WTYKY podcast, episode three – “it’s friggin sports, man”

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Recorded following Ottawa’s killer 6-0 win over Calgary and before their killer 6-1 win over Edmonton, James and Varada talk about the Sens’ early-season success, Calgary getting gassed-up by critics, Turris’ next contract and, weirdly, Buffalo.

Music: Akron/Family, Ava Luna, Beach Fossils, Black Lips, Boyhood.

 

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It’s Time for the NHL’s Apoliticism to End

Throughout my time as a sports fan, I’ve managed to compartmentalize hockey and politics. I’m not an apolitical person. I have opinions. I vote. I volunteer for a political party. I donate to causes. And up until recently, I’ve been able to maintain the illusion of hockey as a closed system.

Two teams comprised of players of varying skill take part in a game contained within static rules and yet affected by haphazard degrees of chance. Anything can happen, and yet the outcome is rarely in dispute. A bouncing puck can make the difference between immortality and becoming a footnote in the history books, and yet the score, when all is said in done, is unchangeable, objective, statistical fact. The political and economic conditions at the time are beside of the point.

This sentiment has become irreconcilable with reality in the age of 45, He Whose Name Will Not Appear On This Blog. Reality demands that we not retreat into fantasy. This presents a problem for hockey, whose featureless visage promises uncomplicated enjoyment, a workmanlike disinterest in activism.

In other words, hockey is a kind of reality television show. The biographical details of players and their long road to the NHL are subsumed into the primal story of apolitical competition. The Cup is a largely arbitrary award handed out to the team that was both good and lucky. Hockey games – especially in the age of parity – emphasize the drama of what’s happening right in front of you, not the world at large or of history.

But now that there’s a reality television star in the White House, everything feels at the same time deeply meaningful and meaningless. The boundaries between our compartmentalized politics and entertainment are breaking down. Hockey, which is good at making meaningless, arbitrary competition feel meaningful, should know how to operate in this space. It should, in other words, know how to roll with it. Instead, it’s fumbled its way through the last week. It’s insisted that hockey is never about politics, and in so doing has emphasized the part of its personality that is stodgy, traditionalist, and anachronistic.

Of course, hockey has never been truly apolitical. The You Can Play campaign attempts to reduce homophobia in hockey. The dispute over public financing of arenas has cropped up again in Calgary. A number of NHL players have been accused of sexual harassment and assault of women. Don Cherry used Coach’s Corner for years to espouse conservative perspectives, often lightly tinged with xenophobia. As in all things, we see both the machinations of money, power, and marginalization and the need to identify those machinations using political speech.

And yet the NHL seems to insist that one can simply choose to be apolitical. Beyond its players’ involvement in charitable foundations and projects for causes already enjoying broad support, the culture of hockey seems to emphasize the cohesion of the unit and almost militaristic deference to Team. Hockey, one might argue, requires a greater degree of serene coordination than baseball or basketball. Its players are either not allowed or have never been encouraged to publicly express opinions about important causes for fear of disrupting team harmony. Maybe they don’t have opinions.

This kind of featureless, apolitical vessel for hockey itself is no better personified than by Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, a player whose talent relative to hockey makes him the sport’s LeBron James but without any of the personality. This profile of Crosby describes a person whose life is defined by his utter dedication to playing hockey. He goes home to Nova Scotia in the off-season. He watches sports. He spends his free time getting kids into sports. He took a college course about World War II but found there was too much writing. He hangs out with his parents. He works out. He practices. In this way, Sidney Crosby maintains hockey’s preference for stolid obedience, a kind of ‘aw shucks’ blue collar sensibility that insists on remaining, as Crosby repeatedly puts it, “grounded.”

But the past year has destabilized the apoliticism that hockey players enjoy, and even a 10+-year veteran like Crosby looked uncomfortable. The league was broadly exposed to criticism this last week as the defending champion Penguins visited the White House amid an ongoing dispute between 45 and African-American NFL and NBA athletes. Crosby was exposed to questions of whether his team’s attendance at a White House ceremony was a tacit endorsement of the administration’s highly divisive attitudes and policies. Crosby’s statement served to extend rather than resolve that debate:

“From my side of things, there’s absolutely no politics involved” […] I can’t speak for everyone else, I just grew up under the assumption that that wasn’t something really bred into sports (and) different things,” said Crosby, a native of Nova Scotia, Canada. “Everyone’s got their own view. That’s how I kind of grew up playing hockey. I wasn’t surrounded by that or didn’t have any examples, so I kind of understood it and stayed out of it.”

Many hockey journalists were satisfied with Crosby’s assertion, allowing us as it does to return to the status quo of a new season getting underway. It’s telling, also, that the Sportsnet article from which this quote is pulled made a point of pointing out that Crosby is from Nova Scotia as if to say “why should he have opinions about American politics? What’s happening is happening down there.”

Others, however, found Crosby’s quote a fitting example of white privilege, that to assert that something is apolitical is to describe’s one’s luxury not to have to think about politics. This, despite Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour experiencing race riots in 1989. (These were referenced in the 2015 film Across the Line, about a black hockey player in Nova Scotia.)

I admit to thinking that it’s unrealistic to expect Sidney Crosby to do much more than try to win hockey games when he’s clearly been socialized to only care about winning hockey games. But that he can be both the spokesperson for a professional sports league in the process of a White House visit and be completely bereft of opinions about a racially-charged dispute between professional athletes and the President is weird and alienating and maybe says something about this sport we love. Sidney Crosby doesn’t need to be all things to all people, but his behavior was a reminder that some hockey players are disinterested, privileged white men unmotivated by anything other than hockey. For some fans, that will be enough. For others, it’s not anymore.

Would it have been difficult for the NHL to spend some time covering politically-involved players and charitable activities in the run-up to the White House visit? I suspect it would have. That’s because, for the NHL, it would have been unprecedented to feature that as a characteristic of the league.

In this way, the NHL might learn from the NBA, who’s getting better at allowing players, coaches, owners, general managers and the journalists who cover them to both have an opinion and be able to play the game they love – at the same time! It’s difficult to imagine a hockey coach feeling comfortable holding forth with political opinions the way, say, Gregg Popovich does. It’s difficult to imagine a respected hockey journalist offering an opinion on race. My Twitter feed is a surreal mix of 45-induced protest and hockey commentary. The hockey commentary often feels strangely untouched by politics. That’s because there’s a perception in hockey that that’s not our thing.

Ultimately, the measure of the league’s maturity is not whether it goes from quiet conservatism to vocal progressivism, but whether it’s confident that it can tolerate and survive the expression of a diversity of ideas. It’s time for the NHL to grow from a league of boys who either aren’t allowed or are unwilling to speak to a league of men with the courage and interest in joining the world. If it doesn’t, fans will begin to see hockey the way hockey sees itself: as featureless escapism.

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Roundtable of Death: Here We Go Again Edition

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H/t to the god @slowhnds

Luke: The thing about being the only bloggers who haven’t joined The Athletic is that we’ve had to keep our “real” jobs, so I feel like the hockey season may have sneaked up on us a bit.

I barely even noticed that the season was starting until I was suddenly inundated with articles and tweets about how Ottawa is a sure lock to miss the playoffs. You have been able to set your watch to those things for the past few years.

Here’s where the team stands:

  • No fun or interesting off-season additions to the team, unless you count Nate Thompson, which I don’t because he is neither fun nor interesting.
  • Erik Karlsson will not start the season due to his ongoing recovery from ankle surgery.
  • Derick Brassard will start the season, but is also still recovering from shoulder surgery.
  • Colin White, the prospect we were most excited about, got hurt in his first pre-season game and is on the IR.
  • Logan Brown has made the team and is now the prospect we’re most excited about.
  • Alex Formenton is on the team, even though he’s only 18 and there’s absolutely no way Guy Boucher trusts him enough to give him the keys to the Ford Mustang.
  • Thomas Chabot is starting the season in Belleville even though he was the best defenseman in camp who was also a -5 in the last pre-season game.

Besides that, there have been no interesting story lines to discuss.

I guess the over-arching question to the season is this: When will the Senators announce Duchene?

Just kidding. The question is actually this: Last year, Guy Boucher came into Ottawa with a mandate to make the playoffs. He, and the team, delivered. Can they do it again?

What do you think?

Andrew: Starting to feel like Cody Ceci is going to be a Senator for a long time and the video tribute I’m imagining for when he inevitably returns with the Colorado Avalanche or Arizona Coyotes or Winnipeg Jets or some such poorly run franchise is 2 minutes long but features zero highlights.

James: We’ll you don’t come second in your division, come within a goal of the Cup Final and then keep the team that gave you the club’s most successful season in a decade together as best you can without making a few enemies.

I certainly don’t LIKE how the Sens are forced to start the season already coming off a season of NUFF adversity but here we are. I have to admit it’s a little funny to me how the goalposts of how fucked we are keep moving despite some positive news items. I’m yet to come across anyone in the wild rejoicing in the fact that Brassard’s status went from missing weeks to a 50/50 chance he can play in the season opener or failing that back within the first couple of games. More importantly Karlsson’s status went from missing the entire month of the season to saying that he “Probably” wont be able to play opening night. Um, I’ll take that kind of update. Karlsson missed 5 games last season and the team made the playoffs hopefully he again misses under 10 here. But if he misses the first, say, 5 games I’ll take that over the first month plus. I can’t predict the future but it sounds like he’s closer than initially reported, don’t @ me no matter what happens. Thxu.

The Chabot thing is, of course, disappointing to us all, yes, but because he’s not starting the year in Ottawa in no way tells me we won’t see him this year. We all know the coach likes to play it safe defensively and Chabot plays as high risk a position as they come. Judging by comments Boucher has made publicly, it sounds like he really likes Chabot but simply doesn’t want to welcome him to the NHL under this kind of pressure (i.e. without Karlsson to insulate the entire D corps). My thoughts have already been shared on the delicate dance twixt the sun of “DON’T RUSH HIM YOU’RE RUINING HIM” and the moon of “WHY DOES BOUCHER LIKE BOROWIECKI MORE THAN CHABOT!” [Ed. Note: Why does he tho?] changing depending on what management does with him. One thing I do know is that a little time in AHL will not hurt Chabot. Will playing more established less talented players while weathering a Karlssonless lineup hurt the team? I hope not.

More concerning to me on defense is that on top of being missing Karlsson the Sens are missing Methot…poi-ma-nent-ly. Lot of pressure on Phaneuf, Oduya and Claesson to fill that void. “So, who will provide the offense from the back end then, dumbass?” Well I’m glad you asked. Since Ceci was traded for Matt Duchene earlier today, the only item of intrigue I can find is that since Chris Wideman is in a contract year and as an undersized guy with prospects like Harpur, Jaros, Englund and of course MACOY ERKAMPS knocking at the door, there’s a ton of pressure on him to keep his job/get a new job this season. Hoping he does numbers to get numbers. LOL, remember when Chris Wideman was the new hottness, shit changes quick. MOVING FORWARD…

It’s pretty exciting to see a bit of young blood up front to start the year. Doesn’t sound like Brassard will miss much time so Logan Brown will have to make an impression early and often. Now go out there kid and HAVE FUN making an impression both early and often! (Seriously, start your career as an impact 2nd line centre or I’ll frame you for murder.) Alex Formenton looked great in the preseason…which is nice! Another thing: I am well aware it is impossible to be excited about Nate Thompson, the fact is Boucher trusted the fourth line so little last year that he barely played them. Have to think that with Kelly and Neil out, a Formenton – Thompson – Burrows 4th line will at least get ice time.

Sure, other than Duchene for Ceci straight up, there were hardly any moves this off season but I don’t know why that hurts a team that just stormed through a few rounds of the playoffs. Considering these guys are used to Boucher’s system, an improved 4th line and Anderson not having to miss half the damn season, I don’t know why these guys are a lock to miss the playoffs. Still, there are a lot of things up in the air. Is Playoff Bobbito Ryan the Real Bobbito Ryan? Will Karl and Brass miss a few games or a month? Etc. The first month is really sketchy and important for us (a GREAT combo!) and I praise Jah every day that the early schedule is filled with Tomato cans. Unpopular opinion but after what I saw this team do last year in a really challenging season chalk this one up to “I aint never scared you aint never there.” It will be stressful AF but yes the Sens can make the playoffs.

Varada: Here’s the interesting thing about last year’s Ottawa Senators: they should have been absolutely stuck in the mud. Their possession numbers weren’t very good, nor was their PDO, so they weren’t purely lucky. They didn’t score many goals. (23rd in GPG.) They had one of the worst defensive pairings in the league playing big shutdown minutes in Phaneuf and Ceci. Key forward Bobby Ryan had a putrid year. Clarke MacArthur was out almost all season. They didn’t have depth until some late season trades. They were not, on paper, good.

So how did they do it? Yes, Karlsson is a god who accounted for a huge segment of the team’s offense. But, more to the point for me is that Craig Anderson was very good in a league where a good goaltender is everything. He was 7th in the league in save percentage among goaltenders with more than 20 games, and Ottawa won quite a few one-goal games. That is, as they say in hockey, the ball game. They landed four points above the playoff cutoff.

Now, in the off-season they lost Methot and learned that MacArthur would be out indefinitely again. So, again, they are starting from a position of weakness. But the question remains: can Craig Anderson play at or near the level he did last year? Sure, we can talk about players like Stone and Hoffman taking another step, or the theoretical contributions of rookies, or a bounce-back year from Ryan, or having Burrows for a full season. All of these, to me, would be incremental contributions to the team’s competitiveness. But Anderson is the key. If he can play, this is a playoff team. If he regresses, even to league average, then Ottawa might find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble. I think those picking Ottawa to miss the playoffs seem amplified and provocative because of Ottawa’s run last year, but really all they’re saying is that Ottawa looks about the same as they did last year. That seems fair to me.

Another key: how does the rest of the division look? This is where I think Ottawa’s critics may have overstated the case for Ottawa’s dire state.

  • Montreal: yup, they’re good. Best goaltender in hockey and lots of depth throughout. But let’s not act like they aren’t a Carey Price ankle injury away from AL MONTOYA being their starter. Also, you can’t act like adding Drouin and Hemsky is world changing if you don’t ding Tampa and Dallas for losing them, which nobody is doing.
  • Boston: also good, especially that first line. But Chara is 40, Torey Krug is on injured reserve, and the rest of that defensive corps is a mix of unspectacular reliability and young promise.
  • Toronto: this is the same team as last year plus 38-year old Patrick Marleau and 36-year old Ron Hainsey. Last year they took the last wild card spot. They’ll probably be improved given the development of young players, but acting like they’re Cup favorites all of a sudden is bananas.
  • Tampa Bay: good team, but I don’t see how they’re improved. They lost Drouin, added 38-year old Chris Kunitz and the absolutely brutal Dan Girardi. Their starting goaltender is 23 and their backup is PETER BUDAJ. How people are penciling these guys in as Cup contenders is beyond me.
  • Florida: hahahahahahahahahahahaha
  • Detroit: see “Florida.” They’re the same team as last year except they just signed DAVID BOOTH. Did you know this team still pays Stephen Weiss?
  • Buffalo: they fired everybody who used to run the team at Jack Eichel’s request then gave Jack Eichel $80 million not to demand a trade. I hope Jack Eichel scores 700 goals this season.

Man, don’t tell me that that is the super-intimidating group that every hockey analyst is looking at and saying Ottawa can’t hang with. I’m not saying Ottawa is the best team in the league, or even in their division, but Craig Anderson, a little PDO fairy dust, and one or two of that group of basket cases playing the way they did last year is all it’s going to take for Ottawa to make the playoffs again.

Andrew: Varada speaks the truth. Last summer I wrote about the Atlantic division being crap and how that was a good thing for the Sens and not that much has changed. Yeah, Montreal made a splash, but turns out Shea Weber still isn’t P.K. Subban and sure they added Drouin but lost Radulov etc etc. Luke and I have talked a lot about how everything went perfect for the Leafs last season and a) they were the 8th seed and lost in the first round b) that….never happens? They are almost surely not going to have everything go perfectly this season, plus they have the weight of expectations now, and Toronto media is just bursting to explode. The Bruins are crap and old and thin, Detroit is abysmal and has cap issues, Florida? Whatever. Tampa will be good if healthy, Buffalo’s collection of shitty dudes should make them not so bad, but really, the Metro is a much harder division, so let’s not buy into any crap about the relative strength of the Atlantic.

Here’s the most likely scenario for the Sens, at least as I see it: they’re actually a better team this season, but don’t go as far in the playoffs. Why? Because they did really really well last season and success is hard to replicate. I pretty much always bet against a team making the conference finals in back to back years because…it’s really hard and there are 30 other teams. In high school I had friends who had an annual Stanley Cup bet. She would bet that the Leafs would win the Stanley Cup (they were at least a good team when I was in high school….I’m old) and he would bet….that they wouldn’t? And while this represented a rare glimpse of intelligence on his part (dude once ate a vat of mustard for $2 and then was sick for 3 days), it’s a pretty good idea to always bet against any one team when your options include all the other teams. So, while I’ll be pumped to be proven wrong, it’s just unlikely the Sens are a goal away from a Final against Pekka Rinne quality goaltending.

But I do think they’ll be better this season. We sort of forget that the first couple of months of The System were rough. But now the Sens know The System, so I think they’re better position to weather storms if Brass is maybe not 100% to start the season and EK might miss a few games. As with any season, the Sens go as far as Mike Condon err Erik Karlsson takes them. And that’s actually cool? Erik Karlsson was the best player in the league through 3 rounds in a playoffs that featured McDavid and Crosby and he was doing it through a pretty severe injury. That’s not to glorify injury, but holy hell if he was healthy they would have won. I think about this a lot and it makes me sad. Anyway, I have faith in both his recovery abilities and his commitment to rehabbing injuries, so he’s gonna perform at shoe-in-Norris level only to be denied by some by some campaign for Ron Hainsey shit by hacks like Pierre LeBrun. It’s cool, EK moved on when Keith won his second Norris.

This also feels like a pretty good time for Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone to have career years and hit 30 goals. It’s totally doable. Maybe Johnny Oduya won’t be as bad as Mark Borowiecki (which is the minimum a defender must do). At some point, Chabot is going to get called up and then never visit an AHL rink again, so it’s cool. Logan Brown feels like someone I’m very interested in watching for 9 games but will be replaced with Colin White whenever he’s physically ready. In conclusion, I’m not really worried about a forward group that no longer includes Chris Neil.

Regardless of how this season pans out, we’re switching to the O logo at the end season, so we all win in the end.

Luke: It seems strange on the face of it, but all last year’s success did was further convince us that winning is a fragile and many-splendoured thing like a butterfly made of tissue paper that alights on a Faberge egg. People act like the Penguins’ journey to last year’s Cup repeat was a foregone conclusion, but lest we forget, if Viktor Stalberg actually breaks up the pass he gets his stick on and goes the other way, he’s a hero and I’m wearing a commemorative Ottawa Senators 2017 Stanley Cup Champions bomber jacket right now. Enjoy Switzerland, Viktor.

I guess this is what the manifestation of parity in hockey is. The spread of team possession stats has tightened up league-wide, and now success and failure is largely dictated by goaltending and shooting percentage and other such “random” quantities. As such, Ottawa’s got Top 5 or Top 18 goaltending, depending on who you ask, and some truly talented shooters in Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and Kyle Turris, and a single transcendent generational talent in Erik Karlsson, and really that’s going to be good enough to get close most years. Better depth, a full season of Craig Anderson, and Erik Karlsson playing at or near 100% for the majority of the season should push them over the top of last year’s high water mark. It seems eminently reasonable. On the other end of the spectrum, the team might forget how The System works, Craig Anderson might implode, and injuries may hang over the team like a miasma and we’ll have to deal with a lot of smug pundits telling us “I told you so”. This is also a scenario that can’t be rejected out of hand. Hockey is great. I love it. I wish it was MORE random, actually.

The one wild card that no one is talking about this year is special teams. The Senators had a decent penalty kill and a terrible powerplay (for the 17th year in a row) last season and noticeable improvement in either of those areas could go a long way in insulating the team from regression. By this point, an above-average Senators powerplay is about as timely as a long-term solution to the Eurozone debt crisis, but hope springs eternal that this is the year someone comes up with a cogent zone entry plan beyond “get the rock to Karlsson and get out of the way.”

I will close by saying how nice it is to have some prospects in the lineup that are actually worth getting excited about. Logan Brown is going to start his first NHL game tonight, and Alex Formenton beat out several more established players to get his roster spot. On top of this, the team isn’t really counting on them to be difference makers right out of the gate, and instead is hoping that they’ll augment an already solid roster. A Logan Brown or a Colin White or a Thomas Chabot putting up a decent 40 point rookie season could be a stealth difference maker this year, rather than a necessary one.

I’ve talked myself into it: the Sens are a playoff team unless something happens to Erik Karlsson or Craig Anderson. There are too many ways for them to improve.

Time to get a big ol’ dose of Vitamin W. (That means win the game.)

The WTYKY Podcast Returns: MacArthur, Training Camp, and Salt

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James and Varada return at long last to discuss what it’s like to be a hockey fan in California; the life and times of the soon-to-be best landscaping boss in Canada, Clarke MacArthur; the wide array of quality salts on offer from Draglam Salts; how when you look at our expectations of Curtis Lazar, Colin White is probably fucked; and weird Vegas odds.

Music: the Oxes “Half Half Half,” Pumice “Eye Bath”, Quest for Fire “I’ve Been Trying to Leave,” Oval “Ah!”

The Romantic Allure of Fatalism

By all accounts, the Ottawa Senators have had a pretty nondescript off-season. After making it within a double-overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final, General Manager Pierre Dorion has occupied himself with the relatively routine tasks of bringing back restricted free agents and replacing depth players. He re-signed his backup goaltender, Mike Condon, to a three-year, $2.4 million AV deal. Nate Thompson, an unheralded depth centerman with a history playing for coach Guy Boucher, received two years and $1.65 million AV. Tom Pyatt, another Boucher favorite, is back for two years and $1.1 million AV. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the homegrown talent and playoff hero, received a big raise, going from $900,000 AV to $3.1 million. [Edit: this originally read $600,000, which was the contract beforehand. Thanks for the correction, readers.] Dorion stayed away from the unrestricted free agent market, as small budget teams often do, knowing that they’d have to overpay. His big splash came last season in the run-up to the trade deadline, when Dorion traded prospect Jonathan Dahlen for a veteran in Alex Burrows, then promptly extended Burrows for two years and $2.5 million AV in a move that was roundly roasted as not just short-sighted, but emblematic of all of the ways the Ottawa Senators cannot get past their short-sightedness.

If you’re not an Ottawa Senators fan, these moves barely warrant clicking on a link: a team that was competitive in the context of one season and having received favorable match-ups did what it could to ensure that next year it will head into the season with the same lineup. Some marginal players were allowed to walk. Other marginal players came in. The most contentious of these moves – the Burrows deal – is a textbook example of what teams usually do heading into the playoffs, which is to mortgage some of the future to shore-up their chances in the present. Some players were given a little bit too much money, but not nearly the sort of overpayment we see with premier free agents. The Ottawa Senators’ recent management philosophy has been, in other words, the definition of a non-story.

And yet, to see the reaction among some of the team’s more engaged fans is to see in these routine moves confirmation of long-held beliefs that the team’s decision-making is fatally flawed. To be sure, each move is worthy of examination, and one can and should wonder how players who don’t seem to be in demand anywhere else, like Nate Thompson, can command a second year and $1.65 million instead of $1 million, or $1.25 million or even $1.6 million. These numbers tell none of their story, leaving the minutia of negotiation obscured, and so lead fans to fill in the blanks themselves. The only reason this player should command so much must be that the General Manager doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing.

Maybe he doesn’t! I don’t claim to have any more access to these discussions than anyone else. It’s entirely possible that Dorion and Boucher identified somebody they badly wanted and that player, not really caring if he ended up in Ottawa one way or another, turned Ottawa’s preference into leverage and an extra year on his deal. Far from this being portrayed as the most routine of occurrences in a league where the average salary in 2016 was $2.9 million, it was, instead, another nail in the coffin.

What I’m interested in here is how the routine becomes narrative, and how narrative bends negative. Because, on the surface of it, the despair seems disproportionate to the moves in question.

I want to distinguish here between ‘negative’ and ‘critical.’ Critical means assessing a situation to describe its causes and significance. There’s undeniable value (and fun) in trying to understand the motivations of managers and players in a system that remains largely closed to fans. Being negative, on the other hand, is to emphasize those less-than-ideal occurrences, be it through volume or frequency, and to amplify the significance of mistakes. And so it is that Nate Thomspon, depth forward who probably should have signed for one year and $1 million but who signed for two and $1.65 million, becomes emblematic of the Ottawa Senator’s inability to assess talent.

I think that what I’ve come to realize is that there’s a certain romanticism in being doomed. Baseball does this better than anyone – think about the Mets or the Cubs, with their decades-long struggles, or the Curse of the Bambino, which offered with each passing season the tantalizing possibility of an end. There’s a currency to being “most cursed.” Think of being number one on this list and then Lebron bringing home a Championship. Surely that’s more meaningful than being, say, Golden State.

To think of oneself as uniquely cursed is to make a win not just the outcome of smart asset management, but kismet, serendipity, divine intervention. It’s to single oneself out as somehow, mysteriously chosen – if I’m chosen to suffer uniquely, so too will I be chosen to win uniquely, to win in a bigger, stronger, more authentic way. Being cursed breeds an us-against-the-world mentality; to like a team that is cursed is to exempt oneself from the need to prove one’s bona fides. Being a fan of a systematically inept team makes one a truer fan than fans whose favorite player might be three-time-Stanley-Cup-and-every-other-award-winner Sidney Crosby and his perennial competitor Penguins. What would be more meaningful: if the Penguins three-peat next season – a truly momentous achievement in the modern era – or the Sabres bringing a Championship to Buffalo through sheer chance. It’s debatable.

There is a certain charm to being the underdog. Ottawa, with its pretty bad uniforms and historically awful early years and inability to get past the big-city rival in the playoffs, somehow feels doomed to irrelevance even when you consider that Ottawa is the only Canadian franchise to have made the Conference Finals three times in the last 20 years. (A somewhat arbitrary measuring stick for success, but still impressive when you consider how much money the Torontos and Montreals of the world throw around.) An integral part of Ottawa’s identity is that it is a second choice to better-funded original six franchises, just as the sleepy town itself is located roughly between each of those cities.

At times I’ve struggled to understand why the thinking of some fans will skew so immediately to the negative. Pageau is one of the most beloved roster players on the team, and his re-signing for three years could not prevent some from tweeting, as their first reaction, that his salary was higher than expected. I think what I’m coming around to is that to find the negative first is to make claim on a thing as one’s own: if I declare this thing bad, I declare my fandom of this thing real and true. I must be a real fan; only a real fan would love a team who can’t do a single thing right. So I’m going to make sure that every single thing they do is portrayed as wrong.

I can often be found on Twitter myself, lamenting the seeming inability of a small facet of the fan base to get past the fact that Ottawa, despite adhering to a strict internal budget, has made the occasional mistake of overpaying a player. But it occurs to me that in beating that horse again and again, I’m missing something essential about being a sports fan. Even if Ottawa made fewer mistakes, there would be those who would find in what mistakes remained as much evidence as they needed of the team being idiosyncratically dysfunctional. The idea of the “long-suffering” fan base is in many ways a fiction, but a foundational one when we consider how arbitrary this hobby happens to be. “We suck” is as close as many sports fans get to letting their freak flag fly.

In the future, I’ll try to apply that lens more often when I encounter negativity. Maybe what’s being said is not, “You’re wrong to enjoy this thing,” but “This thing is ours.” I can dig it.

Guest Post: Thoughts on Methot

Today’s post is by Stefan Wolejszo. Stefan is a criminologist and social scientist who often writes about the intersection of hockey, analytics, and “intangibles” such as grit and leadership on his blog Stories Numbers Tell. If you read his blog enough, you’ll come to realize that these intangibles are, in fact, much more tangible than one thinks. Just because we don’t measure something doesn’t mean we can’t. In general, I find Stefan to be an extremely pleasant and thoughtful person, and if you need more people like that in your life, you can follow Stefan on Twitter here


Although fans were braced for this exact scenario, the loss of Marc Methot in the Las Vegas expansion draft still stung. Some fans focused on positives such as the possibility of reinvesting Methot’s salary elsewhere or greater opportunities for Freddie Claesson. Others (as Wayne Scanlan hints at here) sharpened their respective pitchforks and made angry comments on talk radio or social media that laid the blame for Methot’s loss on management’s overvaluation of Cody Ceci, or Dion Phaneuf’s refusal to modify his No Trade clause.

Thinking through the sequence of events leading up to the loss of Methot, it seemed clear, at least to me, that overvaluing Ceci and being required to protect Phaneuf were really just symptoms of larger issues in player assessment and Ottawa’s ability to work within limited means, issues that have plagued the team for years. The story of these issues, and how they led to the loss of Methot, was like a tragedy that unfolded in five main acts.

Act I: The Mini-Rebuild

The Ottawa Senators traded Nick Foligno for Marc Methot on July 1st 2012 after deciding to let Filip Kuba go via free agency. The idea was that Erik Karlsson needed a stable stay-at-home type of defenceman as a partner in order to free him up to work his magic. An equally important factor was that the Senators were shedding money from their budget at the time. Marc Methot had three years left in a deal that paid him $2.75 M, $3.25 M, and $3.75 M in real dollars, whereas Kuba was looking for, and eventually received, a contract that paid an average of $4 M per season. The only consistency Foligno had shown to that point was in never passing on an opportunity to run an opposing goaltender, and Kuba was what is commonly referred to as “crappy at hockey,” so it all seemed pretty reasonable at the time.

The mini-rebuild that led to good decisions such as trading for Methot was also at the heart of a youth movement wherein plodding vets were replaced by inexpensive ELC players like Jared Cowen. Inexpensive assets are never inexpensive for long in the NHL, and after holding out and missing a large part of the team’s 2013 training camp, Cowen signed a four year deal with an incremental pay structure ($1.5 M, $2.5 M, $2.7 M, and $4.5 M) that was apparently built on two assumptions: 1) that Cowen would gradually develop into a top four defenceman, and 2) that the budgetary restraints the Senators were working under would improve by the time the bigger dollars kicked in. Those assumptions were equally wrong.

Act II: The Second Pairing Collapses

Hockey careers eventually wind down, and the organization correctly decided to part ways with Sergei Gonchar in the summer of 2013. Gonchar was an aging veteran who was what is commonly referred to as “very good at hockey,” and his calm play under pressure helped to stabilize the defence. While he was a Senator, Gonchar helped to bring along Patrick Wiercioch as well as Cowen, and his wonderful all-around play made up for any rookie mistakes his partners were making.

When the well-past-his-prime Gonchar left to mentor whatever semblance of a defence Dallas claimed to have, it left the Senators with limited options for addressing the new hole in their top 4 D. Chris Phillips was also in the twilight of his career and was best utilized in limited minutes. A strict internal budget meant the Senators were no longer big players in the UFA market, and they used the 2013 summer UFA period to acquire depth signings such as Mike Lundin and a final contract version of Joe Corvo. Their own choices were to trade for solid D on reasonable contracts (good luck with that) or promote D from within. In the end they rolled the dice on Wiercioch/Cowen as the second pairing with paper-thin depth behind it and the results could best be characterized as “hoo boy”, to use the lingo of industry insiders.

Just as the addition of Methot marked the start of an era when the Senators had one of the best first D pairings in the league, the loss of Gonchar marked the beginning of an ongoing “the Sens have to fix their second D pairing” discussion. Wiercioch became the “analytics versus eye test” poster child, as his often stellar underlying numbers never quite jibed with how awkward he looked while generating those numbers. Still, at least he was clearly an NHL player. Cowen was a big lumbering D who was a throwback to the days when GMs thought Jim Kyte was a good idea, and despite serious red flags in his game, the team seemed content to patiently wait for him to slowly morph into Zdeno Chara. In reality, a series of injuries that hampered his already subpar movement effectively ended any chance he had of actually becoming a top 4 defender.

Things really came to a boil in December 2013. By this time it was already apparent that Ottawa’s second pairing was not working out, and then-GM Bryan Murray began working the phones in an attempt to add another D. Media began widely reporting that, despite the Senators being one of the lowest spending teams already, due to the team’s internal budget any deal would need to be “dollar-in/dollar-out.” When Marc Methot went down with the flu, the Senators were forced to recall Cody Ceci who promptly scored a huge goal in his first game. Team management then proudly declared that Ceci had “stabilized the D”, and gave him a regular spot in the top 4 playing alongside Chris Phillips.

Act III: Stabilizing the D or “Stabilizing” the D?

Ceci’s first season results were “meh”, as the old coach’s saying goes, but at least there was reason at the time to believe he could grow into a larger role as his development continued. It is tempting to view keeping Ceci, who was on a $925k entry level contract, with the big team was a purely financial decision. Although finances clearly forced the team’s hand, I think there were more contributing factors at play, and I am convinced the team genuinely believed in Ceci’s potential. Considering the cost in assets of trading for a young D with high end potential, and the financial cost of picking an established D as a free agent, it is hard to blame the team for giving Ceci every possible opportunity to succeed. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving players in your system every chance to succeed.

Bringing Ceci into the fold left the team in an uncomfortable position. Karlsson and Methot were cemented as the top pairing and were paid accordingly. The organization felt it best to pair Ceci with Phillips with the latter acting as a mentor both on and off the ice. That was all fine, but then what should have been done with Wiercioch, who was making $2 M per season, and Cowen whose back loaded contract was looking worse by the day? GM Bryan Murray, who never really warmed to Wiercioch, seemed to continually push for Cowen to get more ice time to allow him to build up his confidence and work on his game. While there is nothing wrong with giving players in your system every chance to succeed it is essential to know when to pull the plug on a given experiment.

Quietly, behind the scenes, the team began to explore trade options for Cowen. This occurred in the team’s usual fashion, which was to leak to the media something to the effect of “Edmonton offered Jordan Eberle for him but the Senators don’t want to give up on Cowen just yet.” When blowing smoke around failed to produce a fire, and with Cowen’s contract heading into the budget crashing $3.7 M and $4.5 M years, the team was over the proverbial barrel. In addition, with Phillips at the end of his career, it seemed that the team had no plan in place or resources in terms of finances and movable assets, to fix the second pairing. What was worse was that the strategy of using back diving contracts to save money now at the expense of later was starting to catch up with the team.

Act IV: Killing two birds with one stone, or just killing birds?

It is in this context of a collapsed second D pairing and having budget killing contracts with which a team of limited means could never compete that the Senators traded for Dion Phaneuf. On Feb 9, 2016 the Senators moved out Cowen, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening, along with a second tier prospect and a 2nd round pick, to Toronto in exchange for Phaneuf and four minor league players. In this deal the Senators gained a top four defenceman earmarked to play with and mentor Ceci in exchange for players on shorter term “bad” contracts that would expire within a couple of years. Phaneuf’s long term and expensive contract, which had no-trade provisions on the off chance that the dollar figures alone weren’t enough to keep less than stellar NHL GMs away, is what fans often characterize as “hahahahahaha.”

Buyouts are verboten under the current regime, so that was never an option for the team when it came to getting out from under really bad contracts. However, a major criticism of the deal was that the Senators could have exercised a bit of patience and got out from underneath those other contracts in a shorter amount of time. But the Senators felt that adding Phaneuf was a long term solution to their lingering problem with the second pairing and were fully willing to accept Phaneuf’s contract as-is. The team was also committed to the idea that Ceci was still developing into a top player and needed a mentor to help him reach his potential. Much like the back loaded contract signings that marked the low budget era, the last few years of the Phaneuf contract were a problem that would be left aside for another day.

Act V: The Expansion

The 2017 expansion draft could not have come at a worse time for the Ottawa Senators. If it had occurred a few years ago, the Senators would likely have lost a marginal player or could have explored burning assets to try to entice Las Vegas into taking Cowen off of their hands. As it turned out, expansion happened when the team had just come off a good season capped with a final four playoff run. Chris Wideman, who stepped in and gave the team a legitimate 3rd pairing, was a huge and often underappreciated part of the team’s regular season success. Freddy Claesson had spot duty during the regular season and was brilliant in the playoffs. For the first time in years the Senators had depth at D and so it always seemed to be a given that Las Vegas would take one of those good defenceman in the expansion draft.

Karlsson was always going to be protected and the no-trade clauses in Phaneuf’s contract meant he had to be protected unless he agreed to being exposed. This left one spot open that would go to either Ceci or Methot. The team tried asking Phaneuf to waive in order to free up an extra spot on the protected list for Methot but Phaneuf rejected that idea. Somewhat ironically, some fans who cheered Phaneuf for saying that he loves playing in Ottawa jeered him for exercising his contractual right to avoid any possibility of leaving. The problem for GM Pierre Dorion was that offering Las Vegas something to the effect of a first round pick and a prospect for bypassing Methot would mean they would likely also lose Claesson. Also, Methot is set to earn $4.9 M the next couple of seasons and the salary savings could be redistributed elsewhere. To no one’s surprise Las Vegas claimed Methot in a selection Senators fans referred to as “aww, fuck.”

Conclusion: (Less than 50) Shades of Grey

Many fans, including me, were emotional over the loss of Marc Methot. This makes sense given that he is a very popular player who had successfully formed a bond with the fan base. While fans have every right to their opinions regarding why Methot is no longer an Ottawa Senator, and some will inevitably play the blame game and focus on one isolated factor or another for why he is gone, I think it is also worthwhile to step back a bit and take a look at the bigger picture of how decisions have been made by the organization. For years now, a limited budget has impacted decision-making just as decisions, both good and bad, have had an amplified impact upon what the team can do within their budget. A fair bit of bad luck, such as Gonchar hitting retirement age at the worst possible moment and the timing of the expansion draft, was also at play. All of these factors played a part in the story that ended with the team losing one of its top pairing D.