Veteran defencemen step up for Senators

Veteran defencemen step up for Senators
General Manager Bryan Murray is deep in thought as the Ottawa Senators practice at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, March 19, 2014, . (Photo by Wayne Cuddington/ Ottawa Citizen)

 

As the upstart Ottawa Senators aim to secure a playoff berth in the next few days, Chris Phillips is offering his share of advice to the club’s younger defencemen.

He knows his mutterings only go so far, though.

“Those are just words and if they listened that well, I would be telling them to score more goals,” Phillips said, with a laugh, when asked about dressing room conversations with 21-year-olds Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen. “You try and say the right things, but ultimately, it comes down to wanting to lead by example and then you want guys to follow along.”

Indeed, the club’s veteran leaders on defence – Phillips, Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar – certainly shouldn’t be overlooked in the Senators’ surprising season.

While Karlsson has received plenty of fanfare in his run for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman and Cowen has delivered a solid first season – he should receive some consideration for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie – the experienced blueliners have also rather quietly done their share.

Maybe it’s because coach Paul MacLean has loosened the leash on his veteran players, compared to the hard-nosed approach of former coach Cory Clouston. Perhaps it’s due to improved health or being surrounded by so much youth in the dressing room. Whatever the reasons, the trio has experienced a dramatic turnaround from a year ago.

Phillips, 34, has four goals and 14 assists and is sporting a plus five in the plus/minus department. Those are decent numbers for a stay-at-home type, but the statistics also represent a remarkable improvement when compared to his dismal totals of 2010-11: one goal, eight assists and a ghastly minus 35, a number which only looks good on the PGA Tour.

Kuba, 35, who has been paired with Karlsson for most of the season, has six goals and 25 assists. Most impressive, however is his plus/minus figure of plus 29, which ranks fourth in the NHL. A year ago, when he dealt with leg and shoulder injuries and never became comfortable, he sported a chilly minus 26, to go along with his meagre two goals and 14 assists.

Then there’s Gonchar, who has served as Cowen’s partner for much of the season. Gonchar, who turns 38 in two weeks, still leaves fans wanting for more offence (he has four goals and 31 assists), but he has been a steadying influence on Cowen. Last season, his first as a Senator, Gonchar appeared lost under Clouston’s coaching.

The way coach Paul MacLean sees it, all three have been pivotal to the success of Karlsson and Cowen.

“(Phillips) has played real well all year,” said MacLean. “His play and Filip Kuba’s and Sergei Gonchar’s play and the leadership they’ve provided has been real good. It has allowed Karlsson to be the player he is. It has allowed Cowen to come in and play like he has.”

In turn, general manager Bryan Murray gives MacLean credit for giving his veteran players some “ownership of the team” and the motivation for their turnaround seasons.

It’s funny what a difference a year makes. Last April, Murray was facing criticism for signing Phillips to a three-year, $9.25 million extension. If anyone was willing take Kuba off the Senators hands, they would have traded him away for virtually nothing. While there’s little chance the Senators will keep Kuba when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer – the Senators need the cash to re-sign Karlsson to a lucrative new deal – his presence has allowed Karlsson to flourish. Gonchar is still overpaid at $5.5 million per season, but he also has the most playoff experience of any defenceman on the team as the post-season approaches.

During the crucial stretch to the post-season, MacLean has also increased Phillips ice time significantly – he has played 23:45, 22:32 and 20:42 in the past three games – while Cowen has seen a reduction in ice time. Phillips has been here countless times, including his first taste of the post-season in 1997 when Jacques Martin used him sparingly as a left winger. Accordingly, he has become more than simply a voice of experience as the pressure rises.

“That’s why we play, to make it to the playoffs and (if) you get there, you have a chance….anything can happen,” he says. “It’s about that goal, that dream of winning the Stanley Cup and we’ve all had that since we were little kids.”

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