After some time away to re-charge their batteries over the All-Star break, the Sens returned to the ice this week in Florida. The first outing against the Florida Panthers left a lot to be desired, but a solid effort last night against the Tampa Bay Lightning washed away all those bad feelings. These big Atlantic Division games got me thinking:
New World Order in the Atlantic
If you had told me at the outset of the season that the Lightning would be tied for last -last- in the Eastern Conference after more than 50 games, I would have laughed you right out of the room. There were signs that the team wasn’t as deep as in years past, particularly on defense, but most people would have penciled the Bolts in for one of the top two spots in the division. The Boston Bruins have played a lot of good hockey, but they’ve been undone by a now season-long shooting slump; at this point they’ve probably buried themselves too far to make a legitimate run at the play-offs. Add in the fact that the Detroit Red Wings have finally, finally, run out of steam and we have the makings of a changing of the guard. It’s not that far-fetched to believe the three division playoff spots will be occupied by the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Ottawa Senators in some order. The times, they are a-changing.
The Change in Erik Karlsson
It’s been discussed in many places, including by our own Ross, but Erik Karlsson has played a different brand of hockey this season under Guy Boucher. Whether it’s a more effective style for the captain might still be up for debate, but what is no longer in questions is whether he can play this style. A long standing critique of Karlsson’s defensive game was that he didn’t do all of the things that prototypical “shut-down defensemen” do. More than halfway into this season, it’s clear that Karlsson can play however he’s asked. It’s not that he couldn’t block shots or kill penalties, it’s that he wasn’t being asked to. Erik Karlsson is the most skilled defenseman in the NHL and he plays a tonne of minutes, if he wanted to lead the league in virtually any category he could — it’s always just been a question of if he should.
The Battle for the Goal Scoring Lead
The TSN broadcast has picked up on it in recent weeks, so maybe this is just me thoughtlessly repeating things to you, but it’s been pretty cool to watch Kyle Turris, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman battle for Senators goal-scoring supremacy. Each score goals in their own ways: Turris relies primarily on a laser quick snapshot coming off the rush, Hoffman’s one-timer deserves a column of its own, and Stone gets most of his goals from in close off of the cycle. It’s a good thing the three of them are riding high too, because they’ve scored 40% (!!) of the team’s goals this season. When fans and analysts complain about the Sens’ lack of depth, there’s truth to it. The flip side of the coin is that the talent at the top is absolutely elite; any team in the league would be envious of a top forward group that looks like it might produce three 30 goal scorers.
Claesson vs. Borowiecki
Speaking of a lack of quality depth, a battle for the third pairing was at least temporarily brought into reality by Fredrik Claesson’s strong play during Mark Borowiecki’s absence. It’s still a ludicrously small sample, but in their 45 minutes of 5v5 time together Claesson and Chris Wideman have posted a scorching 59.75% venue and score-adjusted CF%. That kind of shot dominance won’t last, no one runs that hot forever, but it’s hard to see the case for breaking up the pairing for the sake of bringing Borowiecki back into the line-up. At the start of the season, the optimists among us saw a changed Boro but as the season has worn on he’s fallen back into a lot of his bad habits. He’s down to a venue and score-adjusted CF% below 47%, and he’s chasing hits he shouldn’t be. We still don’t really know what Claesson will become as an NHL defender, but it says here that we do know what Borowiecki is and there’s at least a good chance Claesson can be better than that. Boucher should give Claesson and Wideman a good, long, uninterrupted chance to see what they can do because we know what Boro can do and it’s not good enough
Hockey is for Everyone and You Can Play’s LGBTQ Ambassadors
It’s not fun to write things that are critical of organizations that seem, from the outside at least, to have good intentions. It’s not fun to write things that are critical of the NHL, a league whose product I am desperately addicted to (why else would I spend so much of my spare time writing for a fan blog?), but the league and You Can Play have fallen woefully short with their LGBTQ Ambassadors announcement, and there is a lot — a lot -- of work to be done in how the league and its players treat LGBTQ people (or women, or minorities for that matter). As sports writers, fans, and plain old human beings, it’s our duty to try to do better. When the NHL doesn’t do enough, it needs to be talked about. So when Andrew Shaw, of all people, is selected as an ambassador it’s hard not to see this as anything but a cynical public relations move by the league. Does the league actually care about the inclusion of LGBTQ people? If so, I’d be hard-pressed to see why they’d go out of their way to choose someone so recently associated with homophobia. It’s tempting to say “well, at least they’re trying!” Well, they’re not trying very hard. NHL fans deserve better than this kind of insincere token effort.
Thanks for reading!