I think it goes without saying that this year’s version of the Ottawa Senators is an infuriatingly inconsistent mess. As of today, their playoff probability sits a smidge over 25%. With absolutely everyone in their conference outside of Florida and Buffalo capable of playing at least .500 hockey, Ottawa needs to go 31-21-6 to have even odds of making the post-season. Bryan Murray is faced with some tough decisions. With that in mind, and knowing that he reads this blog religiously, I’ve come up with a plan to fix the Ottawa Senators.
1: Accept your situation
The Ottawa Senators can’t be fixed. Thanks for reading!
Seriously though, this season is just about in the bucket. While it’s possible that they can play at a better than .500 rate for large stretches of the season, they’ll need to play that way consistently, and have Montreal, Detroit, and/or Tampa falter significantly. It’s possible, given that Detroit has looked inconsistent (and almost missed the playoffs last year), Tampa is missing Stamkos and is due for some regression as they’re eighth in the league in PDO (luck), and Montreal is ninth in that regard and barely a bubble team. Ottawa’s own PDO is average (almost exactly 1000, or 15th in the league), so it’s possible that they could take a run. But we should recognize and acknowledge how tough of a spot we’re in at the moment, and set a date at which it’s time to make the painful but necessary moves for the future.
Having said that…
2: Don’t read too much into a lost season
There will be plenty of people who don’t watch a whole lot of Senators hockey but who are expected to produce thousands and thousands of words about the league. They will survey the standings, look at the lineup, and make a pronouncement about the state and direction of the franchise that is largely disconnected from reality. None will use trend analysis, or even drill down to individual players. For example, I don’t know how many non-Sens writers I currently see attributing the team’s poor start to losing Alfredsson (currently hurt) and Gonchar (currently terrible). These same people picked Ottawa to finish dead last the year after they finished fifth last, and who picked Ottawa to be a dark horse contender this year. Don’t trust polemics. This team needs minor adjustments at best. There’s a big difference between accepting a lost season and blowing it up.
3: Hand leadership over to the young core
Taking the As from Phillips and Neil doesn’t have to be a disgrace. It can be a symbolic gesture about the future and direction of this team. Ottawa is filled with players on very affordable deals. For a poor team like Ottawa, it needs to have these guys outperforming their contracts. Having your team living and dying for the crest, which is what happened for most of last year, is the only way to get value and performance out of this motley crew. Karlsson is an obvious candidate, given he’s on the ice for half the damn game anyway. Handing the other A over to a young player you hope will start to play better, like Colin Greening, is a cheap and easy thing to do, and not much of a stretch given his character role. The team can be anything the young players want it to be, but they need to lead to make it so.
In any case, it can’t be much worse than having take-way-more-penalties-than-I-draw / lord-of-the-offside Chris Neil as your role model. What, is Neil going to stop playing the way he plays if you take away his A? If he did, what would he have left to offer?
4: There’s not as much dead weight as you think
Outside of Milan Michalek, who isn’t playing anywhere close to the value of his $6MM base salary, or Chris Neil, who is just annoying, most of the players are on affordable deals, or their shortcomings are more than made up for in other areas. (Spezza is a -8, but almost a point-per-game player, yet again.) While the temptation might be there to make a deal, I’d hesitate to part with anyone like Cowen, Phillips, Greening, or Concacher, who have shown flashes of what they can do, and the financial risk of keeping them is low. This team’s survival is based entirely on achieving value. To that end, I’d much rather have Chris Phillips on an even cheaper deal than he’s on now than the 2nd round pick in a weak draft that we could get for him at the deadline.
5: Figure out your own barn
Ottawa’s home record is especially bad at 4-6-2, and could be due for an uptick. Ottawa plays 11 of its 16 December games at home. If Ottawa is not at least a game or two over .500 by Christmas, it should seriously consider building for next year. If there’s going to be a turnaround, it has to take place in the intimidating and spectacular farmer’s fields of Kanata.
When you think about it, so much of the Senators’ problems are tied up in their play at Canadian Tire Centre. They play terribly, ticket sales slow, management can’t put money into the roster…I know it doesn’t happen quite so quickly, but winning a couple of those friggin’ afternoon games would go a long way towards selling hope to the fans. Also: when given the opportunity to play the Edmonton Oilers at home, those are two points you have to take.
6a: Build a compelling case for 2015’s free agents
If Ottawa bombs out this year, even without its first round pick, it’s not the end of the world. They’ll bring back a young core of Karlsson, Turris, Zibanejad, Lehner, and Cowen, and their star players are around for another year. The year after that, however, has apocalyptic potential—full rebuild potential. We could lose Spezza, Ryan, MacArthur, Methot, and Anderson. Say what you will about their performance this year, but there aren’t many teams who can lose three top six forwards, a top four defenseman, and a veteran starting goaltender and not take a big step back. We don’t have the depth on the farm to replace those guys, and they aren’t in the free agent pool.
To get these guys re-signed means communicating early and often that whatever struggles the team is encountering now are temporary, and when next year rolls around the team will be ready to make changes, spend money on free agents, and be aggressive when it comes to winning. If I have one takeaway from watching a lot of terrible Senators hockey this year, it’s that this team would be even less fun to watch without Bobby Ryan.
6b: Or, actually, a little bit of extended rebuilding wouldn’t be all that bad either
This is what I would imagine to be an unpopular alternative to re-signing all of our best players and magically getting good again. We could accept our young core as the future, let all or most of our stars walk, pick up another potential superstar in the draft, and try to re-open the window of contention in 2016. Karlsson is signed through 2019 (sucker), Zibanejad is starting to come into his own at only 20 years old and will be firmly in his prime by then, and Lehner is the real deal. Add to that a Connor McDavid (a guy can dream, can’t he?) and some key free agent signings, and perhaps Ottawa is in a better spot than it would be in its current incarnation as a bubble team that hopes to go on a streak in the playoffs.
7: Decide what kind of team this is supposed to be
And I don’t mean “hard working” or “pesky.” Yes, you should try to score goals when you’re down late in the game. Yes, you should outwork your opponents. This is a strategy adhered to by every single team in the NHL (except maybe Florida). But is this the up tempo puck possession team we’ve all been conditioned to think it is? If so, why is our only other puck moving defensemen outside of Karlsson the unstoppable Wiercioch / Corvo ensemble? For the former there is no evidence of being a capable top four defender, and the latter is a seventh defenseman making less than a million per. On the other hand, if this is a defensively staunch team, as the numbers implied last year, then why were they so heavily outshot and having to depend on Craig Anderson’s career season?
Ottawa has a lot of well-rounded utility guys in the lineup, but they aren’t particularly good at any one aspect of the game. You don’t have to be one or the other, but it helps to know where on the spectrum of risk and playing style you fall.
8: Whatever you decide to do, let the fans in on it
Uncertainty breeds fatigue. It’s not the team’s fault that there are several media outlets and about 2000 blogs covering every move the Sens make in breathless fashion, but it certainly gets exhausting to read about the daily ins and outs of a mediocre hockey club. What gets people on board is a vision for the future. Are we going for it in 2014? Are we continuing our rebuild? Is the team broke or what, and if it is, what are the plans to remedy that? When Bryan Murray retires I imagine there’ll be plenty of speculation about the direction of the franchise, and this can be a healthy discussion.
More than anything, I think that people like to follow a good story. Years of being a bubble team doesn’t have any sense of forward momentum, of progress. Give us something to look forward to.