How I’d Fix the Ottawa Senators

I tweeted last night that if the Sens lost their game (which they did) they would possess roughly the same winning percentage as the 10-70-4 Ottawa Senators from the 1992-1993 season, who had the third worst record in NHL history. 

The team is in year two or three of what will be at least a five year rebuild, and they’ve been outshooting their competition most nights, so this isn’t as terrible a situation as it seems. But the fanbase is starting to get itchy, especially having been promised by owner Eugene Melnyk a five-year run of unprecedented success, starting this season. 

So what would I actually do differently? I tried to parse it out, with an emphasis on big picture priorities. (While I would also like to see Logan Brown in the lineup, I don’t think he turns around the Ottawa Senators by himself.) Say out loud to yourself, “The Ottawa Senators are the class of the NHL.” What would it take to make that at least not totally absurd?

Step One: Are You Actually Trying to Win a Cup?

The first step for any team has to be to determine whether or not their goal is to open a window of a few years during which they intend to compete for a Stanley Cup. This might seem obvious, but given the business model of the NHL, it’s not. We should stare that reality in the face. 

For some teams, the strategy is to seem competitive if you squint and look sideways (“get into the playoffs and anything can happen”), keep financial losses down, maybe even turn a small profit, while in the background the underlying value of the franchise accrues. Maybe they own some nearby real estate, investments only made possible because of the arena (which, hopefully, they also own), and that accrues value as well. In this world, winning a Cup is nice, but not necessarily worth tens of millions of additional salary every year. It’s just math.

The Sens have the lowest payroll in the league, but even that’s misleading, because they’ve prioritized finding players whose cap hit is higher than their actual salary. In actuality, they’re spending about $10M BELOW the cap floor – and that’s after spending more than any other team in the offseason to bring in NHL veterans. That’s not really the behavior of a team that wants to win hockey games. For perspective, the defending Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are spending over $18 million more on salary than the Ottawa Senators this season.

Let me be clear: I think it’s completely reasonable, even unsurprising, if a team, shot full of truth serum, admitted that they’re perfectly fine with making the playoffs and putting up a fight at best. That’s not entirely on them. That’s the business model of the NHL, and I’m sure there are at least a half-dozen teams who feel this way. Ottawa is almost definitely one of them. 

If Ottawa admits this, then your Choose Your Own Adventure story has come to an end. We are trapped in Hell. But if they are serious about wanting to make possible a sustainable run, then proceed to Step Two.

Step Two: Do You Have a Core of Elite Players?

My assumption is that the most important step to creating a consistent contender is to have a core of truly elite players. It’s not the only thing required to develop a contender, but it’s almost impossible to develop a contender without it, and it’s the most difficult, so all other decision-making should flow around achieving this objective. 

These players are usually only available in the top few picks of the draft, and some years not at all. The only way to get them is to be a lucky genius and have a top pick in a key year, be an even luckier genius and draft Karlsson in the middle of the first round, be the luckiest genius and draft Mark Stone in the sixth round, or to find a catastrophic idiot who is willing to trade those players for anything less than another core player.

So what do I mean by an elite core? A core is at least four players – two forwards, at least one of which plays center, and two defensemen – who are considered top 30 in the league at their position and is under 30 years old at the beginning of your contending window.

Goaltending is important, of course, perhaps the most important position in the league, but if you accept that 1) one core player is going to cost you around 1/9 of the cap all by himself, 2) it’s very hard to predict goaltending, and 3) every percentage of save percentage above league average is going to cost you exponentially more, it may make more sense to look for league average goaltending, or at least have a pipeline of goaltenders who can deliver in tight defensive systems. Any goaltender who is reliably an above-average goaltender is going to cost you so much more than is reasonable as to wipe out the value of that approach. And even then, they could end up being average a lot of the time – see the last two seasons of Carey Price, with his $10.5 million cap hit.

How do we define ‘Top 30 in the league’? I like Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score Value Added System, which pulls from the last three years of data and incorporates all kinds of on-ice factors and linemates. 

The model uses the last three years of data weighted by recency to project key box score stats and a few on-ice stats to create a projected Game Score that is then translated to a win value. You can read more about the model here

Every team might have their own model and approach, but Dom’s model serves us well to flesh out the concept of building a core. 

Ottawa has two core players in Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, and they might have another soon in Tim Stutzle. Let’s assume that these players are untouchable. The question is: does Ottawa have anyone else in the pipeline that reasonably projects as top 30 in the league at their position? It’s too early to tell on Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Jake Sanderson, or Erik Brannstrom. And if the answer is “it’s unlikely,” can they be parlayed into a player who is core material now? The signing of Evgeny Dadonov was a pleasant surprise, but he’s not top 30 in the league. He’s a great complementary player.

I would try to find the other teams that don’t have at least four core players, or have an imbalance of core players between forwards and defensemen, who are trying to figure out which way to lean between rebuilding and competing, and try to tip their decision-making by offering up overwhelmingly generous packages of non-core players and picks. Fans will roast you for overpaying, but like I said: there’s just no other way to obtain these players other than overwhelming luck. You need to have a high enough pick in a chaotic draft lottery system, in a year when a potential core player is available. Everything you give up in this scenario is far more replaceable.

Using Luszczyszyn’s list, and filtering for age, the only players that jump out as possibly get-able are Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust of Pittsburg, given that team is having its existential moment (both have had injury issues), or perhaps Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary, because Canadian teams have a way of getting impatient and making huge mistakes, or Aleksander Barkov of Florida. Can they pry Ryan Ellis out of Nashville if they have another disappointing season? Granted, he’s already 30 years old. But if any of these players are remotely available for anything less than our core players or a lottery pick in a year with core players available, you’ve got to explore that.

The list of available players is going to change every season, and most seasons is likely to be zero. But if anyone who has the potential to be a core player – top 30, young, under control or open to an extension – becomes available, you have to push your chips in to get them, even if it means giving up promising prospects. You’re playing the odds, but the odds are in your favor. Otherwise, you’re just holding on to your first round pick and hoping for the best.

Step Three: Fix the Pro Scouting Department

It sounds tongue-in-cheek to say “stop trading for bad players,” but how often in the past few years have we seen the team go out and trade assets for players who are considered universally pretty bad? It’s not just a matter of “I think these guys can provide value in the right situations,” or “this player is bad, but they’re available cheaply and we just need a warm body who’s good in the dressing room.” The team’s behavior, be it with Dion Phaneuf, Alex Burrows, Erik Gudbranson, or Nikita Zaitsev, is that of a team whose pro evaluation has concluded that these players are good enough to give up assets for and pay on longer-term deals. It’s befuddling. Phaneuf and Burrows were both bought out. Zaitsev probably will be too, someday. For a team that’s broke, that’s absolutely damning.

The Sens desperately need to fix their pro scouting department. I don’t know what set of criteria they’re relying on when it comes to identifying NHL veterans to fill out their lineup, but the track record is staggeringly bad. There are exceptions (Dadanov and Clarke MacArthur come to mind), but they’re certainly not the rule.

I don’t know what’s wrong with the pro scouting department, or whether they’re even the problem. Maybe their advice just isn’t being taken. But when the team targets a player that every publicly available data model seems to indicate is bad and getting worse, someone should demonstrate why they think that data is wrong or doesn’t matter.

A team can’t make good players agree to come play for them, especially in a high-tax Canadian market with bad weather. But they can avoid actively bringing in players who are a drag on their team. Using Dom’s model, the least productive player available among active defensemen? Erik Gudbranson, who is playing 20 minutes a night on the back-end this season. Ottawa actually targeted this guy and gave up a pick to get him when he’s the type of player a team should have to give up a pick or a prospect to entice a team into taking.

Ottawa has other players near the bottom of the list among forwards – Cedric Paquette, who at least Ottawa received a pick for taking, but also Austin Watson and Chris Tierney, whom the team traded assets for. Derek Stepan is rated between 36-year old Jeff Carter and Zack Kassian, and the Sens gave up a 2nd round pick for him. In most cases they didn’t give up much to get them, but the fact that they identified them, traded for them, and now are paying them to actively make the team worse is puzzling to say the least.

Step Four: Delegate

There’s a polyglot of other factors that we tend to maybe overemphasize when thinking about why teams stink. These can include but aren’t limited to creating a winning culture, defining what your game looks like and dictating play so it aligns with your strengths, creating an understanding between management and coaching about how players should be used (if you trade for a core guy, that guy better get some ice time), nurturing your young players so they respond positively to adversity, and so on.

These are all important, but I’ve relegated them to the back half of the recommendations because each seems broadly actionable within the scope of a single season. You can replace a coach, or hire a consultant, or have a seance in the dressing room, etc. on a pretty quick turnaround. You can’t draft and develop a core guy, or identify an opportunity to trade for one, in one season.

For that reason, it seems to me that it’s important to have an Assistant GM, or President of Hockey Operations, or whoever, whose job is to handle everything not related to prospect scouting and pro scouting with the objective of bringing on core guys. Or maybe have a prospect and pro scouting department who are fully empowered, freeing up the GM to worry about the polyglot. Every team will build their corporate structure differently to reflect the strengths of their manager, but the point is that a GM can’t do it all. It’s important enough to try to find those core guys that it should be a full time job. Partition the coaching, strategy, and cultural aspects and give them their own space.

So, how do we apply all of this to the Ottawa Senators? As I said off the top, the Senators aren’t in a terrible situation. They have two bona fide core players, and potentially one or two more as a result of picking twice in the top five this year. The Senators have one of the deepest prospect pools in the league (ranked third in Scott Wheeler’s most recent article), and many of those prospects are in a sweet spot of being NHL-ready, but with a small enough sample size that it’s not yet clear that whether they are or aren’t core guys.

When I joke around on Twitter that the Senators should offer whatever Calgary wants for Matthew Tkachuk or go all in to lure Barkov, part of me is writing slash fiction, but another, more serious part of me is thinking that if the Senators want to be serious about opening their window to contend, that they should absolutely be all in on adding to their core – even if it means making some uncomfortable decisions on promising young guys we’re all excited to see more of. They’re so close, they just need to take it over the top.

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