell you that Karlsson is playing great despite Cowen, not because of him. Maybe that's true. Karlsson has certainly demonstrated an ability to succeed with less-than-ideal partners, after all. I've always been a big believer in the Cowen-Karlsson pairing, but even I'm not willing to suggest that Karlsson is succeeding because of Cowen. I don't think Cowen is a transformative defenseman, and certainly not this season. But it almost feels like there's this desperate need to portray Cowen as an incompetent anchor, helpless to do anything except stand around and look confused.
What's absurd about that is that the current Ottawa team is practically a blueprint for explaining why snap judgments are pointless. This is Kyle Turris' third year with the team. He joined them as a 21-year-old kid whose development had been hindered by holdouts and lockouts, and yet, through steady development and good coaching, he has emerged as the team's top center. It didn't happen overnight. I doubt many Sens fans would recognize the Turris of the 2011-12 season as the same player they're watching in the 2013-14 season. I wonder if Turris would even recognize himself--I'd love to see him analyze his game film from that season. I bet he'd get more than a few laughs out of it.
It doesn't stop there, of course. The Robin Lehner of 2013-14 is practically unrecognizable from the Robin Lehner we once saw in Binghamton. We saw major strides from Lehner coming into the 2013 season, and he has continued to build on those. Whereas once upon a time, Lehner would blame the refs, we now see a more humble player--Lehner is the first to admit the weaknesses in his game, and to say he should have played better. That maturity hasn't come at the expense of his intensity--he's just a better player now because he's had time to develop.
The guy that helped him spur on that maturation, Ben Bishop, is yet another example. At age 27, Bishop continues to improve. Once upon a time, he was unable to beat out Brian Elliott for a backup job. Then he was unable to beat out Lehner for a backup job. Now he's a starter with numbers that have put him in the running for the Vezina Trophy. Is Bishop playing better this year than last year? Yes.
Erik Karlsson. Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Stephane Da Costa. Patrick Wiercioch. Mark Stone. How many examples of young guys improving do we have to see before we realize that short-term judgments about a player's development are consistent examples of long-term stupidity? Smug guys who say they "don't see" anything from Cowen need to toss their crystal balls in the garbage--with only 141 games played, Cowen hasn't even yet completed two seasons worth of games, despite this being his third season in the NHL. Is he behind on his development? Yep. So was Turris.
Does that mean Cowen is going to turn out like Turris? No, of course not. We should obviously all hope so, especially considering what the team has invested in him, but there are no guarantees. For every Karlsson, there's a Brian Lee. For every Turris, there's a Nikita Filatov. Being young isn't a foolproof recipe for improving. I'm not trying to suggest that it is.
But seriously, it's long past time to shut up about Cowen. He had a really tough start to his season--of that, there can be no doubt--but his play has stabilized since then. Dare we even suggest it's continually improving? In the past two games alone he's made numerous quality defensive plays that are not getting mentioned, while comments like, "Where was Cowen on that goal?" continue to show up.
Too many people want Cowen either out of the lineup, or worse, off of the team, based on little more than confirmation bias born of scrutiny from a contract dispute exacerbated by an rough start to the year. Predictions about Cowen's future development based on nitpicking isolated lapses in his game are counterproductive almost by their nature, and Sens fans should recognize better than most that who Cowen is today is not necessarily indicative of who he'll be next season or three seasons down the road.
They have a team full of proof of that.
2) I wonder what Joe Corvo is thinking. I don't know the guy personally, but I can't imagine any professional athlete prefers to sit instead of compete. I wonder what general manager Bryan Murray told him to get him to sign here?
Hey, we've got some very young kids we're putting into our lineup. If any of them falters, there's going to be a real opportunity for you to play some significant minutes here.
That would have been my pitch, anyway. Well, falter they did, but is Corvo getting significant minutes? Nope... Cody Ceci's here to do that! And any remaining spots get filled by either Eric Gryba or Patrick Wiercioch, both of whom are deserving. And, really, it makes sense. At 22 and 23 respectively, Gryba and Wiercioch are part of the Senators' future. At 36 and on a UFA contract, Corvo is not. Head coach Paul MacLean has an adventurous path in balancing the task of putting the best guys on the ice so he can win and keep his job with the task of developing the team's young players so that they become its best guys. Corvo and Gryba have fairly dissimilar skill sets, but both Weircioch and Ceci are pretty close to the type of player Corvo is. Except Corvo is listed at 6'0" and 204 lbs while Ceci clocks in at 6'3" and 209 lbs and Wiericoch looms at 6'5" and 206 lbs. Both of those guys are still growing into their frames.
You'd think Corvo's veteran status would give him the edge over the youngsters, but it's been difficult to identify many plays where you could confidently say, "Gryba/Ceci/Wiercioch doesn't have the experience to recognize that, and only Corvo could have done it." Which, one suspects, is why Corvo can't crack the lineup. If he doesn't stand out from the crowd, it's in MacLean's best interests to play the guys who have value to the organization-and that's not the politics of directives from upper management, it's just common sense.
And that sucks for an athlete like Corvo. It's not that he's not useful, it's just that he's not as valuable as some other guys on the team. I wouldn't be surprised if he quietly asked for a trade, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Senators obliged. Even a 6th or 7th round pick is more valuable to the team than a player they're simply going to scratch the rest of the season.
3) I think the hardest decision Bryan Murray will probably have to make in his entire tenure as GM of the team is going to be what to do with Chris Phillips.
With the departure of Daniel Alfredsson, Phillips becomes the longest-tenured player in the organization. And Phillips has been a consummate team player. I can't even remember anything he's ever said that even approaches controversial. The guy is as steady as an atomic clock. He doesn't rock the boat on or off the ice.
And when you're a small-market club like Ottawa, I think how you treat your players matters. I think things like trading Mike Fisher so he could be close to his wife matter. I think those are the kinds of things that make coveted college players like Bobby Butler and Stephane Da Costa sign with the club, and got them to be a finalist for coveted UFA Justin Schultz. Having good opportunities doesn't hurt either, of course. And, as painful as his departure was, Daniel Alfredsson spent a career taking less than market value from an organization that took care of him--remember, at one point they paid him just so they could tear up his old contract and give him one with an eye towards keeping him through retirement. It was only when Alfredsson felt the organization wasn't honest with him that he looked elsewhere.
Nothing about Phillips--not even his longevity--will wow people, but if anyone's earned a retirement contract from their club, it's got to be Phillips.
The problem with that is that Otttawa's defensive group has been shaky outside of Karlsson, and hockey is a business with little room for sentimentality. While I believe Phillips can still play hockey, it's no longer as a first-pairing shutdown kind of guy. He's more suited to playing on the third pairing, where he doesn't have to take on opponents' best players, can use his experience to slow the game down for his linemates, and serve as a mentor for the younger players. Phillips is the kind of defenseman we'd all be suggesting this young defensive corps needed if he weren't already on it.
He's just not worth $3M a year on a team with a budget.
I don't believe he's ready to retire, and that puts Murray in a tough spot. He can either insult a longtime company man through either lowballing him or not making any offer at all, or he can overpay for a third pairing guy he doesn't desperately need. The truth is that Eric Gryba can play the same role and is younger and cheaper. So, if Phillips isn't willing to take something like a 3-year, $5.7M deal, I think you have to let him go, sentimentality be damned.
And suddenly, you're not the organization that takes care of its players, you're the one that's just booted its two career guys over money. Yikes.
4) I think if I'm Bryan Murray, I'm not really a buyer or seller at this year's trade deadline. I'd be much more of a tire-kicker.
I missed my ticket to the bandwagon of cynicism that seems to pervade among Senators fans these days, but I'm not so blinded by optimism to delude myself into the preseason Stanley Cup aspirations I held at the start of the year. Do I think this team will make the playoffs? Yeah. Do I think they could win a round? Sure. And while anything can happen in the Eastern Conference this year, it's tough to imagine this team being one player away from taking down a team like the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins--to say nothing of whatever contender emerges from the Western Conference. So... why rent a player?
I've preached patience from the start of this season with this group. I think they have the talent to win a Cup--I just don't think they have the experience. Not even Erik Karlsson, at age 23, is done developing. We've seen him add hitting to his repertoire this year, and it's made him a better player as he gets more comfortable with the physical side of the game. I mean, imagine you're a forward facing Karlsson and you know he can separate you from the puck either with his stick, with an angle, or with a check--and that if he screws up one, he's got the speed to try another. How do you even attack that?
And he's 23! Ceci is just 20. Gryba is 22. Wiercioch is 23. Cowen is 23. Mark Borowiecki is 24 and on a one-way deal next year. Fredrik Claesson, who won the hardest worker at prospect camp, has only improved since then, and is Binghamton's top defender--he's 21! Kyle Turris is 24. Mika Zibanejad is 20. Robin Lehner is 22.
What's the rush?
And that's not even taking into account next year's team. The national and regional Canadian broadcast deals represent a financial windfall for a Senators team already in good financial position cap-wise. Should winger Milan Michalek not return, the cap situation gets even better--and while the team won't go on a spending spree, the purse strings have loosened a bit. That coincides nicely with a juicy UFA and RFA crop.
Yeah, if I'm Murray, I'm looking at next year as the year. I'm looking to take advantage of another team's cap situation to get another good, young player like Bobby Ryan. That's what I'm trading away assets for--not a guy like Matt Moulson, who might come in and score 15 goals between now and May before going golfing and then joining some other team.
Of course, if that deal comes along at this trade deadline, I'd pay the price--I desperately covet the Winnipeg Jets' Evander Kane, and his contract is beautiful, especially on my budget. And, of course, if someone makes me an offer for Corvo, I oblige to get the pick and give the guy some playing time, as mentioned above. Other than that, though, I'm standing pat. I'm looking for deals that land me another Turris, Ryan, or Methot--not those that force me to give up a potential one in exchange for a guy not part of my future.
5) More GM talk! I think, if I were running the show in Ottawa and someone called me asking for Jason Spezza, that I'd be unable to pull the trigger unless the deal were irresistible.
I know the reasons for trading Spezza. Hell, I was the one who laid most of them out on this blog. I know he's a bad statistical investment for the money he's going to command.
But I can't get over the thought of having three great centers in Turris, Spezza, and Zibanejad--and I feel that wingers are easier to find than centers. And it's not like Spezza is going to deteriorate to the point of incompetence. Plus, the team will have roster spots and money available to get yet another top-six winger. When you imagine a top nine next season of Turris, Spezza, Zibanejad, Ryan, MacArthur, Conacher, Condra, and, say, Vanek (leaving a spot open for a guy like Mike Hoffman or Mark Stone) there aren't a lot of bad line combinations there. And a fourth line of Colin Greening, Z. Smith, and Chris Neil is just fine with me.
Unless the return is a younger player with similar talents to Spezza--and I don't know why any GM would trade that away for an older, more expensive version--I think the move is to hang on to him and pack the wings with a little more scoring talent. Next season is the team's first real opportunity to put together three legitimate scoring lines. That's what I'd try and do.