The Not-So-Great Fix: Returning the Ottawa Senators to the Playoffs

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Ottawa was eliminated from playoff contention this week, finally putting 2014’s frustrating, puzzling version of the team out of its misery. Though it’s been a foregone conclusion for a while now: they haven’t had a better than 40% chance of the playoffs since late November, in the middle of what we now understand to be a precipitous drop in fortune from above 60% probability to below 20% in December. The team never recovered from that.

Looking back, we’ll all find different points in the season where it went wrong. Multiple losses to the likes of Edmonton and Calgary; one of the several afternoon game defeats; maybe one of the many blowouts.

It will be a long off season for Ottawa, full of questions and without even the requisite amateur draft scouting to tide us over due to Ottawa’s lack of a first round pick. In other words: there’s plenty of space and time for soul searching.

Assumption: The Ottawa Senators are a bubble team—young, with compelling pieces like Erik Karlsson, Mika Zibanejad, Robin Lehner, and Kyle Turris, but without the influx of blue chip prospects or new revenues that could spur them into contender territory.

If you assume you need 92 points to make the playoffs (your bubble), and you assume a bubble team has a standard deviation of about 10 points in the standings in either direction from the bubble (I haven’t done the math on this, but a 10 point deviation would determine whether a team is in or out of the playoffs, but would not put them among the top or bottom five teams in the league), then Ottawa, if its goal is not to take major step back, should strive to maintain its window of between 82 and 102 points in the standings.

Ottawa is on pace for about 85 points this season, which means they’re performing within the standard deviation of a bubble team. On the lower end of that deviation, to be sure, but not so drastically badly that you’d think there needs to be a major overhaul.

There’s no emergency here. No rebuild required. Consider that, as of this writing, the team has more OT/shootout losses than all but New Jersey and (weirdly) Chicago, and that they maintain one of the lowest payrolls in the league. They’re well within their normal state as a mediocre team that can still, occasionally, make the playoffs and hope to catch fire. I’m not saying this is the best way to win a Cup. (Or any way at all to.) But it is the best that a small market team with a poor owner (relatively speaking) can hope for.

So the question: how do the Ottawa Senators squeeze at least another seven points out of next season, become a 92 point team, and make the playoffs? Seven measly points. I don’t think it would take much.

They could stand pat and hope for a bounce-back year from Bobby Ryan and Craig Anderson, as well as some improvement from Jared Cowen and better luck in OT or the shootout. And that could be more than enough. But there are a few other key steps that could help them out along the way.

Problem #1: Too many penalties.

Ottawa takes more minor penalties than almost every other team in the league, and the chief offenders in that regard are Chris Neil and Zack Smith. That’s minor penalties – not the kind of “stick up for your teammate” stuff that agitator / enforcer apologists will use to justify their continued existence. While Clarke MacArthur and Eric Gryba also take far too many minor penalties, one could argue (especially in the case of MacArthur) that their possession numbers or stats bring far more to the table than this one aspect of their game detracts. Not so with Ottawa’s checking line.

Combine Neil and Smith’s propensity for penalty box thinking with Colin Greening’s drop from the productivity cliff and it means that every time Ottawa sends their third line over the boards, fans are biting their nails that they won’t either do something stupid and put the team down a man or simply lose the play in transition.

The Fix: Trade or buy out Chris Neil and possibly Zack Smith.

I’ve argued before that Neil is a bit of a deceptive player. He has the illusion of upside, since agitating third liners so rarely put up points and he can put up some small numbers. The impression is that if you have to have one of these guys anyway, why wouldn’t you have one who can also score you the odd goal? Add to that his supposed leadership and grit, the fact that he tends to punch his own teammates in the face during practice (a good thing…?), and that he stays behind in the offseason to train youngins, and Neil is a favorite for the character crowd.

And there’s nothing really wrong with that. I also tend to think that you need some character and identity in the locker room. I just also happen to think that 1) veteran, character, third liners are readily available on the free market, and 2) you can have your veteran, character guy on the team who doesn’t take this many penalties and still not give him key ice time. He won’t mind sitting more often than not; he’s a character guy, after all.

Clearly Murray is buying what Neil is selling – Neil has an assistant captaincy. Not only does management think Chris Neil is an effective hockey player, they think Neil should be in a position to teach other hockey players how to play. That, to me, is astounding.

I can be convinced that Ottawa absolutely must hang on to one of these guys, but it’s totally unclear to me why we need two. At least Zack Smith is the second best faceoff guy on the team. Agitators with the illusion of upside are so plentiful, in fact, that we have more than one on the same line here. If Murray can find another old school GM who wants grit and is blinded by Neil’s occasional goal to take his nearly $2MM a year salary off of his hands, I think he absolutely should.

It’s not clear to me that Ottawa can find a taker for an expensive third line winger who doesn’t score with any consistency, doesn’t really fight (necessitating the use of another roster spot on Matt Kassian), has terrible possession numbers, and takes far, FAR more penalties than he draws. And I don’t think Melnyk has the appetite to pay Neil to go away. But if I were the GM of the Ottawa Senators, I would start by asking who we’ve got in Binghamton who might benefit from Neil’s third line minutes.

Problem #2: Lack of defensive depth

Erik Karlsson is a world class defenseman, leading the NHL in scoring among defensemen a little over a year after having his Achilles heel pretty much sliced in half. His possession numbers are beastly; his playing time substantial. He’s even playing the penalty kill now, which he didn’t do much of in his Norris winning season. After him we’ve got…hmmm…*runs finger down depth chart until it falls off the page*

Marc Methot is a serviceable top four guy being asked to play with an All-Star. Chris Phillips is third-pairing and should have never been re-signed, playing against the weakest competition and looking bad while doing it. Cody Ceci is about eight years old, and we’ve all been impressed with him essentially in his capacity to not look awful. Patrick Wiercioch has been totally serviceable and hasn’t played nearly as much as he’s deserved, but he might also be a specialist who isn’t supposed to play big minutes night in and night out. (Also an interesting case study in why Ceci gets all kinds of credit and Wiercioch sits in the box while the underlying numbers seem to imply Wiercioch has been the better defenseman.) Eric Gryba’s pretty tall. Who else…whoooooooo elsssssseeeee……

The Fix: Stop assuming Jared Cowen is something until he proves he is that something.

Whether it’s supposed offers of eight-year deals, or repeated comments from management indicating that Cowen will only get “better and better,” this absolute boat-anchor on the back-end has been relied on to shoulder a substantial load of the team’s fortune. Understand that I’m not suggesting Cowen is totally at fault here—management, after being careful not to insert Cowen into the lineup too early in his career, has now basically pinned their entire season on him taking a step forward.

I’ve written about it on the blog before: why a team and a player would repeatedly assume someone is top four without mutually agreeing to a “prove it” contract, as is usually the practice, is beyond me. He’s been continuously injured, so we’ve never seen him play. But so certain were both Cowen and management of his ability to be a top four guy for years to come that they were fixated on the moment he became that player, as opposed to giving him a one year deal to confirm it.

I’m also not suggesting that we trade Jared Cowen, or just give up on him in general. But once the team comes to grip with the fact that until Jared Cowen plays quality top four minutes he isn’t a quality top four defenseman, then it puts them in a place where they realize they’ll have to shore up their back end, and quickly.

With Marc Methot’s deal coming up next year, the prospect system only offering replacement level guys (sorry, Mark Borowiecki fans, but I don’t see him playing more than about a dozen minutes a night), and the free agent market offering only slim pickings, it looks like it will be up to Murray to find another trade on the Foligno-for-Methot scale. Unfortunately, I don’t see any teams out there willing to trade a top four defensemen for one or more of Ottawa’s bottom six defensemen and/or Stephane Da Costa.

This is the biggest dilemma facing Murray, and there are no easy answers. He’ll have to give up something truly valuable to get a good defenseman. An alternative might be to give Patty Wiercioch, he of the very respectable possession numbers, a closer look.

Problem #3: The Core is Nothing to Fear

The core of this team is Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, and Chris Neil. Now, Spezza is a premier offensive force who also happens to own terrible defensive numbers and be hurt about 30% of the time, so arguments for his value can go either way. Personally, I think you re-sign him for the same reason Toronto re-signed Dion Phaneuf: there just aren’t that many high end guys out there, and no one else on the team to take his minutes. You might not like his game, but you’ll like this team a whole lot less without someone like Jason Spezza available to it.

As for the other two guys, they’re both ineffective and well past their prime. That they’ve been here a long time has a whiff of the self-legitimizing to it. They’re both on deals for the next couple of years, and so I know this will never happen, but it may be time to pass the leadership torch on to the team’s young, ACTUAL core of players: Kyle Turris and Erik Karlsson.

Another factor in this has been the ice time distribution. MacLean has continuously given ice time to the defensively porous combination of Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, usually at the expense of the MacArthur-Turris-Ryan combo, and too often it’s resulted in poor possession and the puck being pinned in Ottawa’s end. While the addition of a guy like Hemsky adds someone who can pull off a flashy move and put up points, he’s also defensively porous and is not as strong a driver of possession. You need those skill guys, but it’s not clear to me why they aren’t being deployed in a more strategic manner—receiving more favorable zone starts, against weaker competition, and on the power play. Maybe MacLean was trying to get all of his lines going. But trusting Ryan and Turris to shoulder more of the load might have been a preferable option.

Problem #4: the Goaltending

Not much to add here: Anderson had a down year, and yet MacLean went back to him again and again—sometimes both times in back-to-back games. Lehner hasn’t been lights out in Anderson’s place, but he also hasn’t had enough consecutive starts to get on a roll. When he was finally handed the reigns due to an Anderson injury, the team was already so far out of it, and allowing close to 40 shots a game, that Lehner couldn’t help but look rusty and over-burdened.

If Anderson’s three year deal was meant as a transition from him to Lehner, with Robby getting gradual increases to his starts, then next year should see Anderson taking on a mentor / backup role and Lehner finally given a chance to thrive.

Alternatively, Murray can travel back in time and not trade potential Vezina winner Ben Bishop for a player he would later give away on waivers.

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So, you see that these aren’t big changes. A tweak on the back end, removing the biggest drivers of minor penalties from the equation and giving their ice time to more responsible players, depending less on Jason Spezza to be the kind of player he clearly isn’t, handing more responsibility to the good players you already have on the roster, and, for the love of god, learn to score in the shootout. That should be more than enough to give Ottawa the seven points it needs to get back into the dance.