Doing more than just playing out the string
It’s never easy being on a losing team, even as a professional athlete getting paid hefty sums of money to play what is ultimately just a game. Unless you’re one of the true stars, your future is always uncertain. On a team like the Ottawa Senators, a lot of the players aren’t just playing each game against the opposition; they’re also playing for their next contract. Oscar Lindberg, Brian Gibbons, Anthony Duclair (RFA), Magnus Paajarvi, and Anders Nilsson are all free agents at the end of this year and each might or might not be part of the team’s plans for next season. If you want the living embodiment of what it means to be a fringe player in the NHL on a team like Ottawa, look no further than Paajarvi. He threw himself in front of a one-timer at the end of the second period last night against Calgary. He was slow to rise and it looked like he was in an awful lot of pain. It was a game that meant almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, the Sens were already down 3-1 against one of the best teams in the league, and I doubt anyone would have noticed if he had just closed out on the shooter without putting himself in harm’s way. But that’s the type of play guys like Magnus need to make if they want to secure one more contract. Don’t tell them they’re just playing out the string because they’re playing for their livelihood.
Early impressions of Brannstrom
Part of remaining a Sens fan through these difficult times is witnessing the development of the team’s best young players. It’s actually kind of relaxing in a way, when the outcomes of the games don’t matter at all. As long as the youngster produce a scintillating moment or two, it’s a positive outcome.
My early impression of perhaps the Sens’ best young prospect, Erik Brannstrom, is that he looks the part of a star-in-waiting on the blue line. He’s looked remarkably composed with the puck in his two games with the big club, and his ability to generate offensive chances out of seemingly nothing plays has been most impressive. A sequence that stood out to me from last night’s game against Calgary involved Brannstrom stripping Mathew Tkachuk of the puck in the defensive end, making a quick breakout pass, then jumping into the rush to create an opportunity at the other end. The play didn’t end in a goal for the Sens, but in that moment there was a glimpse of what Brannstrom might yet be. It’s not going to replace Mark Stone, but it’s a start.
Death to the Power Play Drop Pass
Speaking of Brannstrom’s skating in the open ice, one thing that I had hoped the team would do away with after Marc Crawford took over from Guy Boucher was the neutral-zone drop pass they attempt on seemingly every rush on the power play. Describing it as ineffectual of late would be a massive understatement. Part of the issue is that the Sens simply don’t have the top shelf talent required to make the play work — dropping the puck to Erik Karlsson or Matt Duchene coming up the middle with a head of steam is a bit different than dropping it to, say, Bobby Ryan — but the other problem is that every opponent knows it’s coming and adjusts accordingly. Against Calgary on Thursday night, it was mildly terrifying to watch the Sens even attempt to gain the attacking zone. It doesn’t even matter what the alternative is at this point, but something’s gotta give.
Melnyk on the radio
The Grand Poobah himself, Eugene Melnyk, made an appearance on Bob McCown’s Prime Time Sports radio show on the FAN 590 radio station on Thursday night. By his standards, this was a pretty tame appearance; which kind of left you wondering why he won’t take this kind of interview with a local Ottawa radio station. Like, say, TSN 1200? Their broadcast partners? No? Okay.
Melnyk’s propensity for making himself available almost exclusively to the Toronto media tends to rub some folks the wrong way, but I can’t say it’s the thing about Eugene that bothers me the most. For me, it’s the continued insistence in trying to paint some segment of Sens fans as the “real” fans. There’s a lot of contempt for his own paying customers in this quote:
I read that and I just get tired. Having your favourite team’s owner talk about you like this, it’s exhausting as a fan. There’s not much more to be said about it. I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon, and I frankly can’t even muster the energy to get angry. It’s been such an impossibly long 18 months, we’re all so tired. Please, Eugene, just stop. Stop.
Speaking of broadcasts, my enjoyment of Sens games is greatly increased when the TSN broadcast is blessed with Ray Ferraro’s presence. I’ve said complimentary things about Ray’s contributions before, but it’s worth repeating how much more insight he’s able to provide than your typical colour commentator. To me there are two things that distinguish his work: 1) he leverages his experience playing the game at a high level to provide actual insight and explanation rather than falling back on tired cliches, and 2) he seems like he genuinely enjoys his job and just watching professional hockey in general. Those two things may seem obvious, but so many ex-players either seem bored or get bogged down in hockey truisms like “gotta get the puck deep”. It’s a small thing, but when it’s game 74 of a hopeless season and the Sens are playing the second night of a back-to-back in Alberta, it makes the watching that much more palatable.