As we are all probably well aware, the Ottawa Senators had some difficulties in their own end and were, at times, absolutely porous. All is not lost, however (well, besides the 2013-2014 season), because each of our blueliners have strengths and areas that can be improved with some hard work.
So without further ado, here's a breakdown of each defensemen’s strengths and areas for improvement who played a game with the big club last year. I've also included possibilities for how to fix some of the problems. It's not exhaustive, but it's a start, although I'm sure Paul Maclean has his own list.
1. Erik Karlsson
Strengths: Aside from having the hair of a God, Erik has the uncanny ability to find space on the ice and he is one of the fastest and most agile defenseman in the league. He is undoubtedly the Senators quarterback, as he basically starts a lot of plays when he steps foot on the ice. He is also naturally gifted at finding passing lanes and shot lanes, even when it looks like he has nowhere to go with the puck. In his own end, Karlsson has a great poke check and his speed helps him to steal the puck and move it up the ice.
Needs Improvement: Although Erik is one of the greatest offensive defensemen of his generation (yes, I feel that way), he is often criticized for his efforts in his own end. Part of the issue, I believe, is Karlsson's size and positioning, which are complementary assets. Karlsson can get pushed around by bigger forwards, especially in front of his own net. Erik can also get caught out of position on defense, especially when he wants to jump into a play before the puck is out of our zone. This can create an odd-man rush or allows the opponent to get open or step around him. Finally, he can be meek when going one-on-one on a dump-and-chase in his own end, no doubt because of the Matt Cooke incident.
Suggestions: Karlsson had some issues this year because of his Achilles tendon injury, which has certainly affected some of his abilities. If I were Paul Maclean (and I'm only being hypothetical), I'd be getting Erik to park himself in front of the goaltender and work on blocking the passing and shot lanes by putting a bigger forward in front to battle with him. Even though he is smaller, he's faster and has a good stick. He needs to position himself so he can use those skills to box bigger players out. In terms of his hesitancy going into the boards - time might heal that. I'd be timid after that injury too.
2. Marc Methot
Strengths: Methot regressed a bit this season from his first with the Senators, but so did the whole team. I still see a lot more strengths that weaknesses in his defensive game. He can throw a hit and he often doesn't lose position when he's doing it. He's one of the few players who still hip-check and they are beautiful. Methot is also a surprisingly decent skater for his size and his positioning is pretty sound. His skillset makes him a solid defenceman, nothing spectacular, just a nice reliable player.
Needs Improvement: Methot needs to work on getting a couple more points here and there. With his skating ability, he should be able to take some chances and jump into the play when, of course, Erik isn't already there. He could also stand to shoot more and with more accuracy as he (along with a lot of the Sens) miss the net quite frequently (Methot had 98 shots on net on 5v5 compared to 176 attempts at 5v5).
Suggestions: It's tough to suggest a way for Methot to put up more points by jumping into a play, unless he's not playing with Karlsson (and I think I know how most of us feel about that). When he's not playing with Erik though, working on his confidence to carry it and go a little deeper could be a possible area to target. As I said, he's a nice skater and he's shown he's not inept in any way with the puck, he just needs to get the puck on the net more.
3. Jared Cowen
Strengths: Jared Cowen is big. He stands at 6'5 and 228 lbs. That helps him to deliver a hit and cover a lot of ice without having to be necessarily fast. Cowen also has a big shot from the point and he seems to be a fairly confident young player.
Needs Improvement: Cowen's injury history and his contract hold up have hurt his development. Before his hip injury/surgery, Cowen was developing into a big, strong defenseman. This year, he's obviously had some struggles. I notice three main things in Cowen's game that he needs to improve: decision making, using his body to potential, and positioning. In the case of decision making, that is, how one reads and proceeds with a play, Cowen appears to take too much time. He often looks around and around in order to decide what he should do and by the time he does decide, the play has changed and he's made the wrong decision. Second, as I mentioned, Cowen is big, but when I was looking up videos of big hits that he's made, there have been few and far between since he was hurt. I'm guessing he's hesitant and doesn't want to injure himself, but being physical and pushing people around, especially in front of the net, should be his bread and butter (especially if he's projected as Chara 2.0). Finally, Cowen loses his positioning fairly frequently. Part of this is his lack of "in your face" play. Instead of getting in the way and acting like a blocker in football, he lets people go around him.
Suggestions: JARED NEEDS A MEAN STREAK! Feed him some raw meat or something and I am serious. This guy will be a force to be reckoned with if the coaches work on his positioning and getting him to throw his body around a bit more. I suspect these things will be improved come next season since he'll be recovered more fully and will have had all summer to work on things. In terms of decision making, this can be a tough one. All that a coach can really do is create game like situations and force players to make more decisions in a timely manner. Having Cowen practice against the Turris, MacArthur, and Ryan line would probably benefit him.
4. Patrick Wiercioch
Strengths: Wiercioch definitely has an offensive upside; in fact, after Karlsson, Wiercioch is our most offensive defenseman. He can find lanes for passing and shooting and he does it with grace and poise. He seems to have good vision of the ice too, which helps him manoeuver around opponents or see the open man for a nice stretch pass. Wiercioch, therefore, is a pretty smart player and doesn't make a lot of silly mistakes.
Needs Improvement: This year was incredibly unfortunate for Weircioch because, I feel, he wasn't given a fair chance to show what he could do. I think being scratched so often hurt his confidence and hurt his development so much so that he appeared to actually regress from the year before. Now that I've got that off my chest, I think PW46 needs to work on being stronger on the puck. He often gets pushed around and his problem isn't that he's little (6'4, 185 lbs), it's that he's not aggressive. Wiercioch also loses a lot of battles along the boards, so once again, he needs work on his ability to get the puck and keep it.
Suggestions: Weircioch, as I've pointed out, is 6'4 but only 185 lbs, making him slight. If he bulked his weight up and hit 200-210, he wouldn't lose as many battles for the puck because he wouldn't be as easy to bump off. I'd recommend some more strength training for him and have him doing 1-on-1 drills in corners and along the boards to work on getting and keeping the puck.
5. Cody Ceci
Strengths: I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was when we drafted him. I even wrote an entire article about Cody Ceci, so I won't go into too great of detail here. To summarize Ceci's skills: he's a nice skater, he makes good decisions, he has good size, and he's a well-rounded defenseman with both offensive and defensive prowess. Ceci has also been projected to be like Brent Seabrook or Keith Yandle. Not bad in my books.
Needs Improvement: Cody Ceci has offensive tools, but this year he didn't use them as much as a lot of us probably would have liked. He tends to get his shots blocked an awful lot, which is a sign that he hasn't quite developed his eye for seeing shot lanes a la Erik Karlsson. In my article, I wrote, "Ceci is a big boy standing 6'3 and weighing 210 lbs, but he often doesn't use his size to his full potential. I noticed, for example, he tries to use his stick quite a bit on the boards instead of pinching guys off or pinning them." I still feel the exact same way.
Suggestions: Ceci is still a baby in terms of NHL defenseman. He's very young and defensemen typically take longer to develop than forwards. I think Ceci had a pretty good rookie season on a pretty bad defensive team. I also believe that with more strength training, Ceci will be able to use his size better. Heck, he's so young, he probably just finished growing, so he's not entirely used to his size yet. With his shot and finding that offensive flare, I think he was hesitant of making mistakes this year, so he didn't experiment very often. I feel with time, that too will come. If I was Maclean, however, I'd be putting a lot of traffic in front of the net and getting Ceci to work on finding space between the players to shoot or moving the puck to someone who has space.
6. Chris Phillips
Strengths: Ahh, the Big Rig. Phillips didn't get the name because he's little; he’s a big guy and big guys can be quite effective when they throw their weight around. Phillips also brings veteran experience to the blueline and I’m sure he’s been helping in the young guys’ development.
Needs Improvement: Phillips has long remained a staple of the Ottawa Senators, but he’s not the same player that he used to be. Phillips has slowed down (he wasn’t fast to begin with) and because of that, he loses his positioning in his own end. Phillips, as a colleague pointed out, needs to understand what his limits are and needs to play within them.
Suggestions: Phillips cannot do it all anymore. He’s a 5-6 defender now and that’s fine – he’s put in his time as a stalwart defenseman for years. It’s time for him to work on perfecting his positioning. Part of the issue, however, is the reliance that the coaches have on him; therefore, as much as Phillips needs to accept his limits, so too do his coaches. As an aside, I'm sure many of us would enjoy less pointing, as well.
7. Mark Borowiecki
Strengths: Mark "Boro-Cop" Borowiecki is a "meat and potatoes" type of player. "What ever do you mean, Sarah?" Well, Mark plays with a lot of tenacity and isn’t afraid to hit players and push them out of the way. That’s great for a defenseman. He’ll also get into the occasional fight (sorry if you hate fighting in the game) if he has to and he can get dirty in the corners and in front of the net.
Needs Improvement: Boro-Cop sometimes makes poor decisions and often goes out of his way to complete a hit instead of focusing on the actual play, which is the double-edged sword of being a physical and emotional player. His willingness to play physical tends to cause him to leave gaps in the defensive zone as he can get caught out of position. He also takes bad penalties.
Suggestions: Working on resisting finishing every check would undoubtedly lead to better positional play. He plays "on the edge" for the most part, so having him work on being a bit more calm may help his game a lot because he'll better focus on the play instead of the player. This would likely reduce his bad penalties as well.
8. Eric Gryba
Strengths: Eric Gryba is like a bear - he's big and furry. This makes him effective at pushing players out of the way. Gryba is also decent positionally, which means he's good at angling players out of the way and keeping players between him and the goaltender. He was, in my opinion, one of the most improved players on the Senators last year.
Needs Improvement: Gryba needs to get meaner. After the hit on Lars Eller and the subsequent suspension, I've noticed that Gryba hasn't used his body as effectively as he could. He's seemingly hesitant to check. Gryba also needs to be a bigger force in front of his own net. Because he's not a stealthy skater like Karlsson, he needs to rely on positioning and using his body (similar to Phillips).
Suggestions: I'm sure Maclean has been telling him, but I'd be telling Gryba, "Don't be afraid to hit him if he's breaking into your house!" I believe Gryba possesses all of the tools to be a sturdy defenseman in this league and he showed glimpses of that this year, he just needs to work on using the tools he's been given.
In sum, the Senators blueliners obviously have a lot to work on in the off-season, but they have a lot of strengths to build off of as well. They are a young group and they will get better with time and experience. Keep in mind, too, that the blueline might look a little bit different next year. Altogether, I think that this year exposed the Sens' weaknesses and next year, they will be a better team for it.
Thanks for reading!