WRITTEN BY- Dennis
As I’m sure this was the case for many Senators fans, I found this past year incredibly challenging in finding a reason to watch our Ottawa Senators try to play a hockey game….and most of the time end up falling down the proverbial stairs.
In 2016-2017, we had a hockey team that prided itself on being able to control the tempo of the game through defending (in other words, slowing down and suffocating the opposition). In 2017-2018, it seemed like the Senators had abandoned everything that made them successful the previous season. So the question is, how did this happen? In my opinion, there are a whole host of reasons, but there is one that really stuck out to me.
You can actually hear that reason at about the 5:05 mark of Guy Boucher’s end-of-season press conference, “we did try to go towards more offence, and we probably lost ourselves in between [the balance between defence and offence]”. Just before that, he said “last year, we made the playoffs, and did what we did because we were top 10 defensively….and that’s where it lies”.
In other words, the Senators moved away from the defensive style that got them to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Finals, and tried to play a style of game that, in the end, didn’t suit them. To further accentuate that second quote, here are a couple of others from previous NHL head coaches.
One of my favourites is the old adage of teams needing to defend their way to the Stanley Cup which (I believe) was originally said by Scotty Bowman, owner of 9 Stanley Cups. The second is to “teach defense first and the offense will take care of itself”. That last quote came from Jacques Lemaire, owner of 8 Stanley Cups as a player, and one as a coach.
The point that I am making is that being good defensively is a must for any team, in order to be serious about winning a Stanley Cup. I am not disputing the fact that you do ultimately have to outscore your opponent to win the game, but the question I would pose to you is; what do you need first before you go on the offensive? This is where the importance of defending comes in. Defending isn’t about preventing goals against, it’s about getting the puck back, and the teams that are really good at puck retrieval, typically have the most success.
We have all heard of the term “team identity”, it refers to how that team goes about winning games (or losing games, if you do that enough). This is where you get different team-playing styles. You get some teams that play a run-and-gun style of game (which almost never gets you far in the playoffs), others that rely on a heavy and physical game, or maybe a puck possession style (to name a few).
In 2016-2017, the Ottawa Senators had a clear identity, built around controlling the game defensively, and frustrating their opponents (which only perpetuated more turnovers). This is what ultimately allowed that team to have that “soul” that Guy Boucher talked about at the end of that amazing run. There was a clear fit between the team and the playing style that the team used.
My question at this point would be, why change?
I understand the need for teams to continue evolving, the challenge in this instance is knowing the difference between evolving and changing. This goes even further back to when Guy Boucher first took over the team. He repeatedly explained that there is a difference between the two words. In short, evolving is improving along the same trajectory (example being a defensive team gets even better defensively). Changing is (as Guy put it) a complete alteration in direction (a defensive team tries to be more of an offensive team). There is absolutely a chance that a change could result in a better outcome, than if the change wasn’t implemented, but that certainly did not happen here.
Now, the question you might be asking is, would the Sens have fared any better had they stuck to their systems from the previous year. My answer is, they definitely would’ve been better, but would they have had a year like the previous one? I don’t think so. There were lots of players who couldn’t go through proper off-season training regiments, due to injuries during the run. I think they could’ve made the playoffs, maybe even won a round, but that’s it. The play of Anderson and Condon certainly didn’t help things, but I wonder how much of that was a result of the team’s play in front of them?
There were only a small handful of games where the Senators looked like the team from the previous year. The best example I could think of was the outdoor game against Montreal. Ottawa won 3-0, and I remember pointing it out several times that those Ottawa Senators looked like the ones from the previous year. Montreal only had 23 shots (30 is the acceptable average, generally 25 is considered good defensively).
In summary, I am suggesting that a big reason why the Senators had such a terrible 2017-2018 season is because they tried to be a type of team they couldn’t be. Offence is an integral part of any team, because well….you need to score goals to win. But you are never going to have the puck 100% of the time, and you need to be able to get it back relatively quickly. It’s not easy to be good defensively though, it requires a high attention to detail, a great deal of discipline, and a strong team-first commitment.
To me (especially as a hockey coach myself), this is what made 2016-2017 one of the best seasons in modern franchise history. The Ottawa Senators were a team, and their play showed it through and through. This past season, they looked almost the exact opposite.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. As a fan, I want my team to win every game (as we all do). At the end of the day though, what’s most important to me is seeing the team leave it all on the ice. “Come home with your shield or upon it” kind of thing. Win or lose, I’ve got all the time in the world for a team like that. It’s what made me become a Sens fan in the first place, it’s what made me want to coach minor hockey, and it’s what made this past season the most painful in recent memory.