Senators Update – Part 2 (Defense & Goaltending)

By Nathan Estabrooks

Defence

The Ottawa Senators blue line is a very crowed place; it has been so for a few years now. Ever since the Nashville expansion draft, protecting the plethora of defenseman has been a major concern for management. Coach Jacques Martin likes to play six defensemen
(and often times seven). Laukkanen was off loaded to Pittsburgh, and Kravchuk will probably not be resigned. That leaves youngsters Redden, Philips, Salo, and Traverse along with the ageing York. Forget about Grant Ledyard who is referred by teammates to as old yellar. He will most likely retire. Salo and Traverse are now everyday players. This leaves Karel Rachunek as the only prospect left. John Gruden was recalled from Grand Rapids a few times, but injury problems were not kind to the former Bruin. (Rachunek has been a pleasant surprise. The ninth round, 229th ’97 draft pick was not supposed to be in camp that first year and certainly was not supposed to make it as deep into camp as he did the year after that. There is nothing flashy about this player but the most off-putting thing about him is his confidence. Rachunek did not look out of place back there. He was more defensively sound then Philips or Salo. He is progressing at the usual pace, and unless the inevitable Yashin trade brings a solid NHL defenseman, Rachunek will most likely find himself playing 50 games in the frigid capital this winter.)
Defence is a very mental position. It is possible for Julien Vauclair and other prospects to make a big leap this year, but Grand Rapids will probably be their home come October. This is an area Johnstone will look at very closely over the next month. When the entry draft roles around you can expect as many defensemen picked as forwards; not the sort of players who can play their first or second year, but those who follow Rachunek’s familiar path to the NHL.

Goaltending

The most perplexing area for the future Ottawa Senators is in goal. Johnstone traded Ron Tugnutt and Janne Laukkanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trading deadline, which proved to be a move in preparation for the expansion draft. Laukkanen was undecided as to whether he would remain in North America next year instead of returning to his native
Finland. Tugnutt although adored throughout the community had drawn the ire of the fans and media for his mediocre play down the stretch. This would indicate that the Senators had a goaltender ready for prime time. Perhaps even Tom Barasso, who was the asset acquired for Tugnutt and Laukkanen, would be this goalie. Yet the Senators have made no indications they are prepared to ink Barasso to a deal this summer. Indeed it doesn’t appear that he himself is overly interested in returning here. Then there is Patrick Lalime. While not stunning, the 6’3″ goaltender was solid and dependable this past year. Since the chimerical rookie run of shutouts a year or two back, Lalime was chased from the league for outlandish contract demands and when rescued by the Senators was licking his wounds in the Anaheim organization. Johnstone has hinted that he feels Lalime deserves increased responsibility.

That leaves at least one spot to be filled. Jani Hurme has played but one full regular season game for Ottawa; which he won. There isn’t really any reason to suggest this treatment is unfair. Hurme was once mighty Jokereit’s MVP, yet has not been a dominant minor league goalie. This is despite playing on respectable teams in Cincinnati and Grand Rapids. In fact, Hurme who perennially teases the Ottawa fans with brilliant preseason performances has slipped down the depth chart to fourth behind Simon Lajeunesse and Mathieu Chouinard. The two Quebec league goaltenders will most assuredly not see NHL action next year and probably not the year after that. Mathieu Chouinard was the final first round pick of Pierre Gautier. Projected to one day be a game saving netminder Chouinard’s lustre has
been tainted slightly. Firstly, his angles are bad. In fact for a big man the angle game should be an integrated aspect of your play, yet Chouinard seems to prefer flopping about in a tribute to a dying fish. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Chouinard’s work ethic has been in question. When he reported to camp this spring, he announced that he would make the team, yet unfortunately he was returned post haste. It would seem that hubris is perhaps the greatest enemy for our Mr.Chouinard. His play in the QMJHL this season has been less then excitable, and indeed, he has been overtaken in the mind of Senators management by last year’s second pick, Simon Lajeunesse. Another problem, which may be marked against Chouinard, is that he and the club are currently arguing over a contract. As with all rookie contracts in the NHL the bonus clause is the contended issue. The team has until June 1st to sign the netminder, at which time he would re-enter the draft. Don’t expect Mathieu Chouinard to be an Ottawa Senator.

It is the unheralded Simon Lajuenesse who most impresses these Ottawa Senators. While posting a very respectable year with the Moncton Wildcats, Lajuenesse has excelled in the area where it seems Chouinard mostly failed. Lajuenesse appears keen to learn and at the same time is realistic. He does not expect to play next year, and understands the road goaltenders take to the NHL is a long, winding one. It does not look as though the Senators and Johnstone believe their backstopping questions will be answered through the draft.There are rumours making the rounds in Ottawa that once the Alexi Yashin arbitration case is settled the Senators will trade his rights for a bona fide number one goaltender. Fellow AWOL Russian Nikolai Khabibulin perhaps? Dan Cloutier of Tampa has been mentioned as well. It seems more and more apparent that the Senators can’t compete in an Eastern conference with the likes of Cujo and Brodeur. They must get possession of this most important of chess pieces. Therefore, a trade or free agent signing is the most likely solution. I would not expect the Senators to draft a goalie higher then the 5th round in this year’s
entry draft.