So with training camp coming up and NHL player additions all but dried up around the league, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that teams have their rosters finalized at least through camp. And that leads me to ask with all due respect to the Sens organization, “What the hell??”
We were told fairly emphatically at the beginning of the offseason that the Sens were well aware that they needed to address their Top 6 forward situation. Bryan Murray stated publicly that the Sens would be attempting to fill this hole (or more accurately, holes) through free agency and if that was not possible, then they may need to go through the trade route. In any case, a major move was pending and it was only a matter of figuring out who was a) available and b) willing to come here for the right price (money or traded assets).
Someone forgot to send the memo to fans after the Nikita Filatov trade at the draft, that this was the move. Now I don’t have an issue with that trade but a) it’s a gamble on a player who has yet to establish himself in the NHL, let alone one that can produce consistently in a Top 6 role and b) he’s a winger. There was presumably another shoe left to drop. The Sens dealt their established 2nd line centre, Mike Fisher in part because he just wasn’t consistently putting up enough points in that spot enough for the team or fans’ liking. There is almost a 100% certainty that no other options exist on this team currently that will even approach Fisher’s production that wasn’t cutting it.
The jettisoning of Top 6ers Fisher and Alexei Kovalev (and to a lesser extent, occasional Top 6 fill-in Chris Kelly) was necessary for many reasons and should not be questioned. But unlike the rest of the lineup, the issue with the 2nd line centre position is that there is no one in place that is in any way qualified to be given a shot. I am absolutely flabbergasted that the team has seemingly chosen to fill this all so important position internally with the lack of candidates currently in place, especially since the cap space is there and they presumably had the will to spend some money on someone as recently as June.
I will be very interested to hear what the management and coaching staff have to say once camp gets going about who they feel the candidates are. I suspect for the most part, they’ll be throwing out some names while carefully averting their eyes so as not to betray their true feelings.
Obviously, it’s easy to put together the short list of possibilities: in order of likelihood, Peter Regin, Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa. I think we can safely say, barring a miracle that Da Costa will be playing the majority of this season in the AHL in order for him to acclimatize to becoming a pro player, much the same way Bobby Butler did last season. Da Costa’s short stint up here last year did nothing to instill confidence that he could be a player who could be relied on to provide an offensive presence in the NHL at this point in his career.
Zibanejad is 18 and has not established himself as either a professional or someone who has played in North America. Despite the Sens signing him to allow him to participate in camp this year, it is a huge stretch to imagine him being able to be at the level necessary for them to feel confident in playing him in such an important role. If he were to struggle initially to produce, then the fanbase and media would be all over him which wouldn’t be fair to an 18 year old who should be developing in a lower league where he can dominate before taking his crack at the NHL. It is a rare case where an 18 year old makes an NHL lineup and does anything of consequence. In watching Zibanejad at the development camp, I don’t see anything that indicates he’s one of those special players yet. I think he’ll be a very good hockey player in this league eventually but his time is not now and the Sens shouldn’t put him in a role that he will almost assuredly not live up to expectations in so soon.
So that leaves our old friend Peter Regin. Personally, I don’t get the fascination with fans who insist he is an offensive star in waiting. I have friends that will swear up and down that the Sens only need to give this guy a chance, and he’ll be capable of lighting it up like he’s been destined to since arriving in North America. I’ve watched a lot of Peter Regin games and there is not one thing that he has accomplished so far that has swayed me from the first impression I’ve had of him. He looks like he will be a very good 3rd line centre in the NHL. He possesses good speed, strong positioning and smarts, and plays very defensively responsibly. To me, he projects as Chris Kelly with slightly more offensive punch. That screams 3rd liner to me and I wish the team would come to this realization sooner rather than later before they completely wreck his confidence and have him run out of town. Because trust me, if he is inserted into the lineup this year as the 2nd line centre and the inevitable struggles occur in the first couple months of the year, you’ll be hearing the cries in both the fanbase and media to get the guy off this team which isn’t fair to him. He, like Zibanejad just shouldn’t be put in a position to fail.
Regin had a monumentally terrible season last year (which began right from a lacklustre performance in camp) mercy killed by a fairly serious injury. I can’t see why he should be depended on to do anything more than compete for a spot on the NHL roster in camp this year. Milan Michalek, Alexei Kovalev and Filip Kuba last year showed what diminished expectations there should be on a player coming off of an injury at the start of the year (and unlike Regin, these were all established front line players with a history to fall back on). You would have thought the Sens had learned their lesson. But I guess we’ll have to wait for the inevitable underwhelming performance in camp this year to hear what the Sens really plan on doing.
What’s mind boggling about this conundrum is that despite this being a “rebuild” this team as constructed as pretty decent depth in all other components of their roster. Their goaltending with Anderson and Auld along with Lehner trying to bulldoze the door from the AHL, is as good as its been since forever. Their defense corps has question marks but also has a healthy dose of young, NHL-ready (some admittedly closer than others) defensemen (Rundblad, Cowen, Borowiecki, Gryba and Wiercioch) pushing the veterans (Phillips, Gonchar, Kuba, Karlsson, Carkner and Lee). There’s a strong mix of old and new in there. Even the bottom six forward group has a nice mix of players who can play their role efficiently and not be liabilities out there. With the addition of Konopka, the Sens can now boast for the first time that they can compete physically (at least on these lines) with any team in the league. All of their physical players (Neil, Smith and Konopka) can keep up with the play and with Smith, you’ve got a very strong penalty killer who possesses some offensive punch as well. Konopka is one of the league’s top faceoff men and is a strong penalty killer in his own right. More intriguing is the addition of the Bingo grads (Greening and Condra) who can be inserted throughout the lineup and asked to play different roles and have shown that they can score at this level while playing with different linemates. Too bad they’re both wingers, I might have suggested either one of them to be thrown into the 2nd line mix just for the hell of it.
I shudder to think of what the centre depth will look like once Spezza is out of the lineup for his inevitable 10-20 games. In that scenario, I suppose you would have Peter Regin as your 1st line centre and I guess Zack Smith as the 2nd line centre? Just scary…
This whole rant may sound silly considering we are very much in the middle of a rebuild and teams doing this tend to try and give their young guys chances to establish themselves. But given that I’m not seeing any viable candidate who is even remotely in this position, I think the organization has done itself a disservice by not bringing in some insulation for Spezza for the short term. It’s one thing to develop your prospects, it’s another to essentially ensure that the team will struggle mightily in a key position and thereby increasing the odds that these prospects could have their development stunted by being put into unfavourable positions and a toxic losing environment.
If the Sens do plan on addressing this need internally, might I suggest taking another look at another forgotten man, Nick Foligno? Although he’s played as a winger here, his natural position is centre (something he did all through Junior) and they’ve already moved him over a few times last year. Foligno has shown flashes of providing offense in the past and has the size to be able to hold up there. I’m not even fully on board with this suggestion and more than likely he won’t end up doing enough in that spot to justify him staying there longterm. But given the alternatives, I think this is the best option available.
I of course, reserve the right to take back everything I just wrote if the Sens make a magical trade prior to camp like I’ve been waiting for them to do since July 1st. But until that happens, the head scratching continues on this end….