Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss whether the Ottawa Senators will alter their rebuilding strategy now that they are fighting for home ice in the playoffs, and what the Nashville Predators will do at the trade deadline.
Burnside: Good day, my friend. Well, it looks like there really is going to be a Battle of Ontario instead of the battle of the ragamuffins that has marked the collision of the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs the past couple of years. And is there any doubt that at this stage rookie Ottawa bench boss Paul MacLean has to be a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year for the work he’s done in keeping the young Senators afloat? They still give up way too much in their own zone (notwithstanding last night’s 5-1 pasting of the descending, injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Penguins), ranking 27th in goals allowed per game. But they can light it up, ranking seventh in goals per game, and are on a roll with a 6-0-1 record in their past seven.
The most impressive thing for me is that a young team that you might imagine would fold once you got to the midpoint of the season is actually gaining confidence and playing better. No team has scored more third-period goals than the Senators, who woke up Wednesday in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of the sixth-place Leafs. They’re actually closer to the top of the conference than they are to ninth place. Go figure. Guess general manager Bryan Murray will have to get out his "buyer" sign at the trade deadline instead of the "seller" one he’s used the past couple of years.
LeBrun: I clearly remember chatting with Murray in September, and his honest outlook certainly did not call for the team to challenge for home ice in the playoffs. No one in the Senators' front office ever thought they’d be sitting here at the midway point.
"No, we didn’t," Murray told ESPN.com Wednesday morning.
But it’s a credit, the veteran GM said, to the leadership of captain Daniel Alfredsson as well as veterans Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba, Sergei Gonchar and Chris Neil. The vets on the team have shown the way for a club full of young legs. And goalie Craig Anderson gives the Senators a chance to win every night, Murray added. But let’s get to the heart of this: A young, rebuilding core has stepped up like nobody predicted.
"There’s no doubt our young guys have been real important," said the Sens GM. "Some of them played in Binghamton [AHL] last year and won a championship. I think there’s some real good value in that."
And to your point, Scotty, MacLean deserves to take a bow. When a young team overachieves, the head coach is a big part of it.
"Paul and his staff have done a real good job," said Murray. "He’s given them a chance to play together and win. That’s a big part of what’s happening, too."
Burnside: During an early hot streak, I talked to MacLean about the learning curve, especially defensively for his young team. He had guys who had to learn to kill penalties at the NHL level, had to learn to defend at the NHL level, and it was a real challenge. They need to get better -- they’re 25th on the penalty kill -- if they’re going to turn a surprising first half into a surprise playoff berth, but it’s a terrific story for a team that looked to have little to celebrate this season outside of hosting the All-Star bash later this month.
Now, if you’re Murray, do you upset your rebuild plans and keep guys such as Kuba, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and add some depth along the blue line at the deadline?
The Sens were 26th in payroll, so that’s not an issue, but it’s also risky to give up some of the young talent Murray has accumulated through sell-offs the past couple of years. What must be enticing for Murray is that the Eastern Conference is wide open beyond Boston and New York right now and finishing in the top five or six actually gives them a decent shot at winning a round, which would have been unthinkable during training camp.
LeBrun: I posed that very question to Murray and he admitted that if his team keeps winning, it will change his outlook for the trade deadline -- at least the one he had envisioned entering the season.
"Yes, if we continue to get wins over the next month or so, you want to give your players the best chance you can," Murray said.
The overall plan hasn’t changed; this is still about long-term stability and building through youth. The Senators have more young players who will push for jobs next season, including world junior championship hero Mika Zibanejad.
But if there’s something that can help the team that won’t cost too much before Feb. 27, the Senators might jump at it.
"I'd be wrong if I didn't think that some of these older guys on our team didn't deserve a chance to be helped going into the playoffs, if that's where we end up,'' Murray said.
Murray likes his blue line and said if he adds anything before the deadline, it’ll be up front.
"We’d probably be looking for a forward," Murray said.
Again, it all depends on how the Senators do over the next month. And that’s just the boat many teams find themselves in. Are they buyers or sellers? Take the Nashville Predators, for example. Right now, they’re in a playoff spot. But where they sit come the last week of February will certainly have a bearing on what they do with Ryan Suter, who still hasn’t signed a contract extension.
Burnside: I love this time of year, because it’s filled with drama that changes on an almost daily basis. Win a few and you’re a buyer. Lose a few and you’ve got to look at maximizing your assets by possibly moving attractive veteran assets. Everyone knows that getting in the door to the playoff dance means anything can happen. That’s not just cliche bumph, either. We’ve seen teams rise up from the seventh and eighth seeds and go on long playoff runs. So for a team such as Nashville, it’s truly all about getting in the door.
But it’s also about balancing that with trying to feather your nest moving forward. Nashville is trying to establish itself as a perennial playoff team, a team capable of winning a Cup in the near future. Management hopes that’s attractive to guys like Ryan Suter, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and captain Shea Weber, who can become a restricted free agent this summer. It’s a delicate, chicken-egg thing, because it’s hard to imagine Nashville winning without those two guys, and if Suter hasn’t signed an extension, does David Poile need to move him at the deadline to try to restock his shelves to further his "winning" strategy down the road? Tough calls ahead, but for right now, I would be shocked if Poile moves Suter given the Preds’ belief that they’re a playoff team.
LeBrun: I spoke with Suter’s agent, Neil Sheehy, yesterday, as well as Poile. Both reported the status quo on Suter’s contract talks but said the dialogue continues. Poile’s overwhelming focus over the next month will continue to be just that: getting an extension done with Suter. In the meantime, perhaps there’s something Poile can do to entice Suter to stay on board? The message from Suter and Weber has been the same to the Preds’ front office: Show us that you’re serious about winning. I wonder, if the Preds went out and acquired a rental like winger Ales Hemsky from Edmonton, for example, would that influence Suter in signing an extension?
I think most people around the hockey world assume Suter will be moved if he isn’t signed by Feb. 27, given how Nashville hated the way the Dan Hamhuis situation played out a few years ago, but I think, as you explained above, it’s more complicated than that. I think it really depends on what Poile is offered for Suter. If there’s a trade that helps his team remain competitive, my guess is that he’ll look at it. Take the Philadelphia Flyers as a possible trade partner. I know they have listed Suter as their No. 1 target on their shopping list. If there’s a young forward in the package that can help Nashville now, does Poile jump at it? If the Preds are sitting in a playoff spot come Feb. 27 and the offers for Suter are solely based on draft picks and prospects, I’m not sure Poile can justify it. Tough call, as it always is at this time of year.