Five Thoughts for Friday, March 7

Gotta feel bad for the embarrassment these superfans must have felt after Wednesday's loss. - Derek Leung

Everything is the worst

1. The most repeated phrase from Wednesday’s post-game press conferences was that the team "doesn’t play hard enough." In Paul MacLean’s press conference, he said it eight times… it was surreal. I sincerely hope that MacLean’s better able to grasp the problems with this team, though, because "play harder" isn’t a winning strategy. Just ask Cory Clouston; his inability to better articulate his expectations of the team's best players resulted in a continued decline of the team and his eventual firing.

One interesting note, though, is how well the refrain "work harder" can actually work well with a team filled with youngsters looking to earn their NHL careers. Their energy level goes up, they frustrate opponents with their stick-to-it-iveness, and win games they weren't expected to. Last season, the Senators were plagued by injuries and the play of youngsters with something to prove powered them to success; it was, in many ways, similar to the 2009-10 Ottawa Senators team under Clouston. If you think the comparison is ridiculous, consider this: At least one pundit suggested that Clouston should have been a Jack Adams Finalist that year.

2. The biggest issue I've seen from the Senators through their recent struggles is their inability to retain possession of the puck. It was especially apparent in the game against the Red Wings, but was also evident in those against Edmonton and Calgary: For a team purportedly built around puck possession, Ottawa's not very good at it. Too often, players pass to places where they expect teammates might be instead of where they know teammates are; I don't even want to count the number of just-missed passes these guys make in a game. They try low-percentage passes too often, and the giveaways resulting from those mistakes are especially damaging to a team whose system is built around having control of the puck.

This leads into MacLean's mysterious love of the line of Zack Smith, Chris Neil, and Colin Greening. None of these three are particularly effective with the puck; Z. Smith is probably the best, and he's usually so busy fulfilling his defensive responsibilities that he's not able to take advantage of his smooth hands. Those three are bangers, and they definitely have a place on the team, but deploying them for prime scoring opportunities (like offensive-zone faceoffs) is like trying to perform brain surgery with a sledgehammer: It probably won't work, and it's definitely going to be ugly.

3. Bryan Murray’s response to questions about Jason Spezza on the trade market seems to be ambivalent, at best: In Wednesday’s post-deadline presser, Murray said he wasn’t trade Spezza because "We are what we are right now and we’re not going down that path." Not quite the vote of confidence you’d expect for the team’s captain if management were interested in keeping him around. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Spezza’s name gets back into legitimate trade speculation this summer, and especially on the draft floor—I’m sure Murray would like to get a first-rounder back if he’s able.

On the other hand, Spezza's salary is going down to $4M next season while his cap hit is $7M--a perfect contract to help the budgeted Senators remain above the salary cap floor.

4. I will admit that the acquisition of Ales Hemsky doesn't seem to jive with the direction this team is headed right now, and I'm surprised the team went out and got themselves an apparent rental. But I like Hemsky, and I think his combination of speed and skill would work well with the core this team has--he seems like a good fit alongside guys like Erik Karlsson, Mika Zibanejad, Kyle Turris, and future pro Curtis Lazar. The fact that he's experienced playing in Canada generally, and the Ottawa region specifically, works in his favour, too. My hope is that this rental period is a Craig Anderson-esque "audition," where the team has a 20-game sample by which to gauge how well Hemsky fits into the Senators' system on which they can make a decision of whether or not to re-sign Hemsky.

5. Even more odd than the Hemsky acquisition, from a hockey perspective, is the Chris Phillips contract extension. I'm not disappointed that he's staying in town because I like him, but the team had every reason to let him go and only one reason to keep him: Intangibles, like leadership and community presence. With the contract extension out there, Phillips is now locked in to the team's bottom pairing for two more years and his $2.5M takes away from Ottawa's ability to shore up their top two defensive pairings--something that's desperately needed, even if the team's younger defencemen improve from now until next season. This season, the Senators were caught with their pants down when they hoped both Patrick Wiercioch and Jared Cowen could jump in as top-four defencemen; based on this contract for Phillips, it looks like they're willing to take that risk again next season.

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