Glass-half-full? Glass-half-empty? It’s a Bit of Both for Sens
SENATORS: A Week in Review is a weekly column looking back at the week in Ottawa Senators hockey written by OLMSports Dave Gross.
Feature photo Courtesy NHLI via Getty Image
Here we sit and ponder the first half of the National Hockey League's season, and while there have been numerous positive surprises and various surprising disappointments, there are a few that stand out above all others.
So here we go with the old glass-half-full, glass-half-empty analysis.
* Topping the bottle is without question that Little Engine That Could, the unfathomable, expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
And no one seems to have a clear indication of why(?).
We hear that they work hard, they play a tight system and did a whopping good job in the expansion draft.
All decent explanations for a middle-of-the pack club, but seriously, top of the Western Conference?
Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson are nice little players, but who saw them lighting it up like this? (Clearly not Florida or Columbus who had them last season).
Vegas also worked its Penn and Teller act for more than half of the first half fielding its third-fourth-and-fifth string goalies.
It's the No.1 positive surprise in hockey. GM George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant are first-half shoo-ins for top honours in their field.
* Also in the West (this likely falls into the "it's about time" class), the Winnipeg Jets are finally shining (almost as much as Danny Torrance – Stephen King reference, folks). Blake Wheeler is one of the most underrated skaters in hockey, while the Jets pack exemplary firepower as well with Patrik Laine (duh), Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little and Kyle Connor.
But if you ask me, and I just know you will, the main reason the Jets are sailing is that they've finally found steady netminding in Connor Hellebuyck.
* In the Eastern Conference you can take your pick between New Jersey and Boston.
The Devils completely revamped their philosophy and roster where GM Ray Shero built a team based on speed (perhaps only Winnipeg possesses more zip).The trade for d-man Sami Vatanen was bold (solid forward Adam Henrique among others went to Anaheim) but gives New Jersey a blueliner along the lines of former Devil Brian Rafalski. At 26, Vatanen could turn out to be better in the long-term.
The Bruins were thought to be aging (Hi Big Z!) and on the decline.
Forget about that – Boston just pummeled its way through December with a 10-2-2 record.
The Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line is easily one of the league's best – check out its puck possession time. Just last week, the trio surrendered its first five-on-five goal in the ENTIRE season.
Youngsters Jake Debrusk, Danton Heinen and Pastrnak almost make us forget Charlie McAvoy who's morphed into one of the absolute best defenceman in the league.
But not really, McAvoy's that damn good.
We kind of knew Arizona would stink so we'll leave them out of this equation. Besides it's become a tradition in the Southwest.
* We'll keep it in the West and zero in on the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers were a ton of folks pick for Stanley Cup winners prior to the start of the season. So far, not even close.
The idea that Edmonton even makes the post-season, at this juncture, is a long shot. A lack of premier talent behind Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and to some degree Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is concerning, as is the inconsistent play of Cam Talbot in goal.
Both the power play and penalty kill numbers are abysmal.
* Chicago should be doing better, but the Hawks are close enough at the present to take a run at a playoff spot.
* Out East, the Buffalo Sabres are Arizona's doppelganger. No surprises there.
* For a team at, or near the top in power-play percentage that boasts Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang . . . umm, what the heck Pittsburgh? The two-time defending champs look like they've run out of steam (double Cup hangover?) but don't underestimate the offseason losses of key helpers like Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Matt Cullen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggests that Buffalo's Evander Kane – this year's most consistent soon-to-be-traded-skater – might be a good fit for a Pen's offence that needs a jolt. Kane's a pending UFA.
* In Montreal, outside of Brendan Gallagher, Andrew Shaw (in his role), Philip Danault (in flashes) and Carey Price (when healthy), there's not much to like. The captain Max Pacioretty plays disinterested hockey most of the time and the blueline is as creaky as Old Man Potter (Please see: It's a Wonderful Life. No really. See it.)
* Ah yes, saving the worst for last.
Some dummies in the pre-season picked the Ottawa Senators to challenge Tampa atop the Atlantic (. . . place mirror over here please).
There are no excuses for this team that is replete with talent.
Poor coaching, a (so far) horrendous trade that moved top centre Kyle Turris to Nashville, a reluctance to play the kids, a mistake-machine named Karlsson, an aging Craig Anderson and a disinterested fan base.
Yes, they've had injuries, but in the words of former Leaf Owen Nolan: "Boo-hoo." Every team goes through it.
The one bright light is Mark Stone who's not-so-quietly become this team's leader. His honesty is refreshing.
Yes they won back-to-back this weekend, but with so many clubs to hop over it'll take more than the ghost of Andrew Hammond to crawl back into a legitimate playoff chase position.
NEWS, NOTES AND NOTIONS: TSN 1200's Ian Mendes hit a home run with this tweet after Ottawa lost to Detroit in just six seconds on Wednesday night: "Suggested headline: GONE IN SIX SECONDS." Classic . . . Another (NFL) winner from Slava Malamud after the Buffalo Bills clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 1999: "Think about this. The phrase "The Bills are in the playoffs" has never been tweeted, posted on Facebook, or uttered by an Uber driver. . . It has never been streamed. It has never been blogged or vlogged. It has been faxed, though." Beauty . . . I know it's a shocker but the Cleveland Browns now lead the ignominious list at 15 years and counting . . . Halfway through my notes segment and I haven't mentioned Auston Matthews. Yet . . . Have you heard about this kid named Auston Matthews?. . . Snap . . . With Shea Weber now out until after the all-star break, it's not surprising to see why the Habs have suffered (besides lack of scoring of course). The exodus on the blueline has been monumental: Alex Emelin, Andrei Markov, Mikhail Sergachev, Greg Pateryn, Nathan Beaulieu and Mark Barberio. That's what we call an adjustment, and an extraordinary one .
THE WEEK AHEAD:
Tuesday, Jan. 9: Chicago at Ottawa (7:30 pm)
Wednesday, Jan. 10: Ottawa at Toronto (7:30 pm)