“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?

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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.

Trades I Wish Ottawa Made: Brett Connolly

If you were up at 2am waiting for the Nikkei Index to open, you may have seen a curious trade take place between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. GM Stve Yzerman sent former 6th overall draft pick Brett Connolly to Boston for a 2nd round pick in 2015 and another 2nd rounder in 2016.

Connolly is only 22 years old, and playing in his second full NHL season, but apparently his 134 NHL games were enough for Yzerman to know that his development is off track.

I say “curious” because after spending a resource as valuable as a 6th overall draft pick on Connolly, Yzerman just traded him for the equivalent of a couple of lottery tickets. Even if Connolly wasn’t in “win now” Tampa’s plans, I would have thought they could have packaged him to bring in NHL-ready help. Instead, whoever they take in those rounds won’t be NHL ready for another 4-5 years, if at all. Finally, Connolly fits in well with Tampa’s young core. He’s about the same age as Namestnikov, Palat, Kucherov, Panik, Hedman, Drouin, and Ashton.

Which brings me to Ottawa, a similarly young team who’ve been trying to add a top six winger since roughly 1982. Connolly would have been a nice addition, kept with the tradition of Ottawa buying low on other team’s reclamation projects, and not cost too much, either in assets to acquire him or money to resign him. He’s on an expiring deal where he’s making less than a million a season. A two-year “prove it” bridge deal would align nicely with the Melnyk’s plan to return those empties now that it’s getting warmer out.

Connolly isn’t setting the world on fire offensively, and he’s only having his first positive possession season this year, but he’s the kind of young, swing-for-the-fences player with pedigree that Ottawa could have spent a couple of later-round picks on. They have an extra second rounder from the Spezza deal. Instead, he goes from one division rival to another. I mean, I guess I can’t blame them. It was 2am.

I’m pretty sure none of us know what to do with this

Four Andrew Hammond starts. Four wins. .962 SV% and a 1.15 GAA. And a nice little curve there on the end of the playoff probability chart. Like a hook in our hearts.

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Yes, Hammond is looking positively Brian Elliott-esque out there. And as a result, for the first time in over two months, Ottawa’s playoff chances are higher than 20%. Somehow this was achieved with even better goaltending for a team whose only strength was goaltending. Hockey is the weirdest. Or, as James put it:

A survey of Twitter last night at 1AM – usually the hour for calm, rational assessment – revealed schizophrenic levels of indecision. We’re in the middle of a hockey analytics renaissance; the supremacy of cold, objective logic and infallibility of numbers. And yet here we have a 27 year old with mediocre AHL numbers in the NHL driving Ottawa within five points of a wild card spot. It’s unsustainable and a small sample size and yadda yadda yadda. But in the meantime we actually have a reason to watch the Ottawa Senators play hockey again.

It’s a weird thing to root for, to be sure. Of all the teams with a shot at a generational talent in this year’s draft, Ottawa is the one who could turn around into a contender the quickest. They’re already on the tail end of a rebuild. Adding a high end prospect in the mix could be the thing that turns a fully developed Sens team from a playoff hopeful to a genuine threat. Finishing 9th in the East this year would be soul crushing.

Or, on the other hand: fuck it, let’s go for it. Is there anything more compelling, any better distillation of why we watch sports, than the story of an almost washed-out goaltender getting his shot in the NHL for a team that has nothing to play for and turning them into world beaters? Don’t you want, at the end of the day, people to want to watch your hockey club? Shouldn’t we be excited for the next game as opposed to being excited for the next draft?

So, against all logic, with 23 games left and five points out, with two teams to leapfrog and the Bruins of all teams holding down that last wildcard spot, I for one will be cheering on Andrew Hammond. Not just as our goaltender, but because in the back-half of a too-long season it’s outliers that make hockey hockey and sports sports. Because for all of the revolutionary democratization that analytics brings to this old boys club, and as completely into overturning the moneyed order as I am, sometimes you just want to see the plot of Rudy play out in your team’s colors.

At least until we flip him to Philadelphia for a prospect.

Jeffrey Simpson’s Globe and Mail Article about the Senators is Hot Garbage

It’s not often we take time here at WTYKY to respond to a particular article in detail, but Jeffrey Simpson’s article in the Globe and Mail yesterday feels significant, and indicative of some common assumptions about hockey and how it works, and so warrants a closer look.

Of note is the author: Simpson is a public policy commenter, a winner of several media awards, and perhaps best known for his book Chronic Condition, an analysis of the worsening state of Canada’s health care system. To see his name next to an article about the mediocre performance of a small-market NHL team is, at the very least, interesting. But it’s also the equivalent of delicate dissection by bazooka. This isn’t the everyday hockey analyst, paid to spit outrage daily and meet site hit quotas. This is an eminent thinker in Canadian policy, at least when looked at through a mainstream lens, spilling over 2000 words about the Senators being bad, and blaming management.

Let’s take a closer look:

While the “national” hockey media shoot fish in a barrel reporting obsessively on the collapse of the Toronto Maple Leafs, up the road in Ottawa, a franchise has been in slow decline.

[…]

Melnyk, who has recently sold his stables and horses to raise money, used to brag about being willing to spend to the NHL salary cap in quest of a winning team. Now, Melnyk boasts about having imposed one of the league’s lowest salary caps on the Senators, claiming other owners are blowing money on bad deals. The result is obvious on the ice and in the organization. The Senators cannot compete against teams with much higher salaries. The co-relation is not exact (see the Leafs), but larger-spending teams do tend to finish higher up in the standing.

This is an odd way to start an article. So, is there a relation between spending and winning? Yes, but it’s a very general one, and the inclusion of Toronto in the analogy is proof of that. We don’t need to look far for more examples: Philadelphia, Carolina, Edmonton, Dallas, Boston, Los Angeles, Minnesota and San Jose are all spending at or near the cap and underperforming. To start a (long) article with the thesis that a team needs to spend to win is the equivalent of shooting at the broad side of a barn. He’s not wrong, but it’s also not a one-to-one equivalent.

Melnyk remains defiant, insisting in December, “I’m not in the least embarrassed about us spending at the bottom. I’m happy about it because we’ll be able to spend more in the future and some can’t. Some are stuck.”

I’m not exactly sure what an owner without money to spend is supposed to do when responding to questions about why he doesn’t spend more. Especially when he’s trying to sell tickets.

Perhaps this smaller-market reflex explains a little why Sens fans are remarkably uncomplaining. They don’t make much noise compared to fans in other cities. They seldom boo. They don’t throw sweaters on the ice in disgust or wear garbage bags over their heads. They don’t hold up homemade signs decrying mediocrity. The Ottawa media are tame by Toronto standards.

It’s almost as though by expressing unhappiness at Melnyk’s Mess, fans fear he might try to move the team, which of course he could not easily do under league bylaws. Were his creditors ever to force him to sell the club, it would be purchased by someone else.

Another option unexplored here is that perhaps the team isn’t as bad as Toronto, and is actually kind of fun to watch. Ottawa has been missing a top 4 D for most of the season, has lost more games in OT or the shootout than all but four other teams in the league, and is still a .500 team.They had possession problems at the beginning of the year, since improved under Cameron. No, they’re not contenders, but to act like they’re terrible is just misleading.

Invoking the spectre of relocation is just crass and silly. Where would Ottawa relocate to? If Arizona and Florida and Carolina and Nashville and any number of other teams who don’t rake in the cash haven’t relocated, why on earth does Simpson think the league would actually approve and abet a relocation from a Canadian market? Ottawa was actually bankrupt once and didn’t relocate. It’s ridiculous.

Ottawa’s ticket sales and prices are around league average; there’s a new television deal in place that lasts more than a decade; they’ve just submitted a bid to build a new arena downtown. I don’t think anyone but Simpson is thinking about relocation, let alone pointing to it as a reason why Sens fans don’t complain more.

The more obvious reason for that, I think, is that the team actually isn’t that bad. Or I guess Simpson could spend more time on Twitter before he says Sens fans don’t complain.

That he would be forced to sell the club is a consummation for which a growing number of sophisticated and dedicated Sens fans devoutly wish.

How sophisticated is a Sens fan if they cling to the idea that a person who owns a commodity, pays his employees, and spends within the limits set by the league, would be “forced” to sell his club? This is one of the most ridiculous, patently absurd declarations in the article, and setting up a binary where if you don’t believe in it, it means you’re “unsophisticated” is just wrong. In reality, claiming that an owner should be forced to sell because you don’t like him is pretty unsophisticated.

Update: realizing after the fact that Simpson is saying it’s Melnyk’s creditors who would force him to sell, though after what we’ve seen in Arizona, Florida, Nashville and elsewhere, I don’t think that’s any more likely. The league would extend emergency funding so he could make payments long before he’d have to
resort to a $400MM sale to meet his loan obligations.

In fairness, the slide began almost imperceptibly under the previous general manager, John Muckler: two straight draft years without an NHL player, the Dany Heatley for Marian Hossa trade, poor moves at the trading deadline. The slide has continued since.

Was the Heatley for Hossa trade part of a slide? I recall Heatley forming 1/3 of the most productive line in hockey when he was here and scoring back-to-back 50 goal seasons. Wasn’t he also part of the Cup Final year? Bizarre logic.

The Senators are privately owned, so no one knows how much revenue the club produces goes into debt payment. What is known is that when Melnyk bought the franchise, which was bankrupt in 2005, he did so with plenty of debt. It is not known what Melnyk’s two divorces did to his wealth.

This is true. What the article fails to look at – and which I haven’t seen many articles look at – is that the prevailing business model of sports franchises everywhere, in every sport, is to finance the purchase and operational expenses with debt and hold on for dear life while the underlying value of the franchise increases. Then you sell for a profit.

The Sens have increased in value fourfold since Melnyk took over. That his personal fortune has diminished is unfortunate for Sens fans, but is a byproduct of a league who relies on billionaires with designs on glory, whose fortunes are subject to variances in their markets, rather than on more stable conglomerates or networks of buyers. The NHL should be doing more to stabilize the market than vet the next wacky telecom personality riding high on a wave of success. Today’s billionaire is tomorrow’s millionaire, and Melnyk isn’t anything special in that regard. He’s a byproduct of the system, not the problem.

Rather than comparisons with Toronto or Edmonton, Sens fans should check out how the Montreal Canadiens have soared under owner Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin. Or the Winnipeg Jets, a team in a smaller market than Ottawa, that is going to qualify for the playoffs and has a stacked farm system.

This is hilarious. Montreal has had success of late, but only after years and years of mediocrity, and only because of all-star goaltending and a Norris winning defenceman. Sound familiar? Ottawa also beat Montreal soundly in the playoffs not too long ago.

Winnipeg is about to make the playoffs for the first time in their modern history, and Simpson is actually pointing to them as an example of what Ottawa should do? How does he presume that Winnipeg got their stacked farm system, anyway?

The Senators are lumbered with bad contracts to underperforming players. There are not as many horrible contracts as in Toronto, but for a low-cap team, a bevy of bad contracts eats up desperately needed money.

As in, a three-year, $7.9-million contract for Colin Greening, who is now in Binghamton, never to return. As in, a two-year, $6-million contract for declining centre-iceman David Legwand, signed as a free agent. As in, a $4-million-a-year, three-year deal for Milan Michalek (11 goals in 51 games). A slightly more lucrative and longer deal for Clarke MacArthur (one goal in 2015).

I don’t disagree that there are some stinker contracts in there, but I thought the premise of the article was that Ottawa needs to spend. Now it’s that Ottawa spends frivolously.

If the point of this article is that Ottawa should spend a lot of money, but only on good contracts, then it’s not only obvious and condescending, it’s insipid. The challenge, Jeff, is how you do that. It’s not like Ottawa can just go out and sign all of the best UFAs tomorrow because 1) there aren’t any good UFAs available, and 2) Ottawa is not as attractive a destination as New York City.

What they have to do is take longshots on players who might provide value on their contracts down the line. Sometimes it works, as it has with Turris. Sometimes it doesn’t, like with Greening.

Bobby Ryan, a joyous personality and a talented player, has signed an eyebrow-raising contract starting next year: an average $7.25-million, not commensurate with someone with 14 goals this year and on target for maybe 20 or 22.

So now we’re rating Bobby Ryan, on pace for some of the highest point totals of his career, solely on goals?

The slide – remember the Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007 and remained strong for several years thereafter – has featured bad trades, the worst being goalie Ben Bishop to Tampa for Cory Conacher.

They remained strong for several years thereafter? I thought they were consistently mediocre, according to this article. They were swept in the first round the year after the finals and missed the year after, all while spending to the cap.

Yeah, the trade of Bishop for Conacher was bad. How about the Turris trade? Or the Ryan trade? Or the Anderson trade?

By contrast, the trade that brought Kyle Turris from Phoenix was a steal for Ottawa, although this season with Jason Spezza gone has revealed that Turris is a second-line centre, not a No. 1.

Oh, there it is. A backhanded mention that Turris isn’t a #1 center without Spezza, ignoring that Turris played most of a season without Spezza already and was fine.

The Senators are among the league’s youngest teams. Perhaps that explains the team’s inconsistency, as in a 6-3 loss this week at home to a bad Carolina team; a 4-2 triumph over first-place Montreal. The franchise hopes that many of young players are still adjusting to the demands of the NHL and, with time and more experience they will help the Senators improve. The Senators will have a high pick this year in a draft with many fine players.

Yes. Finally. This is what’s called “building.”

At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Senators’ front office will look somewhat different. Whether with the budget constraints as they are, new personnel could reverse the slow slide remains to be seen.

And there’s the whole rotten thing in a nutshell: criticism and finger-wagging without a single solution beyond the following embarrassingly obvious ones:

  1. Spend more money! Even if you don’t have it! But only on players who deserve it!
  2. Only make good trades! Never make bad ones!
  3. Don’t sign anyone to a bad contract! It helps if you know how they’re going to perform into the future, so you should know that! It’s apparently easy!
  4. Win more games, but at the same time, draft good talent! I’m ignoring that your draft record is actually pretty damned good!
  5. If you can’t do any of those things, force the owner to sell the team, something which can’t actually be done and which, in a league which wants to remain business friendly, would never happen!

What I would have liked to see from an analyst of Simpson’s stature is an attempt to solve to irreconcilability at the center of the NHL business model. If an owner doesn’t have money to spend to the cap, but has enough to keep it running, and so an interest in continuing to wait until his investment accrues more value before he sells, and you’re already in a league with revenue sharing, a cap, escrow, and more, than what, exactly, can be done?

It’s totally infuriating to see someone so respected dip his toe into the hockey pond with such an amateur, illiterate analysis. More infuriating still to see some Sens fans jump all over this article as truth.

This is pandering garbage and dead content designed to stoke the dissatisfaction of readers without much to look forward to for the rest of this season. It should be ignored with extreme prejudice.