There isn’t one thing you can point to to explain why this year’s Ottawa Senators have underperformed. Bad goaltending. Lack of secondary scoring. A sudden inability to transition the puck out of their own zone. An allergy to home ice and afternoon games. Daniel Alfredsson was actually a pretty useful player. The Western Conference in general. The list goes on.
Despite all of these shortcomings, it’s not as if the team has fallen off a cliff. As of today their playoff chances sit at about 20%, and they’re five points out of a wild card spot with underwhelming division rivals like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings hanging on by the skin of their teeth. They’re not going on extended losing streaks, or being blown out. Fix just one or two small things and maybe you see this team on the other side of the bubble.
The question is which of the many broken things you concentrate on when every loss makes recovery exponentially more difficult. MacLean has shown a remarkable faith in Craig Anderson, given that his play has sometimes ended the game by the first intermission, but it’s too easy to say “goaltending” when the trade market is frozen up due to lack of cap space or cash. Odds are this team ends the season with their $3.5MM starting goaltender. In other words, simply having a different team is not a solution to this team stinking.
However, there is one deficiency that seems a constant this year: Ottawa’s penalty kill is 24th in the league at about 79%, and they are the most penalized team in the league, having been shorthanded 141 times. (To contrast, San Jose, the least penalized team, has been shorthanded just 90 times.) These two stats may be related; your penalty kill will lag when it’s constantly out there.
So the question is whether to work on the penalty kill—which, in the absence of a trade market or a sudden strategic epiphany, seems unlikely to work—or to have the team actively try to take less penalties.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ottawa’s ratio of PK time to PP time is not too bad. They’re 21st in the league in that regard, which means they’re still drawing penalties, and their powerplay, at 13th in the league, is humming along. But that only reinforces the point that only a few less penalties and this team is in a much more favorable position to win games.
I imagine the most effective way to do this (outside of simply procuring additional skilled players) is to target players whose ratio of penalties-taken-to-penalties-drawn is particularly egregious, and to look a little more closely at how team behaviour drives penalty taking.
I’ve already written about how Chris Neil’s P-to-PD is a career worst–and, also, almost league worst. He takes 2.8 penalties per 60 minutes of play to only 0.3 penalties drawn. That’s horrendous. He’s second in the league in minor penalties—not the stuff you associate with enforcers, but the really boneheaded stuff like impeding a player with your stick or body.
To contrast, Zack Smith is also in the top ten in the league in minor penalties taken, but his penalties-drawn is slightly higher—he might cause some goals against, but with a good powerplay, you might still score more goals with Zack Smith on the team than not. He’s not a part of the problem.
The next closest Ottawa player is Jason Spezza, way down at 66th in the league. Interestingly, Spezza’s penalties drawn per 60 is 0.0, obviously lower than his penalties taken. That’s a weird stat for someone who’s supposed to be your most skilled player. Chris Phillips also takes more penalties than he draws. So, what you have is this team’s core consistently taking more penalties than it draws.
Does this speak to a leadership problem in Ottawa? Purely for fun, let’s look at Daniel Alfredsson’s P-to-PD…oh look, he draws more penalties than he takes, 0.9 per 60 to 0.4. Nothing to see here.
Still–how do you fix this? Many minor penalties are taken because the player is out of position, is being outworked, or isn’t skilled enough to strip the puck without impeding play. How do you fix this without resorting to “get a different team”-style solutions?
Which brings me to the second thing I noticed, and what the coaching staff might actually be in a position to affect. Ottawa is one of the “hittingest” teams in the league. I know the way that hits are tracked is not exactly scientific, but individual stats will serve our purpose here as a rough measure.
Tyler Dellow over at MC79 has written extensively about whether there’s any correlation between hitting and scoring. In a nutshell: teams that outhit seem to score less than teams that are outhit, in part because you usually don’t have the puck if you’re trying to hit, and in part because of the type of players you’re putting out on the ice in order to be a team that outhits. Going out of your way to hit or be a team that hits doesn’t necessarily make you a harder team to play against.
Ottawa has five players in the top 27 in the league in hitting: Colin Greening (3rd) Chris Neil (4th) Zack Smith (21st) Jared Cowen (24th) and Marc Methot (27th). (Chris Phillips is next at 68th, and Bobby Ryan – swoon—is 78th. Is there anything he can’t do?) Of these players, Greening and Smith are the only ones who draw more penalties than they take, though it’s slight in both cases. Every other player on this list, outside of Bobby Ryan, who’s not really in the hitting conversation so low down on the list, take more penalties than they draw. (And in the case of Chris Neil it’s a huge, huge disparity.)
Given that the club’s hit leaders are also some of their most penalized players, there may be something to the argument that a hit thrown leads to a player out of position, or an unnecessary roughing penalty. Someone with more access and skill than I—say, someone inside the Senators organization with time and resources on their hands—may wish to look at how often a minor penalty is incurred in the seconds following a hit. If there’s a trend there, asking that these specific players—Neil, Cowen and Methot—no longer try to hit everything in sight may be one small step towards righting the ship.
(I’m not even getting into the fact that Cowen’s dangerous hit on Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons led to a two game suspension and left the team low on defensive depth–a much more straightforward example of how hitting has a higher cost than benefit.)
What we might also learn from the hitting and penalty-ratio statistics is which players are making smart hits. Perhaps we can take a moment here to appreciate Colin Greening, who hits like an animal and doesn’t seem to get excessively penalized for it. Or Bobby Ryan, who seems to hit a lot for a scorer but obviously not at the expense of his scoring. If there is a correlation between hitting and minor penalties, then we can learn which players are hitting for hitting’s sake. They might be hitting because it makes them look good, but it’s actually hurting the team.
And if that’s the case, then benching or scratching Chris Neil to send a message about responsible play might be a start. It’s not as if Ottawa is lacking a fighter, or will miss Neil’s offensive production. But something has to be done for this team to understand that throwing more of the same hits at skilled teams only lands you back in the penalty box.
Combine fewer penalties with Anderson’s game recovering even a little bit and the team learning to score in the shootout and there might be hope for this season yet.