The Defensive Dearth and Ottawa’s Future

It probably doesn’t come as any surprise at this point in the season to hear that Ottawa’s biggest weakness is its defence, or lack thereof. 28th in the league in shots allowed per game—only last-place Buffalo and made-a-deal-with-the-devil Toronto are worse. 28th in the league in goals allowed per game—only Edmonton and the Islanders are worse. They have decent, or at least average possession metrics. (Possibly as a result of slowly working Karlsson to death.) But when they’re outshot, they’re outshot badly. And when they get outshot badly, they can’t keep the puck out of their net.

It becomes truly worrisome when one considers there’s really no relief in sight. Ottawa’s best defensive prospect, Cody Ceci, is already up with the club. He’s acclimatized well, though is still a couple of years away from the team knowing what it has on its hands. Even when he maxes it, he’s thought to be more of an offensive defenseman.

Look at this depth chart from Hockey’s Future (number rating is self-explanatory; letter rating is probability of them having success, which I take to mean applicability of their skillset to the NHL game. I don’t really know how it’s determined, though it seems conservative enough):

1. Cody Ceci Pro 7.0 C
2. Mark Borowiecki Pro 6.5 B
3. Fredrik Claesson Pro 6.5 C
4. Troy Rutkowski Pro 6.5 C
5. Mikael Wikstrand Europe 6.5 C
6. Michael Sdao Pro 6.5 D
7. Chris Wideman Pro 6.5 D
8. Ben Blood Pro 6.5 D
9. Tim Boyle NCAA 6.5 D
10. Ben Harpur CHL 6.0 D

 

Troy Rutkowski is our fourth best defensive prospect! Ugh.

Beyond Mark Borowiecki, who’s demonstrated that he can play replacement level minutes, and some promising output from Mikael Wikstrand, there’s nobody that projects as a top four defenceman, and certainly nobody who projects as a top four shutdown defenceman.

The UFA market doesn’t look much better (courtesy of Capgeek):

Player

Pos

Team

Age

Cap Hit

Expiry

Boyle, Dan »

D

SJS

37

$6,666,667

2014 (UFA)

Timonen, Kimmo »

D

PHI

38

$6,000,000

2014 (UFA)

Markov, Andrei »

D

MTL

35

$5,750,000

2014 (UFA)

Pitkanen, Joni »

D

CAR

30

$4,500,000

2014 (UFA)

Zidlicky, Marek »

D

NJD

37

$4,000,000

2014 (UFA)

Meszaros, Andrej »

D

BOS

28

$4,000,000

2014 (UFA)

Quincey, Kyle »

D

DET

28

$3,775,000

2014 (UFA)

Salo, Sami »

D

TBL

39

$3,750,000

2014 (UFA)

Orpik, Brooks »

D

PIT

33

$3,750,000

2014 (UFA)

Mitchell, Willie »

D

LAK

36

$3,500,000

2014 (UFA)

Schultz, Nick »

D

CLB

31

$3,500,000

2014 (UFA)

 

Yeah, I stopped at Nick Schultz. I considered stopping further down the list at Douglas Murray, but I think you get the point. Even if there was anyone desirable on that list, Ottawa would be easily outbid by Philadelphia, who are basically a bunch of nihilists bent on crashing the market system at this point.

Chris Phillips—he of the fresh new contract—is clearly in decline. Marc Methot is only 28, but hasn’t had a great season, and could be on the verge of his own decline. Wiercioch doesn’t seem to have earned the trust of his coach, spending every other game in the press box, even if he earned a contract at $2MM per from Bryan Murray. And to make matters worse, without a first round pick this year, Ottawa misses out on the chance to draft a defenceman in the top ten. (Assuming they continue to perform at their current output.)

Bryan Murray has put all of his chips on Jared Cowen developing into a top four defenceman. It may have been a reasonable enough bet; drafted top ten, big guy, you know the drill. And it’s the sort of gamble small market teams have to make to get players at good value—trust your projections, get them under contract, and pray. But if Cowen doesn’t round into form, and Ceci takes a step back, Murray is going to need to find a solution elsewhere.

After all: we only have five seasons left of Karlsson’s prime after this year. I suppose it could be worse. Imagine if Karlsson had turned out to be an Anton Babchuk-like offensive specialist instead of the tiny beast we know and love. Where would Ottawa be in the standings today?

So where does that leave Ottawa? It does have a few decent if not outstanding NHL-caliber forwards it can dangle as trade bait, including captain Jason Spezza. Its prospects on the front end are also respectable, with players like Mark Stone, Matt Puempel, and Mike Hoffman at what might be the peak of his trade value.

Who could Ottawa target? There are a number of small fish like Dimitri Kulikov, or pending free agent Tom Gilbert, but this is depth at best. Christian Ehrhoff’s name has been bandied about, though the 175 years left remaining on his contract may be an issue. We can fantasize about getting Shea Weber from the offensively starved Nashville Predators for Jason Spezza, but I don’t see two captains with no trade clauses waiving to swap mid-level teams and go play in a system that doesn’t suit either of their skillsets. You might see a transaction on the Foligno-for-Methot level, but the truth is that there just aren’t many options out there for a team without blue chippers, without their first round pick, without money, and without being an appealing contender in an appealing market.

…which is to say that, in the short term, it’s Cowen or bust. Let’s hope that in the next couple of drafts Murray concentrates on the blueline.

5 thoughts on “The Defensive Dearth and Ottawa’s Future

  1. I have been less that impressed with Paul MacLean this year. In addition to seeming to alienate some of the players at times (methot, ryan, spezza), he was unable to teach the young defensemen. I am speculating that last year the teaching was done during the game by Gonchar. What I am saying that there are many coaches that can do better with no-name defensive talent. The current staff can use an upgrade. I am not sure the team be able to resign Ryan or Spezza. They should retain Spezza and Ryan at all costs. Just remember that Spezza was 2nd over all behind Ovechkin and Ryan was second only to Crosby in their draft years. I am not sure when the team will be able to draft 2nd over all in the near future.

    • Spezza was drafted a spot after Kovalchuk, but I assume that’s just a typo. And I’m not really sure where you get the idea that MacLean’s alienated Spezza; he made him captain and has done everything in his power to insulate him and find him complementary wingers to get him out of the funk that kept him down most of this season. It seems like he’s finally hitting his stride.

      As for Methot and Ryan, you’re right; MacLean’s treatment of those two is quite strange.

  2. I think that list of defensive prospects kind of ignores the fact that our blue line is already populated with very young defencemen. Although you mentioned them, the fact is that Bryan Murray expected Cowen and Wiercioch both to be top-four defenders this season; that hasn’t happened, but it’s apparent that he’s still got faith in those two players, which is why there isn’t as much urgency in drafting or developing other young defenceman. With a D corps of Karlsson, Patrick Wiercioch, and Jared Cowen (all 23), along with Cody Ceci (20), it’s hard to imagine any room for another young defenceman–even if one came along. By all accounts Fredrik Claesson (21) might be close, but can this team accomodate five defencemen under 25 years old on their blue line next season? I don’t think so. Another budding prospect joining this group just wouldn’t work, because the blue line is already a victim of its own inexperience; that’s why the idea of signing Dmitri Kulikov or trading for Michael Del Zotto (both also 23) didn’t strike me as a good solution to our current problems. There are enough promising defencemen on this team; Ottawa needs someone who can fill that role today while those guys develop into better, more consistent players.

    That’s why Ehrhoff is the biggest name I’d condone; he’s already there. He’s a first-pairing defenceman who would allow the other guys to slide down the depth chart into more comfortable positions in terms of quality-of-competition and minutes played. As guys like Cowen and Wiercioch come into their primes, Ehrhoff would slide out of his–and his current contract pays a salary commensurate with expected declines in capacity. It’s an ideal situation, in my mind. But it would cost the Sens a shitload to pull off, so who knows if they have the appetite to pull the trigger on a trade.

    • Geez, I even forgot to mention Borowiecki, who’s 24 and has that one-way contract next year–which will be his rookie season. That’s five of seven guys under contract under 25 years old, with Methot and Phillips rounding out the group. Hard to imagine where another defensive prospect would fit in there.

    • Oh, I totally agree! There’s all kind of young depth. Gryba is also on that list. I just think you’re right that Ottawa would prefer someone to slide in there now to play top minutes. (I guess you could say this about any team in the league.) And I’m afraid that Ottawa doesn’t have a defensive future ahead of it. Outside of Cowen, I’m not sure if any of those guys project as top four. At some point Ottawa is going to need to trade for, or develop, some foundational d-men.

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