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.

Best wishes to Bryan Murray

We publish a lot of acerbic and occasionally humorous (but mostly acerbic) shit on this blog, but it pales quickly and obviously in the shadow of a real life person fighting a real life bullshit thing like cancer. So, all of our crap aside: best wishes to Bryan Murray and his family as he fights this curse of a disease. If he brings a modicum of the competitiveness he brings to hockey to his care plan, Murray will be back in the GM’s box in no time.

Fuck cancer.

The point at which Varada broke and ran into the woods, never to be heard from again

I’ve got to say, Twitter and the blog space in general has been a black hole of cynicism and pessimism of late, a sphincter spewing bilious hatred and seething rage in the direction of Eugene Melnyk and Senators management because they don’t have the money to spend on payroll. As James pointed out in our recent roundtable post, it’s gotten to the point where people were so devastated by the fact that Ottawa didn’t sign Benoit Fucking Pouliot, who they’d only heard about as a candidate for signing about 24 hours earlier, that WTYKY had to collectively stay off Twitter for a few days just to scrub the poison off of us.

We can all admit that hockey is a business, right? We can all admit that the owners of hockey teams are often using the day-to-day operations of hockey to minimize losses while they wait on their underlying investment to increase in value until its time to sell, or to make money on ancillary investments made possible through franchise ownership, like real estate or retail leasing or whatever, right? And for these reasons, we can all agree that it probably doesn’t make sense for Melnyk to sell this team now.

Sure, he’d make some money, considering the valuation of the team today compared to the price at which it was purchased. But with the new television deal in place, and having just suffered through another lockout that resulted in yet another owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement, most of Melnyk’s team-related money is set to come in over the next 5-10 years. Plus the franchise will continue to accrue value. If anything, the Senators are one of Melnyk’s few investments that actually seems be trending upwards. If we can agree that there’s a right and wrong time to trade Jason Spezza from an asset management perspective, then we can agree that there’s no way Melnyk is going to sell this team right now.

So the team is his. But that doesn’t change the fact that he still doesn’t have any money. Most of his worth is tied up in non-liquid investments, which means he has low cash-on-hand. His overall value has tumbled, as has been documented exhaustively. Ottawa doesn’t generate a lot of gate revenue, especially compared to other Canadian markets (average ticket sales, average ticket prices). Melynk doesn’t have a lot of satellite investments in the area.

So there’s no money to spend to contention, and there’s no money to subsidize losses over a prolonged rebuild, and Melnyk won’t sell. On these basic facts we can all agree.

And yet we read blog post after newspaper article after social media zing about how Melnyk needs to spend. I agree that it sucks that Jeff Vinik doesn’t own this team, but Jeff Vinik doesn’t own this team.

So what do you expect from the Ottawa Senators? What else can they do but try to squeeze value out of what they have, try to sell the fan base on hope and exciting prospects, and preach hard work in the absence of elite skill? What do you actually want management to do?

As far as I can see it, we, as fans, have four options:

  1. Give Melnyk what he wants and let him develop ancillary investments in order to subsidize team payroll. This could be tax breaks, actual subsidization by the city a la the Coyotes, or preferential terms on investments, like the casino. All of which seems like a bad idea to me. Forgoing tax revenues for social services, or allowing additional gambling will impact the social determinants of health and, hey, let’s admit that it’s only fucking hockey. I’m OK with not sacrificing actual quality of life so that my local hockey team of millionaire players gets better at swatting rubber discs into nets.
  2. Boycott games until Melynk sells the team. Good luck with that. People wouldn’t even boycott games when the owners cancelled a season of hockey, and then another half-season, to pad their pockets. People love hockey. An owner can stomp on puppies in front of his arena while laughing maniacally for local news cameras and people would still buy enough tickets to maintain status quo on an owner’s PR-o-Meter.
  3. Go to more games. Subsidize the team directly out of your own pocket. Set up a fan pledge page that says that if the team commits to spending to the cap, fans will buy all available season tickets and accept a ticket price increase. Except I’m on the same page here as everyone else: I like hockey. I don’t like spending more than an hour on a bus to the arena when I can go to the bar at the end of my street, watch the game on one of about 50 giant TVs, and enjoy a drink special and a meal, all in an atmosphere build explicitly around the game. It’s nobody’s fault. The tech bubble burst and Kanata didn’t turn into a city. It’s the reality of hockey in Ottawa.
  4. Allow joy to enter your cold, dead heart and stop complaining for Christ’s sake. I hate this suggestion. I hate it when people suggest it to me when I’m talking about movies, or music, or sports. I hate it when people tell me to just relax. Analyzing a problem is how I enjoy most things.

And we’re all entitled to our opinions. I believe blogs play an invaluable role in uncovering aspects of the game often ignored on purpose or for lack of capacity by traditional media. It’s only on the internet where you have whole schools of analytics beings developed almost entirely through volunteer hours, e.g. people actually sitting at home and tracking zone entries on their own time just so they can feel like they’re a part of something. Hockey coverage in Ottawa has been pretty amazing over the last few years, especially as it’s uncovered the truth about Melnyk’s finances and the gradual disintegration of a contending team. The level of passion you encounter for this game can be inspiring at times. 

Complaints about a poor owner are totally, totally legitimate, and I don’t challenge those assertions for one baby second. But you know what? It’s covered. This topic has been thoroughly and exhaustively and absurdly covered. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I’ve written on it. But this topic is now officially the deadest horse in the world. It’s been beaten to a pulpy horsey mash. There’s no horse anymore. It’s just us and our roiling, inexhaustible anger and frustration over the fact that some rich fuck isn’t some very, very rich fuck.

So you can spend the next, oh, two to tens years decrying Melnyk’s gradual descent to Harold Ballard status. You can allow that to become the principle method by which you enjoy, the mucus covered lens through which you view our game.

Or…you can participate in the analytics renaissance and write about possible efficiencies to be exploited and approaches to the game to be scoped out. You can see this an an opportunity for innovation and creativity. You can explore the school of thought that says being the first to do something a certain way is much more rewarding than being the latest to buy success.

Or…you can just enjoy hockey because before you knew anything about hockey there was something that attracted you to it.

Or…you know what? Take a break. Go for a bike ride. Participate in a rally. Volunteer at the local shelter. Read a book. Call your grandmother and ask about how much a sandwich cost in 1954. Hell, get angry about something which also doesn’t matter, like Game of Thrones. Mix it up.

But until then, have the serenity to accept that which you cannot change. Melnyk doesn’t have money. He’s not going to sell the team. Hockey starts in October. Your move.

Best and Worst Case Scenarios

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It’s perfectly understandable that following the trade of another veteran player, Sens fans would find themselves mired in existential quandary. “What does it all mean? Where are we going? What IS hockey, anyway? Should I spend time with my kids?” It could be that we’ve just spent a few days drinking in +40 humidity to celebrate the quasi-independence of a colonial state and we’ve gone skull soft. But no: in the harsh light of sobriety, the questions still linger.

A few years back, the Ottawa Senators had one of their worst seasons since the expansion days. They finished fifth last in the league after having spent most of the season flirting with last overall. Despite all of the mechanisms built into the NHL to place teams inside a Giant Mediocre Middle, Ottawa really had no excuse but to embark on some sort of rebuild. They were spending almost to the cap. They were paying Alex Kovalev $5MM a year. They stank. These are the things out of which rebuilds are made.

So rebuild we did! Except not really. A few mid-tier players were sent packing in exchange for not very many or very high picks, and at the end of the rebuild, the best asset Ottawa had was their own pick, sixth overall (after being bumped down when New Jersey won the draft lottery), which they used on Mika Zibanejad, who is an awesome player if not a franchise one.

A few things I assume here:

  • Ottawa did much better in the years that followed because they weren’t as bad as everyone thought. There were almost as many points in the standings separating them from the last place Oilers as there were separating them from 8th and the playoffs. Remember: Brian Elliott was their goaltender, and the curse of Pascal Leclaire had been laid on the arena.
  • The emergence of Erik Karlsson as a generationally great defenseman who can play more than 30 minutes a night also helped them from continued tankery.
  • A shortened season in which Craig Anderson posted unreal numbers helped them to a surprise playoff appearance and first round win against the Habs.

All of which is to say, what I’m assuming here is that Ottawa wasn’t a terrible team, but wasn’t an ok team during that period either. It was a perfect storm of expectations and the emergence of key players. They were routinely outshot, but were saved by Special Little Guy Erik Karlsson’s CORSI Flamethrower Power Moves and Craig Anderson playing with the cheats on. It was a lot of fun. (Man, remember that Hab series? Good times.) But, much as the Toronto Maple Leafs are now pointing to their one playoff appearance and assuming that’s their norm, that unexpected bit of mild success might have been the worst case scenario for Ottawa. Bryan Murray still thinks that this team can compete.

Am I excited for the youngins? Sure I am. But I guess I just don’t have that much faith in youth to drive this team to excellence. How many top five picks are on the Islanders right now?

I also accept that Eugene Melnyk’s money situation is what it is, and he’s not going to sell when he’s set to cash in on that TV deal. It’s a conundrum: the team can’t spend enough to be competitive, but it also can’t afford to spend a few seasons in the dumps to restock. So we’re a bubble team, and with standard deviation in the standings being what it is (I’ve written before that it’s gotta be 10 points, at least), then Ottawa can find themselves on the right side of the bubble.

If you can’t tell already: I’m torn. What is this team’s true state? A team that manages to occasionally outperform its fundamental flaws, or a team with a solid core that was momentarily derailed?

Five Years from Now…the Best Case Scenario

  • Bobby Ryan, undeterred by the departure of Ottawa’s skilled veterans, signs long-term
  • Melnyk finds a way to keep Ottawa at least in middle of the spending pack, and Ottawa is able to attract marquee free agents due to their competitive young core
  • Ottawa’s identity – “hard working” – turns out to be viable and not an identity also adopted by every single other team in the NHL
  • Erik Karlsson fully recovers from the Achilles tear he suffered last season and becomes a regular part of the Norris conversation again; Ottawa has no trouble re-signing him
  • Mika Zibanejad turns out to be a second line center / he doesn’t need to be because Ottawa just signed one
  • Kyle Turris turns out to be a first line center / see above
  • Chris Neil is traded / retires / gets lost in the woods and starts a new life there. Chris Phillips organizes a search party, also disappears
  • One or more of Stone / Hoffman / Chiasson / Lazar / Puempel turn out to not only be promising young lads, but above average NHLers
  • Robin Lehner is, in fact, a starting goaltender
  • Boston and Detroit go into serious decline, Toronto continues to flounder, Florida continues to be Florida, and Buffalo only begins to emerge as a playoff contender, leaving Ottawa to compete with Montreal and Tampa in the division
  • A post-Bryan Murray vision starts to form in the absence of Tim Murray

Five Years from Now…the Worst Case Scenario

  • Bobby Ryan goes to free agency. Signs with Toronto for a reasonable cap hit and number. MacArthur also scoots.
  • The conversation then switches to Erik Karlsson and whether it’s smart asset management to trade him while he has some term left on his deal and is still in his prime. Sooner or later, Karlsson, tiring of being the only good player on the team and everyone hating him for not being Chris Neil, asks for a trade
  • Chris Neil re-signs for three more years at $3MM per
  • Ottawa doesn’t have the money to spend 3-5 years out of the playoffs and accrue high picks, and so spends just enough to miss the playoffs by five points every year
  • Ottawa fans realize that a bunch of players drafted nowhere near the top ten don’t have much chance of carrying a team after all
  • Ottawa’s strong drafting team follows the rest of the managerial talent out of town
  • Bryan Murray does his best Muckler impression and falls asleep in the press box
  • Eugene Melnyk successfully runs for mayor of Ottawa

It’s polarizing, I know. That was the point. The scary thing is that you can imagine either scenario happening.

What these scenarios make clear to me, which is probably already abundantly clear to all of you, is that Erik Karlsson is sort of the end game for this franchise. He’s the engine that drives the team’s offense, and after Bobby Ryan (who you could argue isn’t really a superstar player) is the last marquee attraction on this team. He must be kept, and placated, at all costs if this team isn’t going to become a regular at the bottom of the standings, and a joke among free agents.

How early is too early to offer him all the money?

Ottawa, the Leaky Boat

So, Spezza is as good as gone. This I’ve come to terms with. I suppose you could argue it makes sense from an asset management perspective, though I think it makes more sense to hold on to your elite scoring center who’s only making $4MM a year and who carries a $7MM cap hit, helping you to reach the cap floor…

So, Hemsky is as good as gone. This I’ve come to terms with. I suppose you could argue that the player is best suited as a complementary scorer rather than the central piece he’d become if he stayed on the cash-strapped Senators, and that having a skilled winger making north of $5MM a year is difficult to justify in a market who loves them some grinding, hardworking schlubs who are terrible at playing hockey.

These things I can accept. What I have trouble with is: how on earth is all of this information about teams on Spezza’s no trade list and Hemsky’s contract conditions getting leaked in the first place?

I know the playoffs are over and we now turn to full time rumor-mongering. That’s the name of the game. And a good deal of these rumors could be entirely fabricated. But they’re stunningly precise for rumors, aren’t they. Hemsky was offered $10MM over three years? Spezza’s list includes all of Canada, the Isles, Preds, Blue Jackets and Panthers? Who is letting this stuff get out?

It makes Ottawa seem like a mickey mouse organization. We out our 11-year veteran as having requested a trade. We let everyone know that the market for their skills is diminished and that we don’t expect a fair return in a trade. Then we tell every UFA and RFA that if you come to Ottawa, even if only for a few weeks, we expect a hometown discount.

It’s sort of stunning that Ottawa finds themselves in this situation. Outside of Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan, the team really doesn’t have many players who could be considered elite talent. And if they hope to be competitive on the free agent market – not just for the high end guys, who Ottawa isn’t getting anyways, but for the value players like MacArthur – they need to clamp down on these leaks. We already have a massive PR problem in Eugene Melnyk, which is just the disaster that keeps on giving. Can we at least agree that the substance of contract negotiations should remain between the player and the organization?

I’m not sure if Bryan Murray just isn’t that good at communication – see the strangely mixed messages that come out of his office, contradicted by coach Paul MacLean, about what went wrong last season, or the unexpected re-signing of Bryan the senior to a contract extension precipitating the exit of Tim the junior to Buffalo, or the traumatic departure of Daniel Alfredsson which, truth be told, everyone should have at least considered, given he wasn’t under contract. Or is the problem that they just don’t have the staff to manage information? I don’t know.

All I know is that we don’t see that many other teams have their laundry quite so embarrassingly aired for all to see.

Leadership, Communication, Handshakedness

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I was reading through some of Yost’s posts and found this recent one with quotes and analysis from and about Paul MacLean.

What strikes me about MacLean’s quotes here are 1) he really has no idea what anyone is talking about when they reference the changes he made in the way he communicates with his players, even though his general manager pointed to that communication as one of the primary issues behind the team’s poor performance and 2) not only can he not really change how he communicates if he’s not aware of how his communications have changed, but he views being disingenuous or not true to oneself (meaning, to change his approach at all) as a threat to the team’s performance: “When you’re trying to be something that you’re not, that’s never going to work.”

Let’s forget for a second that fans are left in an infuriating Catch 22-like moment where the GM thinks the best way to move forward is for the coach to change and the coach thinks the worst thing to do is to change at all. What I think is more important is the sense that the organization, or at least the media who have the opportunity to fixate on issues and ask questions of the organization, continue to fixate on more ephemeral, unsatisfying, cultural issues as the driver of the team’s poor play.

When Cory Clouston was head coach, the media and blogs jumped on Spezza’s offhand comments about poor communication and blew it up into the primary reason the team bottomed out. I’m seeing a lot of similarities between that year’s team and this one, in the sense that we’re once-again fixating on either a lack of leadership in the dressing room (whatever that means), which may result in shipping out the team’s most talented forward, or, again, on the coach’s need to be better at or do more communicating.

The point of these terms is that they’re stand-ins that scale conveniently in size according to how much information you have and need. In the absence of information about how a team intends to act next, or how much money they intend to spend on payroll, we’re forced, as fans, to take legitimate but possibly tiny issues and blow them all out of proportion. This pressure, in turn, must surely inform team marketing, which looks at the types of players fans prefer, the kind of merch they buy, etc. Is this how you end up with a team fixated on acquiring or failing to acquire Gary Roberts, possibly firing a GM over it? Is this is how you end up giving Chris Neil and Chris Phillips extensions despite every underlying number speaking to their inefficiency? I don’t know. But I do see a lot of Chris Neil jerseys at games, despite the fact that he’s a terrible hockey player.

What’s strange to me is that I haven’t seen many questions put to the organization about issues that are so thoroughly explained by the evidence as to be non-contentious. Why, for example, did their goaltending regress so badly? It might be the single biggest reason why a bubble team that allows a ton of shots went from the right side of the bubble to the wrong side. Was it injuries, or tactics like player usage and goaltending coaches? Whats the succession planning for the organization? Is it a goaltending thing, or should the underlying approach of being a high-event / shot producing team be re-thought? I don’t have the answers, but I’d prefer that conversation to the one about whether or not Spezza is leader-y enough.

Right now Ottawa is getting the worst of all worlds: placing repeated emphasis on leadership and communication and then failing to articulate what leadership means and putting their poor communication on clear display for all the world to see.

Put another way, and 600 words shorter: if communication is really such a problem that it sank our season, how bad is it that the general manager of this team said one thing about the coach’s abilities, and then the coach himself professed to have no idea what he was talking about?

Off Season Check-In: Is Everybody Ok? Not you Jason.

*Varada emerges from gigantic cocoon, dripping with amniotic fluids, gasping for air, and pulls iPod charger from the socket installed in the back of his skull. Inserts Kurig coffee pod into dispenser and waits* 

Hey there. Been a while.

There hasn’t been much to talk about in Sens-land lately, what with all of the exciting hockey being played by other teams and the Binghamton Senators bowing out of their first round series against the Wilkes-Barrie Penguins after their first three games went to OT. (Which: WHAT THE F.) But now, things are downright HEATING UP on the Sens beat. Which is to say we received confirmation that the team is doing what they’ve been rumoured to be doing for the last three months.

Which is, of course, trade Jason Spezza.

Now, let me say right up front that it’s impossible to say whether it would be a mistake to trade a player before you have any idea what you’re going to get for him. I’m tugging my collar and gulping at the thought of a player of Spezza’s caliber leaving town, but I’m going to stop complaining instantly if, like, Shea Weber is coming back our way or something. (Please note that this will never, ever happen. Please happen.)

But am I anxious? Hoo boy. Let’s review the facts:

  • In an off year, in which he was injury plagued (again) and played much of the year with one or a combination of a declining Milan Michalek, Mike Zibanejad playing out of his natural position, Colin Greening, or Chris Neil, he put up 66 points in 75 games. The instant he started playing with someone skilled, namely Ales Hemsky, they became one of the hottest lines in the NHL. Even Michalek’s numbers picked up.
  • He makes $4MM next year, which is unbelievable value for a guy who puts up 0.88 PPG playing with nobodies. (And is one point over exactly a PPG in his career.) Anybody you trade for is unlikely to provide similar value (albeit they might be under contract longer).
  • Players who are big on skill but lacking in their two-way game don’t seem to be much in vogue among GMs right now. Marian Gaborik was picked up at the deadline for Matt Frattin and a couple of conditional picks. Ales Hemsky cost Ottawa a 3rd and 5th round pick, and Edmonton had to retain half his salary to get even that. The situations aren’t exactly the same, but anyone hoping Ottawa is going to get Shea Weber in return (ahem) is probably going to be disappointed.

So there you have it. Jason Spezza, who you’ll be lucky to get a player, a prospect and a pick for, will be on his way out of town, along with Ales Hemsky (probably) and Milan Michalek (hopefully), leaving Ottawa without a second line.

So how do I feel about this? Well, Ottawa was five points out of a playoff spot after a belly flop of a season from Craig Anderson, after Chris Neil took more minor penalties than anyone in the league not named Zac Rinaldo, and after the team lost 14 times in overtime or a shootout. So I’m decidedly on the “status quo” side of things over the “major shake up” side. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that this team, as comprised, can get to the right side of the bubble. Now, if your goal is to win a cup, then it’s going to take a lot more than handing first-line-center duties to Kyle Turris to do it.

Just as Toronto re-signed Dion Phaneuf not because he was the best player available, but because they didn’t have anyone else lying around who could play 30 minutes a night (and hey, look…they’re trying to trade him already), Ottawa doesn’t have another player lying around who can score almost a point-per-game during a bum season.

Would retaining Spezza be the best thing to do from a resource management perspective? Probably not. But is the return more likely to make up those five points in the standings than winning a couple more shootout games, giving a few more games to Lehner, and telling Chris Neil to take a hike? I don’t think so.

Keep in mind also that because offensive-minded players express their value on the score sheet more explicitly, any defensive-minded player brought in in exchange for Spezza is likely to be seen as a bust by people who think grit translates directly into statistics. Dallas was vilified for trading James Neal for Goligoski, who’s been bedrock for them.

Given the apparent lack of interest around the league in signing skilled players, I think it would be far better for the team to look at picking up some of those guys at a bargain, if they can, than to try and grit their way to success.

Alas, I think we’re probably on our way to another of our trademarked “If Only We Had Gary Roberts” moments. When you go to Capgeek’s Armchair GM page and take a look at what many Ottawa fans want, it’s the same old story of hard work v. skill – as if the two are mutually exclusive. (One guy actually wants Zenon Konopka and Steve Ott on this team…as second line players.) When times are tough, you throw the skilled guys overboard for not single-handedly carrying the team. But I maintain that trying to assemble a team that just works harder than everyone else is unlikely to give you an appreciable edge. Everybody works hard. This is the NHL. It’s having those skilled players under control at a reasonable price so you can get more skilled guys who complement them that’ll do it.

At the very least, the trade of Jason Spezza will be entertaining and interesting, but Ottawa has clearly entered their Throwing Spaghetti Against the Wall phase of the rebuild-on-the-fly. How else do you explain shipping out a 12 year veteran of your team who scores the way Spezza scores and only makes $4MM a year? By every conceivable, reasonable metric–except the ones old-school hockey GMs use, all touchy-feeley qualifiers and staring into chicken guts to predict the future–it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Unless we get Shea Weber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem #1: Too many penalties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem #2: Lack of defensive depth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem #3: The Core is Nothing to Fear

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

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

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

Problem #4: the Goaltending

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

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

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

——–

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

The Sens are exactly as good as we thought they’d be

Lively discussion on Twitter tonight about whether or not this is the lowest point in the Senators’ history since the bankruptcy. Or was it the year after the Finals appearance? Or was it the Heatley debacle? Or was it finishing 5th last in the league? All I could think was…”are you kidding me?”

The Sens are exactly as good as thought they’d be. Which is to say that nobody thought they were runaway contenders, and nobody thought they’d be awful. Everyone, outside of a few people referencing homemade metrics or taking the outside bet, thought they’d be a bubble team who might make some noise in the playoffs if they made the cut.

Well, we were right: they’re a bubble team. Last year they were a few points in, this year a few points out. They have 13 OT or shootout losses. If they were a little bit better in the shootout (which is to say not dreadful), or if a few of those shots on net in OT were an inch or two to the right or left, we’re not even having this conversation. It really is a game of inches. That I understand. What I struggle with is the tendency of those who spend time analyzing the team to draw drastic conclusions.

I’m all for looking at underlying problems, and the Sens have them in spades. They haven’t been a good possession team, a consistent team, a defensively responsible team, and the coaching is just getting weirder by the game. We don’t need to rehash all of that here. But it’s time to acknowledge that the standard deviation for our predictions is massive–what, about 12 points in the standings?–and the Sens are well within it. What has changed in the last two or three games that we didn’t already know in December or January? Ottawa hasn’t been in a playoff position in months. They’re a bubble team, through and through. We probably could have guessed this on day one when we looked at their salary structure. And, actually, looking back at those posts, we did guess that.

If you pick the Sens to be in the playoffs by about six points, you’ve tacitly accepted that they might be out of them by six. That doesn’t mean the system is broken.

All this to say: they’re exactly where we thought they’d be. So loosen up, fans. This isn’t “the worst season in fan memory.” This is just another season in the long and storied history of a mid-market team trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

NHL 14 Review, Part 2: Live the Life Mode

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By SuperDigestive (AKA Steven) – @superdigestive

You may recall back when NHL 2014 came out we ran the first of a promised three-part review of the game. You can find that first part here. Here is the second part, which concentrates on the “Live the Life” mode, formerly “Be a Pro.” James may someday review the NHL 2004 remake, as promised, or at least spoil the plot to Super Mario 2, which no one has ever finished (that friend that said that they did is a LIAR).

NHL 14 Review, Part 2: Live the Life Mode

First Impressions:

Well déjà vu actually… you turn this thing on and (Varada won’t know this because he’s wise enough to only throw $70 at this thing every other year) it’s the same design as last year’s menu big dumb TV that loops advertisements for the game itself, as if you haven’t already bought the thing.  Not exactly the greatest endorsement for the progressive development of NHL 14.

Anyways, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, Live the Life mode for those who don’t know, this mode used to be called Be a Pro mode, and the basic objective is to become a player in the NHL. And you know, be good at it.

The Draft:

Probably the most life-like element of this game. Why? There’s 806 players that have played this season in the NHL zero of them dreamt of being drafted by Florida. Now I’m not a gamblin’ man, but a 3.3% (probably even less considering draft order and such) of being draft by your team-of-choice is not exactly as sure-fire as “allows bet on black”, which wins all the time (48.648648648% of the time). So, if you don’t want to explore the studio space while wearing one of those Buffalo Sabres’ third jerseys, (On Sale Now!) I suggest picking your team from the get-go.

My experience: I got drafted number two overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which I promptly used the now “enlightened media outlet” in LTL mode by selecting the option memory now has named  “I know that I should be happy, but despite their playoff potential, I am deeply disillusioned by the idea of playing for the team that has once or twice stabbed my team in the heart” {paraphrased, but you’ll know the choice should you find yourself in the same rock and hard video game diorama scenario} and they traded me to Vancouver where I was automatically signed to a three-year deal. (Because that’s how hockey works?) What would Eric Lindros do?

Money Matters:

The issue I have with these single-perspective sports games is that money doesn’t matter in the slightest.  You could pay me a dollar or millions, there’s no difference.  You can’t buy anything.  And yet, money compared to the performance of a player is the grand narrative of the NHL.

In past iterations of this game your rookie season could include such honors as the Maurice Richard (because of your 120 points), Calder Memorial, Conn Smythe, the Stanley Cup, and when it comes to contract renewal, Ottawa and a cap shallow team such as the Rangers are the only two teams offering you contracts that resemble a three-year 1.15 million per year.  If the underwhelming visual development of the game’s menus and aesthetic is any indicator, there’s no sign of that changing in this life-like addition of the NHL.  Think for a moment about how much more interesting it would be if they added in a dynamic contract dialog.  For instance:

Congratulations on an incredible year. There is no debate that you were a key component to our success and we, as an organization would like you to continue your future successes in an Ottawa Senators jersey.  We know that if we do not engage in these talks respectfully, that a number of teams will be more than willing to pay market value for your talents.  There are however, a number of complications regarding the team’s finances.

Players without a contract:

Jason Spezza

Robin Lehner

Cap Space Available:

13.85 million

Options:

  1. Your contract takes priority.  Get market value, but you are now a franchise player and we will demand your commitment in years in exchange for our commitment in dollars.  We will deal with other contracts with what cap space we       have left.
  2.  We recognize your future value to this team, but your youth and inexperience, is the reason we must focus on resigning Jason Spezza.  Hopefully he will give us a “home town discount” so that we can offer a competitive bridge contract.  Your sacrifice will not go unnoticed.
  3. Something about signing youth above experience and secure you and Lehner
  4. Advise agent to prepare for free agency

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The Media is the Message:

The additional factor of having your pro navigate the media in the form of pre and post game interviews and the occasional role playing game type scenario where your team want to celebrate a win, but you are under a strict curfew, is really what differentiates 2013’s Be A Pro mode from 2014’s Live the Life mode .  Whatever is a professional hockey player to do?  It’s been my experience that whenever a video game franchise tacks-on one of these RPG type elements, the results are of two possibilities. A)  Insanely unrealistic (you’re out to dinner and a young boy politely asks for your autograph.  You select yes. Result: you break your wrist in the process and will miss the playoffs?) B) So easy that it’s not worth adding to the game. (You won tonight – Why?  You select: It’s a team game and a team effort, so it’s a team win. Keyword: Team.  Result: Your team likes you 2% more) This game leans towards outcome B.

Now, I haven’t played enough to see any transparent benefits/drawbacks of your fans, teammates, management, family either support or villainizing your media presence, but spoiler alert: getting 100% approval across the board, doesn’t mean you won’t be sent down to the minors for a spell to make room for Vinny Propsal (trade robot does it again).  There is an obvious flaw with the role of the media in this game. Sports media exists to do two things; create a story that manufactures debate by over-reacting to simple comments or action.  Imagine if EA developed the media aspects of the game according to these principles? The game would be incredible. Chris Neil refuses to pass to you because you didn’t see the validity of his fight when want to team really needed was a goal.

There are the same irritating contributions for the in-game commentating where the announcer doesn’t know which team is on the power-play or which team scored to tie the game, but will point out the fact that your player is one hat-trick away from tying Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux’s record for most hat-tricks scored in a season.

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This Hockey Game is Starting to Look Like Fight Night Round 4:

I’ve got to pause for a second to talk about the new advanced fighting in the game.  Yeah, it’s more realistic, but it quickly becomes the most irritating feature when your line-mate (in most cases Cory Conacher R.I.Buffalo) decides to defend your team’s honor and you’ve got to sit there and watch that shit for like minutes.  I’ve already got to play 82 games a season in real time at least let me fight someone else simultaneously so that I can gain the simulation time back in penalty minutes.  Couldn’t they have stuck to developing the advanced skating physics that they started in NHL 13? I know people criticized the change in skating for being harder in every aspect of the game, but hockey is difficult because you wear tiny swords under your shoes and go faster than any other televised sport (sorry Jai alai) and maybe the best thing to is celebrate and develop the aspect of the sports video game that brings it closer to the real experience than taking the easy way out and added an ultimately drop-in-the-ocean element of the game (“This year sticks break!” Varada 10 years ago)

Where’s My J.P. Barry:

I’m not going to labor over this issue for long.  In fact, the idea of a graphic of a sweaty, greed-driven shaved ape whispering in my ear every time it’s time to negotiate a contract does not fill my imagination with joy and I’ve already submitted my idea on how to improve the weight of your player’s contract, but the fact that you have to sign on the first day of negotiations without seeing who else is going to be signed is nuts.  Let’s introduce a little hold out scenario just so you’re not forced to sign early and the next move is for the Senators to trade their entire core group of players to the Winnipeg Jets for tickets to the Snow Birds air show.

Money Ball:

If you, like me, feel cheated by the total lack of positive development in this franchise, then let’s talk value.  The current trade-in value of this game is $30 (This paragraph was written a while ago, but WTYKY consumer tip of the day: The value of this game will remain high until the final round of the playoffs, jump ship before then and you won’t have some oily goon offer you 75 cents for a trade in).  Here’s an idea on how to spend it.  If you’re going to miss playing virtual hockey do not despair.  You can get NHL13 used for $14.99.  It’s the exact same playing experience with the same level of frustration.  You don’t have to say it, I know what you’re thinking.  What about the improved fighting element of the game?  Well, with your remaining fifteen clams, you can buy a used copy of possibly the best fighting game ever made.  DEF JAM ICON.  You get to beat the shit out of Ludacris and Method Man is your best friend.  Suggested fighting style: Street-Kwon-Do.

What EA can learn from EA:

When this game was initially released Varada and I were talking about our disappointment in the lack of substantial development in the game and how globally hockey is a small market sport in comparison to say soccer (fütboll), so it goes without saying that the hockey wing of EA sports is not pushing the most units worldwide, which means less money for development.  On top of that, THERE IS NO COMPETITION in the hockey game market. EA sports could literally update the roster from year to year, introduce the latest in stick graphics and would still be light years better than the next closest rival, which I suppose would be NHL2K but a new version of that hasn’t seen the light of day in my neighborhood since 2009.

As it happens, the solution to the majority of concerns that I and Varada have raised have already been developed years ago in franchises like FIFA, which I am a huge fan of.

Game Face in Be A Pro:  For those who do not know.  Game Face is a feature that has been available in every other EA sports platform since at least 2011 (even football. Where you can barely see a face behind those face cage things on their helmets) where user log into EA sports online upload a frontal and profile image of your face, place a few nodes and presto! It maps your face.  You then download that face into your Be a Pro mode and your beautiful mug is right there in the game with surprising accuracy.  EA Sports, if you’re listening (I know you are) I dare to find a face in nature that remotely resembles the mutants that you use for preset face options and update your hair options at least once a decade on all your platforms. (See also Erik Karlsson, Patrick Kane, and God Damn David Beckham. Shit changes a bit)

International play (Topical Non?):  Let’s face it; NHL hockey is at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to FIFA soccer.  That being that there is only one prize to win in the NHL and once you win the Ford Windstar for All-Star MVP, the game loses a significant motivating factor to renew the 82 game commitment to a new season.  Even if EA Sports is too cheat to pay the IIHF (which it is and what the fuck are those subway ads for anyway?) at least make up some phony International Mega Bowl to encourage players to qualify and play for their respective countries.  I know that you have the option to play in international competition in Tournament Mode, but let’s take the next step and immerse it into Live the Life mode.

Performance and experience based player development:  There’s no fucking reason why scoring four hundred goals should improve my ability to knock out all bums Muhammad Ali style or every win faceoffs, but in fact this is the way that the game is setup. Individual successes are rewarded with points that therefore can be assigned to strengthen features of the players game.  I can tell you that I’ve never felt the need to use a saucer pass or a one-touch deke, but I can tell you that I am number one in the league in terms of potential ability to do so.  I know what you’re going to say “how could I possibly get good at, let’s say, fighting if you don’t have the skill to do so from the beginning?” Well with experience comes development.  Playing 50, 100 or 1000 games could give a general boost to your overall ability.  The immediate playing benefit would be promoting multi-dimensional facets to game playing, instead of simply scoring 6 goals per game.  There is another option for player development, which brings me to my next wish list item.

Skill based pre-game challenge activities:  Relating directly to the idea that player development should be evolve through achieving certain feats rather than assigning points to a skill set, pre-game challenges can give the player an opportunity to develop and practice skills without in-game consequences.

Internal budget: Varada mentioned this in his previous post that no team is created equal money-wise (paraphrasing) and there is no reason why it should be any different in the video game.  It’s one of the most contributing factors in the success of any sports franchise.  FIFA lesson to learn?  Have a realistic budget based on market size of the team and as the GM’s responsibility, choose how to adequately ice a competitive team, while also using funds to upgrade and develop facilities to promote new revenue (Example: expanding capacity in the arena etc.)

Four minute halves or reduced game schedule: Athletes get paid millions of dollars a year to play 82 real-time 60 minute games a year; I pay EA Sports to have fun.  If you can reduce the period length in GM mode, please let us do so in Live the Life mode.  Maybe the answer is to acknowledge that the NHL season is at least 30 games toooooo long and have mercy on us by allowing a reduced schedule.

Going from a single player career into a GM mode:  It’s been in an option for a while in FIFA, so that when you get bored of playing in the single person perspective, you could smoothly transition into full team control.

Earning captaincy comes with input as to who stays and who goes:  Pretty self-explanatory

Media as a Weapon:  In past releases of the FIFA franchise you could use the media to call out an individual player or team.  The commentators remember players’ former teams and analyze the status of that relationship.  You know media stuff.

Why I keep playing this GD game:

Despite the infinite moaning over inaccurate media presence and still being able to score a 100+ goals in a season on the hardest level, (that’s right. I’m like 12-year-old-playing-video games, good) this game mode totally satisfies the part of my brain where my inner child meets my inner plebe at dawn and they tell each other a fart joke. I’ve heard goings on about why would you want to be only one player, basically watching the game half the time? Well, the answer is simple. The one player is you or your grotesque faced alter ego, but this mode allows you, in its more simplistic dimension, to be the hero or feed the puck constantly to a guy like Mika Zibanajad so he gets points and won’t be traded because you know the game doesn’t love him like you love him.  You can lay out Matt Cooke over and over again should you choose. (Wink)  Like I said, this is emotional. You gain a sense of agency while being a part of a universe that will not make sense on its best day.

Speaker’s Corner:

Since there are so many possible outcomes in a user’s single or multiple season experience, here’s your chance to vent, villainize or another ‘v’ word that means praise.  I’m especially interested in users playing in different roles or positions. Maybe I’ve been playing in the wrong position all this time.  Maybe being a stay-at-home defenseman is the thinking person’s experience for Live the Life mode.  If you were the brave soul who dared to play an entire season as a goalie, please chime in below.  Do so and I will award you with a picture of a beer.  Believe it or not, I think EA actually reads this stuff, so include development ideas and hopefully NHL15 will be more than a re-boxed version of NHL14.