The three stages of defending the Dion Phaneuf deal

So, Ottawa managed to get out from under one of its two supposedly unmovable contracts, dealing Dion Phaneuf and Jersey Shore-looking Nate Thompson to Los Angeles for the haunted shade of Marian Gaborik and fourth-liner Nick “Not Quentin” Shore. Ottawa keeps 25% of Phaneuf’s salary, which immediately becomes Ottawa’s third-highest paid defenseman.

Who won the trade? Some will say “whoever got the best player,” which is clearly LA in that they received “a” player. Others will say, “Ottawa sheds millions without giving up any picks or prospects” and that’s fine too. I don’t really care. They’re both true. The only winner in these “winner and loser” debates is the paywall.

What I’m most interested in is looking back at the Dion Phaneuf contract itself and how our collective thinking about it has evolved. Or not evolved.

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Toronto

Back in 2013, when Toronto signed Phaneuf to his 7-year deal worth almost $50 million (a “monster” deal, if you will), I remember listening to James Mirtle guesting on a Pension Plan Puppets podcast. (Give me a break. I was on a bus in the winter. It was stuck on ice. I wasn’t going anywhere.) What Mirtle said then seems true today or at least prevails as consensus opinion: that defensemen who can play more than 20 minutes a night are extremely difficult to come by.  Was the Phaneuf deal bad? Sure, Mirtle conceded. But it didn’t matter. Paying him on this bad deal was not as bad as not having him on the roster at all, as you can only replace somebody who can play more than 20 minutes a night with somebody else who can play more than 20 minutes a night.

Here was a player who’d served in leadership since a young age and whose YouTube reel includes the kind of open-ice hits that makes you want to buy light beer and care about which trucks won the most J.D. Power and Associates awards. The presumption was, at that time, that millions in wasted money are just the price you pay to have what amounts to a rare specimen. If a player like Phaneuf ever became available on the free agent market or for trade, you’d have to pay the exact same bad contract – or worse – on top of possibly giving up assets. A bird in hand is better than two bastards in a basket, as they say.

Toronto went on to win four Stanley Cups.

Ottawa

I’ve always found the myth perpetuated by the Toronto contract a little bit hard to swallow. Let’s say you’ve got somebody on your roster who plays, on average, between 10 and 16 minutes a night. Most teams have a few of these guys. Let’s take Freddy Claesson, who makes $650,000 a year to Phaneuf’s $7,000,000. Is the four minutes of ice time that Phaneuf plays worth all of that extra coin? Sure, Phaneuf players tougher minutes and in tougher situations. Plus, there are all of the intangibles he provides, which, unlike some, I attribute at least some value to. But both players’ possession numbers are, in the scheme of things, equally underwhelming. What is it about the difference between 16 minutes and 20 minutes that separates the acceptable from the elite, and what is it about Phaneuf that gives him that edge? Would it really crater the team’s chances to give 20 minutes to a series of unknowns making nothing and see who sticks? Is it really worth $6,350,000 to not have to find out?

Bryan Murray said yes, it is, and not only said he’d take on Phaneuf’s bad contract – without Toronto having to retain any salary – but threw in a 2nd-round pick to boot. (Ask any Sens fan: every 2nd-round pick works out.) Toronto did take back a series of junk contracts that weren’t providing Ottawa any value, but the underlying assumption remained intact: players like Dion Phaneuf are rarely available, so you do what you have to to get them on your roster. Even as Toronto was doing whatever it had to it get him off their roster.

The deal wasn’t a disaster for Ottawa, especially if you attribute some of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals to Phaneuf’s play (debatable) and the development of some rookies to his stabilizing presence in the locker room (the definition of debatable). There’s also a world in which the deal worked out even better for Ottawa. In that other, better world, Phaneuf’s guidance enables Cody Ceci to become the bedrock top-four defender at age 23 that Ottawa hoped he would be, as opposed to what he is now, which is sub-Tom Preissing.

In the end, Phaneuf ended up on some league-wide “worst contract” lists, coming in ahead of even Bobby Ryan, a scoring winger with seven goals who’s making more money and is signed one year longer.

Sure, the contract was bad…but how else do you get him on your roster???

Los Angeles

Which brings us to the latest victim of the “you can’t just find these guys anywhere” mentality. Ottawa, just as Toronto did before them, took on millions in bad contracts, from which they will derive close to zero value, just to get out from under Phaneuf’s contract, which at least was providing some value. That’s how little value he’s providing, as the type of guy you can’t just find anywhere. Ottawa prefers to pay money for nothing than to pay more money for what he provides.

Will he provide value to Los Angeles? He can’t help but provide some, in the sense that he is technically present and alive on their blue line. Is that value really so much greater than literally any replacement-level defencemen Los Angeles has in their system? Than *squints* $650,000 Kevin Gravel?

Conclusion

There’s some magical quality assigned players who “can play more than 20 minutes a night.” I’ve certainly invoked it on our podcasts and elsewhere. And I do believe that if the NHL regular season is more a marathon than a sprint (it feels that way to me, and all I’m doing is drinking beer on the couch) then having someone who can be not terrible for a third of the game, game-in and game-out is truly something to look for. In the sense that you should try to draft those guys, keep them in-house, and squeeze value out of their RFA years. Once you pay them like the supposedly rare commodity that they are, the situation takes on the air of self-legitimizing logic. Of course Phaneuf plays more than 20 minutes a night, because you’re paying him like it.

I’m not sold that the tens of millions you have to pay in bad contracts is really preferable to a “defense by committee” approach or by giving ice time to young and cheap players and seeing how they do. Consider this: between Toronto and Ottawa, teams have taken on the combined contracts of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore – $29.1 million in dead salary, or roughly 60% of the value of Phaneuf’s contract – just to get out from under it.

This will obviously be a sticking point as Ottawa approaches the Karlsson contract. 2014’s $7 million per / $50 million contract is today’s $12 million per / $100 million contract. You can make more of an argument that you can’t find a Karlsson anywhere else – he’s a generational talent, unlike Phaneuf – but as the journey of Phaneuf’s contract shows us, these gifts can quickly become curses and you feel curses in years.

I’m Getting Pretty Sick of This Garbage

At the risk of sounding like a twee Etsy throw-pillow, I long ago came to the conclusion that one’s sports fandom should be about the journey not the destination. It’s supposed to be about Winning the Championship, but generally speaking, unless you’re the type of morally-bankrupt person who cheers for the Patriots or Manchester United, you are never going to watch your chosen team Win the Championship. In lieu of this, sports fandom is about Moments, it’s about The Struggle, and it’s about other metaphors for things that are actually meaningful. Sports are fake; you’re cheering for laundry. The way sports make you feel, the way you interact with sports, these are the realest thing about them.

I have grown tired of interacting with the Senators.

It’s not the losing. I have cheered for losing teams before, and it’s a near-certainty that I will continue to do so until I die. This year’s Senators isn’t nearly as bad as they are playing. They’ve had very bad goaltending, and the 3rd pairing collapsed with Chris Wideman’s injury, the team’s play has been lazy (witness the league-leading number of Too Many Men penalties), and the team is clearly just playing out the string, but there’s simply too much talent for “Draft Lottery Threat” to be the team’s true level.

No, I tire of the Senators because there is a spiritual sickness emanating from the top of the organization. Everyone from the team’s President to the organist is infected. Anonymous internet commenters whisper on Reddit and Twitter of an organization that has gone from “Bare bones” to “Potemkin”. Newspaper beat writers speak in understatement and euphemism, couching reports of ill-tidings in phrases like “it’s possible” and “sources say”. Everyone knows the same things, no one is quite willing to say them, but the implications are clear: the Senators, as we know them, are coming to an end. There will be a change; the change will either be on the ice or in the owner’s box, but deep, long-lasting changes are coming.

The Sens have been a lean organization for years now, but the canary in the coal mine for me this year is GM Pierre Dorion’s return to scouting. Granted, Dorion’s background is in scouting (by all accounts, he was a fairly good scout), but General Manager is not supposed to be a part time job. If the top hockey ops exec in the organization has to be moonlighting in Europe as a set of player evaluating eyeballs, things cannot be right.

Everyone sees where the corners are being cut. Scouts have left without being replaced, the analytics “department” is simply “a guy”, free agent acquisitions are players with whom the coach is familiar, popular players are traded rather than negotiated with, and the defensemen who are given new contracts are the ones which will come with the cheapest price tag.

It’s all so cynical. I am tired of the cynicism. I am tired of the lack of sincerity. It lacks sincerity when Melnyk announces “It doesn’t get any better than this” weeks before preparing to tear-down the current roster. It lacks sincerity when Melnyk reads off a script prepared for him by a PR firm. It lacks sincerity when the team announces a Hockey Is For Everyone Ambassador and then and fails to further acknowledge diversity in any way.

I’ll say this for Tom Anselmi: at least he seemed sincere. Anselmi brought us a commitment to the =O= logo, hot dogs, the Missing Chiclets, the outdoor game, a new jersey, and while not all those things were hits, you could at least tell that they came from a place of trying to do right by the fans. Sens fans actually want to like the team; the organization just needs to make itself likable. By God Anselmi tried to do this, but such naive and idealistic motivations could not last long in today’s Senators organization.

Friday’s press release from the organization spoke of “a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development”, and “changes to our lineup” and “pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins”, but frankly, the organization hasn’t earned the right to have these words interpreted as anything other than a craven cover for trading away the team’s best, most-expensive players.

The fanbase doesn’t want a rebuild; the fanbase wants investment. The fans want to see investment in scouting, investment in hockey ops, investment in analytics, and most of all, investment in players. The fans want assurances that the team’s 3rd straight captain won’t be lost to another team because of money. The fans want things that we know current ownership can’t give us, and so we are sarcastic, we are unhappy, and we are tired.

I didn’t get into sports for this. I don’t want to have to give a shit about whether the team is burning through Presidents (!!) too quickly. I don’t want to do a Google search of the acting CFO and have the top two results be a harassment lawsuit and a securities commission fine. I don’t want to have to ask “Is this actually about money?” whenever the team does anything. I don’t want to talk about attendance or relocation ever again. I don’t want to have to think about how Daniel Alfredsson’s feud with ownership affects Erik Karlsson’s mindset.

So I won’t.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not quitting yet. The Senators didn’t “lose a fan” yet. I don’t respect myself enough to do anything that drastic, and I’m too much of a sucker for the team to pretend I’m able to stand up for myself. Yet.

But dammit if I’m going to survive Late Period Melnyk Ownership, I’m going to have to make some changes. I implore the Senators and Eugene Melnyk to do the same sooner rather than later.

Breaking Down the Ottawa Senators’ New Peyote-Induced Fever Dream of an Arena

As I’m sure you’ve read, the Ottawa Senators and the National Capital Commission have reached a preliminary land-transfer agreement, paving the way for a new hockey arena in downtown Ottawa. To commemorate the event, the NCC released the following concept image:

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There’s a lot going on here, and it demands a breakdown.

…but first thing’s first: let nothing I’m about to say detract from how exciting this prospect is. We’ve been talking about how the arena is too far for literally two decades. Having a modern-looking downtown arena will make going to Sens games more fun, not to mention more likely. It’s awesome. But quite separate from that discussion is a discussion about how this concept image looks like something you’d see on the back of a Sega CD game case after you took a fistful of acid and conjured a Sega CD game case from memory.

Let’s start with the main attraction: the arena itself.

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Okay, cool, cool. It’s got some indoor wood, which continues Canada’s unbroken streak of reminding everyone that we are a nation of trees. I can live with that. If the AGO and our own football arena do it, then that’s fine, even if this aesthetic flourish has the shelf-life of carpeting in the 1980s or people who built their modern in-fills with corrugated metal like five years ago. Let’s admit it: for a team whose aesthetics have been QUESTIONABLE since like 1996, doing what literally everybody else does was always going to be the best-case scenario. Let’s not let the makers of the SNES jersey get too creative, here.

Obvious caveat: that better not be the team’s fucking logo when this monstrosity is completed, but if it is, guaranteed, 100%, the team will have added a swoopy white halo thing around it as appears here.

And speaking of that logo, the building is on some kind of 1/3 perspective but the logo is flush to the “camera” and super big so it’s cut off, like a big ‘DRAFT’ water stamp on a Word document, which is convenient, because this image was created in Word. It kind of has the feel of “we cut and paste an arena and then to make sure you know this is YOUR arena, we cut and paste your team’s logo on it.”

Again, this is fine. What can we assume from this? There won’t be a giant fucking logo on the side of the building, for sure.

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Panning down a bit, we see the entrance to the building and what looks like four tents or utility sheds. I like how the artist didn’t try to make the tents or sheds seem like something the crowds of people would be interested in – they’re just sheds. People will walk through them or otherwise line up to get inside. Also, they will be red because Canada, and they will say Ottawa Senators on them because Ottawa Senators. I have zero idea what’s going on on the roofs of the sheds, or inside the upper right shed. “Meet me at the sheds!” will not be a thing that people will say.

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Okay, now we’re playing acid jazz. You’ve got an asymmetrical skating rink, complete with piles of snow that have been pushed off to the side because there’s nowhere to dispose of it; actual NHL players sort of skating around, celebrating for some reason; a band playing in the middle of the hockey rink without the aid of amplification; and several fans who, despite the total lack of security, are politely watching from what looks like red carpeting.

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We can only assume this is the Missing Chiclets, or possibly their children, trapped inside what appear to be beams of pure energy or possibly water cannons. They are also wearing short sleeves in what is apparently winter. This seems like a terrible gig.

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Several ghosts celebrate with confetti, including the Force Spirits of Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan. Off to the left, it looks like Jackie Onassis is pointlessly standing in the snow instead of on the red carpet, and a lone Senator appears to be throwing a puck over the glass into the crowd, though there’s no glass, and there’s no crowd. WERNER HERZOG VOICE: “It is a theater of the absurd, designed to draw attention to the fact that hockey, as a pastime, is a social construct and we, as passive audience members, are whiling away what little time we have.”

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A dejected goaltender without a net just sort of skating around, looking like he was just scored on though, as we’ve established, there is no game except the one in his mind.

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Not to be outdone by the weird unsatisfying skating rink involving several jagged boards and extremely pointy edges, the arena also features: 1) a dock, for those who wish to sail to the game, 2) river access, which makes the weirdly dangerous rink even more pointless because, according to this picture, you can skate on the river, and 3) of course, a gigantic projection of the unpopular logo onto the ice from a projector in the sky. The logo, as is tradition, is off-center and too big to entirely fit the surface onto which it’s projected.

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This dark corner of the concept is very mysterious. Along with several dead trees and what looks like either an empty set of stands or possibly a pile of folding chairs or even an army of Japanese apparitions from Spirited Away, we have some people kind of hanging out. Three of them, possibly tourists, look at the chairs. “Do you think they make those chairs in Canada?” they ask themselves in their German accents, and then go for dinner and talk about how they should have gone to Massachusetts on vacation instead.

Speaking of desolate, dystopian emptiness, where is this supposed to be, anyway? QUESTION: Is the new Ottawa Senators arena going to be in Ottawa?

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I’m not sure if the NCC’s plan includes several multi-story skyscrapers, which I’m fine with, but I’m mostly interested in what that weird, cube-like intelligence hovering on the horizon is supposed to be. Is it pointing out or sucking in? Is that a starburst of energy radiating from its foreboding exterior? I’ve looked at this thing for like five minutes and I can’t tell what it is or where it begins or ends.

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ALL HAIL THE CUBE.

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Finally, you have a parking lot, which will be empty because nobody will need to drive because the arena is downtown.

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There you have it folks: the thing we have all been asking for, for twenty years. Ottawa being Ottawa, we took this moment, and we sort of slapped together a thing that approximated what we’ve all been talking about, like a parent so afraid to say the wrong thing in front of their kids’ friends that they just blurt out the most nonsensical thing possible.

And it’s…fine. It’s all fine. The underlying concept remains awesome. You’ll be able to walk home from a game, or even *GASP* go out afterward! The execution is a bit muddy, but in the end, we’ll all be together downtown. It’s going to be great.

I’ll see you at The Sheds!

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Senstrology: Matt Duchene Edition

It’s Scorpio Season aka a time of death (good night, sweet Kyle) and rebirth (hello Matt) and while some of the guys have already discussed the trade at length, I’m gonna give you an insight on what you really care about:

What does Matt Duchene’s birth chart look like and what the hell does it mean for the Senators?

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Duchene is a Capricorn, which should make it extremely easy for him to get with the System. I always like to think that if the System had a sign, it would be Taurus. Capricorn and Taurus are both earth signs and extremely compatible. Duchene will probably fall in love with the System. They’ll become inseparable. It’s a match made in heaven.

Capricorns are known to be quietly strong-willed and hard working. They’re also known to not be very flashy, so there’s no chance of him inheriting the position of #1 Gold Chain Fan on the team.

A moon in Aquarius means Duchene will definitely bring something new and innovative to the team. Aquarius moons are very good at analyzing their surroundings, adapting to new situations and looking at things a little differently. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t impress us with an unexpected and skillful goal within the first weeks.

Mars rules the physical energy and Duchene’s Mars is in Taurus, you know, the sign I said the System would have if it had a sign. He’s gonna LOVE the “boring” System and it’s gonna suit him so well.

All in all, my very scientific opinion is that Duchene is perfect for the Senators and the Senators are perfect for him. It’s in the stars.