Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sens Preview 06

Alright, well since I dub myself the "Ottawa Sports Guy", I suppose I should write about Ottawa once in awhile.

Not that Ottawa Sports are dull, but I'm kinda pissed at this city for not supporting its sports teams better. Football, soccer and now baseball have all bid "Adieu!" to the city due to one undeniable truth: Ottawa is a one-sport town, and that sport is hockey.

You need a supporting argument? Never mind that the only successful sports franchises in the history of this city are the Ottawa Senators, Gatineau Olympiques and Ottawa 67's, if you tune into our local sports radio channel, Team 1200, and are lucky enough to hear Ottawa sports commentary as opposed to Fox Sports Radio piggy-backing, all they ever talk about is hockey. It can be the middle of July and you'll hear them talk about free agents, rookies, coaching changes, etc. All hockey-related.

However, I love hockey as well. It's not at the top of my list, but I love it and I love the Senators. Let me clarify that: I love the "idea" of the Senators, I love certain players, and will remain loyal to the cause. Having said that, recent events have turned my outlook on the upcoming season to pessimism. The list is long:
  • firing Jacques Martin

  • replacing him with Elmer Fudd (aka Bryan Murray)

  • Trading Havlat for a bag of pucks

  • re-signing Jason Spezza instead of Zdeno Chara

  • going with the red home jersey instead of the classier black

Ok, that last one is inconsequential, but it's a beef that I have. Taking all those points in to account, this is the first time since about 2001 that I don't believe we can win the Stanley Cup (hey, maybe that means they'll actually win it this year!). When you look up and down the lineup there are way too many holes to fill. Allow me to expand on my points:

1. Firing Jacques Martin

You could see this one coming as soon as John Muckler was hired as GM. Not many general managers will tolerate their predecessor's imprint on the team, and Martin had been lucky enough to survive three straight GM's (Pierre Gauthier, Marshall Johnston, Rick Dudley). If you combined all three of those gm's egos, they would still have been eclipsed by Muckler's. And for what? Coaching the Oilers to a championship in the eighties? So John walks in, has to tolerate Martin for a couple of years because the team is playing so damn well, and after another loss to the Leafs in the playoffs takes the opportunity to unceremoniously can him. Nice.

I know a lot of people in this city were calling for the coach's head, but I still maintain that the playoff losses had nothing to do with coaching (plus, fans are predictably fickle when it comes to management, coaching and backups - they always want change). The main problem was goaltending. If Patrick Lalime doesn't have a meltdown in Game 7 of that series, the Sens get the Leaf-Monkey off their backs and go on to greater things. Muckler would have had to smile through gritted teeth and keep Martin. If that had happened, we wouldn't be stuck with:

2. Hiring Bryan Murray

You know when you're dating a girl, and you've been together a while and you think to yourself "wow, I really love this girl. I don't think anything could come between us", and then one day she comes home all excited about her new purchase, and it's something you really dislike like a chihuahua? Well, that's how I felt when the Sens hired Bryan Murray as head coach. Failed coaching stops in Detroit, Anaheim and Florida left me wondering: "We gave up a Jack Adams trophy winner for this?" His supporters pointed to his offensive philosophy and how it's what the team needed going forward in the "new" NHL. "Alright", I said to myself, "let's see and then we'll judge".

It started out beautifully. The Sens could not stop scoring. All that talent on offence, and nothing was getting past Redden, Chara, Phillips and Hasek. For the first half of the season I was coming around to the "Bryan Murray era". In the second half of the season things didn't go as well, but it was nothing to worry about: we were going to glide into the playoffs and to top it all off, the Leafs were going to be left playing golf - sweet. Then we won a series against Tampa, and Buffalo was our next opponent - a foe we had dominated in the regular season. All was not well, though, as Dominik Hasek had yet to play a game following his injury in the Olympics, and although he looked good in practice, Murray could not convince him to play. We were left with a rookie goaltender in Ray Emery (who fought valiently but could not replace a future Hall-of-Famer).

I'm not blaming the coach for the loss. All I'm saying is that he ran into the exact same problem as his predecessor: questionable goaltending in the playoffs. There was no good reason to fire Jacques Martin - it was change for change's sake.

3. Trading Martin Havlat for a bag of pucks

I may eventually eat my words here, but I doubt it. The bag of pucks in question are defenceman Tom Pressing, prospect Josh Hennessy and a second round draft pick. Preissing may work out as an average defenceman, à la Brian Pothier, and Josh Hennessy may well turn out to be a star. However, Martin Havlat was on the cusp of stardom. If you're telling me that Havlat had a tendency to play with his stick a little too high, or had some sort of mean streak that the organization wasn't going to stand for, then fine: I'm all for letting morals get in the way of good hockey deal. On the other hand, if your argument is that we are getting more bang for our buck out of the trade, then I call you out. Yet another reason for the trade may have been Havlat's refusal to sign more than a one-year deal. Economics in the new NHL make for difficult decisions. We'll see.

For the moment, I'll stick to my guns and say that we're sorely going to miss Havlat's speed and proficient stickhandling. If he gets another suspension for hitting another guy in the face with said stick, then I'll shut up and chalk it up to a character trade.

4. Re-signing Jason Spezza instead of Zdeno Chara

I'm a big fan of defence. Not the New Jersey devils type of strategic defence, but great defensive plays by talented defencemen. I knew coming into this off-season that there was a choice to be made. Re-sign two of the following three players; Jason Spezza, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara. Wade Redden, barring a last-minute tug to the heart from his Western roots, was a lock to remain a Senator. Sign he did. It then came down to Chara and Spezza.

Jason Spezza drives me insane. This is an actual quote from an email to my buddies Bruce Mr. Turk and Serge the Psycho, after playing NHL 07 on XBox 360:

"Guys, I'm afraid there's a huge bug in NHL 07. It sucks, but what can you do? I've alerted EA by email, and maybe they'll put it in a patch. Here's what happened. I was playing a game with the Sens against the Habs, and I was up by a couple. Koivu gets the puck and rushes up ice, and dekes out a couple of my players. It was all good, though, because Spezza backchecked hard and made a stellar defensive play. Hopefully EA will fix this bug. "

Watching him play gives me no satisfaction. Every time he makes an amazing offensive play I find myself thinking "Within 20 minutes, he will undo the good he has done". I'm almost always right. Spezza does not have a defensive bone in his body. His sole focus is to score goals, despite his large frame and potential ability to intimidate the opposition's forwards (think Mark Messier - he's got that much potential). For this reason I wanted them to trade him away this summer and keep Chara. I was to be disapointed.

Most of the city loves Spezza. He's an electrifying presence in the offensive zone and can make the entire arena buzz when he's on his game. He's Canadian, he's got the "aw-shucks" attitude people relate to, and the women love him. Chara is a Czech, doesn't speak English fluently, and has a freakshow quality to him. I can see why management made the decision, but it was not hockey-related.

Rumour out of Senators camp is that Spezza bulked up in the offseason and will be much stronger on the puck. Here's to hoping he uses that bulk to back-check and help on the defensive side of the ice. I won't be holding my breath.

5. Red v. Black, Cartoon v. Class

I'm an adult and have no kids, so maybe my attitude about this will change when I have little ones running around and asking for Sens jerseys for Xmas. For the time being, I will keep being an old curmudgeon who doesn't like changing uniforms, and doesn't like cartoon-like designs for sports teams. The original, post-1993 Senators logo had nothing wrong with it; crisp lines, classy logo, great classical colours. Our white road jersey is still much like the original. On the other hand, our home jersey has been sabotaged by focus groups and marketing experts who certainly told Senators brass that they could make more money by going with a hip-looking, stylized logo coupled with a brightly coloured jersey. The satanic spawn of this boardroom decision-making was the candy-apple red jersey with cartoon-looking logo you see the Senators wear at home. Yuk.

I don't seriously believe that grown men - professional athletes - are affected or intimidated by the other team's jersey colour or logo. If some team was called the Chatanooga Squirting Monkeys, I don't think it would influence results on the ice. But the pretense is fun. It's cool to think that having black jerseys might make your team look ominous. It also looks a lot better to my eyes.

So there are my thoughts on the upcoming season - pretty dire, huh? I'm ready to be proven wrong, and will cheer hard the entire way, especially when we play the hated Leafs who, it would appear, look even worse than last year.

Anybody have a tissue for me? I just watched Tie Domi's NATIONALLY broadcast retirement press conference.