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World Junior Disaster, Boucher to the OHL & More

This week’s five thoughts on the cancellation of the World Juniors, Tyler Boucher heading to the OHL, Matt Murray’s return to the NHL, yet another Sens sale rumour and the rotation on the right side of the blueline.

USA-Blue v Finland Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

In case you were understandably unaware due to the time of year, it is Friday today! Since it’s Friday, that means you get the esteemed pleasure of reading through five of my thoughts and promptly praising said thoughts in the comments below.

As such, I’ve created some easy copy-and-paste praise for you such as:

Wow, nice post Spencer! I completely agree with everything you’re saying here!

And, of course:

Spencer, you’ve outdone yourself. Every time you’re assigned Five Thoughts, it makes my day, week, month, and even my year.

Anyways...

On the World Junior Cancellation

We currently live in a very difficult time, a statement that needs virtually no explanation. What I have a hard time understanding is how the World Junior Hockey Championship was able to go off without a hitch last year but this year it was cancelled within 72 hours of the first game.

It’s not that I have a hard time understanding how the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is far more transmissible than previous variants. What I have a hard time with is understanding how the IIHF could possibly plan this event with fewer and looser restrictions than the previous iteration of this tournament.

We’ve heard from both staff and players since the cancellation of this tournament that things were nowhere near to the level they were last year, despite this pandemic still very much existing. Hotel staff were able to come and go, hotels were open to the public, and they even booked teams to stay in hotels with wedding receptions occurring during this two week period.

I wouldn’t expect a hotel to cancel or rearrange pre-booked weddings but I have a hard time believing every single hotel within a 30 minute drive of the tournament arenas had weddings booked when the IIHF began planning this tournament many months ago.

We don’t know everything but what we do know already based on stories from those who were in attendance is the IIHF did not do enough in the planning phase to keep players and staff safe during this tournament. The fact this tournament was cancelled rests solely on the organizers. They may blame COVID but the reality is, had they planned a bubble-style tournament like they did last year, it’s likely there would have been cases based on how transmissible Omicron is but it’s also far more likely that the tournament would have been seen through to the end.

We can hum and haw over how this went but my main thought is with the players. Not so much with the ones like Jake Sanderson, Mason McTavish or Shane Wright who are a few of many examples of players who are a few years away from becoming millionaires. It’s obviously sad for them, but their hockey careers are just beginning.

Who I really feel for are the depth players or those on teams representing countries who were unlikely to win anything. For many of these players, this tournament is it. They may play some tier two European professional hockey and get to make a living playing a game they love. But this tournament was likely the biggest spotlight they’ll ever see in a sport to which they’ve dedicated their entire young lives.

While we don’t know this as a fact, it’s very likely this situation could have been avoided if only with better planning. The IIHF didn’t take COVID-19 seriously enough to make this tournament work.

An absolutely baffling thing to think about, two years into this pandemic.

On Boucher in the OHL

This past week, Tyler Boucher signed his entry level contract with the Ottawa Senators, signalling a very early end to his NCAA career.

Having compiled just three points in 17 games with Boston University - playing almost exclusively bottom six minutes - this move, while a bit surprising to happen mid-season, is certainly a welcomed one from both fans and brass alike.

The Ottawa 67s are a fantastic program for Boucher to join - for myriad of reasons. Primarily, he’s likely to have an opportunity, should he earn one, to play more important minutes under Dave Cameron. The team has a number of solid forwards including Brady Stonehouse, Vinzenz Rohrer, Cam Tolnai and Vsevolod Gaidamak. That being said, Tolnani, their leading scorer, is 34th in overall scoring in the OHL this year. This should tell us that Boucher is entering a lineup where nobody’s spot is guaranteed. If Boucher can come in and contribute offensively, he’ll be able to earn playing time he couldn’t at BU.

The secondary, and probably more important reason, the 67s are a solid option for Boucher is the proximity to the Sens themselves. Boucher will have every opportunity from both the 67s and Senators to flourish in the Nation’s Capital, if he can. The Sens will be able to easily keep tabs on their top 2021 pick throughout the remainder of the OHL season.

On Matt Murray’s Return

After what is likely a much shorter relegation to the AHL than was originally planned, Matt Murray is back with the Ottawa Senators.

Through two starts in Belleville, Murray had a 1-1-0 record with a 0.918 SV%. As someone who covers the BSens, Murray looked quite solid in his two starts. That’s obviously a good thing, as it would be incredibly worrying to see an NHL goaltender making plenty of money struggle in a lesser league.

The interesting thing is, despite getting waived while making a large salary, I don’t see a scenario where Murray has a lot of work to do to secure the starting job in Ottawa. Anton Forsberg has played well in Murray’s absence, posting a 0.936 SV% in his last five starts, so he’ll naturally be Ottawa’s starter until he’s not. But he’s also a 29 year old goaltender with a 0.909 SV% and likely is “what he is” at this point, so I expect this hot streak to fizzle. In fact, this lengthier-than-anticipated break may have already ruined Forsberg’s streak as any momentum he had has likely faded.

The awesome fellas at Locked On Senators posted an interesting infographic yesterday, further showing the glaring issue with the Ottawa Senators in goal over the 2021 calendar year.

In the year 2021, the skaters who have been healthy have played close to 82 regular season games. In that span, Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris have basically been 30 goal scorers, while Drake Batherson and Connor Brown have been really close to hitting that threshold as well. Having four players who have been in and around the 30 goal mark over an 82(ish) game span, you’d think the team would fair better in the standings.

Through the 74 starts between Murray, Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson, however, the team has had a disheartening 0.903 SV% with a record of 27-35-6.

There is a compounding issue here, as well, on the blueline. We can’t ignore the fact the Sens haven’t exactly rolled out a star studded blueline in 2021. But it’s quite clear that the Sens would have faired much better with better goaltending (duh, I know).

Here’s hoping Murray’s demotion sparked a reset for the goaltender. If it hasn’t, I can’t help but wonder what move(s) the Sens will have to make this offseason to shore up the crease. They can’t possibly enter next season with a similar cast in net and expect fans to buy in to the idea that they’re ready to compete.

On Another (Stupid) Sale Rumour

Yes, it happened again. Another rumour that someone wants to buy the Sens.

This time, it’s an ownership group which includes Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips. If you’ve looked up the combined career earnings of the two, you’ll immediately realize they have nowhere near the financial position to purchase an NHL team. Even one of the least valuable teams in the league. Which means, if this is true, it has to include some hefty investors to make it a reality.

What’s more confusing is this “rumour” says Eugene Melnyk is in talks to sell the club to “Daniel Alfresson, Chris Phillips and another individual”. So, this isn’t a situation where Melnyk could be considering something. This story has them “in talks”. As in actually discussing a sale.

The journalist makes two “take this with a grain of salt” comments in the article which, honestly, makes it worse. If you have to remind the reader they need to take your reporting with a grain of salt on multiple occasions in the same post, maybe you shouldn’t be reporting it? I don’t know if people just think it’s fun to toy with the large portion of this fanbase who would welcome a change at the top of the organization but it’s getting exhausting. Maybe my exhaustion is just making me overly critical about this particular topic.

I’m at the point where I’m going to need Bob McKenzie and Bob McKenzie only to announce a rumour like this to believe it.

Anyone else - yes, even you, Elliotte Friedman - isn’t enough to get my hopes up.

On the Right Side Rotation

An exciting development for Sens fans looking for DJ Smith to be good on his word that the remainder of the season will be focused on development is that the team has two really solid, young options on the right side of the blueline who are likely to rotate into a spot for the remainder of the season.

Lassi Thomson just wrapped up an 11 game stint with the Sens and, quite frankly, looked every bit the part of a young NHL defenseman. He was solid most of the time but showed a few areas for improvement. He was sent back to the AHL early in December and prompted posted two goals and an assist in two games before postponements gave him and the BSens a lengthy break. This is exactly what you want to see when a young player makes the big club and then gets demoted. Having watched every single one of Thomson’s AHL games to date, I can confirm that during the two games after his return (I know, small sample size alert), he looked like a different player. The confidence was evident and he clearly felt he could take over games, after having spent time in the NHL.

Now it’s Jacob Bernard-Docker’s turn. Before postponements gave JBD his own lengthy break, he got into one game against the Flyers on December 18th and received plenty of praise from DJ Smith and the media on how well he handled almost 20 minutes of ice time in an NHL game. I would expect to see him get a similar audition at the NHL level before likely getting rotated out for Thomson.

The only issue with this plan will come whenever Josh Brown returns from injury - as his injury is the main reason a spot on the right side is available in the first place. DJ Smith has stated he’s focusing more on development this season but we all know when an NHL coach starts winning games, they revert back to believing older, more experienced players are the better option - even when they’re so very clearly not.

Let’s hope when Brown returns he’s only added back to the lineup if one of JBD or Thomson gives the coaches a reason to take them out due to poor play. Otherwise, that third spot on the right side should be reserved for one of these two 21 year olds as the development of at least one of them as a full-time NHL defender will be critical to the Sens taking that next step.