Memorial Archives

Getting Well Again - Part 2 - Embracing The Right Philosophy
posted Apr 17, 2006 at 03:11AM

Every team has its own personality, and characteristics. They all have their own unique nature. In order for that team to play at their best, they must incorporate a style of play that is consistent with that nature. To do anything else is the equivalent of trying to put the perverbial square peg in a round hole. What you get are "problems".

Take the Calgary Flames for example. They are considered a very strong team. No one wants to play them. They are a top contender for the Cup. They are, of course, not a perfect team. It is well known that one of their vulnerabilities is their lack of offensive power, the ability to score a lot of goals.

So what should Sutter do? Try to make his team play "fire-wagon" hockey? To model them on the Oilers of the 80's? Try to make them a "run and gun" team? Of course not.

They are a team of big tough grinders. They hit everything that moves. They play a tight defensive game, that revolves around a top ranked defense corps, and the best goalie in the league. They literally wear the other team down to the point where a few key players can get them the goals they need to win hockey games. To try and make them something they are not, would just result in a competitive team being turned into a mob of frustrated, disjointed individuals.

Or how about the Montreal Canadians? They are at their best when they play two-way hockey. They embrace the team concept. Balanced lines. Two way play. Equal empahsis on offence and defence. They have to. They have no choice. Except for Kovalev they have no real outstanding offensively skilled players. They do not have the defence corp of a Calgary or Ottawa.

I am sure there are some Montreal old timers who remember their glory years with Lafleur's hair flying in the wind and wishing that they start playing "fire-wagon" run and gun hockey again.

The trouble is, if they did, they would get killed and would not be even be close to competing for a playoff spot. It is not in their nature or capability to play that kind of hockey. If they tried the team would soon get sick and start to fall apart.

So now we come to the Ottawa Senators who are looking sick and who look to be on the verge of falling apart. The principle applies as well, except here the circumstances are totally different.

We are a run and gun team. We are a team that is built on speed and skill. We are supposed to be playing fire-wagon hockey! To play our best game, we need to be trying to blow the other team out of the water.

Just try to recall the whole zeitgeist that surrounded this team at the beginning of the year. I remember Philips being quoted in pre-season saying that Murray had made it clear that "inside our blue line we would do things his way . . .but outside the blue line we would be free to do things our way".

Sportswriters wanted to pin medals on his chest for unlocking the offensive potential that had been locked up by Jacques Martin's suffocating "systems".

Offense, offense. offense ... it permeated everything we did. Consider what at the time was considered an act of genius, by putting Alfredson up with Spezza and Heatley This overloading of offensive talent onto one superline completely went against the grain of the prevailing myth that you had to "spread out" your scoring. He did the opposite, and the results speak for themselves. It is in good part because of the Big Line that we were leaders in not only goals for, but in fewest goals allowed. And of course the talent was so overwhelming that whenever they were on the ice opposing teams simply had no answer.

Of course speed was the defining characteristic of our first two, and arguably first three lines. We were essentially a three line team, but those three lines could maintain continuous offensive momentum. We dominated in nearly every game we played.

Remember Murray's approach to the PK. The prevailing wisdom was that you had to put a bunch of Bob Gainey's out there. Murray blew that apart by putting offensive stars like Alfredson and Heatley, Schaefer and Havlat out there to kill the penalties. Imagine the shock of the other teams. Here they are on the powerplay, expecting two minutes of relative comfort, and suddenly they are scrambling to stop a team that is pressing the attack!

And of course it all makes sense in hindsight. The attributes you need to be an offensive player; speed, puck-handling, that sense of anticipation of where the puck is going to be, are all the attributes you also need to kill penalties. Is it any wonder that it is the Gretzky Oilers that hold the record for most short-handed goals in a season?

Remember our approach to fore-checking? It was the basketball equivalent of a full-court press. We sent minimum two guys in, and often three. Constant, continuous pressure. We wanted the tempo of the game to increase. Speed was our friend. Remember that this constant pressure fore-checking got some murmuring going amongst some people. who were getting uptight about our lop-sided wins.

Reporters were asking Murray and trying to accuse him of running up the score. "Not so" he responded. "In the new NHL no lead was safe. You had to keep the pressure on. You had to keep the pedal to the metal". In other words, screw you. We are not going to give you a chance to catch up anymore. We are not laying back on leads like we used to. As the saying goes, "safe = death".

Of course all of this high octane hockey was fun. It was fun to watch, and it was fun to play. How many times did we hear Spezza or other players talking about having "fun playing hockey"

Well no one is having fun now, watching or playing.

How did we get from being the juggernaut of the NHL to a team that has only won 3 of our past 12, and is getting trounced by non-playoff teams? Like all bankruptcies, it happened slowly, and then suddenly.

The long version can be found in my "as I saw it" impressions throughout the year. However a shorter version is needed.

The real start date of our down trend remains Nov 30. On that day Murray demoted Vermette from being our number 2 center "to the doghouse". On the next day Havlat was injured. Two thirds of our second line were suddenly gone. Even with Havlat's injury Vermette remained on the fourth line. People on the fourth and third lines, and call-ups were instead moved up in the rotation.

We started losing games immediately. We stopped dominating immediately. We no longer had the three lines of concentrated offensive force, needed to maintain continuous pressure.

Injuries exacerbated the situation, but only acted to hide the underlying real problem of diluted lines. Perversely Murray compensated for this by breaking up the Big Line in an effort to bolster the second and third lines. This did not solve the only made it worse. We had gone from concentrating offensive force, into diluting it. We played little better than .500 hockey after that date.

We did have a surge in our level of play starting near the Olympic break. That was due almost totally to chance, (McGrattan's injury) which saw Schubert being brought in to play with Kelly and Vermette. It was a combination that worked immediately. Kelly and Vermette started scoring goals. Temporarily it gave us that "missing" line. Despite not having Hasek, we had a fantastic March, breaking the record for most wins. But injuries forced Schubert into other service, Vermette and Kelly were split up, and our problems began anew. Indeed the injuries to our defencemen only amplified the project of turning us into a defensive minded team.

Over that time, the whole rhetoric used to describe what we should be doing started changing. No longer did we "keep the pressure on", we started to "manage leads". Suddenly we were trying to do "too much" with the puck. Measures are taken to "simplify" our game. Dump it in, got to the front of the net. No longer did we have a constant pressure fore-check. That was too risky, we could get it is "defence by committee." All of our problems are described in terms of our inability to play defense. The more defense we play, the more our previous offensive style was compromised. Nobody seemed to notice that the more we tried to become a more defensive minded club the more goals we started letting in.

All of this culminated in our last game with Toronto. We had all of our forwards back. But they were organized in lines which saw different skill levels thrown together in an ad hoc fashion, and playing a defensive system totally alien to their true nature.

Imagine the Oilers of old being forced to just dump the puck in, and only sending one man in with everyone else ready to move back and play the trap and take care of their defensive responsibilities. It would be a kind of soul-sucking torture.

We looked like a conflicted team out there. Wanting to do this, but being told to do that. They wandered around the ice like lost sheep. That is what happens when you try to turn skilled players into "grinders". The result was we got gutted by an inferior team, who on the other hand, were playing according to their nature. The Leafs only have enough talent to mount a powerplay. Other wise they are clutch and grab, trusting that the referees will be in non-call mode, and knowing that it would drive us into retaliation penalties which they could capitalize on. The game was disgusting because it was nothing but a replay of every stupid, unnecessary, playoff loss we have suffered at their hands.

Now here is the kicker. This can be changed very quickly. In one game. Like overnight. Like right now.

All that has to happen is to return to the philosophy and ethos which made us a dominant team. Concentrate as much offensive speed and talent as you can on each line. Make sure each line has compatible levels of skill.

And then let them loose!

Tell them to go out and score goals. Think offense. Think speed. Bring back the over-aggressive fore-check. Think constant pressure, constant momentum being passed from one line to the next. Go back to "pedal to the metal". "Run and gun baby" ... fire-wagon hockey. Never sit on a lead.

That is what this team was built to do. That is the true nature of the Ottawa Senators and that is the type hockey it should play.

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