A primer on how to talk about Ottawa Senators hockey during the 2015-2016 season


Pictured left: Erik Karlsson Pictured middle: Jared Cowen Pictured right: a deer

After having spent the last few years being one of many, many, many voices in a discussion about one particular team in one particular sport, I’ve concluded that there are a few ineluctable truths about this team (spoiler: Ottawa) on which we can each and every one of us agree. That isn’t to say that the details can’t be debated in one form or another, like a squabble of ducks nibbling around the edges of a delicious saltine cracker. But the distilled nougat at the center of each truth (editor’s note: saltine crackers do not contain nougat) should be common knowledge by now, and so, require no further writing.

After this post. In which I write about them.

In acknowledging the truths articulated below, it’s my hope that we, the fans—the collective heart, and perhaps a small part of the brains of this team—might come to some sort of understanding about how to constructively talk about the Ottawa Senators and thereby enjoy watching them play hockey maybe a little bit more.

They are as follows:

  • The team owner, Eugenious R. Melnyk III, does not have enough liquid cash on hand to spend to the cap. This fact often inflates a concept we understand and describe through clenched teeth as, “The Infernal Budget.” (See what I did there? Thanks, I went to college for like 9 years.)
  • Though 1) exists, it does not mean that the owner doesn’t have enough money to operate the team, which is to say he can keep selling tickets and merchandise and just generally keep the ship floating as the franchise’s underlying value accrues.
  • However, also because 1) exists, the team can’t spend the next 4-5 years tanking and not making any money, because Eugenious can’t float the losses.
  • It makes absolutely no sense—zero whatsoever—for the owner to sell the team now. The league keeps growing. Revenue sharing is in place. There’s a TV deal kicking in. Expansion is on the way. There’s money to be made on this team over the next decade.
  • Though the team might have a couple of clunker contracts on the roster, they don’t have any absolute stinkers, and those that do stink are of a small enough order as to not significantly tie management’s hands. Yes, Colin Greening’s contract didn’t work out. Sure, Bobby Ryan should make like $1M less. Jared Cowen is paid like a defenceman he’s never been. Chris Neil and Chris Phillips are old and ineffective. But none of those deals were made without justification at the time. Some of the guys  are well loved and have been with the franchise their whole careers. Some were given Turris-like low risk / high reward contracts that didn’t pan out. Jared Cowen has prestige and punched Ian White in the face that one time. That doesn’t mean that management is inept. Whatever swings for the fences that fell short are more than than made up for by the high value contracts for Karlsson, Turris, Anderson, Stone, Zibanejad, Methot, MacArthur, Hoffman, Chiasson, and Wiercioch.

What does this mean for people who write and read about the team? Well:

  • The team can’t spend money that isn’t there, so don’t suggest that they go out and get whomever.
  • The owner will not sell the team just so we can have a new owner who has the money to go out and get whomever.
  • The team is going to keep trying to sneak into the playoffs where “anything can happen” ™ for the foreseeable future. No five-year rebuild.
  • Though we can note when a contract didn’t pan out, and how a team that needs to spend money wisely can’t have too many bad contracts, spilling literally twenty million words every year about what amounts to about 14% of their cap space delivering 7% of its value just isn’t compelling enough a story to convince anyone that ownership and management don’t know what they’re doing.

So, with what does that leave us? How can we possibly write about hockey in Ottawa if we’re not wringing our hands about finances?

Well, for starters, acknowledging that everybody knows the above and closing those discussions for a wee period of time allows us to focus on the individual games being played right there in front of us, every other night, like magic. It allows us to enjoy and to talk about the experience of watching live hockey, and the myriad moments in any given game that contribute to the end result.

Letting go of the bugaboo of ownership dollars and Greening’s contract allows us to give in to the dizzying highs and desultory lows of watching a small-town hockey team, led by the greatest defenceman of his generation and an undrafted goaltender with hamburgers painted on the side of his helmet, as it attempts to snatch divine inspiration from the vain clutches of the media-market gods.

It allows us bloggers, unwashed and uncouth, to write about important topics like fairness, and inclusiveness, and community, and to participate in something larger than any one of us, and to revel in celebrations of Asgardian scope and become deeply and inconsolably depressed when the team blows a lead in the last minute.

It allows us to put aside the petty, daily distractions we are each faced with and to enjoy sport as entertainment. And, when we aren’t enjoying it, to change the channel and watch something else.

And it allows us to identify the many, many other things to write about and talk about that will come to us spontaneously after one too many plastic cups of $9 draft.

What I’m saying is that I’m supremely looking forward to this year, not least of which because we have an exciting young team, but also because it’s possible for us to create the conditions in which to enjoy it. Hockey is a lot of fun. It’s the best sport in the world. Let’s start talking about it that way.

At least until we start talking about the new arena. During the construction of which we will all die.


It’s July. The draft is over. The “free-agent frenzy” *shudder* is over. The playoffs…(checks internet)…appear to be over. That means we’re as far from meaningful hockey as a person can be. Which gives me a little bit of breathing room to run as spurious an article as I can think of.

How LIKEABLE are the Sens, anyway? I mean, but really. I like them. You probably like them. But how about relative to other teams? Is that not the true barometer for likeability—comparing oneself to one’s peers in a way that undermines one’s confidence? I think so.

So here, in ascending order, are the 30 NHL teams in terms of likeability.

The Horrible Stinkers

30: Toronto Maple Leafs

Huge surprise, I know. This isn’t (just) Sens-fan bile. They’re a terrible team who are totally undeserving of the love they receive and whose overlords throw money around to the degree that should they ever win a Cup it should come with an asterisk. They got a little more likeable sans-Kessel, but the brand and market are so unlikeable that it transcends the actual makeup of the team. All these guys need to do to be the least likeable team in hockey (maybe even pro sports) is to put on that uniform and dominate the media regardless of performance. Leafs suck.

29: Philadelphia Flyers

I guess you could argue that these guys being unlikeable means that they’ve achieved their goal. They want you to hate them. Well, mission accomplished. Even their fans hate them because of how often they make laughably bad decisions in an attempt to recapture a glory that never existed. These guys are what you end up with when you take a “team identity” and privilege it over every rational metric for team building.

28: Montreal Canadiens

This might be an example of an otherwise only mildly obnoxious team and brand being dragged down by the most obnoxious fan base in hockey. Toronto is in a hysterical panic all the time. Montreal is trying to explain the meaning of the universe outside a bar and won’t stop dominating the conversation even though people are shooting looks at one another behind its back. Plus Brendan Gallagher.

27: Boston Bruins

See Flyers, Philadelphia. Totally willing to trade immensely talented players in an attempt to get “Bruins tough.” Also completely have Ottawa’s number. Saved from a bottom three finish because it’s a nice uniform and it wasn’t Chara’s fault Ottawa didn’t re-sign him. And Bobby Orr. Points detracted for Don Cherry.

26: Florida Panthers

Because you forgot they existed until now. Only exist because they’re attached to a shopping mall with valuable parking real estate. Elevated a bit by Luongo, who seems like a genuinely nice and funny guy.

25: Anaheim Ducks

Built like Philly, except with skill. Perry is immensely hateable…and awesome. Obvious deduction of likeability points for Things that Happened in 2007 That Shall Not Be Articulated Here. Stupid name for a stupid team. Product of capitalism synergy lifesuck peak oil go to hell.

24: San Jose Sharks

They have what seems like 6-7 really great players and have never scared anyone. They’re entering their desperate, “it’s all about identity!” panicky, scrambling-for-answers-before-the-window shuts mode, AKA Ottawa Senators 2008-2013.

23: Vancouver

Mediocre team with Toronto-lite hysterical market that employs Alex Burrows and once employed Matt Cooke. Fans burned down the town once, which is Montreal’s dick move.

22: New Jersey Devils

It takes a special kind of team to not just be uninteresting, but to actually ruin hockey for everyone else through their very style of play. Wasn’t even a particular coach that did it. Boring hockey is who they are.

21: Edmonton Oilers

An embarrassment for the sport. Yeah, those dynasties were awesome, but present day Gretzky is like the king of a minor country if he lost a bet and could only wear golf shirts for the rest of his life. Even has his own clothing line is mostly golf shirts. Institutional cronyism on skates.

20: Calgary Flames.

Hired Brian Burke. Hired Bob Hartley. Saved from lower finish because of (lingering) association with Jerome Iginla, Nicest Man in Dodge.

The Slightly Stinky Middle

19: Carolina Hurricanes

I could not generate an interest in this team if I had a gun to my head and had to name six players on their roster to prevent my own murder. Bad team that overspends to be bad, bad uniforms, obnoxious colors, flukiest bunch of flukes that ever fluked. Won a Cup, lessening the value of the Cup.

18: Tampa Bay Lightning

See Hurricanes, Carolina, except with the added detriment of having more money than god. Do gain some points by virtue of Stamkos being awesome and cool and Yzerman being awesome and cool if over-valorized for his GM work because he spends like a drunken sailor.

17: Pittsburgh Penguins

Points added for Lemieux, uniform with skating penguin on it. Points deducted for winning generational lottery, inventing the modern tank model, Matt Cooke’s career.

16: New York Rangers

They have the unfair advantage of being located in the best place on earth. But points added because every weekend I’ve spent in New York has been one of the best weekends of my life. Henrik is Handsome. Sean Avery was annoying but in a sort of innovative way?

15: Dallas Stars

Brett Hull: amazing hockey player who sort of lowers the tone…of America. Players only want to play there because it’s in a state full of insane anti-tax libertarian Tommy Lee Joneses so they get to keep all of their millions at the expense of schools and art and stuff.

14: Winnipeg Jets

Feel good story about getting their team back followed inexorably by realization they were the Atlanta Thrashers except in Winnipeg. All of these years later STILL not using classic Jets logo, which is a crime.

13: Los Angeles Kings

Good team playing modern style. Coach seems to hate life itself, but in a ha-ha way. Come back against crazy odds (except this year). I don’t know, I’ve got nothing against the Kings.

12: Arizona Coyotes

They’re boring and I don’t care about them and I’m seriously sick of reading about their financial problems, but Antoine Vermette is, what, a top five most likeable guy in the league? And he went back there after winning a Cup with Chicago? I’m rooting for them, if only because I’m rooting for him.

11: Washington Capitals

They’re sorta due for some vintage love. Never quite a bad team, never quite a threat. One of these days they’re going to go on an insane run, and I get the sneaking suspicion that most of us will be closet Cap fans. That might be a bit strong. We won’t actively be rooting against them to lose in the first round again.

10: Colorado Avalanche

Roy leaves Montreal, wins Cup in Colorado, cements Colorado at #10 on this list. Joe Sakic.

The Teams with Hardly Any Stink 

9: New York Islanders

Former embarrassment of the league turns into seriously fun team to watch. Dynasty memories. Moving to Brooklyn (which…I don’t know, could seriously impact their place in these standings one way or another…). Jack Capuano’s hair is so, so bad. He looks like fat Def Leppard.

8: Ottawa Senators

Probably higher than what other people would rate them, but come on! Hamburglar! Poor ass team wins over cynical city hearts on miracle run! Loses points for every single iteration of their uniform ever and Eugene Melnyk, but Erik Karlsson is an angel sharing mana from heaven through a diamond trumpet.

7: Minnesota Wild

People can love or hate that high-concept puma headed logo, but this is a hockey crazy state that, for me, sorta exemplifies what you want the sport to be. They sort of suck and have a GM who rails against player salaries and then pays out $200 million for two players. But it’s not like they’re unique in that.

6: Buffalo Sabres

They were one of my least favorite teams as recently as 3-4 years ago. They employed guys like Steve Ott. Their uniforms are awful. They’re an embarrassment to the league most nights. But being the #1 underdog goes a long way in my books, and they were one of the historically worst teams in league last year. Imagine poor old Matt Moulson having to actually put on skates and do that night after night. And the good people of Buffalo have suffered – oh lord have they suffered. So I hope this #6 spot on an Ottawa Senators blog wipes away all of that indignation, which I’m sure it does.

5: St. Louis Blues

Sort of so unremarkable that you forget they keep demolishing the regular season and have some killer players on their team. Classy uniform. On the verge of becoming the San Jose Sharks by overcompensating for never winning, but for now I like them. Which according to this scale, makes them likeable!

4: Nashville Predators

Play prototypical moneypuck hockey. Them against the world, since nobody cares about them. Philly tried to push them around with the Weber offer sheet and they matched. Speaking of which: Second best defenceman in the league. Guitar strings running through the numbers on the uni. Points deducted for Mike Ribeiro.

3: Chicago Blackhawks

Toews. Kane. Modern dynasty. Nobody unlikeable on them (maybe Bollig?). Hossa. Keep having to lose the lineup for cap considerations; keep being good. The rare original six team that isn’t totally drunk on its own history, mostly because they don’t have to resort to history. They’re good right now.

2: Columbus Blue Jackets

Loveable losers and misfit toys who take it in the teeth over and over. The market loves them. The team loves the market. There’s not a person alive who would hate for the Jackets to go on a nice long playoff win streak. Giant fever-dream bee or wasp or something in Civil War uniform for a mascot. That is, when it isn’t a cannon that looks like genitals.

1: Detroit Red Wings

Sigh. It’s like this was destined. Nobody hates the Wings. Maybe Colorado fans, but even they respect the Wings. They’ve got everything: fun players to watch, great vets to admire, a winning history, a smart system, beautiful uniforms, and a city that needs good news. Nobody hates the Wings, and in this league, that’s the same as loving them.

Is consistency the unrecognized analytics factor?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Senators’ goalie situation and the fact that we just absolutely MUST trade a goaltender and get good value back otherwise everyone’s going to write 200 blog posts about how we didn’t. I was also thinking about how Chicago is probably going to have to trade another 3-4 good players to stay under the cap next year, and Cory Crawford, he of the lucrative new deal could be on the block.

If I were a GM in either situation, what would I do? Could Chicago really go into next year with Scott Darling as its starting goaltender? Would Ottawa go into next year with an injury-prone older starter and Wildcard Hammond? How about Lehner, who has all of the potential in the world but is in the middle of his own personal time travel journey?

This led me to think about how much GMs pay for potential and projections, and how little they pay for consistency. Here’s a theory:

In an analytics-driven, salary-cap era, a player’s value is expressed in three ways: 1) The degree to which he drives possession. 2) His statline relative to his peers. And 3) How much money he makes.

Each of these three factors are dependent on one another. It’s why expensive Alex Ovechkin can be one of the best players in the world and still have people question his value, and why scoreless Erik Condra can be cheap and drive possession but be allowed to walk for nothing.

(I guess there’s a fourth factor in here encompassing all of those other intangible qualities, like sticktoittiveness and likeability and being a good dude.)

One factor that I think might be missing in all of this is if a player performs consistently. I know, you must be thinking “this is obvious. If a player performs well consistently, then a GM knows it and factors it in.” But I’m talking about if a player performs only averagely, but consistently. I’d like to argue that that consistency provides a level of value over and above the player’s statline and possession metrics.

Because a player is consistent, it means that a GM can plan around him. He can better understand the gaps on a team in a coming year and spend his meager resources, in terms of picks and cap space, to plug those gaps, confident in the knowledge that they won’t produce yet more gaps.

This is the place in the blog post where I would love to include a spreadsheet of the most consistent players, but frankly I don’t have the data. War on Ice will give you cumulative totals, but I don’t have the patience to download stats season-by-season and run the spreadsheets to describe variance. What I’d love to see, though, is which players above a certain threshold for possession (so we weed out the players who are consistently bad) display the lowest variance from season to season. Basically what you end up with are players about whom you know what to expect. And that, in itself, has value.

I know I’m mixing up skaters and goalies here, and I don’t know if Chicago will trade Cory Crawford, especially if he helps them win another Cup. But I do know that if Chicago can find a cheaper option with less variance in his statline, they can reliably pour the savings elsewhere to compensate. The same holds true for Ottawa. Lehner might have a higher ceiling, but also a higher variance than, say, Craig Anderson. And knowing that variance has value.

I hope you enjoyed this summertime blog post. Stay safe everyone, and wear sunscreen.

“Let’s go get a defenceman! Has anyone thought of that? Oh, literally everyone?”

Looking at how close this series has been against the Habs – every game won by one goal, two in OT, Sens holding the lead for longer than Montreal – I can’t help but think of how the results might have bent ever-so-slightly in Ottawa’s favor if they’d been able to rely on a bottom pairing of defencemen other than Gryba or Borowiekci.

I’m not trying to jump up and down on anyone after the fact – they’ve been dependable warriors for this team throughout the miracle run to the playoffs – but the fact remains that after two straight months of playoff-like hockey, it looks like some of the younger, less skilled d-corps are wilting.

Add to that a lack of size and experience, and it’s only natural to wonder “what if?” Chris Phillips’ decline has been well documented. Jared Cowen has faded out of existence, going all the way from franchise darling to distant memory. Patrick Wiercioch, possession mustang though he is, is soft as hell. Cody Ceci is still very young, and it’s shown at times. And Erik Karlsson is playing every single important moment of the game. That’s a lot of risk tied up in basically Karlsson and Methot. Having at least one other NHL caliber vet to rely on might have made all the different heading into tonight’s “what the hell (shrugging emoticon)” fourth game.

The free agent market, unfortunately, doesn’t offer up much. But there are a couple of dependable, workhorse guys who log 20+ minutes on their teams now. If Ottawa signed, and then insulated, a Zybnek Michalek or Francois Beauchemin, I could see them spreading out some of the risk in the lineup. I’m not saying these guys are the answer – older and increasingly injured as they are – but just that they could turn in a solid 17+ minutes, providing opportunity for favorable zone starts for the puck movers.

If Murray, or his follower, really wanted to swing for the fences, they could get into the running for Johnny Oduya, which, to me, would seem somewhat similar to Tampa going out and spending for Anton Stralman to be a second-pairing guy. Or they could break the bank on a do-everything, Christian Ehrhoff type. Then there’s Andrej Meszaros, who was overshadowed this year because he played on a terrible Buffalo team, but he’s been known to play big minutes and put up points if the stars align.

If Ottawa is swept tonight there will be a lot of questions, some of which will have nothing to do with the defence. Where have Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman been, for example? But the fact remains that outside of Erik Karlsson and Methot’s reliable unspectacular play, the defence has had its challenges. It won’t take much to improve, but it’s becoming clear that it will take something.

Totally surreal

Back when the season started, did anyone imagine in a million years the following image being something that appeared in reality?


That’s the front page of the Ottawa Senators website. It features a picture of a 27 year old undrafted goaltender with terrible AHL numbers. That’s right: Andrew Hammond is now the central draw and face of a franchise for a team with a Norris winner and candidate again this year as its captain and a couple of Calder candidates tearing it up shift after shift.

It’s a surreal season, and not just for us. Ask LA Kings fans this morning how they feel. Ask Winnipeg fans, and Calgary fans, how they feel. Teams that aren’t supposed to win are winning, teams that are supposed to casually dominate are falling apart, and at the center of it all is a small market team with the lowest payroll in the league shutting out the Presidents Trophy winners to cap off one of the most unprecedented winning periods in decades.

For Boston, you have to wonder how widespread the changes will be if everything doesn’t go just their way over the next couple of days. It feels like Ottawa has been chasing them for months, winning and winning only to see Boston picking up just as many points. Finally, in the final days of the season, their time is running out. (Not to be morbid, but could we see the return of Peter Chiarelli to Ottawa?)

Seems like everything is coming together for Ottawa at just the right time, but it bears mentioning again that there are many factors to Ottawa’s success. Obviously there’s Hammond’s play, but also possession black holes Chris Phillips and Chris Neil haven’t played in weeks. Young players are being trusted with key minutes – how much money does that Lazar – Pageau – Condra line make compared to the Rangers line they matched up against last night? Patrick Wiercioch is finally out of the doghouse for being the kind of player everyone knows that he is.

And though it doesn’t seem to be talked about enough, Dave Cameron might be the second Jack Adams winning coach for Ottawa in the last two seasons. A team simply doesn’t turn around like this without at least a few votes going the coach’s way.

The incredible thing here is the real possibility that Ottawa could meet the Canadiens in the first round – a dream match up for this team. What seemed totally impossible only a couple of months ago – playoff success – is within reach.

Ottawa’s surreal, dreamlike season keeps getting dreamier.

Beat the fucking Flyers. Go Sens.

Trading Goalies: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

So, this is a bit of a weird one, innit?

We began the season wondering if the extension to Craig Anderson was prudent given that Robin Lehner was clearly ready to ascend to both his throne of human skulls and the starting position, in which case we’d have an overpriced backup goaltender who’d already proclaimed he needs to start a lot of games to be effective. And now, with only a handful of games left, Lehner is all but an afterthought, Anderson continues to have a puzzling number of hand problems, and an unheralded, undrafted goaltender with terrible numbers in the AHL is pulling the earth off its orbit by ignoring the rules of physics and chance.

From a resource management point-of-view, it’s an enviable position for the Sens to be in, and I know we’re all into hockey because it fulfills our need to debate about resource management. They have a bona-fide starter with a reasonable salary. A young, prestige goalie with the potential to be a franchsie cornerstone, also with a reasonable salary. And a player who is either nothing or the second coming of the son of god on whom to sell high.

The problem with trying to cash in on Hammond while his value is high is that the number of times someone has pointed out that Andrew Hammond’s performance is not sustainable has now reached stratospheric heights. I don’t think there’s anyone in the league, Sens fans included, who think that what’s happening right now is normal. I mean, it’s fun as hell and I don’t want it to ever stop, but if Ottawa were to try to cash in on him, what would they get? A draft pick, AKA a lottery ticket? Maybe a later-round prospect?

Jaroslav Halak once had a magical run for the Canadiens, carrying the team on his back to the Eastern Conference Finals. And Halak – an NHL goaltender who was actually drafted and developed – yielded two prospects in return: former first round pick Lars Eller, who could be a second-line player, and Ian Schultz, who has yet to crack an NHL lineup.

In retrospect it seems like a decent enough return, in that Eller has cemented a place in the Habs lineup. But two untested prospects for the hottest goaltender in hockey, and who was only 24 at the time–supposedly entering his prime–held a lot of risk. Neither player is really comparable in worth to a starting goaltender, even if the Habs didn’t know at the time that that’s what Halak was.

Hammond is 27, and has far worse numbers than Halak (up until recently, obviously). A team might want to gamble on him by sending a later pick Ottawa’s way, but what’s more valuable to the Senators: a pick with a tiny chance of becoming an NHL player, and likely a third or fourth liner at that, or the chance, however slight, that Hammond is a legit starter? If it doesn’t pan out, it seems worth the risk.

Given how little it will likely take to re-sign Hammond, and how little the team will get in a trade, I think it only makes sense to keep the good times rolling and swing for the fences on this one.

What about Anderson? For all of his injury problems, has also been stellar for Ottawa this year, deserving a far better fate in many of his losses. Injuries will always be a concern with his age, but I think he can provide value at least through the end of his current deal.

Which brings us to Robin Lehner.

Now, I like Lehner. I think he gives Ottawa just the amount of crazy it needs to get by, especially considering their lineup is made-up of fresh-faced, genuinely nice guys like Turris, Karlsson, and Lazar. I love this speedy, skilled iteration of the Sens, but let’s admit that they’re not the most intimidating bunch. In that context, I enjoy Lehner’s goat sacrificing, Satanistic ways. But the number of times he’s been mentioned in a package deal for something truly ridiculous – Rick Nash or Taylor Hall fer Crissake – makes the potential for a deal too tantalizing to pass us. Lehner still has the perceived value to wrest something of qualitatively demonstrable value from another team’s grubby hands.

There’s a lot of risk in what I’m describing, of course. Going into a season with a 33-year old starter and a 27-year old backup, and without a blue chip goaltending prospect in the hopper, is generally not a recipe for sound sleeps.

I maintain, however, that the opportunity here is just too interesting to pass up. I’ve seen what Bryan Murray and his drafting team can do with a mid-round pick (names rhymes with Schmarlsson) but it’s truly tantalizing to think of Ottawa packaging their first rounder in the draft this year with Lehner to plug a hole on their blueline, or add scoring help up front, or both.

Murray and Melnyk must feel a bit vindicated with this recent run–it turns out that the team is a lot better than anyone thought, and all it took was all of the team’s bad players getting injured at once to prove it. But they could turn into a really interesting dark horse contender in the East if they added that gamebreaking piece that only a prestige player like Lehner can get you.