Thomas
DeChastelain
Memorial Archives

The Return of Havlat
posted Feb 13, 2006 at 11:33PM

Well we have finally reached that point where one can realistically start anticipating the return of Martin Havlatt back to the line-up. Everybody realizes right now that the Senators slide towards mediocrity started the game after Havlat was injured. Of course I have argued that our problems were more than just Havlat missing. Remember we won four out of five with Havlat gone during his five game suspension. As well, the reality is that until he came back from that suspension, Havlat was not scoring that much, even though he was playing well.

Mox nix as they say. The Senators will certainly be better with Havlatt than without him. Havlatt is one of the best forwards in the league and certainly the most enjoyable to watch. While we are on Olympic break, it is time to put on our arm-chair coaches hats and wonder what our lines could like with him back in circulation.

As a baseline let us start with the line-up that was in use before Havlat was injured and Ottawa was the dominant team in the league. Specifically the line-up that was used between the Buffalo game where Havlat came back from his suspension, and the Montreal game where he was injured. The line-up was as follows

Alfredson-Spezza-Heatley
Schaeffer-Vermette-Havlat
Smolinski-Fisher-Neil
Varada-Kelly-McGrattan

Now when Havlatt was injured, Fisher should have been a one for one replacement for Havlat. The second line was a speed and skill line and with Fisher it would have remained that way.

Somlinski would have stayed on the third line but moved over to center. Eaves again would have been called up, and either he or Varada would have moved up on wing on the third line. Not as strong as before, but we would have still had three strong lines, with minimum disruption. Of course that is not what happened and that has already been discussed in detail.

Knowing what we know now at this juncture of the season, how should the Senators be organized?

Well I think a good first crack would go as follows:

Alfredson-Spezza-Heatley
Schaeffer-Fisher-Havlatt
Varada-Smolinski-Neil
Kelly-Vermette-Eaves

Yes they have been in a slump but the "big" line is the chief reason we are still in the hunt for the President's trophy, and the reason we are leading the league in most offensive categories. They are the "Crunch Line" because when you are in the crunch, and the game is on the line, these are the guys you want on the ice.

For the second line we replace Vermette with Fisher. The book on Vermette has yet to be written, but as of right now Fisher is the more complete, seasoned player. Outside of raw speed, and perhaps face-offs, Fisher is just that little bit better than Vermette in every area of the game.

Remember also that this is Vermette's first full season. For all intents and purposes, he is a rookie, and when he is playing with any one of our top four "super-stars" he has this tendency to defer to them, and in doing so negates his own strengths.

The last game with Atlanta had a classic example. Vermette steals the puck and breaks in over the blue-line. On his own, he probably would have tried to storm in along the boards; but right behind him is the "mighty" Alfredson. Vermette stops and tries to force-feed the puck to the best player on the ice. The play gets broken up, they go the other way and Alfredson ends up getting called for a holding penalty.

That will fix itself with seasoning and as his confidence continues to grow. It may very well even happen before this season ends.

What we have now is arguably the best top six in hockey. A tremendous 1-2 punch with incomparable skill and speed. As well, we have two naturally flowing power-play units.

One of the shortfalls of our current line up is that we really only have one full-fledged power-play unit. Because of that, they are being left out there for most of the two minutes and are just running out of gas by the end. With Havlatt's return we will have two potent power-play units that we can throw out there in sequence.

The third line is exactly as used in the last Flyer's game. Nothing flashy, but three competent, experienced players. Neil and Varada can dole out the physical punishment.

The fourth line is the Kid line. It is important that Vermette be the center. Kelly plays just as well on wing as he does center, but Vermette comes alive as a center and is a much better player so there is lots of value add in making this simple switch. Playing center allows him to exploit all of his strengths, speed, range, sense of anticipation and passing. This is how you get the biggest contributions from each player in a game.

And when push comes to shove, Vermette is simply a better center-man than Kelly. He is faster, handles and passes the puck better and has a better face-off winning percentage.

Kelly-Vermette is a proven combination and in the few games they had together, Vermette-Eaves is even better. Have no doubts, I believe this line to have much more offensive potential than the Smolinski line. One reason they are "fourth" is to avoid any complications arising from dressing room politics.

Varada and Smolinski who pull in combined $4 million a year in salaries, may not be happy to see three kids who make only a quarter of their wages higher in the rotation than themselves.

I believe that there are also tactical advantages having ths kids as the fourth line, especially when on the road. You can imagine opposing coaches would be very open to putting their top lines against the Smolinski line, which is more pedestrian in terms of overall line speed. They will get no such advantage against the kids who all have good wheels. As well since they all have seen a lot of time on the PK, playing against the other team's best players is not a daunting exercise.

You have a lot of speed on this line and all three have yet to even scratch the surface of their goal scoring potential.

In the end which line is "second", "third" or "fourth" is more a case of semantics The above line-up is much more a team of four lines, not a team with a "fourth" line.

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