Yesterday, on Twitter, I spontaneously tweeted out some line combinations for next year’s Ottawa Senators that featured Matthew Tkachuk in the top six, Dougie Hamilton alongside Thomas Chabot, and Nick Bjugstad as a 2C. I mostly received the kind of gentle pushback you would expect – it’s not realistic that Ottawa can trade for Tkachuk without subtracting another young star, Dougie Hamilton isn’t coming to Ottawa, that sort of thing – all of which I basically agree with. Getting bona fide stars is hard, and Ottawa is unlikely to do it.
But the reaction to the idea of a Bjugstad signing was far and away the most voluminous and critical, which surprised me. Signing a free agent middle-six center with mostly positive underlying numbers if not a great stat line to a mostly affordable deal seemed, to me, to be the least contentious of the proposals. It’s basically bringing in veteran depth the way Ottawa did this past offseason with Stepan, except without having to give up a pick and featuring a younger and better player. Indifference, I expected. Allergic opposition, I didn’t.
Whenever you get a disproportionate response, it suggests to me an opportunity for a discussion. Is Bjugstad an example of where preconceptions don’t line up with the numbers, AKA, just the kind of Moneypuckery that underpins most of our online exchanges? Or am I fundamentally assigning too much value to underlying numbers and ignoring obvious red flags with this player?
In a good-faith attempt to better understand the distance between these positions, let’s take a closer look at Bjugstad, and the arguments against signing him.
All of the following heatmaps, except where otherwise credited, are courtesy of HockeyViz (which is paywalled, and well worth the few bucks a month).
“Bjugstad isn’t good“
As mentioned above, his stat line isn’t impressive. His career high is 41 points, and the last time he hit that number was 2017-2018. Last season he was limited to 13 games after spinal surgery on a herniated disc. This past year with the Wild, he returned to play pretty much the full season in a 3rd line role, where he’s put up good underlying numbers:
He’s a net play driver, taking into account linemates, competition, zone starts, game states, etc., helping to increase his team’s shots for while suppressing shots against. He’s good on the powerplay, he draws more penalties than he takes (though he doesn’t draw many), and he takes very few penalties at all.
Compare this to another, higher-priced pending UFA, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins:
Nugent-Hopkins has the better shot and a worse penalty differential, but in most other regards, they’re remarkably similar players in terms of their effects on driving play. RNH is coming off of a 7-year, $42 million contract, however, while Bjugstad is coming off of a 6-year, $24.6 million contract.
In other words, Bjugstad is a good defensive player on the right side of 30 who drives play but can’t score. If he drives play by suppressing shots-against at a greater rate than he produces shots-for, then even better: teams overpay for goals and points, and underpay for avoiding goals and points against. In that regard, Bjugstad may even represent value.
Ottawa has the worst GA/GP in the league this season, which you can chalk up a bit to goaltending, but they also have the fourth-worst SA/GP in the league. They could use a defensively sound depth player who can play up and down the lineup.
Looking back, he’s been a net positive in five out of nine seasons. 2016-2017 was horrible, as was his rookie year.
So, to the argument that Bjugstad isn’t good, I guess I would say that it depends on how we’re defining good. There’s certainly better out there, if you’re willing to spend more than $5 million per year. But if you’re looking for a middle six center, he’s usually a net positive player whose characteristics you don’t tend to overpay for, and that’s what I mean when I say he’s good.
“There are better options out there.”
It’s true that Dorion could do as he did with Stepan and target a center to bring in via trade. I will grant you that if he can pull that off, and the player’s numbers are better than Bjugstad’s, then maybe that’s preferable, but you have to factor in the asset it would cost you to bring in a good player. Hence my decision to concentrate on free agents.
Here are the top 15 pending UFA centers by salary, filtered to show no players older than 30 or making more than $5M at the time of this writing (courtesy of Cap Friendly):
Of these, there are four others who are also net-positive drivers, according to HockeyViz: Tomas Nosek, Casey Cizikas, Philip Danault and Mikael Granlund. (Jordan Weal has good numbers, but hasn’t played any games this year.)
Nosek can drive play, is an average defensive player who is bad on the penalty kill and takes penalties (though also draws them). He can’t really shoot.
Cizikas is an excellent net positive player putting up comparable numbers to Bjugstad, is even better than Bjugstad defensively, is good on the penalty kill, and for some reason takes a ton of penalties. This is probably the closest pending UFA centerman I’d want Ottawa to go after alongside Bjugstad, though it should be noted that he’s already 30.
Danault is an excellent defensive forward, but doesn’t do anything on offense, and takes a lot of penalties with a negative penalty differential.
Granlund is interesting, because he can actually score, but he’s weak defensively and takes more penalties than he draws, and is average on the powerplay.
Against his comparable in this UFA class, Bjugstad is definitely a competitive choice.
“I’m fine with them signing him, but why did you suggest $5M X 5?“
Bjugstad’s last deal was $24.6 million over six years, and I figured with him being a UFA and Ottawa not being a big free agent destination, that that’s what it would take to bring him in. He’s better than Colin White, but older, so I figured White’s 6-year, $28.5 million deal was a good ballpark.
I was somewhat surprised to see how much pushback this received. It’s true that the team will need to re-sign Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson this offseason, and Josh Norris, and Tim Stutzle in the next few years, during which time they probably don’t want expensive depth on the books. But they also have a plethora of expiring deals – Anisimov and Dzingel as UFAs and Tierney likely to Seattle in the expansion draft is $11.425 million right there. And, in a flat cap world, most of our expensive RFAs will likely opt for shorter, cheaper bridge deals rather than give away UFA years for less.
Having said all of that, if it’s term that fans are worried about, I completely understand. My argument was that five years was what I thought it would take to sign Bjugstad, not that I desperately want Bjugstad’s 30-33 years. Obviously, if Bjugstad is willing to sign for fewer years – say, to Dadanov’s three-year deal – or if fans can stomach a higher payday in exchange for a shorter deal, that’s preferable.
“The Sens should just roll with Norris / Pinto / White / Stutzle and/or keep Tierney”
Norris has looked pretty good playing as a top six forward, and Pinto has been impressive in all of his two NHL games. But assuming that that’s your top two for next year might be asking a lot. Both will have ups and downs, so it would be helpful to have a veteran center who can play up and down the lineup.
If Pinto plays very well and bumps Bjugstad down to the third or fourth line, that’s a good problem to have; the Senators will be able to roll four lines and have more options when it comes to team matchups. This is basically the same ethos the team is using with White, who has played in mostly a third-line role this year. But going into next year with the assumption that Norris, Pinto, White, and Stutzle give you 82 high-quality games seems awfully risky to me.
As for Stutzle, I think we’re all hoping he can play center at some point, but he’s like 12 years old and is getting caved in defensively this year, even with sheltered minutes and favorable zone starts. He’s not ready for prime time, nor should we expect him to be.
“The Sens should be focusing their money on defence.”
I tend to agree that of all of the things that need fixing, defence probably comes first. I did this same exercise for defensemen and identified three players who were net positive, 30 or under, and relatively affordable – Ryan Murray, Jamie Oleksiak, and Jake McCabe. (I also wanted them to re-sign Mike Reilly, but he was traded to Boston for a pick shortly after.) However, I received similar pushback from people on twitter.
I don’t know how Ottawa fixes the defence if these kinds of net positive, affordable UFAs are off the table. Obviously, if they throw everything in the world at Dougie Hamilton, he bites, and that takes Bjugstad off the table, I would be okay with that.
The main thing I want to emphasize here is that it’s really hard to state just how little money Ottawa is spending next year, even with Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson on big extensions. Even if Ottawa signs Tkachuk and Batherson to matching $7M per year extensions, extends Zub and Mete at a raise, and signs Bjugstad to a $5M per year deal, they’d BARELY be over the $60M salary floor.
If we take their spending this season as a guide, at their peak spending they had a cap hit of about $73.6M. Even with many of those cap hits including lower salaries, there should still be plenty of room to sign or trade for a defenceman.
In other words, bringing in a veteran middle six center doesn’t preclude you from spending elsewhere, even after re-signing your big RFAs.
Conclusion: There are worse things than overspending to improve your team
Is Nick Bjugstad the difference between the Sens making the playoffs next year or not? No, probably not. They’re in tough in a division with Tampa, Toronto, Boston, a suddenly resurgent Florida and big-spending Montreal. But a defensively leaky team who is especially green down the middle who can add a relatively young player on an affordable deal should look closely at doing so.
Is $5M per year for five years too much? Maybe a little. But if a person can’t enjoy the team improving itself at $25 million because they think we should have improved themselves for $20 million, then we could just be watching hockey for different and equally valid reasons.
As as far I’m concerned, the rest of the Senators’ season is a wash. I hope we get to see young Jimmy Stu hit some dingers, take in the summer sunshine on the soccer baseball field, and leave working on our abs until next year. Wins and losses don’t matter when it’s all good.
It’s in the spirit of just having fun and not worrying about the small things that I wanted to write about what my dream offseason looks like – not to worry about or debate asset management, necessarily, but to get excited about the possibilities for a team with plenty of cheap young talent and cap space. The Sens are about to go into the first season in a while where their team might reasonably compete for a playoff spot, and a market with teams looking to cut payroll. There’s a lot of opportunity to improve.
Let’s do some imagineering, everyone.
The transactions have to actually exist in the realm of possibility. We can debate whether what I describe here is likely to happen, but you have to be able to at least see it happening. There’s no “Trade a 3rd round pick for Connor McDavid” here.
The Sens’ financial situation hasn’t changed. This is somewhat related to the above. The Sens are likely to continue to spend near the bottom of the league next year, with their actual spending even lower than their cap hit. Also, they’re unlikely to trade for or sign anyone with massive signing bonuses.
The Kraken will fuck all of this up. Having an expansion draft in the middle of a pandemic season basically throws another incredibly complex set of contingencies into all of this decision-making. I try to make assumptions about that while admitting that there are aspects about which I’m probably completely unaware.
Jack Eichel doesn’t want to come to Ottawa. If he does, throw all of this out and start over. We could do a whole post just on what it would take and whether it would be worth it.
Okay? Okay. Here we go.
TRADE OTTAWA’S 2021 FIRST ROUND PICK FOR MATTHEW TKACHUK
You knew this one was coming. Matthew Tkachuk is young, good, and related to our future captain. Presuming there’s a world in which Brady is okay with sharing his team with his brother and in which Calgary is willing to start their rebuild by trading Matthew, the Sens make this happen.
Remember: it has to exist in the REALM of the possible. That’s a big realm! But it’s totally possible. Calgary is on the verge of performing major surgery on their lineup, and once they start offering Gaudreau and Monahan’s big money contracts and term around the league in a flat-cap world, I think Flames fans will see just how little they can get in return.
Get ready for some late first rounders, depth NHL players, and B-list prospects, Flames fans – and welcome to the recent world of Sens fans!
Also, as elite as Matthew Tkachuk is, if Calgary does decide to rebuild, is Matthew Tkachuk really the kind of player you rebuild around? A power forward who plays on the wing? It would hurt to trade a 23 year old, but paying him big bucks for the next 4-5 years while you rebuild doesn’t make much sense.
The Senators have an ace in the hole – a top five pick they can stomach giving up. They selected twice in the top five last year, have tons of prospects in the pipeline, and it’s a relatively weak draft where nobody has been able to scout as much as they’d like to.
Given Tkachuk’s age – he’s only 23 after all – it might take more than just a pick – an additional, later pick, or a prospect like Logan Brown or Lassi Thomson. But no other team in the league has a top-five pick they can bear to part with, the prospect pool, the cap room, and the ability to have two Tkachuks in their lineup at the same time. Matthew might not be on the trade block, I grant you this. But if he is, there’s no other team that can compete with what Ottawa can offer.
You could certainly argue that Matthew Tkachuk isn’t worth a top five pick, especially given Ottawa will pay that pick league minimum for three years. But the Senators have to get to the cap floor, and the ticket sales bonanza that would result from having a Tkachuk on each of their top two lines – or, god help the league, both on the same line – would help to pad the economic blow. It’s tantalizing from a marketing perspective.
I can’t think of any other move that Ottawa can make that would generate more enthusiasm around the team coming out of the pandemic and after years of PR damage from the poorly messaged rebuild. This would change the entire dynamic of the Atlantic division.
SIGN BRADY TKACHUK TO A MASSIVE EIGHT-YEAR EXTENSION AND PROMISE MATTHEW THE SAME
Another protestation to trading for Matthew Tkachuk is that his deal expires after next season, though he is an RFA. Presuming the Tkachuk brothers want to play together, their respective deals can act as hooks to keep the other in the fold.
Brady is due a new deal, and the speculation is that in a flat cap world, teams and players alike prefer short term deals of three to four years. I think that’s plenty likely, with Brady’s deal likely to look like the 3 x $7M deal Matthew signed in 2019. But if there’s a possibility to offer Brady a deal that starts with Thomas Chabot’s – 8 x $8M – the team should take it.
It’s true that the players may like to gamble on themselves and a rising cap in the next few years to try to cash in big down the line. But when somebody puts a starting bid of $64 million in front of you, it tends to get the gears moving. Give him $70M and the C, and he’ll re-sign.
When Matthew’s deal is up at the end of the year following, the team can offer him the exact same deal as Brady to keep harmony in the lineup and in the family. Hard to think the Tkachuks won’t think long and hard about a team who’s willing to give at least $140 million to their family.
SIGN CHEAP CENTER DEPTH
Presuming that the Senators let Artem Anisimov walk in the offseason (and they should) and Chris Tierney is select by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the Senators will need some cheap, young, reliable center depth, even if Shane Pinto makes the team out of training camp.
There are four candidates I can see that are 1) cheap (no more than $4M per season), 2) young (under 30), 3) a net positive on shots generation/suppression (all courtesy of Hockey Viz) and 4) pending UFAs presumably available on the free agent market.
Nick Bjugstad (MIN)
Mikael Granlund (NSH)
Phillip Danault (MTL)
Jordon Weal (MTL)
If the Sens can lock up one of these players for fewer than four years and no more than $4M per, they should do it – especially if it means weakening the depth of a division rival, and appealing to those players’ desire to stay near Montreal where their kids go to school, etc.
SIGN A SECOND PAIRING DEFENCEMANAND RE-SIGN MIKE REILLY
Mike Reilly has been a bright spot on an otherwise defensively atrocious hockey team, driving play at a very affordable price point of $1.5M. If he can be re-signed at fewer than four years and only a slight raise, the Sens should seriously consider it. For the purposes of this simulation, let’s presume a nice raise to an annual salary of $2.5M.
I’m also assuming that the Sens find some way to jettison Joshua Brown’s $1.2M salary next season. He’s been an absolute boat anchor in terms of driving shots. Maybe Ottawa can find someone who will give up a late pick or future considerations. Unfortunately, his real salary goes up to $1.4M. He might find himself in Belleville.
Also, it goes without saying that Gudbranson and Coburn are fired into the sun at the first possible opportunity.
Of course, it would be incredible if the Sens went all in and tried to sign Dougie Hamilton, a legit elite defenseman who would be perfect for a team that wants to take the next step. Considering how few of those make it to free agency, I assume all kinds of richer teams will be in on him and he’ll earn maximum term on a $8M+ per year deal. The Sens should probably stay away. As I said above – the Sens financial situation probably hasn’t changed.
This basically adheres to the structure set above to seeking out depth centers: 1) cheap (no more than $4M per season), 2) young (under 30), 3) a net positive on shots generation/suppression (courtesy of Hockey Viz) and 4) pending UFAs presumably available on the free agent market. I also targeted left-handed D.
I see three defensemen Ottawa can target:
Jake McCabe (BUF)
Jamie Oleksiak (DAL)
Ryan Murray (NJ)
Of those three, Murray probably attracts the most attention on the free market, having been a former second overall pick. McCabe, on the other hand, is relatively unknown, has spent the season on the abysmal Sabres, and has had a solid 3-4 seasons of reliable, stay-at-home defensive hockey with a net positive shot suppression rate. He also draws way more penalties than he takes. He doesn’t do much offensively, but he could help to tighten up the leaky ship that is the Senators’ defence.
THE GOALIE SITUATION
I don’t know, man. This is a tough one. On the one hand, that Matt Murray contract looks killer, but on the other, the Sens have shown they have a fairly deep pipeline of young goalies in Gustavsson and Daccord. I don’t see them being able to do much here. You’ve just gotta hope that Murray can get it together in the offseason with a new goalie coach.
I assume that Murray’s contract is unmoveable, that Hogberg gets another chance, and Forsberg walks in the offseason. (Hopefully finding some term somewhere – Godspeed, gentle warrior.)
B. Tkachuk ($925k) – Norris ($925k) – Batherson ($736k)
Stutzle ($925k) – Pinto ($925k) – M. Tkachuk ($7M)
Paul ($1.35M) – White ($4.75M) – Dadanov ($5M)
Formenton ($747k) – Bjugstad/Granlund/Danault/Weal ($4M) – Brown ($3.6M)
Cap total: $60.243 million – just a hair over the $60.2 cap floor.
This is a lineup that improves its center depth and defensive depth, adds a bona fide star in their top six with a compelling story that will sell tickets, and maintains plenty of cap and financial room for Brady’s monster deal the season following and a bridge deal for Josh Norris. Even with Brady making $8M+ per year, the Sens would find themselves $10M+ under the cap as it exists today.
It also allows for the young players to continue to grow. It doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue of the goaltending, and I could still see this lineup finishing well outside of the playoffs. But with a series of boat anchor veteran contracts off the books, development of the youngins taken into account, improvement around the margins, and the special sauce of a Duel Tkachuk Attack, you could see this team giving fits to the Division and the Conference.
I tweeted last night that if the Sens lost their game (which they did) they would possess roughly the same winning percentage as the 10-70-4 Ottawa Senators from the 1992-1993 season, who had the third worst record in NHL history.
The team is in year two or three of what will be at least a five year rebuild, and they’ve been outshooting their competition most nights, so this isn’t as terrible a situation as it seems. But the fanbase is starting to get itchy, especially having been promised by owner Eugene Melnyk a five-year run of unprecedented success, starting this season.
So what would I actually do differently? I tried to parse it out, with an emphasis on big picture priorities. (While I would also like to see Logan Brown in the lineup, I don’t think he turns around the Ottawa Senators by himself.) Say out loud to yourself, “The Ottawa Senators are the class of the NHL.” What would it take to make that at least not totally absurd?
Step One: Are You Actually Trying to Win a Cup?
The first step for any team has to be to determine whether or not their goal is to open a window of a few years during which they intend to compete for a Stanley Cup. This might seem obvious, but given the business model of the NHL, it’s not. We should stare that reality in the face.
For some teams, the strategy is to seem competitive if you squint and look sideways (“get into the playoffs and anything can happen”), keep financial losses down, maybe even turn a small profit, while in the background the underlying value of the franchise accrues. Maybe they own some nearby real estate, investments only made possible because of the arena (which, hopefully, they also own), and that accrues value as well. In this world, winning a Cup is nice, but not necessarily worth tens of millions of additional salary every year. It’s just math.
The Sens have the lowest payroll in the league, but even that’s misleading, because they’ve prioritized finding players whose cap hit is higher than their actual salary. In actuality, they’re spending about $10M BELOW the cap floor – and that’s after spending more than any other team in the offseason to bring in NHL veterans. That’s not really the behavior of a team that wants to win hockey games. For perspective, the defending Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are spending over $18 million more on salary than the Ottawa Senators this season.
Let me be clear: I think it’s completely reasonable, even unsurprising, if a team, shot full of truth serum, admitted that they’re perfectly fine with making the playoffs and putting up a fight at best. That’s not entirely on them. That’s the business model of the NHL, and I’m sure there are at least a half-dozen teams who feel this way. Ottawa is almost definitely one of them.
If Ottawa admits this, then your Choose Your Own Adventure story has come to an end. We are trapped in Hell. But if they are serious about wanting to make possible a sustainable run, then proceed to Step Two.
Step Two: Do You Have a Core of Elite Players?
My assumption is that the most important step to creating a consistent contender is to have a core of truly elite players. It’s not the only thing required to develop a contender, but it’s almost impossible to develop a contender without it, and it’s the most difficult, so all other decision-making should flow around achieving this objective.
These players are usually only available in the top few picks of the draft, and some years not at all. The only way to get them is to be a lucky genius and have a top pick in a key year, be an even luckier genius and draft Karlsson in the middle of the first round, be the luckiest genius and draft Mark Stone in the sixth round, or to find a catastrophic idiot who is willing to trade those players for anything less than another core player.
So what do I mean by an elite core? A core is at least four players – two forwards, at least one of which plays center, and two defensemen – who are considered top 30 in the league at their position and is under 30 years old at the beginning of your contending window.
Goaltending is important, of course, perhaps the most important position in the league, but if you accept that 1) one core player is going to cost you around 1/9 of the cap all by himself, 2) it’s very hard to predict goaltending, and 3) every percentage of save percentage above league average is going to cost you exponentially more, it may make more sense to look for league average goaltending, or at least have a pipeline of goaltenders who can deliver in tight defensive systems. Any goaltender who is reliably an above-average goaltender is going to cost you so much more than is reasonable as to wipe out the value of that approach. And even then, they could end up being average a lot of the time – see the last two seasons of Carey Price, with his $10.5 million cap hit.
The model uses the last three years of data weighted by recency to project key box score stats and a few on-ice stats to create a projected Game Score that is then translated to a win value. You can read more about the model here.
Every team might have their own model and approach, but Dom’s model serves us well to flesh out the concept of building a core.
Ottawa has two core players in Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, and they might have another soon in Tim Stutzle. Let’s assume that these players are untouchable. The question is: does Ottawa have anyone else in the pipeline that reasonably projects as top 30 in the league at their position? It’s too early to tell on Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Jake Sanderson, or Erik Brannstrom. And if the answer is “it’s unlikely,” can they be parlayed into a player who is core material now? The signing of Evgeny Dadonov was a pleasant surprise, but he’s not top 30 in the league. He’s a great complementary player.
I would try to find the other teams that don’t have at least four core players, or have an imbalance of core players between forwards and defensemen, who are trying to figure out which way to lean between rebuilding and competing, and try to tip their decision-making by offering up overwhelmingly generous packages of non-core players and picks. Fans will roast you for overpaying, but like I said: there’s just no other way to obtain these players other than overwhelming luck. You need to have a high enough pick in a chaotic draft lottery system, in a year when a potential core player is available. Everything you give up in this scenario is far more replaceable.
Using Luszczyszyn’s list, and filtering for age, the only players that jump out as possibly get-able are Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust of Pittsburg, given that team is having its existential moment (both have had injury issues), or perhaps Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary, because Canadian teams have a way of getting impatient and making huge mistakes, or Aleksander Barkov of Florida. Can they pry Ryan Ellis out of Nashville if they have another disappointing season? Granted, he’s already 30 years old. But if any of these players are remotely available for anything less than our core players or a lottery pick in a year with core players available, you’ve got to explore that.
The list of available players is going to change every season, and most seasons is likely to be zero. But if anyone who has the potential to be a core player – top 30, young, under control or open to an extension – becomes available, you have to push your chips in to get them, even if it means giving up promising prospects. You’re playing the odds, but the odds are in your favor. Otherwise, you’re just holding on to your first round pick and hoping for the best.
Step Three: Fix the Pro Scouting Department
It sounds tongue-in-cheek to say “stop trading for bad players,” but how often in the past few years have we seen the team go out and trade assets for players who are considered universally pretty bad? It’s not just a matter of “I think these guys can provide value in the right situations,” or “this player is bad, but they’re available cheaply and we just need a warm body who’s good in the dressing room.” The team’s behavior, be it with Dion Phaneuf, Alex Burrows, Erik Gudbranson, or Nikita Zaitsev, is that of a team whose pro evaluation has concluded that these players are good enough to give up assets for and pay on longer-term deals. It’s befuddling. Phaneuf and Burrows were both bought out. Zaitsev probably will be too, someday. For a team that’s broke, that’s absolutely damning.
The Sens desperately need to fix their pro scouting department. I don’t know what set of criteria they’re relying on when it comes to identifying NHL veterans to fill out their lineup, but the track record is staggeringly bad. There are exceptions (Dadanov and Clarke MacArthur come to mind), but they’re certainly not the rule.
I don’t know what’s wrong with the pro scouting department, or whether they’re even the problem. Maybe their advice just isn’t being taken. But when the team targets a player that every publicly available data model seems to indicate is bad and getting worse, someone should demonstrate why they think that data is wrong or doesn’t matter.
A team can’t make good players agree to come play for them, especially in a high-tax Canadian market with bad weather. But they can avoid actively bringing in players who are a drag on their team. Using Dom’s model, the least productive player available among active defensemen? Erik Gudbranson, who is playing 20 minutes a night on the back-end this season. Ottawa actually targeted this guy and gave up a pick to get him when he’s the type of player a team should have to give up a pick or a prospect to entice a team into taking.
Ottawa has other players near the bottom of the list among forwards – Cedric Paquette, who at least Ottawa received a pick for taking, but also Austin Watson and Chris Tierney, whom the team traded assets for. Derek Stepan is rated between 36-year old Jeff Carter and Zack Kassian, and the Sens gave up a 2nd round pick for him. In most cases they didn’t give up much to get them, but the fact that they identified them, traded for them, and now are paying them to actively make the team worse is puzzling to say the least.
Step Four: Delegate
There’s a polyglot of other factors that we tend to maybe overemphasize when thinking about why teams stink. These can include but aren’t limited to creating a winning culture, defining what your game looks like and dictating play so it aligns with your strengths, creating an understanding between management and coaching about how players should be used (if you trade for a core guy, that guy better get some ice time), nurturing your young players so they respond positively to adversity, and so on.
These are all important, but I’ve relegated them to the back half of the recommendations because each seems broadly actionable within the scope of a single season. You can replace a coach, or hire a consultant, or have a seance in the dressing room, etc. on a pretty quick turnaround. You can’t draft and develop a core guy, or identify an opportunity to trade for one, in one season.
For that reason, it seems to me that it’s important to have an Assistant GM, or President of Hockey Operations, or whoever, whose job is to handle everything not related to prospect scouting and pro scouting with the objective of bringing on core guys. Or maybe have a prospect and pro scouting department who are fully empowered, freeing up the GM to worry about the polyglot. Every team will build their corporate structure differently to reflect the strengths of their manager, but the point is that a GM can’t do it all. It’s important enough to try to find those core guys that it should be a full time job. Partition the coaching, strategy, and cultural aspects and give them their own space.
So, how do we apply all of this to the Ottawa Senators? As I said off the top, the Senators aren’t in a terrible situation. They have two bona fide core players, and potentially one or two more as a result of picking twice in the top five this year. The Senators have one of the deepest prospect pools in the league (ranked third in Scott Wheeler’s most recent article), and many of those prospects are in a sweet spot of being NHL-ready, but with a small enough sample size that it’s not yet clear that whether they are or aren’t core guys.
When I joke around on Twitter that the Senators should offer whatever Calgary wants for Matthew Tkachuk or go all in to lure Barkov, part of me is writing slash fiction, but another, more serious part of me is thinking that if the Senators want to be serious about opening their window to contend, that they should absolutely be all in on adding to their core – even if it means making some uncomfortable decisions on promising young guys we’re all excited to see more of. They’re so close, they just need to take it over the top.
Remember Game 1 of the season? We were riding high! The Sens came into their first game in over 300 days and thoroughly dominated a heavily favoured Leafs team in the season opener. Thomas Chabot was on the ice for all five Senators goals (including scoring a beauty on the powerplay), Matthews and Thornton were on for three goals against, and I must admit: I got sucked in to the “Are the Sens TOO good?” discourse very fast. But could you blame me? Ottawa looked great against a Toronto team who are the prohibitive favourites in a Canadian Division that’s filled with more tomato cans than an Italian grocer. I declared then and there that if the Senators opened their season with two straight wins over Toronto, there was no reason they couldn’t be expected to make the playoffs. Who could stop them?
Well, in the ensuing five games, we have received the answer: the thing that could stop the Ottawa Senators is themselves. It has been a masterclass in Losing Hockey. We have seen defensive lapses, giveaways, blown leads, blowouts, bad penalties, bad skating, bad goaltending, bad coaching, which has resulted in a textbook case of Bad Team. It’s almost like most of these guys haven’t played consistently in nearly a year! Also, it’s a very short season so there’s very little time to make up ground in an ENTIRELY HYPOTHETICAL situation where you want the Senators to make the playoffs this year.
The Ottawa Senators are off to a blistering 1-4-1 start through their first six games of the 2020-2021 NHL season. In most 82-game seasons, that kind of start makes it difficult to recover and sneak into the playoffs. Over 56 games? That’s 10 percent of the season, and the Sens, though considered a long-shot for the playoffs anyway, are pretty much toast. They play their next six games on the road.
The public display of futility, especially following their 1-7 loss to the Canucks on January 25th, has Sens twitter asking pointed questions about coach DJ Smith’s player usage and powerplay coach Jack Capuano’s repeated use of the same zone entry strategies. In response to that pessimism, I’d like to offer that, despite the record…the Sens haven’t been all that bad? *ducks rotting fruit* Allow me to explain.
One of the convenient side effects of the all-Canadian division and compressed schedule is that it allows us to study how teams have played against one another in more controlled conditions. It’s not a series of one-offs; teams play each other several times in a row, often with the same lineup. We can assume home ice advantage is mitigated somewhat by the lack of any discernable differences between empty arenas. So let’s take this series-by-series.
V. Leafs – 1-1
In their first game against the Leafs, who most have picked to win the Canadian Division, shots were even, and they gutted out a 5-3 win. In their second game they were heavily outshot, 40-19, and the game was only close because of Murray’s .925SV%.
Verdict: The Sens were good in that first game, playing a Cup contender to a draw and capitalizing on their chances, and almost stole the second game despite being badly outplayed. They were genuinely outclassed, but will happily take the split. The Murray trade was looking smart through two games. NOT THAT BAD.
V. Jets – 0-2-1
After being caved-in by the Leafs on the shot clock in their previous game, the Sens turned around and hung over 40 shots on the Jets in their first game while keeping them below 20. They also scored twice on the powerplay and took 54 percent of faceoffs. They played well, despite blowing the lead and losing in OT. The middle game is remembered as a bit of a drubbing with a 1-4 loss, but that’s not that fair: they matched the Jets in shots despite Winnipeg receiving seven power plays (and scoring on none of them). Murray was pulled in this game, and it might be a classic example of a game they could have easily of won with a few more timely saves. The Sens lost their third game 3-6, and were heavily outshot. Despite that, they went into the third with a lead and controlled play for large stretches of the game. A bad penalty by Stepan in the third gave away the lead for good.
Verdict: The Sens were good again through two games before turning in a genuine stinker in the third game, with much of that stinkiness taking place in the third period. To be honest with you, despite going 0-2-1 against the Jets, if you could simulate this performance across 100,000 games, you might end up with a winning record. NOT THAT BAD.
V. Canucks – 0 so far with two games to go in the series
The Sens suffered their worst loss of the young season, losing 1-7 in their first game against the Canucks, but here’s the thing: they outshot them handily until the third period and ended up with a shot advantage at game’s end despite being curb stomped in the third. Poor goaltending did them in early, and then the wheels came off the wagon. But you have to almost admire a team that maintains a shot advantage after going 36 percent in the faceoff circle.
Verdict: It’s difficult to defend any game that ends with that score, and the Sens never seemed like a threat to steal the game, but I remember turning on the game after wrapping up a late night of work and seeing them down four goals in the second period with the Canucks having only generated 20 shots, and couldn’t help but feel that this was just a weird one. This might be a classic example of “show me a good coach and I’ll show you a good goaltender.” NOT THAT BAD.
Takeaways: This post might seem like it’s begging to be mocked. “Ottawa Senators fan believes team that ranks 25th in GF/GP and dead last in GA/GP thinks his team is NOT THAT BAD.” It is mockable. I get it. But here’s the thing: for a team with a bad record, they’ve outshot their opponents many nights, and at least two of those losses can be blamed on goaltending and taking stupid penalties. The Sens were also missing Jimmy Stutzle for the entire series against the Jets.
All that to say: it’s not time to blow it up yet, not time to fire to coach, not even time to start swapping out bottom six forwards wholesale. The team’s faceoff wins are second lowest in the league at 44 percent. Improving that even a few percentage points will result in greater control of the offensive zone. Giving Logan Brown a shot and keeping Christian Wolanin on the backend may help. And Murray might not be the workhorse they want him to be. The single biggest improvement this team can make is receiving league average NHL goaltending. If they get that, they’ll end up with a record that implies they are NOT THAT BAD.
In the days that followed the 2020 NHL Draft, analytics-oriented prospect writers scored each team’s draft performances in a way that friend and colleague Luke Peristy described on our most recent podcast as “Draft Bucks” analysis. This is the most useful way of thinking about ranking draft “performance” by NHL franchises that I’ve encountered. I don’t know if Luke came up with it, but send him $5 anyway.
In Draft Bucks analysis, you think of each draft pick as a denomination of money, and each prospect as having a monetary value. How much value did each team get for the money they spent? If Team A walks in with $200 Draft Bucks and walks out with $250 worth of players, then they drafted well. If Team B walks in with $400 Draft Bucks and walks out with $350 worth of players, they drafted poorly, even if they walked out with more overall value than Team A.
You can only really think of Draft Bucks in one of two ways: the total value the team walks away with based on how much money they walked into the draft with, and the total value the team walks away with relative to the money they had to spend. Ottawa walked into the draft with more draft picks than any other team, and with two top five picks, so they left with more value than anyone else. In that way, for Ottawa, 2020 was essentially an idiot-proof draft. Many noted, however, that with every pick taken outside of the top five, Ottawa elected to take a player who was projected to go later in the draft – sometimes much later. In other words, they received ‘poor value’ for their picks according to the valuations of prospect writers on hockey websites. Ottawa subsequently received a number of failing grades for their approach to the draft.
The Draft Bucks approach to rating a team’s drafting has the appeal of being quantifiable and numbers-driven: you calculate the difference between x and y and rank the teams accordingly. What this approach doesn’t do is ask why a team would have not only different, but much different valuations of players, why they would depart so markedly from what seems like a common-sense valuation of a player, or why not only one team, but numerous teams, might be motivated to depart from the quantification of individual prospect’s tools. In other words, what overarching drafting strategies – let’s call this, for the sake of grandiosity, META DRAFTING – compels a team to spend their Draft Bucks in a way that doesn’t comport directly with player valuations?
Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti were two prospects projected to go in or around the 5-8 range of picks. They slid to 9th and 10th. As a result, the teams that took them – Minnesota and Winnipeg – received good draft grades as a result of receiving good value. After all, they spent fewer Draft Bucks to take those players than those players were worth. While appealingly elegant in its simplicity, this analysis is also a tiny bit lazy. It dodges the question of why not only Ottawa, but Anaheim, New Jersey, and Buffalo also passed on those prospects. It also sidesteps any Meta Drafting analysis – what do teams’ drafting strategies say about their opinions and information about the process of drafting itself?
If we think outside of the Draft Bucks Box, we can start to look for patterns not captured in Draft Bucks analysis, and in doing so better identify and explore some of the weird and idiosyncratic cultural aspects of hockey before we decide a team won or lost a particular draft.
Importing a Fully Baked Culture
The University of North Dakota is one of the highest ranked college hockey programs in the United States, having won seven national championships and produced alumni such as Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and TJ Oshie. The Senators have four UND prospects in their system: Jake Sanderson, Tyler Kleven, Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Outside of Sanderson, every one of those players was drafted too high for the liking of Draft Bucks analysts.
It’s not unusual for a team to draft from a highly-ranked college hockey program. But to return to the well of a particular program as often as Ottawa has, and in the case of Tyler Kleven to have even moved up in the draft to take him in the second round when he was projected to go later, might be a tell. In the Draft Bucks paradigm, this can only be gross misspending of draft assets, chalked up to some kind of oversight or incompetence by people who spend all day every day thinking about the valuation of hockey talent. It’s certainly possible that this is the case, but strikes me as somewhat unlikely. Moneyball was first published in 2003, 18 years ago, and I can’t help but think that the image of the old-boys-club room of scouts talking about if a player has a good body or a pretty girlfriend is slightly outmoded.
I wonder if Ottawa is taking a bet not only on the ability of the program to produce NHLers, but that by taking players that have been taught in a certain system, who understand their roles in that system, they can import not only the players but also the system, the roles, and the understanding of expectations. The players’ relationship with one another have a mutually reinforcing nature, a plug-and-play element, perpetuating milestones for success and creating a cultural sense of accountability to the team and to one another.
In a vacuum, Tyler Kleven should have cost fewer Draft Bucks than Ottawa spent to draft him, but looking only at those numbers ignores the broader context of Kleven playing on the same defensive unit as fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson, the kind of prospect who, if successful, could transform the competitive landscape of the Atlantic Division. (And if he isn’t, could set back the Senators’ competitive window for another decade.) Spending the Draft Bucks to enhance the probability of Sanderson’s success is well worth it, especially considering those second-round picks spent to draft Kleven are statistically likely to produce depth players, of which Ottawa currently has plenty.
Ottawa needs to hit on both producing a certain amount of depth and on their high draft picks. Drafting so many players from the same program could increase the likelihood of all of the players included in that unit being successful, and of the top pick of hitting his potential. An area for further study might be to look to teams who over the years had the greatest number of players from the same development programs and how consistently those players performed relative to their expectations.
Drafting for Depth
Check out this paragraph from Scott Wheeler’s take on the Senators’ second day at the draft:
A year ago, the Senators picked Shane Pinto (then my 50th-ranked prospect) with their first pick of the second round. This year, they selected Roby Jarventie (my No. 55-ranked prospect) at 33. Both are big, versatile forward prospects who can create in a variety of ways, whose only real question mark is their pace of play. Both project as middle-six, complementary pieces with mid-level offensive ceilings and potential PP2 upside. Both are efficient and useful without having a star quality tool that defines them. Jarventie’s off to a good start in Liiga this season, too, and if his post-draft season is anything like Pinto’s, he’ll work his way up my board in retrospect.
This seems like the kind of sentiment you’ll find on most draft rankings: that every team should be using every pick to take players with potentially high ceilings, even if those players are boom-or-bust. GM Pierre Dorion has used far more moderate language when talking about his goals for each draft: when speaking about prospects, he often describes them as having a real chance to be a player in the NHL – full stop. This seemed to be on display with the Senators’ third first-round pick, which they used to take checking forward Ridly Greig. Finally, the Sens have a propensity to draft over-agers: players closer to achieving their projected ceiling, and thus easier to project, but still available to draft, meaning likely to have a lower ceiling overall. One wonders if the Senators’ focus on certainty over high-ceiling uncertainty has become a discernable factor in their draft strategy.
Why is that important? In emphasizing depth talent, the Senators are usually docked points in Draft Bucks analysis, which holds as a fundamental truth underwriting the valuation of players that depth is plentifully available on the free agent market while high-end talent has to be drafted. Due to the trends in NHL player contracts, the time might be coming for us to ask if this is still the case.
Between the current and previous NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, there’s been one major change in the way NHL contracts are structured: core, franchise players are receiving their big payouts much earlier, on their second deals – their RFA deals. Fewer of them are opting for bridge deals, except in states with no state taxes and favorable earning prospects. On the 31 Thoughts Podcast, Stan Bowman, GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, pointed out that the team that won the Hawks their three Cups wouldn’t be possible in today’s NHL, because they won with Toews and Kane on affordable, five-year, $6.3M/year RFA deals that allowed them to add players like Hossa to expensive, long-term UFA deals. If the Hawks drafted a Kane or Toews today, they’d be earning at least $8M-$9M right after their entry-level contracts. The Blackhawks would not necessarily be able to add good NHL depth on the free agent market, even on $2M-$3M/year deals. They would have to rely on their draft pipeline.
Ottawa is going to experience this soon, when they extend Brady Tkachuk. They’ve already had to extend Thomas Chabot to a deal paying him $8M per year rather than a bridge deal. If Tim Stutzle works out, in four years he could be in-line for a similar payday. How does a team having to do this with their core ensure depth throughout the lineup? Where once a team could afford to waste seven of their draft picks on swinging for the fence knowing that they were eight or more years away from having to pay their stars, now they must ensure they’re bringing in checking line players and secondary scoring on entry-level deals: higher-certainty prospects with lower ceilings.
Ottawa has targeted overage players in this and previous drafts, players generally thought to be easier to project, but with lower ceilings. They’ve also targeted players who can play multiple positions. Today’s poor value draft picks who top out as third- and fourth-line NHLers are tomorrow’s third- and fourth-line NHLers on entry-level contracts. It could be that Draft Bucks analysis, with its emphasis on high ceiling talent throughout the draft, hasn’t caught up to the present-day reality of NHL economics.
When Taking an Objective View Makes it Difficult to Stay Objective
The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” has at this point taken on the cliché of business, dulling us to its continued relevance. There’s something incredibly alluring about the cold, mathematical analysis that led us to Draft Bucks paradigm, an approach that has, over time, illuminated the ways in which teams can and do become fixated on factors that don’t matter in the calculation of a hockey player’s skill.
What we might also be seeing when we read NHL Draft Grades, however, is that the culture of this analysis leads one to conclude that outliers are always evidence of inefficiency or underperformance as opposed to cause for further investigation. When a team like the Ottawa Senators, in the middle of a rebuild that will be vital to the fortunes of the team over the next decade, trade up in the second round to take a player projected to go in the late second or third round, and that player happens to play with the player who was just drafted by the same team fifth overall, that should cause us to ask more about the strategy employed by the team, to dabble more frequently in Meta Draft analysis, to explore whether efficiencies uncaptured by Draft Bucks analysis remain to be discovered.
It’s the WTYKY Podcast’s 25th Podcast Milestone! We’ve bee producing these at a solid 4-5-episodes-a-year clip, and we saved up all of the best stuff for this occasion. This episode includes how we finally forced the team to adopt the logo and jersey we’ve been demanding for literally years and the results of the most important draft in franchise history. Luke Peristy, James, and Varada are here to get you through the pandemic with the Ottawa Senators Podcast three out of 10 physicians agree has a 14 percent chance of enhancing antibodies under very specific conditions.