In which we pretend to know anything about hockey coaching

Senators management fired coach Paul MacLean today. They were tired of his propensity to make his players skate more slowly than the other team’s players.

Also, sometimes when Ottawa Senators players shot the puck it was too high or too low or just right, but mostly too high or too low. It could have been the slow skating. They should have skated faster and followed through.

The back-to-back losses to the Islanders were the last straw. They could no longer stomach MacLean’s insistence on playing four lines for different minutes. With players on each line. Into the zone.

We at WTYKY wish Paul MacLean all the best, and hope that in his next gig he remembers that the glass goes all the way around the rink. Except in the places where it stops. So the players can get off the bench. A-doi. And that he figures out the correct proportion of grit to mix into his skill pie.

MacLean’s replacement will have a big job ahead of him. He’ll have to untrain the Senators in their current system of up-tempo sideways-skating low-tempo bullish sheepish Event Hockey and institute a strong 1-3-4-1-goalie setup until you pull the goalie when there’s time left on the clock until there isn’t anymore. As is the style in NHL 3.0.

All I know is that when we see David Legwand do what he’s known for doing–which is breaching the zone with his left leg and then his right leg, the other team will think, “Ok: these guys know what they’re doing now.”

And then this team will win the Stanley Cup.

Playoff probabilities, 2015, and thinking ‘transition year’

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Advanced stats at work

Something happened sometime last week: for the first time since the earliest days of the season, Ottawa’s playoff probability fell below 50%. After having spent the better part of the previous two months between 55% and their season-high 79%, this is the dark side of the coin in this coin-flip of of a season.

We’ve taken to calling Ottawa a bubble team for a good long while now, and that’s still fair. When the season is called, I think Ottawa will find itself just on the outside or just on the inside of the playoff picture, right in the creamy, mediocre middle of the league.

But in addition to thinking “bubble,” I’m also starting to think in terms of “transition” – as in, on a scale between a rebuild and true contention, this is the ideal year to add a key player through, say, the draft.

Before the season began, my biggest concern was whether the team would be able to re-sign upcoming UFAs Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacCarthur, Marc Methot, and Jason Spezza. Could we convince them to stay in Ottawa if the team wasn’t poised to compete?

The first two were re-signed after we put something in their drinking water that made them see New York City when they looked at Ottawa; Methot’s situation will come into stark clarity when he likely returns to the lineup tomorrow night and throws out his back; and, as we all know, Spezza retired a Senator and will never play another NHL game because he was born a Sen and he’ll die a Sen.

For better or worse, the Senators have locked up their core players – and on pretty high value deals, at that – so fans can take a breath and relax in that at least the team won’t take a huge step back in the next couple of years. Senators management can turn their attention to complementing and augmenting the team’s core.

With Methot returning and hopefully re-signing, one hopes the result will be the team outperforming more than just Buffalo on the scale of number of shots allowed. Curtis Lazar will be one year closer to the star that Bryan Murray believes he will be. Mika Zibanejad will be cured of the mumps. (He has mumps, right?) Erik Karlsson will still be in his prime, and Robin Lehner may steal a little bit more of the net away from Craig Anderson. This should be a team looking to compete for the Cup in the next 2-4 years, not necessarily right now.

I’m not ready to take Ottawa’s recent 3-6-1 spin as a sign that all hope is lost. Sure, Ottawa’s had to be pesky and have some of the highest save percentages in the league just to get where they are, but there’s still time to right this ship. And if it doesn’t get righted, then that’s okay too.

Come January, if Ottawa isn’t closer to positive on that playoff probability scale, I think it’s time to start thinking draft. There is no scenario in which Ottawa isn’t more fun to watch and a more competitive team with a very good prospect in the fold, and they aren’t going to lose anybody from the lineup as a result of a losing season. Add to that that the cap may not go up as high as some GMs think because of the sinking Canadian dollar, and Ottawa might be in a position to poach some talent the way the Islanders just did.

I want Ottawa to win as much as the next guy. I want to watch playoff hockey come spring. But thinking of this as a transition year makes the whole prospect of missing out a little bit less painful to consider.

Forbes valuations and the stagnant Sens

Photo credit to the Ottawa Citizen

Photo credit to the Ottawa Citizen

For those of us who like to take a system view of league sports but aren’t economists, Forbes’ list of franchise valuations is a vital talking point. Sure, the math is inexact. Sure, it’s a snapshot of a situation in perpetual motion. Sure, sports is a whole lot more fun when we don’t pay as much attention to the dollars and cents. With those caveats aside, I think the list is illuminating. I can’t help but find takeaways with every annual list.

On the surface, this year’s list doesn’t hold too many surprises. The league, as advertised, continues to increase in value, buoyed by regular growth and new television deals. Last year’s list had the Toronto Maple Leafs breaking the billion dollar threshold–the first in the league. This year’s list has three teams with a big B next to their name: Toronto, the New York Rangers, and Montreal. Every team gained value, with a full 23 teams gaining in the double digits and 12 gaining in excess of 20%.

A 20% return…in one year…on any investment is bananas. And thanks for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners will have a chance to keep more of that than ever before. So, the picture of league health is a good.

Now, this isn’t exactly cheery news for the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa gained a paltry 5% growth on the year–the same year they announced a 12 year broadcasting deal with TSN. While a 5% return isn’t exactly terrible, it is comparatively unimpressive when you look across the league. Teams in both non-traditional markets, like Nashville (22% increase) and established sports markets where you’d think there wasn’t room for massive new growth, like Dallas (26%), Boston (25%) and Washington (21%) are outperforming Ottawa in terms of value growth by a factor of four to five.

Some of this might be expected. Calgary gained only 7% and Winnipeg 5%, which means smaller markets and a weak Canadian dollar might be the main contributor. But the fact remains that even with its television-deal the needle barely moved on Ottawa’s value.

This with a team that has the lowest payroll in the league, and who plays in an aging building. It you put any stock in Forbes’ valuations (and not everyone, or even most people, should) it casts a bit of a pall over the future of the team, if only because there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for Eugene Melnyk to spend on the team or on the arena.

That means, potentially, continued mediocrity on the ice and a fight with city hall over who pays for a new arena. Not tomorrow, but certainly in the next few years. There’s no new windfall in the making. The owners got the deal they wanted, Bell Media showed Ottawa the money. What’s left, other than winning?

I’m not pitying Melnyk here at all, of course. He bought the team and arena for a song, and has seen almost a four-fold increase on his investment. But if the only way Ottawa is going to see growth in value is by becoming a hot(ter) commodity than it already is, then it’s going to need to win–which means either Paul MacLean and Bryan Murray working miracles with the lowest payroll in the league, or Melnyk being willing to take a loss on player salaries now in the hopes of cashing in bigger later.

Not that spending guarantees you a winner…but not spending gets you a line of Chris Neil, David Legwand, and Milan Michalek, and we’re watching the (painful) results of that every night.

Is next year a signpost for Ottawa’s financial health?

Yep, we spent all off season talking about a billionaire’s cash flow, and now hockey is finally here and we have something fun to talk about and I’ve decided to write a post about…a billionaire’s cash flow. Give me a break, I’m 63 years old. Nothing excites me like sound fiscal policy.

We talked about this a little bit on our latest podcast, which I know you’ve all listened to already so when you listen to it again now it will be like travelling back in time and watching yourself enjoy it, sort of like how everyone who watches the Dave Chapelle show basically likes to watch someone who’s never seen the Prince sketch watch it for the first time more than they like the sketch itself. What was I talking about?

Right. Ottawa recently attained the ignominious achievement of Lowest Payroll in the League. And by a good couple of million bucks to boot. Look at the teams directly above Ottawa in that list: Calgary and Buffalo, who are both in various stages of rebuilding; Arizona and Nashville, who are in non-traditional markets and have struggled financially for years; Winnipeg, who has the smallest building in the league and even then, the Jets are spending $5MM more in salary than Ottawa is. The average cap space in this league is $3MM, and the median is $2.3MM. Ottawa has $13MM in cap space.

So, yes, we ain’t flush. But what happens next year? With the cap reportedly staying about the same, Ottawa’s has new deals kicking in for Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, and Craig Anderson. (And Mark Borowiecki, though that’s not too pricey.) That’s just over $5MM in raises right there.

Then there are the RFAs: Mike Hoffman (8 points, 7 goals in 13 games) and Mark Stone (9 points in 15 games), who are currently make up one of Ottawa’s most productive lines. Mika Zibanejad, who’s struggling but is penciled in as Ottawa’s second line center until further notice. And Alex Chiasson, who’s looked great (9 points in 13 games). Fair to say that their deals will be all over the place given their different positions in the lineup, relative ages, leverage, Ottawa’s strategy of giving out years in exchange for lower pay, and how the rest of this season plays out. But if we very conservatively estimate that each player doubles his salary on a “prove it” bridge deal of $2MM per, then that’s another $4MM towards the cap.

Then there are the pending UFAs. I’m sure Ottawa would love to keep Methot in the mix. Eric Condra has been a healthy scratch lately and could be on his way out. Assuming Ottawa lets Condra go and re-signs Methot at $4.5MM-$5MM per, that brings Ottawa’s spending to about $10MM above current levels. Or, about league average in terms of spending.

With the cap staying about the same, Ottawa could catapult itself from last in league spending to the middle of the pack without doing anything overly aggressive. No trades. Not getting into the free agent market. Just standing pat with the team it has now.

Which is why next year will be so interesting. The glass half-full perspective here is that this is why Ottawa has been so prudent these last few years. They knew they’d have to spend on all of this young talent eventually. The glass half-empty perspective supposes that we’re about to see an exodus of talent via salary-dumping moves.

Surely it would be no surprise if Ottawa jettisoned Colin Greening and Patrick Wiercioch, players they’ve seemingly been trying to trade since they day they signed them. Zack Smith has also been in rumours, and with Ottawa’s surplus of third line centers would seem like an obvious trade target. Here at WTYKY we continue to pray that Chris Neil finds his way into a San Jose Sharks uniform when that team finally has its full-blown identity crisis and decides that ‘grit wins Cups.’

If those kinds of moves take place, it might be another indication of Ottawa’s financial health, or lack thereof. The TSN television deal will have started to pay at that point. If Ottawa has a strong season and makes the playoffs, ticket sales will be strong. If Ottawa doesn’t spend to at least league average, what does that say about Melnyk’s ability to support this team as its window of contention starts to creak open again?

Kudos to TSN for its classy piece on Bryan Murray

I’m sure many of you have already seen this short piece on Bryan Murray’s battle with stage 4 colon cancer, but if you haven’t, it’s poignant, authentic, and well worth your time.

Nicely done, TSN – especially having the interview conducted by Michael Farber, a cancer survivor, and then throwing to the panel to talk about how they’re all going to get colonoscopies. It makes a difference, especially in bullheaded, traditional cultures like hockey’s, to de-stigmatize these preventative measures.

Finally, you can really tell how well-respected Murray is in hockey circles. Anytime you see someone who’s dedicated half of their life to an endeavor, it deserves a moment’s recognition.

All the best to Bryan Murray from the WTYKY fam.

The Cautionary Tale of Jared Cowen and how we view Curtis Lazar

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The year was 2010, and Jared Cowen had just been sent back to junior.

The prospect’s prestige was undeniable. A first overall selection in the WHL draft, his team, the Chiefs, would win the league championship in his first full season with the club and Cowen would receive the team’s rookie-of-the-year award. He was ranked the fourth best skater heading in the NHL draft despite a terrible-looking knee injury, and was eventually selected by Ottawa ninth overall. The feeling at the time was that Ottawa might have snagged itself a top-five pick. The club began pouring echinacea directly into his kneecap and prayed.

At the time it seemed the burnish on Cowen was blinding. His ceiling wasn’t just as a serviceable NHL defender, but as a stud shutdown player, capable of playing half the game on the top pairing. He was to be the perfect defensive yin to Erik Karlsson’s offensive yang.

More than that, Cowen was the corrective to the wrong that was allowing Zdeno Chara, who would become a generationally great player and perennial Norris contender, to walk for nothing. Cowen and Karlsson would be the foundation on which the team would complete its rebuild-on-the-fly, and return the team to the high-flying years when Chara and Wade Redden formed one of the best tandems in the league.

I can’t really overstate this: coming out of the modern franchise’s first finals appearance and having lived through the devastating Heatley affair, dismissing multiple coaches, and missing the playoffs for the first time in ages, the Ottawa Senators were all about hope. They’d jump-started their rebuild by taking Erik Karlsson in the middle of the first round. Cowen was just another piece in the narrative puzzle, a stepping stone on the road back to glory.

In 2010-2011, with Cowen already having played an NHL game and expected to challenge for a roster spot, Ottawa opted to send him back to junior for the year. He was a dominant player there, the captain of his team, and capped his year by joining the Binghamton Senators on a run that would result in an AHL Calder Cup. Everything was falling into place.

It’s sort of a fairy-tale when told this way. We, the fans, want so badly for the narrative to be true: a blue chip prospect, succeeding at every level, all but destined to join the team and take it over the top.

And at times it’s seemed as if the management has wanted to believe this as much as the fans do. They’ve played him in top four minutes, often on a pairing with Erik Karlsson despite less-than-stellar results. There was the rumoured eight-year deal Ottawa had on the table, which you could argue was just an attempt to get good value out of a prospect with a lot of potential but still represented a massive gamble on a player who’d yet to really establish himself as a regular NHLer.

During what sometimes seemed like a contentious negotiation on his RFA deal it seemed like even Cowen had bought into the narrative, looking for salary in excess of $4MM a year. The team eventually settled on a deal that would pay him just a shade over $3MM for four years. It wasn’t the richest deal in the league, but keep in mind that Cowen had missed close to a whole season with a hip injury, and had played about a season’s worth of games at that point.

While there have been highlights–he had a good series against Montreal that one year, though most of the team did–we’ve come associate Cowen with mind-boggling brain farts. Despite (perhaps because of) his size, he loses his assignments in transition. Far from the perfect complement to Karlsson, he seems baffled by his linemate’s speed and mobility. He was supposed to be the safety net that would allow Karlsson to follow his riskier instincts; too often we see the gaffes inherent to Karlsson’s free-wheeling tendencies exacerbated rather than remedied by a confused Cowen. And then there are the penalties, which came early and often.

So, here we are: 11 games into the season and Cowen has already been a healthy scratch in consecutive games. It’s the nadir of his early NHL career, and the narrative is looking a little bit like a fairy tale after all. None of which is to imply that he’s a bust, or should be traded. Cowen still has potential, and Ottawa needs all of the young, potentially good defensemen it can get. It’s just that the narrative and the expectations associated with Cowen, before he was ever really a regular part of the lineup, don’t match.

Which brings us to Curtis Lazar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

Lazar was a second overall selection in the WHL draft. The Edmonton Oil Kings won the WHL championship in his first year on the team. The next year they lost in the finals, and then, the season following, won the championship again and the Memorial Cup to boot. He played on Team Canada’s Junior Team, was drafted 17th overall in the NHL draft, and the feeling was both that Lazar was a steal at that spot and almost a complete player at the tender age of 18.

But, more than that and also like Cowen, Lazar’s particular set of intangibles were thought a perfect complement to the perceived gaps in the NHL club. Lazar was gritty, determined, and a natural winner. Ottawa, and particularly its ultra-skilled captain Jason Spezza, had failed to establish an identity, were being pushed around by other clubs, didn’t work hard enough, and on and on. (I don’t believe any of that, but it was the narrative.) Once again a promising young prospect was expected to address the historical injustices of a club that’s never been able to win the whole enchilada.

So here we find ourselves, at the nine game cusp of Curtis Lazar’s tryout before his deal kicks in, and it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll remain with the big club as opposed to being sent back to junior. After all, he’s won everywhere already; what more is there to be gained from him returning to Edmonton? It’s a solid argument, but there’s a lesson here.

Cowen wasn’t able to live up to expectations, and he had the advantage of a buffer year in the juniors. I worry that Lazar sticking with the big club means even bigger expectations. By sending Lazar back to juniors you have the protection of a kid from the unreasonable, pretty much mythical expectations attendant all sports franchises. The club needs to actively manage those expectations for Lazar, and not just for this season, but for the next couple, maybe even the next few seasons. Because those expectations are ridiculous.

We have plenty of evidence that 18 year old players rarely contribute at the NHL level unless they’re a first overall pick and being used in all situations. And so far it seems like Ottawa is doing the right thing; Lazar is playing sheltered minutes on the third or fourth line, getting offensive zone starts and some limited power-play time. Nobody expects him to set the world on fire right away.

But what about next season? We’re in a fickle, Canadian market, remember? How long do you think it will be before analysts start saying that Curtis Lazar needs to “step up his game”? How long is it before Lazar finds himself in the position Mika Zibanejad is in now, under the uncomfortably hot spotlight of armchair analysts and fans?

There’s a part of me that wonders if Lazar would benefit from another year in junior, not because he needs more seasoning, or because being in the NHL isn’t better for his skill development, but because it allows us to keep the narrative just that–a narrative–for a little while longer. Sure, it holds off having to pay Lazar for another year. But it also keeps expectations abstract and distant for the moment. Lazar the savior, with the leadership and intangibles to fill the void. Lazar, representing everything and nothing at the same time.

And there’s another part of me that thinks it’s up to us, the fans, to keep our heads screwed on right. This is a teenager we’re talking about. Cowen couldn’t fill our expectations because, really, how could he? There are only 60 top-two NHL defensemen in the world on any given game night. It’s a pretty exclusive club. But he’s whipping boy number one at the moment, and perhaps rightly so. We, the fans, can avoid doing this same thing to Lazar when his time comes.

It starts now, with us busting up these narrative when we encounter them. Lazar is a promising young player. But first and foremost he’s a kid trying to make his way into the best hockey league in the world. If the club isn’t going to insulate him by sending him back to junior, then let’s let him be that for as long as he needs to be.

Fixing Ottawa’s defence through trade

It’s no secret that Ottawa needs to re-tune its defence. It gives up more shots on net than any team in the league save Buffalo, who are looking historically bad. They’ve been bailed out by incredible goaltending and timely scoring, and will surely be helped out by the return of Marc Methot, but a move on the backend is still worth some irresponsible speculation. Come with us, won’t you, on a journey to the unverifiable and borderline delusional.

What could Ottawa give up?

So, it’s not like Ottawa doesn’t have healthy bodies on the backend. They’re just not terribly good ones, or at least not good as they’re currently being used together. Which is why we’re in the odd position here of suggesting that Ottawa could fix its defence by trading its defencemen, which you would think would either dilute said defence or not get you anything of value back.

…and you might be right, if you said that. The weird thing is, some of these defencemen, in a vacuum of their potential and their ceiling, are pretty valuable.

Jared Cowen is a top ten pick, a big body, and a player who supposedly has all the tools and just hasn’t been able to put it together yet. He could be dominant for…somebody. Ottawa inexplicably started paying him like a top four defencemen before he ever solidified his place in the lineup, so I imagine it’s difficult to move a $3MM+ healthy scratch. But as part of a package, Cowen could have value.

Patrick Wiercioch is another toughie—making $2MM to be a strategically employed puck mover and second-unit powerplay quarterback. Ottawa has given him plenty of time and exposure over the last several games, and he hasn’t looked horrendous, but I also can’t imagine the phone is ringing off the hook for him at this point.

Marc Methot is more interesting. A verifiable top four, maybe even top two guy, with lots of character and experience who seems to be holding out on a new contract for the sake of $300k a year. Ottawa is super sensitive about contract disputes at this point, and are more likely to move a player than lose him for nothing, especially given he’s already missed camp and the first 10% of the season. I could see a team wanting to take a chance on being able to re-sign Methot, and even a nice little market developing for him.

Also, Ottawa has that extra 2015 second round pick from the Spezza deal, in what is supposed to be a deep draft. Murray loves trading second rounders as, to be fair, do we all.

Who could Ottawa target?

Assuming here that Ottawa wants to target a defenceman as opposed to a forward (though I can get behind doing everything in our power to put Brayden Schenn in a Sens uniform), there are a few options out there. These are players on underperforming teams who, like Cowen, Wiercioch, or Methot, might just need a change of scenery. I know I don’t need to say that none of these scenarios are likely, but…there you go.

Dennis Wideman is on an expensive deal—more than $5MM for three more seasons—and at 31 is not getting any younger. But he’d be a serviceable secondary puck mover behind Karlsson, and has looked good in the young season without much to work with in Calgary.

Keith Yandle has been in the rumor mill for what feels like forever. Like Wideman, he’d be a great puck mover, and is better than Wideman for the same price tag and one less year on his deal. His +/- isn’t very impressive, especially on a team playing Tippet’s defensive system and with Mike Smith giving them above league-average goaltending, and Ottawa has a history dealing with Arizona, and Yandle could be a coup. He won’t come cheap, though.

Tyler Myers has been pretty bad for a long time, and is on another long and expensive deal, but he’s still young and has known nothing but a bad Buffalo team during his career. The only reason I really put him here is that Tim Murray is familiar with Sens players and might be able to see beyond the stat line on someone like Cowen. Admittedly, in-division deals are super rare.

Dustin Byfuglien has seemingly been on the trade block forever. (Is Winnipeg still playing him at forward? Does Winnipeg actually hate 50% of the players on their roster?) He’s got great underlying possession numbers, and the wheels seem to have finally come off of the wagon in Winnipeg. If they start moving out some of their core guys, Byfuglien would be a great player to target. Plus he’s fat, which is hilarious, because fat pro athletes are always hilarious.

Brian Campbell apparently wants out of Florida, is a workhorse who plays 25+ minutes a night, and has good underlying numbers. He’s expensive as hell, and Florida might not want to trade within the division, but he played for the 67s, so he automatically goes on this list for reasons that have nothing to do with reality or feasibility.

Tim Gleason was on Ottawa’s radar at the trade deadline a couple of seasons ago, and can probably be pried away for a smaller package. Carolina is having a terrible year already, but with all of their injuries, regressing goaltending, and instability all the way up through management, it might not be that their defence is truly awful. On the other hand, his possession stats are…truly awful.

Let me consult my Matrix boxed set

Ultimately, Ottawa may wish to stand pat, wait for Methot to get back into the lineup, and flip part of their surplus on D for a scoring forward. Or Ottawa’s propensity to give up 36 shots a game might result in them starting to lose games, which is usually what happens, in which case the whole strategy shifts and we start writing posts about prospects. But in the meantime, fire up those speculation machines (AKA the internet) and dare to dream, lovers.