Thomas
DeChastelain
Memorial Archives

Combinations to Unlock the Cup
posted Mar 23, 2006 at 02:17AM

I was going to call it the "The Return of Havlat - Redux", but as I write, I now would have to include the return of Fisher and Spezza as well. It does seem however, that all of these players will be available to us for the playoffs. And if the time off means that they will have more jump in their legs, then all the better.

The big difference between now, and the last time I speculated on play-off line combinations, is in the addition of Arnason. It adds a new dynamic and sets up some interesting debates of where to put everybody to get the strongest team possible. First to set up some historical reference points and baselines:

Below is the basic line-up when the Senators were in their early season peak and were dominating all opposition.

Pre-Nov 30- Baseline

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

From reading comments from Muckler and Murray, below is what I believe is going to be Murray's starting baseline when all the players will become available

Murray's Starting Baseline

Alfredson - Spezza - Heatley
Smolinski - Arnason - Havlat
Schaeffer - Fisher - Neil
Vermette - Kelly - Eaves

For my starting baseline, I will use the same, except on the fourth line, where I switch Kelly and Vermette to their natural positions. As has been argued previously, this move will be beneficial to both players and optimizes an already good combination..

Quasimodos Starting Baseline

Alfredson - Spezza - Heatley
Smolinski - Arnason - Havlat
Schaeffer - Fisher - Neil
Kelly - Vermette - Eaves



Well before doing any tinkering, I guess I should make one thing clear. If we had to go tomorrow with the above line up, I wouldn't be too unhappy. Not at all.

With McGrattan and Varada out, there are no more weak players. Yes, some players are better than others, but there is no one in the above line-up that cannot go out on the ice and do something positive. It does make it harder for Murray to screw things up. Now if he scratched any of the above players to put in McGrattan and Varada, then we go into that game with the perverbial one arm tied behind the back. We may still be good enough to win, but we will not be as good as we could be. If that happens I do promise this time not to use profanity.

The Kid Line

When you look at the starting baseline, and compare it to the pre-Nov 30 line-up you can see that Arnason does greatly improve the depth of this team. The most dramatic improvement comes on the fourth line. There the 6 combined goals of Varada/McGrattan are replaced with the 32 combined goals of Eaves and Vermette. The line gets a huge boost in speed and skill.

Indeed we become a team that has four true scoring lines. In this case forget the stigma of being on a "fourth" line. It is just not applicable on a team that wins a Stanley Cup.

Indeed, regular readers will know that I have been pining for the Kid line (two rookies, one sophomore) to be formed for much of the season. In my mind if this line had played together as a unit, for the whole season they would have been good for at least 50 to 60 goals. Vermette and Eaves would easily be 20 plus goals each ,and Kelly would surely be over 10.

Indeed I think that number is conservative. Right now Kelly is the laggard in the goal scoring department, but if I am correct, then putting him on wing would change all that. As well everyone talks about the chemistry between Vermette and Kelly, but Vermette/Eaves showed even better chemistry in the short time that they have played together. All in all the Kid Line would be a great secret weapon to unleash for the playoffs. This is not a "checking" line, it is not an "energy" line. It is a line that scores goals. And it is being added to a line-up that was the most dominant in hockey for the first two months of the season.

The Big Line.

This trio really needs no justification. Their numbers tell the tale. Rarely do you get a combination where you not only have three great individual players, but when put together, they really do give you something that is greater than the sum of their parts. You have the play making of Spezza with the shot-making of Heatley, all backed up by Alfredson, who can do both just as well as either.

Spezza is the real glue here. Alfredson, and Havlat and even Heatley may be better players, but Spezza is the most important. He is the kind of player who makes anyone who plays with him a better player. Heatley especially is just not the same point producer when he is away from Spezza. Spezza/Heatley are fully deserving of sacred cow status, and when joined with the Captain, they are the best line in hockey.

The Second Line.

Here is where I would make changes. It is obvious that the second line revolves around Havlat, one of the most skilled forwards in the league. He is easily the most enjoyable to watch. In my mind though, where Havlat goes, Schaefer goes. It has always been like this, and there is a reason. Schaefer is a creative player who likes to pass the puck. Havlat is a creative player who likes to have the puck. The two are a natural pairing.

So who should be the center? To me, that guy is Fisher.

Smolinski? He doesn't really have the speed to fully mesh with both Schaeffer and Havlat.

Is Fisher better than Vermette? Yes

Is Arnason better than Fisher? I say no.

Perhaps another way of putting it would be as follows: all things being equal would you trade Fisher, one for one, for Arnason?

I would not. If Chicago did get Fisher for Arnason, in a one for one trade, would they be "happy"?

I suggest that they would be very happy.

One of the knocks on Arnason coming out of Chicago is that he can be the best player on the ice on one night, and completely disappear on the next. We can't afford the risk, in a tight series of Arnason "disappearing". Especially on a line with Havlat, who for all his abilities, also has a tendency to sometimes disappear himself at times. You just can't have a second line where two people don't show up.

No, Fisher is the guy. Fisher always shows up. If Havlat is dozing then Fisher has the skill to take the puck and drive to the net by himself. If Havlat is on, then Fisher has the skill to dish pucks out with the best of them. Fisher easily has the wheels to fully capitalize the speed on his wings. There is no one in the league stronger on the puck, whether along the boards, or in open ice. His physical, relentless playing style gives him a premium in playoff hockey.

Ok, so when we pull back, we get this

Alfredson - Spezza - Heatley
Schaeffer - Fisher - Havlat
Smolinski - Arnason - Neil
Kelly - Vermette - Eaves


Well, I like it. We have four lines in sequence that can do some serious damage. With four lines you can maintain continuous and unrelenting pressure. And play-off games are as much about momentum as they are about goals.

I really like the fact that our top two lines, have our six best players. It doesn't always work out that way. To me it is a devastating combination of speed, skill with a nice touch of grit from Fisher, Heatley and Alfredson. Not only do you have two naturally flowing power-play units but you have also got PK capability up the wazoo. And when we are down to the last two minutes of a game, going for a tying goal, I can think of no better two lines, to rotate in and out of the game.

I like the Kid Line. I think it gives us the most powerful "fourth line" in the league. Indeed they would be ranked higher on almost any other team. There is good skill here and they have great line speed. They would be a legitimate scoring threat every time they were on the ice. Their work on the PK suggests that they could hold thier own, at least defensively, even against the other team's top lines if forced to.

I haven't spoken much about the third line. Smolinski, although on wing, is the real veteran anchor here. There has been nothing overly flashy about Smolinski this year, but he has been steady and has shown he can still find the back of the net. But since the tradeline date, Smolinski has noticeably picked up his game, and I think a lot of it has to do with playing with Arnason. So I like the two of them together here.

Arnason did an excellent job when he got bumped up into the top line in the Pittsburgh game. If he can maintain that standard of play, then we are fine. A lot does ride on this line. As I have mentioned, a key to Ottawa's success is the ability to put three strong lines capable of offense in sequence. One line passing momentum on to the next. If the third line falls flat, then the fourth line will have to start the sequence from scratch again.

Which brings us up to Neil. I know there is a train of thought out there, and it is valid, that one of the scorers on the Kid Line should be moved to beef up the third line. The more I think about it though, the more I am convinced that the whatever gains you may get on paper, will not be reproduced out on the ice. I don't say that lightly. You know I would love to see Vermette up there, and the "Insanity Line" put together. But outside of late third period game situations, I think the team, as a whole, is stronger if Neil stays there on the third line.

True, Neil is not scoring a lot of even strength goals. But this does not mean he has not been playing strongly when on the ice. He is getting good chances, and eventually some of those shots are going to start dropping in for him.

More importantly is the fact that Neil is the only forward we have, who goes out there and really lays the body on people every night. I would rather have that in the middle of the rotation, not at the end. Not only is he a follow-up to Fisher's physicality, his hitting will open things up, not just for Arnason, but for the Kid Line coming up behind. Hitting is just as important in maintaining momentum and pressure as is tic-tac toe passing.

The thing is, if you put Eaves in Neil's place, the fourth line will still be able to score some goals, but they are no longer a real scoring threat as a line. That extra layer of scoring depth is taken away from the team. Ditto if you put Vermette up there. Worse, it would mean not only taking Vermette away from his natural position of centre, you now also have to bring Kelly back off wing to take his place.

So that is my opinion of what the starting line combinations should be. Obviously depending on how things go, injuries etc, one would have to have contingency plans.

Final Iteration

Alfredson - Spezza - Heatley
Schaeffer - Fisher - Havlat
Smolinski - Arnason - Neil
Kelly - Vermette - Eaves

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