#TheSystem: A Signal of Change in Ottawa
If you have not heard about The System, then you clearly have not been following the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators. For the first time in many years, the Sens are icing a team that is more than just average. This team continues to find ways to win. After their win over the Boston Bruins on Monday night, the Senators moved to 23-8-6 in games decided by one goal or games that were one goal before the empty net goal(s). This Senators team does not buckle under pressure, something that will be key come playoff time. Ottawa is now six points clear of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and, barring a tremendous collapse, will make the playoffs. They will also likely do so with home-ice advantage in the first round and even possibly the second round. If they want that second round home-ice advantage though, they will need to leapfrog the Montreal Canadiens.
Starting on March 18th, the Sens and Habs will play each other on three times in eight days. In all likelihood, the division will be won in this mini-series. With the Senators chasing, they will most likely need to take two out of three, if not all three, to surpass the Canadiens. This may seem difficult, but Ottawa has won both meetings this year with Montreal and has not had a losing season against Montreal since 2011-12. If the Senators were to surpass the Canadiens and take first place in the Atlantic Division they would play the top-seeded wild card team, likely to be the New York Rangers. A playoff series with the Rangers would be less than ideal, but it is something the Senators would not be opposed to. The Sens elevate their game against the league’s best teams: with a 17-9-4 record against teams in a current playoff position. This includes a 7-1-2 run in their last 10 against these same teams (playoff teams as of March 6th). The Senators are able to compete with the league’s best on a nightly basis.
This team’s success has been driven by team captain Erik Karlsson who is having an incredible season. Karlsson is excelling offensively once again, leading the Senators in points. He is also on pace to be the first defenseman to lead his team in points for four consecutive seasons since Denis Potvin did from 1973-74 to 1976-77. But, Karlsson’s defensive game is where he has made most his greatest improvements this season. While Karlsson has been criticized in the past for his defensive ability, the tape shows a significant improve this season.
Karlsson has become fabulous in his own end and especially using his speed to backcheck and pressure opponents. Karlsson never quits on a play and this relentless effort has translated down throughout the lineup this year. Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a shutdown center and, can play against anyone in the league. Statistics prove Pageau’s dominance against the league’s best. In nine games against Pageau, Alex Ovechkin, Max Pacioretty, John Tavares and Sidney Crosby have combined for one point. Pageau’s shifted focus to the defensive zone shows up on the other team’s scoresheet, as the stars of opponents have consistently put up zeroes against Pageau.
Senators Head Coach Guy Boucher has called Pageau the “Ultimate Soldier”, and mentioned that he should be in the Selke Trophy conversation. Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler are all frequently in the Selke Trophy discussion. Including Pageau shows that he is on his way to becoming an elite shutdown center.
Both Karlsson and Pageau have benefited greatly from Guy Boucher’s system, but they are not the only two that have improved. Goaltender Craig Anderson returned to the crease less than a month ago, after a leave of absence to be with his wife Nicholle during her cancer treatment. Since his return, Anderson has been among the best goalies in the league. Over his past nine starts Andy is 7-2-0 with a goals against average of 1.78 and a save percentage of .944. Despite missing over two months of game action, Anderson did not miss a beat returning to the Senators lineup. Anderson has been a beneficiary of The System, and his numbers show how an improved defensive structure can make a goalie great. The Ottawa Senators are third in the league in blocked shots, an underrated statistic, which allows goaltenders to have a security blanket.
One of these men who make up the security blanket is Dion Phaneuf, who is having his best season since the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Phaneuf has done a great job for the Ottawa Senators since his trade last year. While his contract is horrible, the Senators are interested in winning now and have cap space, and bringing in an experienced top four defenseman like Phaneuf makes sense. Phaneuf has nine goals, 28 points, well over 100 blocked shots and hits, and is contributing over 23 minutes a night for Ottawa. Phaneuf has his quirks; bad penalties, his contract, and at times mediocre skating. But, he gets the job done, and can even make a highlight reel or two.
Yes, that was Dion Phaneuf. He can still skate when he wants to, and his offensive contribution is on pace to be the best offensive season by a Senators defenseman not named Karlsson since the 2011-12 season. Phaneuf’s ability to help out offensively, while being a thorn in opponent’s sides and providing relief for his goalies has helped him fit well into The System. Phaneuf’s trade has seen him transition into the Senators lineup very well.
Trades sometimes affect a team and more specifically the player. This player coming in tapers off for a period of time, as they attempt to adjust to the new play style. This has not been the case for the Senators this year. Tommy Wingels has fit in nicely on the fourth line for the Senators, and quickly adjusted, but two recent acquisitions have adjusted just as well if not better. On February 27th, Sens fans collectively face-palmed as they saw Alex Burrows being traded to the Senators for prospect Jonathan Dahlen. I will be the first to say it was an overreaction on my part and on the fan-base’s. With little-to-no draft picks to trade, Senators’ General Manager Pierre Dorion overpaid for Alex Burrows. But, the team got the guy they wanted. Since acquiring Burrows, Ottawa is 3-0-0, and Burrows has four points in three games. Yes, Dahlen’s numbers are comparable to that of Filip Forsberg at 19 years old. I am sure he will be a good player one day. But, Ottawa saw him as a project. Wanting to win in the now, they saw Burrows as the better option. You do not have to agree with it, you do not have to like it, but it is the reality and Burrows has been great so far. Burrows is an experienced veteran who has been to a Cup Final, as has Wingels. The Senators other deadline acquisition Viktor Stalberg has won a Cup with the Blackhawks. The trend emerging from Ottawa is experience and a winning culture, they have positioned themselves and The System for playoff success.
Here is the situation. Erik Karlsson is on a terrific contract right now, earning six and a half million dollars a year, which is ludicrous value for arguably the best defenseman in the league. After this year, Karlsson will be under contract for two more years with the Senators before having to find a new deal, which ultimately could be with another club. Ottawa is determined to prove to Karlsson who is in his prime that they are committed to winning. They want to bring him back and make him into a career Senator, but in all likelihood they will need successful campaigns to do so. Flopping in and out of the playoffs, not spending to the cap and having poor attendance does not promote a winning culture. Eugene Melnyk has opened up his wallet to bring in new players and, attendance has begun to rise. Now, it is time to see what this team is made of. Are they legit? Could they actually win their division? Can they go toe-to-toe with the likes of Pittsburgh and Washington? If any of the above are ever going to go the Senators way, it will be through The System. The System is the best chance of ensuring Erik Karlsson remaining as an Ottawa Senator for his career, and The System is why for the first time since 2007, I believe in the Ottawa Senators to win any night. Go Sens Go, trust The System.
The Penalty Box
- The Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in tough spot. With 17 games remaining the Leafs are one point out of the playoffs, have not beaten a team in a playoff position in nearly a month, and are now in the thick of a tight race with the New York Islanders. The long season has taken a toll on the young Leafs, particularly Morgan Rielly, who, since February 1st, is a -18 in 17 games. Rielly has a bright future, but he is struggling to hold up as a top pair defenseman over the length of an entire season early in his career. His partner Nikita Zaitsev has been doing his best to cover up Rielly’s mistakes. But, the two will need to be able to lean on each other, if they would like to recover from this slump and get the Leafs to the playoffs.
- Joshua Ho-Sang made his NHL debut this past week and no one seemed to care about his talent and potential. All anyone has talked about concerning Ho-Sang was his jersey number. Ho-Sang, who plays for the New York Islanders, wears No. 66, the number of Mario Lemieux. Many people believe Ho-Sang should not be wearing the number, as it is a sign of disrespect. I think this argument is ridiculous: 66 is not retired league-wide, he is not on the Penguins, and what does it really change? Ho-Sang gave his opinion on the matter stating that “if anything it is the ultimate respect”. Clearly, he is not wearing 66 to make a statement. How about we drop it, and judge the guy by the way he plays?
Stars of the Week
- How about Jack Eichel? The forgotten one is tearing it up in Buffalo, since February 1st nobody has more points than Eichel (24). Over this 18 game stretch the young star has made highlight reels almost every night, including an excellent showing against the Philadelphia Flyers last night. The Sabres may be outside of the playoff picture, but Sabres’ fans have a reason to smile as their young star is having a season to remember with 45 points in 46 games.
- Erik Karlsson is not going to win a Norris this season, but he has found that extra gear since the All-Star break. Since returning from the All-Star break the Senators’ captain has 19 points in 17 games. With shorter shifts and less ice-time this year Karlsson has found a way to keep his top gear speed active almost continuously. If you have not watched a Senators’ game recently, I seriously suggest tuning in just to watch Karlsson play. The Swede is truly a treat to watch.
The Weekly Rap
- The Toronto Raptors got a much needed extended break after their 101-94 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, and will return to action this Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Raptors will need to take advantage of their lighter schedule in March if they hope to challenge for first place in the Atlantic Division, as they trail the Boston Celtics by two and a half games. With that being said, the teams they will be playing for the most part are scrapping for playoff spots, so they cannot take their foot off the gas. But, there is no denying that it is much preferred to not be playing elite talent for the most part.
- The most frustrating part of the Raptors is their inability to activate Jonas Valanciunas. With Kyle Lowry out of the lineup, and DeMar DeRozan needing someone else to help carry the load why not give JV more touches? It is baffling, as to why Head Coach Dwane Casey refuses to give Valanciunas the ball. For example, despite shooting 4-4 in the opening quarter and being on pace for a first half double-double, the Raptors took JV out of the game and limited him to 21 minutes for the game. Why not feed a hot hand?! People cannot say this is a one off thing either, because this consistently happens! For example, if it were not for Valanciunas’ first round performance last year, there is no way the Raptors would have beaten the Pacers. When will Casey swallow his pride and admit JV is ready to take that next step? It has to happen sooner rather than later, if the Raptors plan to challenge the NBA’s best.
Top 5 NBA Power Ranking
- Spurs (49-13)
- Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA. No discussion, he can check anyone and he can pour the points in when asked to. Leonard is having a career year, and the Spurs who were supposedly “too old” or “not good enough”, look real dangerous. Gregg Popovich has brought his prized possession along slow and steady, but Leonard is finally ready to explode. With Pau Gasol back and healthy, watch out for this Spurs team, because right now I believe they may be the toughest team to beat in the league, with Leonard leading the charge.
- Warriors (52-11)
- The Warriors had been consecutively No. 1 in Josh Saslove’s Sports Talk’s power rankings for over two months, but that streak has finally come to an end. The Warriors lost back-back regular season games for the first time in nearly two years this past week, and without Kevin Durant they do not look unbeatable. Since the All-Star break Steph Curry has shot 32.9% from beyond the arc, which for Curry is terrible. Klay Thompson has not been playing well since the All-Star break either shooting 36.9% from the field and under 30% from three point range. If the Warriors cannot recover, they better pray Kevin Durant rushes back, because this team is not what they were cracked up to be right now.
- Cavaliers (42-20)
- Cleveland has been okay lately. They are coming off back-back losses to the red-hot Miami Heat, albeit one of the losses was without LeBron James, but no time to panic. The Cavs are still fine at the top of the Eastern Conference and James is still in cruise mode. When Kevin Love is back on the floor it will be a lot easier to tell if the Cavaliers can challenge the Spurs or Warriors. If Love plays like the microwave he was for the Cavs offense early in the season, then they will be in good shape.
- Rockets (44-20)
- Houston handled the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers this past week, and were just two points short of taking down the San Antonio Spurs. All in all, it was a damn good week for Clutch City. After taking his foot off the gas for a few games, James Harden is back to his MVP-like ways, as in his last three games he is averaging 32.7 points, 10.7 assists and has shot an absurd 57.1% from the three point line. Do not expect Harden to slow down, and with some luck and a few unsung heroes this Rockets team may be able to steal a series over the Warriors or Spurs.
- Celtics (40-24)
- Boston beat the Cavaliers a week ago, but in the same week they also lost to the Suns, so it had its ups and downs. On Wednesday night the Celtics have a huge opportunity in front of them, going into Golden State for a date with the Warriors. Isaiah Thomas has spoken highly of himself, claiming to be “the best player in the world” back in January. He will have a chance to back this statement up going against last year’s MVP Steph Curry. While I am sure Thomas enjoys referring to himself as such, a win is likely more important to him on Wednesday night, and that win would certainly help the Celtics in their pursuit of the Cavs.
What to watch this week?
- Wednesday: Jazz vs Rockets 8:00pm ET, Penguins vs Jets 8:00pm ET, Celtics vs Warriors 10:30pm ET
- Thursday: Wild vs Lightning 7:30pm ET, Flyers vs Maple Leafs 7:30pm ET, Spurs vs Thunder 8:00pm ET, Clippers vs Grizzlies 8:00pm ET, Ducks vs Blackhawks 8:30pm ET, Capitals vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
- Friday: Ducks vs Blues 8:00pm ET, Raptors vs Hawks 8:00pm ET, Rockets vs Bulls 8:00pm ET, Penguins vs Oilers 9:00pm ET
- Saturday: Predators vs Sharks 4:00pm ET, Blackhawks vs Predators 8:00pm ET, Warriors vs Spurs 8:30pm ET, Capitals vs Kings 10:30pm ET
- Sunday: Wild vs Blackhawks 12:30pm ET, Bulls vs Celtics 3:30pm ET, Canadiens vs Oilers 7:00pm ET, Cavaliers vs Rockets 9:00pm ET, Capitals vs Ducks 9:30pm ET
- Monday: Hawks vs Spurs 8:00pm ET, Penguins vs Flames 9:00pm ET, Blues vs Kings 10:00pm ET
- Tuesday: Wild vs Capitals 7:00pm ET, Lightning vs Senators 7:30pm ET, Blackhawks vs Montreal 7:30pm ET
Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.