In the past few games, Jared Cowen has looked noticeably better. During the game against Minnesota, for example, he didn't do a whole lot wrong. He was sound defensively and offensively, using his big frame and shot. Thus, the Weekly Question is: What does Jared Cowen's improvement mean for the Ottawa Senators?
If any of you follow me on Twitter, you know that I don't have a lot of patience for Jared Cowen. He has not played well since he returned from his hip injury and, quite frankly, has not looked like he belongs on an NHL blueline; that is, until recently. Yes, I have to give credit where it's due: Cowen has looked much better since he had to sit on the time-out chair for a few games. I assume he's been spending a lot of extra time with Jason Smith to get back to the basics of defense. Cowen has, from what I can see, gone back to playing a simple game of defense - nothing fancy, nothing extraordinary, just plain old defense. I know it's only been a few games, but I'm optimistic and think he can be better.
Cowen's major problems come from, in my opinion, two major sources. First, Cowen's size (6'5", 235 lbs) is an asset for him to use. When he's not on his game, he doesn't use his body correctly. He doesn't push guys out of the crease, he doesn't pinch them off along the boards, and he doesn't protect the puck. When he's playing properly, he does do all of those things. I have to admit, I was thoroughly impressed with him against both Detroit and Minnesota because of the way he was skating with the puck and fending off the opposition, who couldn't move him. In the picture below, you can see as Cowen turns, he boxes the Minnesota player out and because of his reach, the Minnesota player can't reach around him to poke the puck away. This play resulted in a perfect pass to Turris and back to Cowen for a shot on net.
The second aspect of Cowen's game that's problematic when he's playing poorly is his positioning. For example, I've often watched him playing the post, covering no one, when there are two opposing players in front of the net. Below is another example where he doesn't seal the open side while Anderson is down, allowing Shea Weber take a walk around the park and score. Cowen wasn't the only one at fault in this scenario, but if he had reacted sooner when Weber got the puck in the corner, this goal could have been prevented.
Lately, his positioning has been much better and he's blocking guys, boxing them out of the crease, and push them around like rag-dolls. Furthermore, as a colleague also pointed out to me, Cowen has been more aggressive with his gap control. Essentially, Cowen isn't backing so far into the defensive zone that he leaves a big gap between himself and the opposition. This has allowed Cowen to use his long reach to pokecheck the puck away while players try to skate around him or through him. As I said, this is why they drafted him. Let's remember, this is a guy who was scouted, according to Hockey's Future, as "a force to be reckoned with based on his size, strength and skill package. In the defensive zone he simply dominated junior-aged players with his physical attributes and excellent positioning."
Part of Cowen's problem is getting overcomplicated. When he tries to do too much, he looks like Bambi trying to walk on ice. He misplays the puck, he loses position, he doesn't use his body, and he's downright clumsy. The Senators' coaches need to keep reinforcing the good qualities that Cowen has and that he needs to play a simple, solid game. We can never expect him to be Erik Karlsson and get 70 points a season, nor should we keep expecting him to be the next Zdeno Chara. He's a different person who needs to play the game simply in order to be successful.
Second, the coaches need to realize Cowen's limitations. Is he ready to be Erik Karlsson's partner night in and night out? Probably not. Karlsson faces high quality competition every night and when Cowen is his partner, he does too. This is problematic while Cowen is developing and improving because it's basically setting him up to fail. MacLean and company need to remember, "Rome wasn't built in a day." From my own coaching perspective, I'd shelter him, much like they're doing with the Kid Line. As he continues to improve, the coaching staff can keep adding on tasks as he progresses. This allows Cowen to experience situations as he can handle and allows him to be successful.
What This Could Mean for the Senators
I think the Senators believe that Jared Cowen can be a top-4 defenseman. The Ottawa Senators need legitimate top-4 defensemen. We've been waiting for trades to help bolster this blueline because of their lack of, well, defensive acumen. If Jared Cowen can continue to play up to his potential, which is the best-case scenario, that's one less headache for the Senators' management. It's also important for Cowen to keep playing a solid game because of Chris Phillips. Currently, Phillips is out of the lineup due to injury. He's been a stalwart defensively during the early part of this season and losing him put another dent on the blueline. Cowen's increasingly better play helps fill the void left by the injured Phillips. When Phillips returns and if Cowen is still on track, this relieves the need for MacLean to play the 36-year-old veteran for 25+ minutes a game. Even though Phillips is playing well, it's unreasonable to expect a player at his age to log so many minutes and not experience a decline in play quality. It's not fair to the player, really. That's a big reason why Cowen needs to be better.
Indicators from the past few games have shown that Cowen is pointed back in the right direction. Whether Cowen can maintain his improvement is important for the team and his career. Ultimately, it's up to him to keep this pace. He's shown that he has the tools, let's see if he can continue to use them in order to build himself up as a reliable defenseman. It would be nice if the Senators didn't have to move important assets to pick up another underachiever with potential in the hopes of improving their blueline.
Thanks for reading!