Giant Sized Summer Special: Is Ottawa more defensively responsible now than it was last year?

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There’s no need for a set-up. Just take a look at last season’s team stats:

  • Goals-per-game: 2.79 – 11th in the NHL
  • Goals-against-per-game: 3.15 – 27th in the NHL
  • Powerplay: 18.4% – 14th in the NHL
  • Penalty Kill: 80.9% – 22nd in the NHL
  • Shots per game: 32.8 – 4th in the NHL
  • Shots against per game: 34.7 – 29th in the NHL
  • Fenwick for percentage: 50.8% – 13th in the NHL
  • Shots for percentage: 49.1% – 20th in the NHL

At a glimpse, the 2013-2014 Ottawa Senators were a team that could score, but couldn’t outscore their opponents. Both coach Paul MacLean and GM Bryan Murray have stated on multiple occasions that the goal for the coming season will be to cut down on the number of shots allowed, possibly at the expense of some offense. So let’s take a look at our new lineup, the moves made, and whether it’s reasonable to expect a more defensively responsible team this season.

Assuming a lineup:

Obviously there are a lot of moving parts here. Let’s presume that Stone and Hoffman will be given a chance to compete for a top six spot, with whomever is cold being bumped down to the bottom six. I’m also assuming that the team doesn’t destroy Lazar’s potential by allowing him to be cast as savior of the franchise at 19 and given top minutes right away. (Though we can assume he’ll get some games during the season, possibly those first nine games before he must be sent down without burning a year on his ELC.)

The top line of MacArthur – Turris – Ryan will almost definitely stay intact. The rest of the lineup, without a go-to offensive catalyst (unless Hoffman and Stone are those guys) will be some combination of Michalek, Legwand, Chiasson, Hoffman, Stone, Greening, Zibanejad, Condra, Smith and Neil.

Curiously, the defense remains much the same as last year: Karlsson with Methot or Cowen, Ceci with Phillips, and Gryba, Wiercioch and Borowiecki all duking it out for about 8 minutes of ice time.

Anderson spends another year checking his brake lines and Lehner spends another year awaiting the Hour of Ascension of the Beast.

The O:

The biggest change here is the loss of Spezza and Hemsky and the addition of Legwand and Chiasson. Though the way the players will be paired and used will be variable, that we lost a center and winger and then gained one of each, and that not much else changed with the team, makes it possible to do some direct comparisons and see if we’re indeed any more defensively responsible.

Jason Spezza and David Legwand comparison [all stats from here on in via Extra Skater]

Spezza scored 15 more points than Legwand in eight fewer games, though he received about a minute more of ice time per 60 minutes of play, had a higher shooting percentage, and more favorable zone starts.

Interestingly, while Legwand is being cast as a two-way forward – I called him a plug on our last podcast – he played an enormous amount of time on the power-play – almost as much as Spezza did – and way less time on the penalty kill as Spezza.

Also interesting is that Legwand and Spezza played with a similar quality of teammates and against a similar quality of competition. They are within 0.3% of each other in both regards.

Spezza’s Corsi relative was slightly negative, where Legwand’s was slightly positive, though both are within 0.5% of each other.

The players also had a comparable PDO, around 97, which means one might expect a slight bump in numbers for both as they rebound to league average on-ice save percentage. They had extremely similar penalty differentials, with each taking just under 20 more penalties than they drew.

The only really big discrepancy is their shots per 60 minutes of play, where Legwand produces almost four fewer shots than Spezza.

It’s no surprise that Legwand is not as offensively capable as Spezza. But my takeaway here, and what people might not know, is that the two players have been used in very similar ways, and Legwand hasn’t been a defensive standout in that time. Perhaps as a result of a lack of center depth in Nashville, Legwand was employed as their principle playmaker. Far from being your reliable utility forward, he was relied on to produce offense, and his ice time reflects that.

Another way of putting it is that Spezza didn’t have it much easier than Legwand. And while Spezza was slightly deficient defensively compared to Legwand, he more than made up for it in terms of shot and point production. With Spezza you end up with a net gain in production; with Legwand, perhaps not so much. So, for those subscribing to the idea that Ottawa swapped out an offensive dynamo for a defensive one, while you might be technically right that there’s a difference, you still have a net loss over the course of a season in terms of production. Legwand isn’t that much more responsible, but he’s a whole lot less dangerous offensively. This is borne out by their overall Corsi differential, which is fairly substantial; Spezza’s is almost three full points better, which is significant in Corsi Land. After all, you don’t care how a player produces possession, just that they do. Be careful what you wish for, Sun readers – you have your hard working, loveable plug now.

Now, this doesn’t account for how Ottawa may choose to use Legwand in this upcoming season. Maybe he flourishes as a utility forward, when he isn’t expected to produce any offense. But there’s a big enough body of evidence to suggest that Legwand, while a legit top six NHL forward, is not an improvement on Spezza at all. Ottawa fans might like bringing in Legwand because he’s a veteran, gritty, and so on, but they better hope those intangibles translate into effects elsewhere.

Of course the big plus for Ottawa is that Legwand is $2MM cheaper than Spezza this season and on a short-term deal. He costs half as much as Spezza, and there’s no expectation from his camp that the team re-sign him for six to eight years after next season. If Ottawa management were pouring those savings into other areas, we might be able to justify the switch. But, as we know, they’re not. For now, this biggest benefit of this swap is to Melnyk’s bottom line.

Alex Chiasson and Ales Hemsky comparison 

Maybe it’s not fair to do a direct comparison between a 14 year NHL veteran and a player with the equivalent of one season under his belt, but Ottawa lost a top six player and traded for someone who, in their mind, was another, so the comparison stands.

And, much to my surprise, Chiasson actually doesn’t do too badly. Though he scored 8 fewer points in four more games, he generated about as many shots per 60 minutes in about the same amount of ice time, against comparable competition, and with a comparable quality of teammates. Their Corsi was almost identical, though on the other hand Chiasson’s teammates outperformed him. (Though on the OTHER other hand…Dallas was a top ten possession team last year, so that ain’t so bad.)

Chiasson’s PDO was two points lower, too, suggesting a slight bump up, potentially narrowing the gap in their offensive production even further. Even though Chiasson did enjoy significantly more powerplay time than Hemsky, all else being equal it’s reasonable to expect them to produce similarly next year.

Over a full season, while Chiasson is a slight downgrade on Hemsky, it’s not as big as I initially thought it would be. When coupled with the fact that he’s making less than 1/4th what Hemsky is making on his entry level contract, this is a high-value swap. (Again, assuming those savings would be funneled elsewhere which yadda yadda yadda they won’t be.)

You might expect a marginal decrease in production here, but I’m far less concerned than I am about the use of Legwand over Spezza.

The Youngins:

One unknown here is whether Stone, Hoffman, and/or Lazar can step into top six roles and contribute. We don’t have the numbers for Lazar, and looking at Stone and Hoffman, neither of them have huge sample sizes from last season.

But both produced great Corsi ratings, both overall and relative to their teammates (Stone’s is particularly good). Neither saw strong competition, indicating some degree of being sheltered, and their PDOs were almost smack average (Stone’s is actually a point higher) so we shouldn’t expect a huge swing in regression to the average.

What’s interesting is that while both players’ underlying possession numbers are good, this didn’t translate into particularly impressive point production. There’s a couple of ways we can interpret this.

Either these guys will learn to finish (which one hopes comes with experience) and translate those shots and possession into points. Or they’re both essentially versions of Erik Condra – strong possession players who can’t finish to save their lives. Or they simply haven’t been put with the right linemates to translate possession into goals.

Small sample size, again, but their strong possession numbers imply that they can contribute to the team, especially if they take away minutes from other bottom six players whose careers are in decline – see Greening, Colin and Neil, Chris.

The D:

The horror show begins…

Nothing terribly novel to say here. There wasn’t much in the way of change on the backend for Ottawa. The most notable changes here are that Mark Borowiecki’s contract becomes one-way, and that Eric Gryba was re-signed to a one-way deal. Neither of them are particularly good. That management seems especially high on Borowiecki because he, I don’t know…sticks up for his teammates or whatever, seems like more evidence of old-schoolism at play. Oh, and they also let Joe Corvo, the weirdest fucking signing of last year, walk. Which, you know…great.

The result: a glut of bottom pairing defensemen on a team that allow more shots than almost any other team last year. Beyond Erik Karlsson and Patrick Wiercioch, no defenseman did particularly well in terms of possession.

I won’t really look at Erik Karlsson. (Spoiler: he’s good!) Borowiecki doesn’t have huge sample sizes. That leaves Cowen, Methot, Phillips, Ceci and Wiercioch.

Jared Cowen, as has been well-publicized, was atrocious. In a good-PDO year, his penalty differential was terrible, and he had the lowest shots per 60. (Though he didn’t get much in the way of power play time, and was relied upon to clear the crease and wave his stick around like a dowsing wand.) His possession stats weren’t as bad as I expected, though they were mediocre.

Chris Phillips is also trending downwards and was inexplicably renewed. He was sheltered, but also had the worst PDO of the group. That means he might rebound slightly, if his regression doesn’t more than erase that rebound. The best case scenario seems like one where he’s still barely, BARELY, a 3-4 guy. Like everyone has already said: why did this guy get two years again?

As has been mentioned on this blog and elsewhere, the banishment of Patrick Wiercioch to the press box for huge chunks of the season was totally mysterious. He’s a strong possession player, producing more shots per 60 than any of the rest of the group. Maybe it was the plethora of left-handed shots on the team, but playing Cody Ceci and Jared Cowen over Wiercioch is just one of those things we’ll have to chalk up to the coaches and management knowing something about him that we don’t. Stop smoking meth, Patrick Wiercioch.

However, Marc Methot wasn’t nearly as bad as he was made out to be, having been divorced from Erik Karlsson from much of the year. His possession stats were respectable, and here’s hoping that his ice time is restored. It might not be enough to remove this team from the bottom of the league in terms of shots against, but given the apparent lack of forthcoming changes to the defensive corp, it’s a no-cost move. Ottawa just needs to use what they have more effectively. You could argue that we used up last season to develop Cowen.

Goaltending:

Not much to say; both had below league average save percentages, but only by about .03% – and that’s impressive considering the number of shots they faced. Anderson saved the team’s bacon in the shortened season with a legendarily unsustainable hot streak, and when he came back to earth this year, the team suffered. No surprise there.

Lehner played more games than ever before, and should continue, in this last year of Anderson’s contract, to shoulder the load unless the team falls quickly out of contention and they play Anderson in order to bolster his trade deadline value. Anderson has been a warrior for Ottawa though, and continues to be a workhorse on a mediocre team. If he’s willing to re-sign on an affordable deal to play backup to Lehner, I think the team has to explore that. Any other goaltender’s head would have exploded facing 45 shots a night.

That top line:

I know the chemistry between Turris, Ryan and MacArthur was a pleasant surprise, and that Ryan was playing with a hernia or something, but we should temper expectations for next season. This line had a consistently high PDO, which means regression to the mean. Turris, who will now be expected to be the team’s number one center – there’s really no other option – may have it especially hard, seeing his quality of competition skyrocket as teams no longer have to worry about matching up against Jason Spezza.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom – between Turris being a still-young and developing player, and Ryan healing, you may get a wash as they regress. But for those hoping that the top line is going to pick up their game in the absence of Spezza and Hemsky, the odds aren’t very good. That doesn’t mean they’re a bad line – all three have excellent possession stats. But from a team perspective, I’d expect their production to hold where it was, and thus the team still ends up with a net loss in production.

Tactics:

There’s a huge X factor here, which is Paul MacLean’s coaching. That’s obviously where our publicly available stats fall short. We know how players have traditionally be used. We don’t know how they will be used.

We may assume that MacLean will continue to preach an up-tempo style combined with a “whole rink” “hard work” mumbo jumbo voodoo combo that pretty much every single NHL coach insists on. But we could be wrong. Hey, even Bruce Boudreau – one of the most successful possession coaches in the league over the last decade – changed his style to be more “defensively responsible” after his Capitals teams experienced some playoff disappointment.

Maybe MacLean discovered something this summer while sitting on his dock staring out into the water and he’ll bring a Dr. Strange-like epiphany home that makes Jared Cowen not pivot like a dump truck. Don’t ask me. I just traded for Jagr in NHL 2014 and scored 56 goals with him. Have you tried turning down the difficulty, Paul?

The rest of the division:

Boston and Montreal look very good, like locks for the post-season, though Boston may start to decline slightly. Tampa upgraded hugely this year, though they were second last in the league the year before and were swept out of the first round this year, so who fucking knows with that team. I think they’ll be pretty impressive. Detroit is pretty much in full decline, but they have the horses to make it in the weak east. Toronto didn’t change much, and are due for a weak season given their underlying possession stats. Florida and Buffalo are awful.

That puts Ottawa pretty much where they were last year – 5th in the Atlantic, and on the outside looking in.

In conclusion:

My takeaway here is that Ottawa can expect a lower offensive output from their forwards this year, based solely on the huge disparity between David Legwand and Jason Spezza. Worse, perhaps, is that the assumption that Legwand and Chiasson are significantly more responsible than Spezza and Hemsky just doesn’t hold up. If anything, they’ll slow the bleeding and save the franchise money, but that’s it. The team will end up with an even larger net loss in production.

For this version of the Ottawa Senators to produce a net gain in goals, they’ll have to do the following:

  • Shore up their bottom six. Letting Matt Kassian walk is an automatic improvement. Zach Smith, Colin Greening and Chris Neil got killed last year, and took way, WAY more penalties than they drew. (Especially Neil.) Relying more often on Zibanejad as your third line center, and one or both of Stone and Hoffman in place of Neil and Greening should help turn around the bottom six’s production. If we see Neil and Phillips on the powerplay again this year, we may as well just start researching the draft.
  • Take Patrick Wiercioch and Marc Methot out of the doghouse. I can understand that if Jared Cowen develops into a top-two or top-four defenseman, one season of growing pains is going to seem like a small price to pay. But given he didn’t have a down-on-his-luck-year last year and still sort of stank, one hopes that development and continued healing from hip surgery contributes to better play. If not, then play the horses you have.
  • Do whatever it is you do to make young players develop. Ottawa might not be able to sneak into the playoffs if Stone, Hoffman, and Ceci all stay where they were next year. It would help if Zibanejad, a blue chip prospect, took a step forward and was given more responsibility.
  • I don’t look at penalties much in this post…but holy hell did Ottawa take a lot of them. Again, and probably for the millionth time, playing Chris Neil and Jared Cowen a bit less will help in this regard. MacArthur took a lot of penalties, but made up for it with production. Neil and Cowen…not so much.
  • Shootouts. Ottawa was 7-7. Not bad – actually right in the middle of the league, so they personify league average. But with a little luck in this total crapshoot of a standings rigger, they could make up the gap.
  • Go shopping. In the last few weeks we’ve seen Nashville pick up three players legit NHLers for about $3MM total, any of whom could have shored up Ottawa’s depth or sat in the press box for less than it cost to sit Wiercioch last season. I’m especially bummed that Ottawa wasn’t interested in bringing back Anton Volchenkov. He was a fan favorite when he was here, nobody resented his choice to leave for term in New Jersey, and he brings exactly what the team needs. At this point there’s not a ton left – Mike Del Zotto, Dustin Penner, and David Booth all look like they could contribute in a depth role – and the market has been set at about one year, $1MM.

In the end, the team is not going to bottom out. They’re a bubble team who can finish anywhere from 12th to 6th in the standings in the East, barring any massively unsustainable runs of good or bad luck. The team will produce a similar result to last year, but they’ll save more money doing it. And that’s good news for Eugene Melnyk, at least.

5 thoughts on “Giant Sized Summer Special: Is Ottawa more defensively responsible now than it was last year?

      • okay, okay, when you explain it with facts and stuff, I guess I have to concede. I was just using my eyes, always a bad idea.

        • He is pretty broken down, though. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him block a shot in the first game of the season and spend the rest of the year on the IR. And his possession stats might be a bit suspect, since everyone in NJ has good possession stats all the time.

          • Wow, you know what’s cray? Volchy Bear (Real locker room nickname when he was with the Sens btw) is only 32! I would have thought homeboy was like 37 or 38 by now. Probably has the bones of 60 year old from blocking all those shots. Almost bought a Volchenkov jersey back in the day. When people get a little bit extra about putting down “grit” and “heart” I think of this guy. Guy would literally put his face in the way of point shots. I’ve seen him save more sure goals than any other Sens d man. He’s also a great counterweight to the stupid “Russians/Europeans aren’t tough” bologna. I am happy that he’s still working and on the one team that doesn’t have to block Shea Weber’s shots.

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