It's only been six games, but it's been six mostly good games, so it's time for some wildly premature conclusions and proclamations!
Here are five thoughts I had this week:
It’s not uncommon for coaches to juggle their lines, but Tuesday’s encounter with the Vancouver Canucks debuted a very different arrangement of the forward lines than we’d seen in any of the previous five games. The biggest change was reuniting Mark Stone with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zack Smith, one of last season’s most successful trios, and replacing Stone with Tom Pyatt beside Kyle Turris and Mike Hoffman. I’m hazarding a guess here, but it would seem Guy Boucher was setting out to promote balance through the top three lines. Though they hadn’t produced many goals at 5v5, the HST line had been easily the Senators’ best while the second and third trios struggled. The biggest issue with this approach is that while Pyatt has been much better than we had reason to believe he would, he simply doesn’t belong on the first line long-term. I’m not sure what the permanent solution is, short of Clarke MacArthur making a successful return, but Boucher will undoubtedly continue to be creative in an attempt to spread what depth he has through a thin forward group.
The Offense is Back
When Dave Cameron replaced Paul McLean midway through the 2014-15 season, he was given a simple mandate by management (and fans): limit the shots against. And with good reason -- it would not have been uncharitable to describe the defensive efforts of past iterations of this team as woeful. In his attempts to do so, however, Cameron’s tactical choices had the unfortunate side effect of completely decimating the Senators’ offensive output. In 2012-13 and 2013-14, the Sens produced 33.06 and 33.67 shots per sixty minutes of 5v5 action. In 2014-15 that number fell to 29.82, and then took a precipitous tumble to a meagre 27.74 in Cameron’s only fully season as bench boss. The net result was a team that got thrashed at 5v5 because they were unable to generate any kind of sustained offensive pressure.
This year, with a very similar roster to the one that finished last season, the Sens are back up to a strong 32.51 shots per sixty. Of all the ways in which Guy Boucher has changed the Senators, this is easily the most observable. There’s an interesting stylistic argument to be had here: is it possible to construct a good NHL team that plays a high event style of game? What are the limits to this approach? But that’s a much broader question for another day. What we do know is that last year’s edition struggled mightily under the auspices of playing a more conservative style. So far, a return to fire wagon hockey has served them well.
Power Play Struggles Could Soon Come to an End
After last season’s abysmal performance on special teams, Sens fans were eager to see what a revamped man-advantage could accomplish. The addition of Derick Brassard, and his fabled left-handed shot, was of particular interest. So far, the results have been less than compelling: Ottawa is dead last in the NHL with a measly 6.7% conversion rate through six games. This top line number, however, masks markedly better play with the man advantage. To the naked eye, the puck has moved much more freely and creatively. Last season, much of the strategy seemed to amount to giving the puck to Erik Karlsson and hoping. There’s also the matter of giving first unit power play time to Mike Hoffman. And beyond these surface observations, they’re simply generating more shots and scoring chances. Last year’s power play produced an anemic 80 shots attempts per 60 minutes of play (CF/60) – this year’s edition is at a robust 100.21. It’s not just empty calories, either: the rate of scoring chance production is way up, too. Eventually all these shots and chances are going to start going in.
Craig Anderson’s Absence
Not much to say here except to wish all the best to Craig Anderson and his family. There are any number of possible reasons Anderson might need to take an extended leave of absence; there’s no sense in speculating, and there’s nothing to be gained from invading the man’s privacy at this time. Andrew Hammond’s been up to the task of carrying the load before, but he was awfully shaky in his only start so far this season. If he’s not up to the task, it might mean major minutes for Chris Driedger (who’s been very good so far in Binghamton).
The last thought for this week isn’t so much a thought as it is a question. At the outset of the season, most estimates had the Senators struggling to make the play-offs. It’s early yet, but the returns so far have been a bit better than most expected. So I put it to you: what are your expectations for this season now that we’ve seen the team play some games together under Guy Boucher? Are they different than when the year started?