The All-Star break may not mark the actual halfway point of the season, but the almost week off between games gives the feel of dividing the campaign into two separate, if unequal parts. For most players, it's an opportunity to spend some time with their families and friends away from the rink, and prepare themselves for the back-end of the year. For the few that are chosen, however, there's a legitimate question as to how lucky they really feel. For example, Sidney Crosby has been deemed unfit to play this weekend in Columbus. Frankly, I don't blame the guy for wanting to take some time off to heal a variety of bumps and bruises. Still, if given the choice of whether they wanted to be chosen or not, my suspicion is that most players would want the honour (and the option of declining to participate if they so choose!). Which brings us to our first topic this week:
Erik Karlsson's All-star Snub
When the All-Star line-ups were first announced, there really wasn't indignation that Karlsson was not chosen to participate. Maybe it's a general apathy about the game itself; the All-Star game tends to be a big deal for host city, and not so much for everyone else. Maybe it's the sense that Karlsson hasn't been himself. There are a variety of reasons that contribute but very few people, including the Ottawa media, seemed too upset that number 65 wouldn`t be in Columbus. It's fair to say that Karlsson has been better of late, but it says here that has a lot more to do with his playing partner than it does Karlsson himself. Simply put: when Karlsson is paired with Chris Phillips, he's 'looked bad'. The moment the two are separated, Karlsson looks like his world beating self again. WOWYs are not always the tell all stat, you often need a lot of context, but in this case they're a good indicator of what's at play:
Karlsson with Phillips: 46.7 CF%, 36.0 GF% in 319 minutes of play
Karlson without Phillips: 53.8 CF%, 55 GF% in 600 minutes of play
Phillips without Karlsson: 43.2 CF%, 72.7 GF% in 231 minutes of play
Karlsson's spent time with every left-handed defenseman on the team, and his results have ranged from passable (Cowen and Borowiecki) to excellent (Wiercioch and Methot). But in that crucial 10-15 game stretch when people were making up their minds about who was deserving of All-Start status, Karlsson's pairing was getting crushed. My guess? If Karlsson isn't paired up with Phillips for those couple of weeks, he's in Columbus this weekend.
Trading Phillips and Neil
Speaking of Chris Phillips, Bryan Murray made something of a surprising suggestion to Wayne Scanlan of the Ottawa Citizen the other day when he said Phillips and Chris Neil could both be dealt before the deadline this year. There's not much question left as to whether either is a major contributor on the ice, but both are long-time Senators, alternate captains, and the team's elder statesmen. Certainly the Ottawa media fall all over themselves to laud the leadership qualities of both; we just don't know what kind of impact it might have on the team to trade the two away. Murray also has the tricky task of balancing player perception of Ottawa. The franchise is not likely to be a prime free-agent destination as long as the purse strings are as tight as they are, and so attracting and retaining talent requires good relationships with your current players. Murray's divulging these details to give both Neil and Phillips a gentle push, but he won't go any further than this. He still needs their explicit permission to deal them, but if he does it will mark the departure of the last stalwarts of the great teams from the early 2000s. The end of an era may be nigh.
One era that's been considerably less fun of late is that of Eugene Melnyk's ownership. The Euge will always have his supporters for 'saving' the Sens, but even the most ardent fans are growing a bit tired of his lack of cash to infuse into the team. This week there was more bad news: the Senators will not be able to access the NHL's special low interest line of credit because the credit facility does not meet Canadian standards. The article is vague in a couple of places, but dangerously worrying in others. This segment, in particular, stuck out to me:
The Ottawa Citizen reported Melnyk reworked the Senators’ debt in April, 2013, by lining up $150-million of new financing from two U.S. specialty funds. These loans typically come at high interest rates, often at more than 10 per cent.The Ottawa Citizen reported Melnyk reworked the Senators’ debt in April, 2013, by lining up $150-million of new financing from two U.S. specialty funds. These loans typically come at high interest rates, often at more than 10 per cent.
Holy cow, if the only money Melnyk can get his hands on is being loaned to him at rates that exceed 10 per cent then he really is in a lot of trouble. I know it's no fun to think about, but if Shoalts is right the Sens might be paying as much (if not more!) than $15M a year in interest alone. That's before we even talk about re-paying the principal! It's been a belief of mine for a long time, but all this does is confirm it for me: as long as Eugene Melnyk is the sole owner of the Senators, I'm not sure how the the team will ever get out from underneath its debt burden. Yuck.
The sustained good play of the Senators under Dave Cameron
Some better news: Wednesday night's game against Toronto was the first time in eight games that Ottawa didn't hold the edge in shot attempts at even strength, and that was on the second night of a back-to-back against a rested squad. Stretch it back a bit further and you'll see that Ottawa has been in the red for just three of the last fourteen games. The unrivaled Micah McCurdy, also known as @IneffectiveMath on Twitter, shared this update recently:
Possession (25-game rolling average) over the past fortnight. pic.twitter.com/QZMJQCiXXN— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 22, 2015
`What you're looking at is an Ottawa team that's been on absolute tear for almost half the season now. Oddly enough, it's been the play of their goalies more than anything that's prevented them from collecting the necessary points to get back in the play-off race. The hole might be too deep given how advanced the season already is, but if they keep this play up I wouldn't exactly count them out. I'm especially encouraged by the fact the strong play has been driven by the kids; keeping Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad in the top six has made a big difference. The scratching of Chris Phillips in favour of younger options has made a big difference. The solid play of Jean-Gabriel Pageau has had an impact. When I look at this team, I see a top six that I like, both for today and for the future, and a first pairing that can go up against the best of them. If Murray really has the nerve to go through with unloading the vets to give the kids more ice time, this short run of good play could very well turn into sustained excellence.
On Robin Lehner's Struggles:
Maybe the one player who hasn't seen his performance improve under Dave Cameron is Robin Lehner. Things are so bad for Lehner right now that Cameron started Craig Anderson on both games of a back-to-back. There are two options here: either Cameron isn't familiar with the analysis of starting fatigued goalies, or he's aware of the negative impact it has and went with Anderson anyways. If I had to wager, I'd go with the latter and that speaks volumes about how Cameron sees Lehner today. His play of late hasn't merited much confidence either: Lehner hasn't cracked a .900 SV% in any of his last five appearances. I'm not a goalie positioning expert, so I won't lend any analysis there, but I will say that at some point Lehner will need to string a series of great starts together if he ever wants to take over the mantle of number one goalie. He's still young, he's a career .914 SV% performer, which would make him a squarely league average starter, and he's got time -- he just doesn't have forever.
Enjoy the All-Star weekend, and thanks for reading!