Before the season had begun, Senators head coach Guy Boucher said it would take the team about six weeks to learn his system. Now, just over two months into the 2016-17 campaign, the players and coaching staff are settling in.
You could say they’re moving in the right direction. You could say they feel optimistic about where they’re headed. You could also say that there’s a positive vibe in the room.
Just don’t use the “C” word.
“I hate the word comfort,” said Boucher after the team’s morning skate. “That word just puts me in the wrong place.”
Rightfully so, comfort and relaxation just isn’t Boucher’s style. He preaches urgency, ability to adapt and a competitive nature. Progress is never made by being comfortable in your position.
But does he feel more at home? Well acquainted with his surroundings? More sure about the lineup he throws onto the ice each and every night?
“I feel I just know the players more now,” said Boucher. “I can’t say I know Bobby Ryan when I start the year. I’ve seen him play, but I don’t know him. I don’t know what he likes, doesn’t like, where he feels at his best, where he doesn’t, so as a new coach that’s the toughest task. It’s the time you really need to figure out who’s who, with who, and under what we’re trying to do with what i want to do as a coach. I feel I know more now, that’s for sure.”
Boucher’s growing knowledge of his team is showing in a big way as of late. In the first few weeks of the season, Sens fans were having flashbacks of Paul MacLean and Dave Cameron in the way Boucher was constantly changing his lines. It wasn’t a game-by-game basis, it was shift by shift.
But now the 45-year-old has figured a few things out. For one, he’s found a couple pretty solid forward lines in his top six.
With the emergence of Ryan Dzingel, Boucher was handed an extra top-six forward right out of training camp. What that’s turned into now is a quality duo headlining the forward corps.
“Chemistry is a very touchy thing,” Boucher explained. “You try to explain it, you try to plan it on the board and it rarely happens.
“If you would’ve told me that Dzingel was going to be in our top two lines and be playing with Turris and be one of our top scorers before the year started, I would’ve said ‘you’re crazy.’ That’s why you’ve got to be open.”
A couple weeks ago, Dzingel and Kyle Turris were paired with Bobby Ryan and have since formed a well-balanced, offensively capable trio. Dzingel brings speed, Turris has the shot and Ryan boasts some decent playmaking capability. Together, the three have a combined 14 points in the last five games.
“It’s clicking more,” said Dzingel ahead of hosting the Anaheim Ducks tonight. “You’re always going to banged up in the season, you’re never going to be 100 percent, but I know I love playing with these two guys and it’s been fun so far.
“Definitely, when a guy like Bobby Ryan is 100 percent, obviously it shows. First period the last five games we’ve got a point in the line.”
While Mike Hoffman was serving his two-game suspension, Boucher also found another threesome that displayed some outstanding chemistry. With a combined 13 points in three games, Zack Smith, Mark Stone and Derick Brassard are one of the main reasons the Senators currently own a three-game winning streak.
“They’re able to play great together because they have a real, great grinding below the top circle,” said Boucher. “The three of them have been able to be first on puck and when the puck was thrown at the net, they had guys there. Every pairing and every line will have chemistry, but for all different reasons.”
Though they started the year with a rather favourable schedule through October and November, the Senators have proven they can beat the big teams. Their impressive record of 19-11-3 - good enough for second place in the Atlantic Division - contains regulation wins against the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Shark and New York Rangers.
That’s an excellent accomplishment to have on your resume.
“We talked before and after the game about how playing teams like (Chicago) is a great measuring stick,” said Smith, currently on a three-game point streak. “If we want to be taken seriously and be one of the top teams in the league then you have to beat some of the best. We’ve shown that, we’ve shown up for those games and we can show that we can skate with them and outscore them, out play them and beat them. It’s a big confidence booster for us that we can skate alongside those teams.”
Though the power play struggled immensely early on and the penalty kill hasn’t looked great as of late, the Senators’ special teams are miles ahead of what they were under Cameron a year ago.
Over an offseason, the man advantage has gone from 26th at 15.8 percent to 18th at 17.0 percent and the penalty kill has improved from 29th at 75.8 percent to 14th at 82.0 percent.
Their record is worthy of a postseason run, the players are feeding off one another and the system is in full force.
They can’t get comfortable, but the Senators should be satisfied with the work they’ve completed up until now.