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Coaching, depth got Senators through injury problems

Paul MacLean has made a strong case for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. (Getty Images)

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Paul MacLean has made a strong case for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. (Getty Images)

If the Ottawa Senators can hold on for one more week and make the playoffs this season, it will be almost impossible not to vote for Sens coach Paul MacLean for the Jack Adams Award. But more importantly, it will mess things up from now on for teams who use injuries as a crutch.

Come to think of it, if the Senators don’t buckle, no team will ever be able to use injuries as an excuse ever again. As we all know by now, the Senators lost their best players at each position – Jason Spezza at forward, Erik Karlsson on defense and Craig Anderson in goal – for the vast majority of this season. And every time we saw them bend and expected them to break, they would come back with another series of gutsy efforts and get on a roll.

And while the Senators enter the final week of this (thankfully for them) abbreviated season, GM Bryan Murray doesn’t see his team fading out of the top eight. In fact, if the Senators can somehow win Monday against Pittsburgh and the Winnipeg Jets fall to the Buffalo Sabres in regulation time, the Senators are in the playoffs. (Any combination of points gained by Ottawa and lost by Winnipeg adding up to four will do it.)

“We’re not going to fall off,” Murray said. “We play too hard every night and our goaltending always gives us a chance to win.”

But it’s more than that. As the Senators have displayed this season, an organization can insulate itself against the effect of devastating injuries by having three things in place – an elite coach, superior goaltending and organizational depth. The Senators have used 13 skaters this season who fit the rookie criteria, a number that would be one higher if first-year defenseman Andre Benoit were not 29 years old. Of those 13 players, nine were original Senator draft picks, two were signed as free agents and two were acquired in trades.

This, of course, does not happen by luck. Generally speaking, the Senators don’t fill holes in their lineup with free agent acquisitions and have spent far under the salary cap this season. They’ve done it because they’ve been great at identifying potential NHL talent and nurturing it properly. A good example of how the Senators have both drafted and developed players came in the form of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who had points in his first two games after being recalled by the Senators.

“He could hardly play in the American League at the start of the year,” Murray said. “Luke (Binghamton Senators coach Richardson) did a great job with him there and he’s come up and Paul just puts him on the ice.”

It definitely helps when you can rely on veterans such as Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips – combined age, 74 – to log lots of important minutes. With the exception of Karlsson, who played only 14 games this season, no player on the Senators logs more ice time per game than Gonchar.
It will be a truly remarkable feat once the Senators wrap up that playoff spot this week. And it will also mark the official end of an excuse that has been around for time immemorial.

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OVIE POISED FOR HISTORY

Until this season, there was one player in NHL history who was named a first-team all-star at two different positions. Mark Messier was named to the first team as a left winger twice and once as a center during his Hall of Fame career. But that could all change at the end of this season if members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association have the presence of mind to vote for Alex Ovechkin as a right winger for this year’s all-star team.

Ovechkin has played all but four games as a right winger this season after being moved to that side in a brilliant decision by new Capitals coach Adam Oates. But he is still, and likely will for the rest of his career, listed by the NHL as a left winger, a position where he has been named the first-team all-star five times during his career.

It only makes sense to vote for him as a right winger this season, but it’s incumbent upon PHWA members to be aware of the change in position and not just go by the NHL statistics. That’s because the NHL tabulates votes for all-star teams simply by how they are submitted, so any votes that go to Ovechkin at left wing will be counted only for left wing, likewise for right wing. The danger here is that Ovechkin might not get on the first team at either position because his votes will be split between left and right wing.

The PHWA plans to send a message out to all its voters noting Ovechkin’s change in position. With none of the Western Conference voters having covered any Eastern Conference games this season, there’s a chance some might not be aware of Ovechkin’s switch.

JUST GO, MATTEAU

According to RDS, New Jersey Devils first-rounder Stefan Matteau quit the Blaineville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec League after Game 2 of his team’s playoff series because he was benched. The network also reported that Matteau took the fan bus back home from Baie Comeau instead of the team bus.

Wow, that will make for some awkward moments at the dinner table in the Matteau household, considering his father and former NHLer Stephane is an assistant coach with the Armada. I probably wouldn’t want to be the younger Matteau when Devils GM Lou Lamoriello calls at some point today asking for an explanation.

Not to disparage the QMJHL, but could you ever see something like this happening in the Ontario or Western Leagues?

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.

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