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.