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Five Thoughts for Friday

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Closing in on the half-way point of the season, Sens fans have a lot to think about this week.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

After returning from their week off, the Ottawa Senators have been making headlines on and off the ice. Actually, mostly off the ice. From continuing attendance issues to the potential loss of beautiful jerseys, here are some of the things that were on my mind this week.

1) Lack of fans in the stands

This seems like the never-ending issue for the Sens this year. From game one, the storyline for almost every Sens home game has been the number of empty seats. Although many of us thought this was no longer breaking news, CBC published a story on Thursday detailing the team’s continuing attendance woes. Needless to say, it caused quite the stir among Sens fans.

According to the article, the average Sens game brings in 15,897 fans, about 4,000 short of a sell out. While there are a number of theories behind what’s causing this, one common reason thrown out there is the general malaise with Senators management and the apathy felt by fans towards the future of the team.

Sure, the location of the rink isn’t that great, with the Canadian Tire Centre basically on the outskirts of the city. But when a team is winning, it doesn’t really matter where the arena is located. With a winning product on the ice, fans will find a way to make it to games. Just look at the numbers from the 2007-08 season, after the Stanley Cup run, when attendance was at its highest.

Ottawa isn’t your typical sports market. It’s a smaller city, with plenty of government workers and fewer corporate big wigs using hockey games to entertain clients. But there are plenty of NHL cities who sit in the middle-market space. Every market faces its challenges, but one thing will always remain the same: If you win, fans will show up.

Fans just aren’t sure of the direction in which this team is heading. True, the Sens have a winning record so far this season, but they are nowhere near the level of dominance that we saw in the glory days of attendance. Throughout the past few seasons, even when the Sens have been good, most fans have never been too confident in the overall consistent performance of this team.

Even though the teams of the early-to-mid 2000s didn’t always have playoff success, they came into every NHL season with something that the current team just doesn’t have: Hope.

Hope does wonders for fan motivation, and until the Senators can consistently provide their fans with hope and high expectations, they may struggle to fill the stands at the CTC.

2) Zack Smith might be for real

Last season, it was a weird enigma. This season, it’s starting to look real. That’s the play of Zack Smith!

After a career-high 25 goals (36 points) last season, many fans thought this kind of play from Zack Smith just wasn’t going to continue. After all, his shooting percentage was 20.7%, and completely unsustainable. But this season, we’ve seen Zack Smith (almost) pick up right where he left off.

He may not have started the season all that strong, but Smith has managed to get back on track to meet or exceed his point total from last season. Not only is he on pace to score 37 points, but his shooting percentage has gone back down to a very manageable 12.5%.

Much of his success can be attributed to his chemistry with Mark Stone and Derick Brassard. The three have arguably been Ottawa’s most effective line at times. It seems to be that whenever Smith plays with Stone, good things happen (you could probably say that about any player and Stone).

So this begs the question, what does management do with Zack Smith? He’s going to be a unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. And coming off (possibly) two of his most successful seasons, he’ll probably be looking for a raise.

Now, even if Smith does stay on this current pace, 37 points would still only warrant him in and around $2 million/year. But that’s not the team’s only option. With Smith putting up the best numbers of his career, there is most certainly a strong trade market for him. Why not flip him while his value is at an all-time high? There are plenty of pieces that the Sens could use if they’re going to make a push for the playoffs. They just need to decide if Zack Smith is one of those pieces, or if he is worth something a little more.

3) Let’s talk about Bobby Ryan

It’s no secret that Bobby Ryan has struggled quite a bit this season. With 15 points in 34 games, he has not been performing at the $7.25 million/year rate that is to be expected. And before his solid performance against Pittsburgh on Thursday, it looked like things had gone from bad to worse for Ryan this week.

Due to “complex issues” likely between him and coach Guy Boucher, Ryan was scratched from the game against Washington. While we still don’t have firm confirmation about what these issues were, it’s widely speculated that this was because of disciplinary reasons (Ryan being late for curfew, for example). So in the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t really that much of an issue. But it did seem like one more struggle for Ryan to endure this season.

We all know Bobby Ryan needs to be better; Bobby Ryan knows that he needs to be better. But I do think that some fans and media need to go a little easier on him. Ryan is coming off of what was likely one of the most challenging off seasons for him personally. He lost his mother, to whom he was very close, and became a father for the first time. Everyone, even professional hockey players, has a time in their life where things are just a little more complicated. And more importantly, everyone reacts to these life challenges in different ways. Yes, we all still have to do our jobs, but it doesn’t hurt to cut someone a little bit of slack every now and then.

Bobby Ryan has been nothing but a class act since he arrived in Ottawa. I believe he will bounce back eventually, and he deserves the chance to do so. At the end of the day, it’s not likely that the Sens would be able to move his contract anyways. So let’s hope that he and the organization are able to work together on this one.

4) All-Star Erik

To the surprise of pretty much no one, Erik Karlsson was named to the NHL All-Star Game roster this week. As Ottawa’s lone representative, this will be Karlsson’s fourth time attending the All-Star Game in his career. Karlsson currently leads the Senators in scoring with 34 points in 40 games.

Of course, many Sens fans couldn’t help but remember this horribly awkward video of Cory Clouston informing Karlsson of his first All-Star appearance in 2011. In case you’re in need of a trip down memory lane:

Also... look how young he was in this video!

Of course, the All-Star Game roster announcement was not without its controversy. A number of fans and media were outraged that Jonathan Toews was included in this year’s line up. With 21 points in 35 games this season, Toews isn’t what most would consider one of the best players in the league. (Full Disclosure: I am a massive Jonathan Toews fan, but I will try to remain impartial for this one.)

Many fans are upset that the Chicago Blackhawks have four representatives at the All-Star Game, which is a valid concern. But the Blackhawks are still one of the top teams in the league, so it would make sense that they have a number of players considered All Stars.

In the end, the likely reason as to why Toews was named to the roster is the fact that the remaining players in the list of 100 Greatest NHL Players are set to be revealed during All-Star weekend. Toews is pretty much guaranteed to be on that list, and it would look pretty silly if his name is announced and he is nowhere to be found. He is still one of the faces of the NHL, so it would only make sense that he be present during one of the league’s most important weekends.

5) Jersey fouls

Jerseys can be a bit of a touchy subject for Sens fans. The current home/away jerseys have never exactly been a big hit with most fans, and we’ve seen some downright terrible alternatives throughout the years (like the 2008-11 third jerseys). But finally, the Senators have a jersey that most fans feel genuinely proud of in the heritage jerseys.

However, when news broke this week that NHL teams will no longer have third jerseys, that potential jersey pride was quickly taken away. And although we are likely to see a heritage-style of jersey should Ottawa play in an outdoor game next season, the threat of being stuck with the rather unpopular Senturion jerseys is very real.

Which begs the question: Will the Senators change their jerseys permanently? There certainly seems to be an appetite for change in this department.

What would you like to see? The heritage jerseys? A return to the old logo/jerseys? Or for the Sens to stay with the current home/away jerseys?