This season in Ottawa, the only thing that’s pesky is the losing record
Five minutes into a home game against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 20, Ottawa’s Zack Smith turned over the puck beside his own net. In scrambling to cover for him, defenceman Jared Cowen took an interference penalty. Fewer than 20 seconds into the penalty, Minnesota winger Jason Pominville fanned on a shot and Ottawa’s Clarke MacArthur nabbed the puck and streaked up the ice with Kyle Turris alongside him. Out of options as Wild players closed in on him near the net, MacArthur casually flicked an incredible between-the-legs pass to Turris, who fired the puck home. Turris was so thrilled with the goal and his teammate’s jaw-dropping dish that he was still laughing and smacking MacArthur’s helmet like a proud dad back on the bench. The joy was short-lived. Less than a minute later, Pominville tied it up, and the rest of the game see-sawed, with Ottawa battling back and coughing up goals until Minnesota took a 4–3 lead with three minutes to go—Ottawa’s third consecutive loss. And that’s pretty much how things have gone for the Senators this season: effort and results fractured and wildly inconsistent, a combination of rudimentary breakdowns and maddening bad luck.
Last season, they were the “Pesky Sens.” Plagued by long-term injuries to their most important players and playing with a roster of American Hockey League spare parts, Ottawa simply refused to go away. There was an ecstatic, puppy-like energy around the team, as though even they couldn’t believe what they were doing with what they had to work with. But that was a team playing with house money, every win or precocious performance a happy bonus. This year, with everyone healthy and key off-season roster additions, the team came in shouldering high expectations for the first time in recent years. And they’ve looked crushed under that weight. The line combinations that were supposed to be highlight-reel regulars just haven’t clicked, the superhuman performances that saved them last season have regressed to the mean and that young roster now just looks inexperienced, not plucky. With a little more than a quarter of the season in the books, Ottawa’s record stood at 9-11-4. The biggest challenge now is controlling the rising tempers and falling confidence so they can figure out how to play better hockey, rather than being haunted by their own ghosts.
It’s not so much that any one thing is glaringly wrong with Ottawa. In fact, almost everything is off, leaving the team scattered and frustrated. “Every night, there’s maybe one, two or three guys who maybe aren’t buying in or not prepared,” says defenceman Marc Methot. “But with a team like us, you need everybody going, and when that’s not happening, you’re not gonna win a whole lot of hockey.” Ottawa is fifth in the league in giveaways, and while they were 11th in shot differential last season, they’re 28th so far this year—only Buffalo and Toronto have given up more shots per game on average. Sluggish starts mean the Sens often cough up the first goal, or the first couple, and playing from behind is playing undisciplined: While they’ve reined it in lately, they’re sixth in the league in PIM and 19th on the penalty kill. Captain Jason Spezza likened the whole mess to a goal slump, but instead of one guy changing his sticks and gloves in an effort to goose fate, they have a whole team switching things up, desperate to make something work. “When you’re a .500 team, you’re not beaming confidence and you’re searching for answers,” he said. “Some nights we feel really good about what we’ve done, and other nights we feel like we have a lot of work to do.”
The frustration of this season is even more jarring compared to the lofty hopes heading into it. When longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson shocked everyone by signing with Detroit in July, the one bright spot in Ottawa’s dark day was the acquisition of winger Bobby Ryan from Anaheim a few hours later. The thinking was that Spezza would again have an elite linemate to centre, and together with Milan Michalek, that line would score at will in a way Ottawa hadn’t seen since the trio of Alfredsson, Spezza and Dany Heatley during the run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. But it turns out Ryan is a lot like Spezza, crafting plays and holding onto the puck until he can make a pretty shot, so it only made sense to split them up. Now, Ryan has clicked beautifully with Turris and MacArthur, but the team doesn’t have a reliable sixth forward to complete the Spezza-Michalek line. Coach Paul MacLean has rotated Mika Zibanejad and Cory Conacher in that position, but neither has stuck. Unless one of them finds his feet in that role soon, GM Bryan Murray will need to go shopping for another top-six forward if the team is to have any hope of rolling two reliable scoring lines. And the reality is that even with MacArthur and Ryan bringing more offence, the hole Alfredsson left as a franchise icon and galvanizing presence has been tough to fill.
Ryan and Turris, who is having a breakout year, have racked up 22 and 20 points, respectively, through the first 24 games, along with 20 from Spezza and 17 from MacArthur. And the biggest thing going right for the Sens is that Erik Karlsson looks like his Norris Trophy–winning self again—or even better—despite worries he might never be the same after the Achilles tendon injury that kept him out much of last season. He showed up for training camp with arms like Popeye’s and he’s played at a point-per-game pace, leading the team in scoring. But due to their chemistry problems, Ottawa’s team scoring is ridiculously top-heavy—after those elite five (and Michalek, with 13 points), production falls off a cliff.
Still, the biggest culprit in Ottawa’s woes this season isn’t the offence—it’s team defence. On the blueline, while Karlsson and Methot are a potent duo, the second defence pairing of Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch has been a disaster. Cowen missed most of last season due to hip surgery, then skipped part of training camp holding out for a new contract. Ottawa signed him to a four-year, $12.4-million deal in mid-September, but he’s struggled to the point that it would have been reasonable to make him a healthy scratch—and Wiercioch has gotten exactly that treatment for several games. Ugly giveaways and poor zone coverage make it clear that at 22 and 23 respectively, Cowen and Wiercioch are just not ready for this role. Murray has preached patience with his young defencemen—you can’t hurry experience—and his only real solution may again be
the trade market.
Goalie Craig Anderson and backup Robin Lehner would probably like him to act quickly. From the reboot of the franchise in 1992 until the start of this season, Ottawa had allowed opponents to pelt their goalies with 50 or more shots in just three games—and they’ve allowed that many shots three times so far in 2013–14. The season-opening West Coast road trip was a bloodbath, with Ottawa giving up 50 shots to San Jose and 56 to Anaheim on consecutive nights. The Ducks game set a franchise record for shots allowed, but the Sens outdid themselves a couple of weeks later, blowing a two-goal lead at home against the Islanders, allowing 57 shots. Not surprisingly, Anderson’s stats have slipped, but the harshest criticism you could fairly level at him is that he hasn’t been the superhero who last season delivered a .941 save percentage and 1.69 GAA for his depleted team. The Sens spend too much time in their own end, often leaving them too tired to forecheck, and their opponents are given too many opportunities to simply have their way with the puck.
Back at the rink, MacLean and his players are mostly quiet and flat these days, answering the same inevitable questions with sighs and dark laughs as they try to explain what they might not have figured out for themselves yet. But the morning of the Wild game, following a crushing 5–2 defeat to the Flyers the night before, Spezza offered a glimpse of the strain they’re under when he executed the rarest of hockey plays: answering a question candidly. He emerged from the dressing room in street clothes, hands jammed deep in the pockets of his down jacket, and started with the usual comments about how things simply had to get better, beginning with him and the other veterans. A reporter asked tentatively, “With all due respect, when’s it going to? We keep talking about it and asking about it—” Spezza, who’s usually genial and chatty, fixing his eyes on the floor with a thousand-mile stare while he answers questions, looked squarely at the guy with the microphone. “We keep talking about it because you guys ask us about it,” he said. “But we want to get better. We’re working on things, we’re changing some things. We’d prefer not to talk about it and just work on it.” He dutifully offered a few more answers, then walked out of the arena the moment the questions trailed off.
MacLean has been the perfect bench boss for this young team since taking over three seasons ago, his coaching personality like a cuddly sitcom dad who tells his boys to pull up a chair so he can make them pancakes while they talk about what’s bugging them. Now, though, he looks like he just discovered they drove the car through the back wall of the garage—pained and exasperated, but still kind enough to believe they can work off the damage with their allowance. “The hardest thing to do is watch it,” he said the morning of the Wild game. “I can be a little prickly at times and I have to really guard against that type of emotion. Frustration, to me, is a useless emotion and an energy-sapping emotion. I fight myself often to not be frustrated and to be the coach.” Managing the emotional state of his team right now calls for a lot of metaphorical pancakes, and the most important thing is also the hardest: trying to keep the pendulum from swinging too wildly when they’re either demoralized by yet another disappointment or desperately thrilled by a win. “Their emotions run just like all of ours, all of our fans,” MacLean said. “We could be lower than a sow’s belly and then we can be high as a kite. But our talk to them is always, ‘Let’s be consistent in our emotional level and not get too down in the downs and too high in the highs.’ Right now, it would be nice to have a couple of highs.”
They wouldn’t manage to grab one from the Wild that night, either. After the final whistle on that roller coaster of a game, the hallway outside the visitors’ dressing room filled with guttural hooting and a loud “Yeah, boys!” as the Minnesota players left the ice. The Senators’ dressing room was shielded by a pair of closed doors, and by the time they were opened to admit the media a few minutes later, the room was silent and abandoned except for the few players trotted out to miserably answer questions for which they still had no answers. With the plush carpeting swallowing footsteps and everyone clustered around speaking in quiet, pained tones, the atmosphere was a bit like a foul-smelling funeral home. “It just keeps amplifying, you know?” said MacArthur. “It’s really hard right now, but we’ve gotta keep the ship moving in the right direction. I think we’re getting closer.” Methot and Zibanejad answered a few questions in front of their lockers before slinking away. They were both wearing last season’s “Pesky Sens” T-shirts, now looking faded and worn.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.