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Second-guessing line-up choices might be the number one pastime of most hockey fans, and this year’s edition of the Ottawa Senators will leave us with no shortage of opportunities to do so given how many players will be donning the team’s colours throughout the season. So when DJ Smith scratched Bobby Ryan on Sunday, the topic dominated conversations for most of the past week. It’s hard to argue that Ryan isn’t one of the twelve best forwards in the Sens’ organization; for all of his faults, and I have not been his biggest supporter, he’s an NHL-calibre player with more offensive upside than all but a few of the team’s other forwards. Scott Sabourin and J.C Beaudin are nice stories, but there’s precious little evidence they’re capable NHLers. Instead, Smith has been explicit in saying that the will reward the hardest working players; being the highest paid player on the team won’t guarantee you a spot in the line-up every night.
I’m interested to see how this will continue to play out not only over the course of this year, but into next season as well. Smith’s intentions might be in the right place, but it’s a lot easier to make a show of benching struggling veterans when there are no expectations that the team will be any good. Smith’s trying to establish a culture, and I can respect that. But at the end of the day, good hockey players win hockey games. Good players are good in part because they work hard, but not for that reason alone. Sometimes scorers will struggle to find the back of the net — is Smith going to give extra points to the grinders that try extra hard? It’s a tricky balancing act and will be an interesting subplot to watch in the months and years to come.
If overanalyzing line-up choices is every NHL fan’s favourite pastime, then complaining about their team’s schedule is probably their second favourite. It used to be that many Sens fans bemoaned the team’s frequent weekend matinees, but it turned out that things were scheduled that way at the request of the team. This year, the most common complaint is that the team has already had two extended breaks between games, while setting up to play 16 games (!) in November including four back-to-backs. It’s not just your imagination Sens fans, the team does have one of the tougher schedules in the league. Friend of the blog Micah McCurdy tabulated “rested” and “tired” situations for every team in the league as part of his essential season preview. Ottawa will be the rested team playing a tired team only six times this year, but will be the tired team playing a rested team twelve times this season for a net negative six differential. So if you feel hard done by the league’s scheduling committee, you have a somewhat legitimate grievance.
I will say this, however: making an NHL schedule is really, really hard. Dom Luszczszyn took a stab at building one for the Athletic as part of a cool feature, and even his simple model that didn’t take into account arena bookings was an enormously complicated undertaking. It’s also the case that the Sens are either the beneficiaries of the schedule, or the victims of it, in only 18 of their 82 games this season — leaving 64 games when both teams are equally rested or equally tired. Yes, November will be tough but a bit of perspective is required here.
Earlier this week it was reported that Pierre Dorion was taking in a game in Los Angeles, perhaps scouting some Kings players. Ever since the team came out of the gates looking badly over-matched, the Sens have been on the lookout for additional veteran depth to help keep the squad at least somewhat competent. The success of the Vladislav Namestnikov acquisition has done nothing to disabuse the Sens of the notion, either. As with all things, I don’t mind the Sens looking for competent NHLers as long as the price is right. The Namestnikov deal only made sense because Dorion paid so little. Not all of the prospects are going to turn out, and having a stable of capable support players is just sound planning. If Tyler Toffoli could be had at a bargain price. and the Sens thought there was a chance of re-signing him (or flipping him again at the deadline), there are worse things they could do with another fourth round pick. But if all that the Sens are doing is improving the team for the sake of improving it this year, then the calculus shifts a bit. I’d be a lot less keen about acquiring anyone that isn’t part of the team’s long-term vision if they can’t be flipped at the deadline. There’s going to be pain this year, and no amount of nibbling at the edges is going to change that.
Nick Paul’s re-emergence
Nick Paul has been part of the Sens’ organization for so long that it’s easy to forget he’s only 24 years old — the same age as Christian Wolanin. Paul will likely never live up the unfair expectations placed upon him after he was made the centrepiece of the Jason Spezza trade in 2014, but his play with the Sens this year is a reminder that he has all the tools to succeed in the NHL provided he’s in the right role. Paul’s play alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Connor Brown has been one of the bright spots so far, and for my money that trio has the makings of a formidable checking group on even a good NHL team.
He’s also a useful reminder of what many of the Sens’ forward prospects currently in Belleville could reasonably expect to be in the NHL, if not necessarily stylistically then at least in terms of their impact. Productive third line forwards are useful pieces; let’s hope he won’t have to make the trip back to Belleville again.
We’ll end on a thought that’s not really a thought because I’m incapable of formulating anything coherent about this Matthew Tkachuk goal. All that I’ll say is that the skill level of today’s players is almost unfathomable. Who even thinks to attempt that, let alone picks the top corner?!
It’s too much, I need to sit down for a second.