Best and Worst Case Scenarios

exist

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?

Roundtable of Death: Good Times? GREAT Times Edition.

TOD

VARADA SAYS: 

We’ve been submarine silent these past few weeks, what with suffering severe dehydration and collapsing in the middle of Bank St. The city workers came along and pushed us to the side of the road with brooms and we’ve collected ourselves. Upon checking the internet for new developments, the following crazy things happened:

  • Spezza was finally dealt, though not to St. Louis as had been speculated, but to Dallas for a couple of un-sexy prospects, a winger who might be a third liner, and a pick, all of which seems totally fair for what might be a one-year rental of an oft-injured player.
  • General Managers committed half a billion dollars to free agents, despite everything we heard about this being a weak free agent class.
  • The draft happened. Some players were drafted. Checking NHL.com, I see that Ottawa did officially attend.

First thing’s first: Spezz. Let me just say, right off, that I don’t quite understand how trading a couple of mid-tier prospects would have been more of a risk for St. Louis than signing Paul Stastny for $7MM per year. Good player and all, and I guess if it doesn’t work out they’ll be able to find a taker for him on the trade market. But I’m surprised they passed on the low-risk one year remaining on Spezza’s deal.

But enough about thinking of other teams. At the time of this writing, Ottawa has officially become the Bad News Bears of the NHL. Lots of exciting young talent, all uppity and not knowing they’re supposed to be bad. (They….might be pretty bad.) I don’t want to be a terrible person here, but they’re starting to look a bit like to Islanders to me. Lots of great prospects, nothing but promise. That’s putting it diplomatically. I’d like to live in Brooklyn, too.

James, you and I were chatting about this: Twitter became just a cesspool of cynicism following the deal. Do you think fans are becoming hyperbolic babies? Or do you think the notion of a Chiasson – Zibanejad – Michalek / Stone / Hoffman (?) second line is legitimately scary bad? Where are we gonna put all of these third line players?

JAMES SAYS: 

*Snorts a 3 inch thick line of whatever drug it is that I do to help me look at the positive side of things like yesterday off a huge hunting knife* AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH TIGHT TIGHT TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT.

Me IRL

Me IRL

On Spezza:
It’s a really good point you make about the low risk nature of the Spezza deal not being more attractive to suitors. It was confusing to me that Spezza seemed to be made out as the class C pony of the centre market. Did St. Louis learn nothing from that Ryan Miller experience? If you’re going to try to get a guy to put your already very good club over the top, might be smart to take the guy where if he shits the bus you can walk away. Spezza’s a one year risk, things go great, extend him; he flames out let him sign with the stupid Canucks (see what I did there?).

Maybe it’s because I’ve watched him play his whole career but I thought Spezza was really being undervalued whenever his name was brought up. The vibe was like, “Oh if Kesler and Stastny go, there’s still Spezza kicking around, I guess.”
Jeez, guess you don’t put up 687 points in 686 games over 11 seasons without making a few enemies?
- Doze injuries tho!
How you gonna tell me injuries aren’t a concern with Ryan Kesler of all people?
Dat Kesler playoff performance tho!
Kesler can be a beast for sure but it’s not like Spezza doesn’t have playoff experience. In one game fewer, Spezz has 14 more playoff points than Kesler. Different players for sure but I can’t believe how across the board Kesler was seen as the better catch of the two. I thought it was pretty even. Kesler better two way, Spezza more offense.

Thoughts on the Spezza deal:
Ehhhh…Murray, why the make or break obsession with the 1st round pick? This from a guy who once gave up a first round pick for motherfuckin’ Chris Campoli. This time around we didn’t have a 1st rounder in an apparently weak draft because we dealt for Bobby Ryan. I’ve BEEN comfortable about that. Ryan’s an awesome player.
I’m not sure if it was due to a lack of options thanks to Spezza’s no trade clause (those things are gr8 btw!!) or what but I don’t know why Murray wasn’t bullish on going 1 for 1. I heard a Spezza for Keith Yandle straight up rumour that I’m still bummed out didn’t happen. Imagine? Whatever. That was then (read: never) this is now, this is Stouffers.
If I were to describe my reaction to this deal it would be “Spezza for Mika Zibanejad & two scratch for cash tickets.” I’m not going to pretend to know the ceiling of a sophomore who played for Dallas, a team I actually forget exists, but from the looks of it Alex Chiasson is The Stars’ Zibanejad. Obviously a good, young player who’s just now dipping his other foot in the NHL. How good is he? Well, like Ziba we shall soon find that out.
I guess I’m just glad it’s over and that it didn’t get too nasty.

In the end, as a person who wants to see the team start a new chapter of the franchise pronto, I’m okay with the Sens skewing younger. Spezza is going to be looking for what could be the last contract of his career in a year from now. The Sens have to sign a ton of players over the next couple seasons. Given the budget thing (u herd ov dis budjet mess?), it’s very, VERY likely that Ottawa would have been outbid for #19 and would have just watched him walk for nothing. That or sign Spezza into his late 30s for a lot of cap space. I’ve said it since last year: I have been a fan and defender of the guy his whole career and I think dealing Spezza sucks but is ultimately a smart business decision.

As for the team this year. I still love our top line. We still have one of the best players on planet earth QBing our power play. I think our goaltending along with a few other players can’t help but bounce back closer to normalcy after down years. And yeah, there’s definitely going to be a lot of trial by fire. I am actually okay with that. There’s been a lot of promising development of Ziba, Stone and Hoffman, but at some point you have to see what they really are. I put money on that at least one of them is a true 2nd liner. The addition of Chiasson only serves to bolster the odds of someone from this young, promising group working out. I’ll take a season on the chin to find out what they can do. The second line is what is up for grabs for sure. Lord knows we have enough bottom six players to ice two full teams. As for the defence, the only thing I’m sure of is that Murray will make a trade for a D man as soon as I post this because…internet.

A brief answer to your question about the mood on Twitter:
There was no better example of what it was like on Twitter yesterday than when Benoit Pouliot signed with Edmonton.
People were FURRRRRRRRRRIOUS that Murray didn’t land him. A good player slipped through his fingers, sure but here’s the thing: People would have been equally FURRRRRRRRRRRRIOUS if Murray signed him to that same deal the Oilers gave him.
All this rage over a guy that literally 24 hours before FA day no Sens fan talked about ONCE. What a difference a day makes.
I can’t really blame my fellow fans for their outrage. After a year of sticks, resigning Milan Michalek is not much of a carrot.
Oddly enough, re-upping Michalek reminded me a lot of the initial feeling after losing Alfie of how the next piece of news was “And now we announce the signing of a player you haaaaate from the Leafs, Clarke MacArthur!” And how much of a let down that felt like. Oops. Turns out I needed to be a bit more patient.
Sens fans need a win. Give Bobby Ryan a big…THING of riches.

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.

Scotchcast Episode 5: “God Bless the Dead (Aerosmith)”

Scotchcast

 

Hey Boo,

After a post-Olympic dry spell, the world’s most beloved and least popular Ottawa Senators podcast, the WTYKY Scotchcast returns!
Thanks to my being the Pascal LeClaire of the recording arts, Varada, Steve and I recorded a podcast chock full of delicious technical problems rendering it virtually unlistenable. Great engineering job, me! …You know what, it’s probably just as well as Varada brought over a bottle of some scotch I’d never heard of from India (birthplace of SCOTCH!) and things got….in a word, messy. No, really, even by our standards it was messy. I don’t remember huge portions of it. What’s important is that I deleted it. Oh you’re not getting off that easy…we re-did it.
It’s with mixed emotions that I announce that Varada could not attend the re-recording session as he will be off reprising his role as Magical Mister Mephistopheles in an off-off-off-off Broadway production of Andrew Dice Weber’s Cats this summer at the Soulja Boi Centre for the Performing Arts in Butte, Montana this summer. Get tickets here! Break a leg, V! (Seriously, teach you to miss our Scotchcast re-record).
Spoiler Alert: Steve and James talk about Jason Spezza…and…I think Edward Furlong comes up at one point…what eeeeeelse… oh, we take YOUR questions in the latest installment of “Talk to the Audience.” Enjoy!

Leadership, Communication, Handshakedness

l4

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.