With two wins to kick off an important four game homestand, there's a lot more good news than bad for Sens fans this week. I've got five thoughts to share with you, so let's get right to it:
Trusting the Kid Line
Paul MacLean's taken a fair amount of criticism over the last year, deservedly so in many cases, but he should be credited for a much more flexible approach to start the 2014-15 campaign. It's been apparent from the drop that Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman especially were ready for much bigger roles this season, but it was not a given that MacLean would allow them the necessary rope. Despite his propensity to juggle lines seemingly at random, one thing that had remained constant when it came to player deployment throughout Paulrus' tenure was his reliance on veterans. This is not a criticism of the coach, young players are unpredictable and his is a job that encourages risk averse behaviour. But MacLean has done a 180 by empowering Lazar, Stone and Hoff and for that he deserves a hefty amount of credit.
Zack Smith's New Role
The other side of the trust coin is the somewhat shocking reduction in role for Zack Smith. He's down almost a full two minutes a game in average ice time from his high water mark last year, with the reduction stemming from fewer even strength minutes than before. This is especially curious because MacLean, and Sens brass more broadly, spent a fair amount of effort extolling Smith's virtues at the start of the year to anyone that would listen. Smith's a serviceable NHL player, but part of the team's problems last year can be traced to an over-reliance on the Smith line. If MacLean continues to be serious about keeping the kid line together and giving them an important number of minutes, it's Smith-Legwand-Neil that are the best candidates to see a continued reduction. Six weeks ago I'd have called you crazy if you told me this is how things would play out for Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Zack Smith. Today I'd even go so far as to wonder if Smith is in MacLean's dog house, something that would have been completely unimaginable but a few months ago.
Erik Karlsson's Struggles
It's still early, but at this point it's been more than just a couple of bad games for the captain -- the struggle is real. That's not to say I'm worried about Karlsson in the long run, but there's a sense from most observers that he's been responsible for more than his regular allotment of giveaways. The numbers would seem to support that; he's sub 50 CF% at 5v5 for the first time in recent memory, owing to the team conceding an astronomical number of shot attempts when he's on the ice. The Sens as a whole have struggled keeping the shots against down, but normally Karlsson is a happy reprieve from that troubling tendency. Not so far. It's too early to panic, but I'm at least mildly worried. About what? I couldn't tell you. He looks healthy, the offensive skills are still there, but the results have been less than ideal so far. I'm going to keep on looking, but if we're not talking about a turnaround in his fortunes by January I'd be surprised.
Trading for Chris Stewart
It came up again during the first intermissions panel of the TSN broadcast of the game last night., and it's now been said here and elsewhere many times before, but this needs to stop. Stewart is exactly the big body, power forward the team's management covets but Stewart is the wrong fit for so many reasons. Not least of which is that Ottawa's strength is their young depth on the wings. Why block one of them so you can acquire a 27 year old whose big scoring season was five years ago? Also, they have a very obvious need on the back end. Stop. Chasing. Chris. Stewart.
From the eye test, it strikes me that the power play has looked better this year than last, and there's some data to back it up: Ottawa's up to 8th in shot attempts rate while on the power play. They finished 12th in the league last year by that measure. It looks to me anyways that the puck has been moving around fairly crisply once in the zone, but more importantly that PP1 in particular is gaining the zone easily and with control. Last year, one of the tactical downfalls of the power play was an on-going inability to attack the opponent with any kind of speed at the blueline. I'm sure you all remember all too well the agony of last year's power play zone entries. Most of the consistently good power plays rank near the top in shot attempt rate, which gives me hope this is more than just a blip. If Ottawa is serious about making the playoffs in spite of very poor possession, dominating special teams is a good way to do it. Let's hope they keep it up.
Thanks for reading!