Rain or shine, Brad Allen always delivers, and we’re happy to bring him one more time to you, the listener, even if we can’t bring you anything else. In this 2022 NHL Entry Draft Special a skeleton crew of Luke and Brad talk:
Slafkovsky vs. Wright
Lekkerimaki vs. Kemell
Are Jake Sanderson and Ridly Grieg ready?
Who might be good value with the 39th overall pick?
In many ways, the existence of this blog is tied to Eugene Melnyk’s ownership of the Ottawa Senators.
We started WTYKY (first titled the Cory Clouston Fashion Review) in the humble years following the 2007 Cup Run, when the Senators, having established themselves as a regular season juggernaut, first flirted with the idea that they should probably rebuild, struggled to accept that harsh truth, and ultimately chose to wander into the desert of “get into the playoffs and anything can happen,” where they arguably still wander today.
This was the ego of Eugene Melnyk or his financial situation or both, and so became the paradigm within which the team had to exist…and so became the paradigm within which our fandom had to exist. This blog embarked on our own journey around that time, one that combined armchair analysis, a piss-poor understanding of analytics, and leaning into the curiosities that inevitably emerge from a team that spent a bare minimum on marketing, research, or understanding how to be considered cool. Left with something as painfully uncool as the 2010-2020 Ottawa Senators, all we could do was try to own it. We don’t have a picture of Stanley Cup banners in our blog’s banner. We have Julia Robillard.
We don’t write many posts on this blog anymore. The idea of writing on a blog has been replaced by something else, something more integrated, sophisticated, easier, louder, scarier, funnier, more immediate. Sometimes I look at the analytics of something dumb I tweeted from my dumb little account with fewer than 1000 followers and see that it received more impressions than the most read post from this blog, which we’ve kept going for over a decade. And so, in some ways, it feels right to mark the death of Eugene Melnyk by resurrecting this blog, for a moment, to write a post, if only because, in a perverse way, I identify with the obsolescence he came to represent.
To be a fan of the Ottawa Senators, and to write about and dissect and argue over beers with friends about the Ottawa Senators, was, inextricably, to do those things about Eugene Melnyk, because everything about the way the team did things was tied to the way Eugene Melnyk did things. He was brash, a braggart, overconfident, and not nearly as rich as he needed to be to pull those things off. In some ways, this complemented the complexes of a bilingual city nestled between Toronto, the cultural capital of anglophones in Canada who have an original six team, and Montreal, the cultural capital of francophones in Canada who have an original six team.
Perhaps Melnyk didn’t complement so much as exacerbate those complexes. Maybe he did both. He shared our insecurities. He justified our insecurities. He was powerful, relatively speaking. Nobody cared. This is all very…Ottawa.
The model of sports franchise ownership exemplified by Eugene Melnyk – what I have referred to as the Wacky Billionaire Model – is in full-on decline. Where once we might have relied on the temperamental interests of an individual who made his fortunes in a particular market, like real estate, or pharmaceuticals, or media, today’s hockey team is usually owned by diversified conglomerates of interests and is stacked in a vertical of integrated investments including content, real estate, merchandise, media, and data. Today’s hockey team is a tiny percentage contribution to a mutual fund.
In that way, the Senators have become increasingly an island unto themselves – hopscotching from loan to loan as Melnyk tried to outrun his debt, trapped in an aging arena on an undeveloped plot of farmland in the city’s suburbs, reminded by that emptiness of Kanata’s promise that it might one day be the Silicon Valley of the North, locked out of lucrative downtown deals by the federal government and Melnyk’s tendency to sabotage his own negotiations. Eugene Melnyk was no more corrupt or brash than any other billionaire privateer, but he existed in a market that tended not to make it easy for billionaire privateers to get away with their privateering, to obscure their privateering with inspiring stories – or at least that indulged privateering in exchange for championships. Melnyk tried to bend the market to his will, which only works if you’re charming or you win, and so the market and Melnyk simply tried to outwait one another.
We’re naturally led to ask, then, what the death of Eugene Melnyk means for the ownership of the Ottawa Senators. There’s the short-term – the team is placed into a family trust, and Melnyk’s daughters decide whether they would like to become franchise owners – with all the prestige and disproportionate attention and thanklessness and abuse that entails – or whether they might like to sell at a time when expansion teams are going for almost a billion dollars. (Forbes tends to value the Sens around a half-billion, but they tend not to build in speculation about what a market will pay for something of which there are only 32.)
We ask the question of ownership not because we are ghouls who bicker while Melnyk’s body is still warm, though we are that, but because this team, around which so many of us have constructed at least parts of our identity by writing blogs and recording podcasts and arguing on Twitter, were and acted like a Melnyk Team, and we don’t really know what it will be and act like in his absence. This fanbase made ‘Sens Sickos,’ a campaign fundamentally about how there has to be something wrong with you to like this team, not only A Thing on Twitter, but something the team itself embraced and promoted. That doesn’t happen without the sick fact of Melnyk’s ownership, and all of the toxicity that led to a revolving door of senior staffers and traded veterans and years of futility. We leaned into the perversity required to love this team because, well, what else did we have? So long as Melnyk was in charge, it would be a series of sure-to-fail Hail Marys and a brass ring that topped out at sneaking into the playoffs. I’ve been writing sporadically on this blog about how that feels for over a decade. I don’t really know how to do anything else.
Whether Ottawa becomes the latest bauble for another, different Wacky Billionaire, or a carefully selected procurement by AI-assisted killbots who hope to turn it into a Lean Scrum Agile meeting, or – dare to dream – a Green Bay Packers-style publicly held nonprofit, what comes next will fundamentally change the way we think about the team, and so it will change the way we think about our city, and so it will change the way we think about ourselves. It won’t all be good, but it will be interesting, and, as always I remain here for the content.
As for this blog, this would seem like a convenient place to put a bookend. We started WTYKY when the team’s window seemingly slammed shut. We renamed it when they drafted a generational defenseman who dragged them within a goal of the Finals. We despaired as core pieces were sold off at a discount. And finally we stagnated as we waited for change. Now that change might finally be here.
But it’s hard to imagine a world in which I don’t simply hit the ‘Purchase’ button on the annual domain renewal prompt, if only to keep intact the record of this weird period in our lives when we took something aspirational – a hockey team as an expression of pride in our community – and tried to make that aspiration work even as it was tied to someone as problematic at Eugene Melnyk. If nothing else, we can take pride in that. Wacky Billionaires come and go. Now we know that, no matter what comes next, we can work miracles if we have to.
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.