Scanlan: Methot scratch suggests eight’s a crowd on defence

Life on the Senators blueline was supposed to be a dull, rather predictable place in 2013-14.

Scanlan: Methot scratch suggests eight’s a crowd on defence
Marc Methot the Ottawa Senators skates during practice held at Canadian Tire Centre, on January 17, 2014, in Ottawa, Ont. (Jana Chytilova / Ottawa Citizen)

Life on the Senators blueline was supposed to be a dull, rather predictable place in 2013-14.

It said so on the pre-season depth chart, set in ink, not pencil.

There was Erik Karlsson, the 2011-12 Norris Trophy winner, paired alongside steady Marc Methot, coming off such a strong 2012-13 season that he was invited to Canada’s pre-season Olympic orientation camp in the summer. A first pairing most NHL clubs would envy.

Next, a couple of promising young defencemen would round out the top four: Jared Cowen, the Senators’ ninth overall pick in 2009, following Patrick Wiercioch, a second-round (42nd) pick in 2008.

Completing the defence corps was a blend of veteran experience — long time Senators defender Chris Phillips and Joe Corvo, on a one-year deal — plus a younger player who made his presence felt in the 2013 playoff series victory against the Montreal Canadiens. Namely: Eric Gryba, a physical, stay-home type.

If one of the seven needed to be sent down for playing time, it would be Gryba, even though he would have to be exposed on waivers.

Somehow, this simple pre-season picture evolved to where we are today — the Senators becoming a can’t-keep-everyone-happy, eight-man defence corps.

Somehow, the club got to the point of Methot becoming a healthy scratch Thursday for a second straight game, the second time this season he has been benched despite saying he was fit to play.

Methot had what was believed to be a minor hip issue but announced himself good to go Tuesday in Washington. Head coach Paul MacLean opted to sit Methot as a precaution and Methot was clearly not happy, calling it a coach’s decision and adding, “I have to deal with that.”

Methot was quieter about Thursday’s decision, but was no doubt burning inside as he watched his teammates against the Tampa Bay Lightning. How does a 28-year-old defenceman go from being on Team Canada’s radar to being a healthy scratch in Ottawa?

“I love playing here and I want to be part of this team, so obviously when it comes down to a situation like this, I’ve got to respect it,” Methot said.

In making the call, MacLean said he wanted to reward Wiercioch and Gryba, who played in Tuesday’s victory, and have done their own time in defencemen’s limbo this season.

The fact Methot grew up in Ottawa, and is extremely popular here in both official languages, helped lead to some outrage on social media over his benching. Just the usual: coach is crazy, it’s a battle of egos, #freemethot kind of flavour.

Whether he played in game No. 51 of the season or not, Methot remains a key member of the blueline, as his 21 minutes per game (up slightly from last season) would suggest. Only Karlsson, with 27-plus minutes, gets more playing time.

MacLean does tend to bring back injured/ill players cautiously, as Methot knows only too well after having to sit out a couple of games in December despite declaring himself recovered from a flu virus.

It was with Methot ill and Cowen suspended that things got crowded on the blueline. Ottawa chose to call up from AHL Binghamton yet another local D-man with a bright future — Cody Ceci of Orléans.

Who knew that Ceci would play so well, so poised beyond his 20 years, that there was no way the team could send him back? During a season in which the Senators have struggled to be a consistently tight defensive group, Ceci was a godsend — arguably the smoothest skater in the group after Karlsson.

The complication with Ceci’s earlier-than-expected arrival on the scene is that the Senators have a serious glut on the blueline — two defencemen sitting each game — that won’t be rectified until general manager Bryan Murray moves a someone in a trade.

This could be sooner rather than later, given the Feb. 7 trade freeze before the Winter Olympics.

Next season, another local defenceman will be brought into the mix when Kanata’s Mark Borowiecki graduates to a one-way contract. Depending on how Murray decides to play his hand before the trade freeze and then before the March 5 trade deadline, the defensive situation could become more clear.

The contracts of Phillips and Corvo expire this season.

Interestingly, Murray had some interest in defenceman Michael Del Zotto, traded Wednesday from the New York Rangers to Nashville for Kevin Klein, but as Murray told us earlier, the Rangers had wanted Methot in any deal and that ended the conversation. The development of Ceci into a solid NHL defenceman negated Murray’s interest in shoring up his blueline and has him focused on acquiring a top-six forward.

Meanwhile, for the depth defencemen in Ottawa, there are bound to be frustrations — Wiercioch, Corvo and Gryba have combined to miss more than 60 games as healthy scratches.

As players have shuttled in and out of the lineup, the defensive pairings have been shaken and stirred to the point that everyone is comfortable playing with everyone. So there is that.

Methot is better than a depth defenceman and should get back to business as usual as early as Saturday in Carolina. If not, this little tempest could boil over.

wscanlan@ottawacitizen.com
Twitter.com/HockeyScanner

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