As the Ottawa Senators continue their rise up the Eastern Conference and NHL standings, any notion of tanking the season for a high draft pick becomes fainter and fainter. The later parts of the 2011-12 season have been devoid of any mention that the Sens may be compromising their rebuilding process by winning games. The idea of an “Ottawa-style rebuild” has began to make its way around the league: take an established star (Jason Spezza, for example) and veteran talent to be replaced in the next few years (like Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba) and surround them with youngsters and a #1 goaltender, allowing the franchise to remain competitive and the future core to grow together in a positive environment.
Having traded for 22-year old centre Kyle Turris earlier in the season, the Senators made two more deals in February to improve the club both this year and beyond. With Craig Anderson sidelined indefinitely with a hand injury, Bryan Murray sent a second-round pick in 2013 to St. Louis for 25-year old goaltender Ben Bishop, the AHL’s top netminder at the time of the trade. Hours before the trade deadline, Murray swapped oft-maligned blueliner Brian Lee to Tampa Bay for 27-year old defenseman Matt Gilroy, a three-year veteran out of Boston University.
The Bishop deal (and subsequent one-year extension) serves as an instant remedy to Ottawa’s lack of depth in goal, allowing Robin Lehner to gain another year’s experience in the AHL while Bishop relieves Anderson for 25 to 30 games (a luxury the Sens couldn’t afford with Alex Auld as the backup). With a prospect pool already chock-full of potential NHLers, losing a second-round pick in next year’s draft is more than offset by the acquisition of a young player ready to fill an immediate need in either Ottawa or Binghamton.
The Gilroy deal, meanwhile, is similar to last year’s trade that brought in Anderson, in that Gilroy (a pending UFA) will have the final quarter of the season to audition for a new contract. It is clear that Brian Lee didn’t factor into the Senators’ plans beyond this season; by making the trade, Murray hopes that Gilroy can add an offensive dimension that Lee did not possess. The outcome of both deals remains to be seen, though at first glance, both the Bishop and Gilroy trades appear to be prudent moves for a young team staking their claim as dark horses in the Eastern Conference.
Record: 7-3-2. (Currently 34-23-8. 2nd in Northeast Division. 5th in Eastern Conference. 8th in NHL.)
Leading Scorers: (February) – (Total)
Jason Spezza (12 GP: 8 G, 13 A, 21 PTS) – (65: 28-43-71)
Erik Karlsson (12 GP: 7 G, 11 A, 18 PTS) – (64: 15-51-66)
Milan Michalek (12 GP: 5 G, 7 A, 12 PTS) – (60-28-17-45)
Daniel Alfredsson (12 GP: 5 G, 3 A, 8 PTS) – (59-22-25-47)
Nick Foligno (12 GP: 1 G, 6 A, 7 PTS) – (65-13-25-38)
Carrying a four-game losing streak that straddled both sides of the All-Star Game, the Senators promptly dropped their first three games of February, falling 2-1 to the New York Islanders, 5-0 to the Toronto Maple Leafs and 3-1 to the St. Louis Blues. Barely keeping hold of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Ottawa righted the ship with a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators, before losing a 4-3 overtime tilt to the Edmonton Oilers on Hockey Day in Canada.
A Southern excursion would put an end to the Sens’ mid-winter blues, as the team picked up a pair of commanding victories over the Tampa Bay Lightning (by a score of 4-0) and the Florida Panthers (6-2). The winning streak would continue in Long Island, with a 6-0 thrashing of the hapless Islanders, and back at Scotiabank Place, where Ottawa won 5-2 over a Washington Capitals squad sans Alexander Ovechkin.
As February wound down, the Senators nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback against the Boston Bruins, eventually coming up short in a 5-3 defeat. The brief homestand would conclude with a 5-2 victory over the Islanders, before Ottawa gained a measure of revenge against Boston, smothering the Bruins attack in a 1-0 shutout on the road.
Players of the Month
Just as Erik Karlsson has somehow managed to step his play up to another level, Jason Spezza has played the greatest hockey of his career to keep the Senators in a playoff position. Ottawa is challenging for the playoffs based on a run-and-gun offense that sits 5th in the entire league – an offense predicated on the ability of Karlsson to lead the breakout and Spezza to create plays from scratch in the offensive zone.
While many of the younger forwards lost steam in February (Kyle Turris, Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Zack Smith and Kaspars Daugavins combined for just three goals and 10 points in the entire month), Karlsson and Spezza have played out of their minds, carrying the load offensively with support from Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek. At this juncture in the season, Karlsson and Spezza are Ottawa’s co-MVPs, an honour exemplified by their brilliance in the build-up to the postseason.
Goal of the Month
Although no Senator has topped this section twice, Washington blue-liner Dennis Wideman is making his second appearance for his cringe-worthy defensive ineptitude. On December 7th, Nick Foligno scored the prettiest Senators goal to date, blowing past Wideman and undressing several other Capitals in a beautiful individual effort. Foligno’s marker was relegated to runner-up last Wednesday, after Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek combined for the second goal in a 5-2 Ottawa win.
Each of Karlsson’s other 50 assists pale in comparison to his stretch pass to Michalek: delivered from his own goal line, off the boards, just past the reach of a Capitals fore-checker and onto Michalek’s tape at the far blue-line. From there, Michalek faced a backtracking Wideman, slipped the puck through the defender’s legs, cut to the middle and went five-hole on Tomas Vokoun, punctuating the goal with a call for the Scotiabank Place goal siren.
Hit of the
Chris Neil rocked Johnny Boychuk so hard, he knocked the wind out of himself. Exactly the type of hit the NHL needs to keep in the game.
Game of the Month
There are a number of suitable candidates here, including Ottawa’s consecutive blowout wins over Tampa Bay, Florida and the New York Islanders, scoring 16 goals and allowing just two in the same span. With the season winding down, however, Ottawa’s most important victory in February was the last one – a 1-0 shutout on the road against the mighty Boston Bruins. Robin Lehner stopped all 32 shots he faced, Erik Karlsson netted the game’s lone goal on the power play and Ottawa crept ever closer to the Bruins with their biggest statement win of the season.
Erik Karlsson Norris Watch
Put simply, Erik Karlsson’s accomplishments in 2011-12 are absolutely absurd. He has scored 66 points in 64 games, sixth overall in the entire league and 23 points up on any other defenseman. He is currently tied in scoring with Henrik Sedin and is two points up on Daniel – the two most recent Art Ross Trophy winners, no less. Averaging 25 minutes a game, Karlsson has refined his defensive game by leaps and bounds, compensating for his lack of size with unparalleled speed and an active stick. No other defenseman is in the same offensive realm as Karlsson, which is the primary reason for Karlsson’s legitimate Norris Trophy candidacy at just 21 years of age.
Karlsson’s offensive eruption surpasses the career seasons of Anaheim’s Lubomir Visnovsky (68 points in 2010-11) and Washington’s Mike Green (73 points in 2008-09, 76 points in 2009-10). While Visnovsky and Green both benefitted from the presence of elite offensive talent up front, Ottawa’s offense derives from Karlsson’s prodigious playmaking ability from all over the ice. Karlsson sits 2nd on the Senators’ scoring list, just five points back of Jason Spezza, while Visnovsky ranked 5th on Anaheim in 2011 (behind Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan) and Green 4th on Washington in 2009 and 2010 (behind Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin).
While Karlsson generally struggles against teams with aggressive, physical fore-checks, such as Vancouver and Boston, he stands to improve as he adds strength and gains even more experience against elite competition. Karlsson has evolved from maligned 15th overall pick to extremely raw offensive talent to All-Star to one of the game’s greatest talents in just four short years. His greatest competition is Nashville’s Shea Weber, a defensive stalwart putting up solid statistics in his own right. As it stands now, the massive gap between Karlsson and Weber in scoring should be enough to offset any differences on defense, making Karlsson the leading candidate for this year’s Norris Trophy.
Ottawa will play 13 of their 17 remaining contests in March, with five coming against Northeast Division rivals (including three matchups with Montreal Canadiens). Games against New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia late in the month will carry significant playoff implications, while Florida, Tampa Bay and Winnipeg will be making a desperate push for inclusion in the postseason. Seven games will be played on home ice, including tilts against Chicago and the New York Rangers, two teams priming themselves for a shot at the Stanley Cup.