My Dream 2021 Ottawa Senators Offseason

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Credit to u/BigShoots over on Reddit – this image is fuckin’ amazing.

As as far I’m concerned, the rest of the Senators’ season is a wash. I hope we get to see young Jimmy Stu hit some dingers, take in the summer sunshine on the soccer baseball field, and leave working on our abs until next year. Wins and losses don’t matter when it’s all good.

It’s in the spirit of just having fun and not worrying about the small things that I wanted to write about what my dream offseason looks like – not to worry about or debate asset management, necessarily, but to get excited about the possibilities for a team with plenty of cheap young talent and cap space. The Sens are about to go into the first season in a while where their team might reasonably compete for a playoff spot, and a market with teams looking to cut payroll. There’s a lot of opportunity to improve.

Let’s do some imagineering, everyone.

THE RULES

  • The transactions have to actually exist in the realm of possibility. We can debate whether what I describe here is likely to happen, but you have to be able to at least see it happening. There’s no “Trade a 3rd round pick for Connor McDavid” here.
  • The Sens’ financial situation hasn’t changed. This is somewhat related to the above. The Sens are likely to continue to spend near the bottom of the league next year, with their actual spending even lower than their cap hit. Also, they’re unlikely to trade for or sign anyone with massive signing bonuses.
  • The Kraken will fuck all of this up. Having an expansion draft in the middle of a pandemic season basically throws another incredibly complex set of contingencies into all of this decision-making. I try to make assumptions about that while admitting that there are aspects about which I’m probably completely unaware.
  • Jack Eichel doesn’t want to come to Ottawa. If he does, throw all of this out and start over. We could do a whole post just on what it would take and whether it would be worth it.

Okay? Okay. Here we go.

TRADE OTTAWA’S 2021 FIRST ROUND PICK FOR MATTHEW TKACHUK

You knew this one was coming. Matthew Tkachuk is young, good, and related to our future captain. Presuming there’s a world in which Brady is okay with sharing his team with his brother and in which Calgary is willing to start their rebuild by trading Matthew, the Sens make this happen.

Remember: it has to exist in the REALM of the possible. That’s a big realm! But it’s totally possible. Calgary is on the verge of performing major surgery on their lineup, and once they start offering Gaudreau and Monahan’s big money contracts and term around the league in a flat-cap world, I think Flames fans will see just how little they can get in return.

Get ready for some late first rounders, depth NHL players, and B-list prospects, Flames fans – and welcome to the recent world of Sens fans!

Also, as elite as Matthew Tkachuk is, if Calgary does decide to rebuild, is Matthew Tkachuk really the kind of player you rebuild around? A power forward who plays on the wing? It would hurt to trade a 23 year old, but paying him big bucks for the next 4-5 years while you rebuild doesn’t make much sense.

The Senators have an ace in the hole – a top five pick they can stomach giving up. They selected twice in the top five last year, have tons of prospects in the pipeline, and it’s a relatively weak draft where nobody has been able to scout as much as they’d like to.

Given Tkachuk’s age – he’s only 23 after all – it might take more than just a pick – an additional, later pick, or a prospect like Logan Brown or Lassi Thomson. But no other team in the league has a top-five pick they can bear to part with, the prospect pool, the cap room, and the ability to have two Tkachuks in their lineup at the same time. Matthew might not be on the trade block, I grant you this. But if he is, there’s no other team that can compete with what Ottawa can offer.

You could certainly argue that Matthew Tkachuk isn’t worth a top five pick, especially given Ottawa will pay that pick league minimum for three years. But the Senators have to get to the cap floor, and the ticket sales bonanza that would result from having a Tkachuk on each of their top two lines – or, god help the league, both on the same line – would help to pad the economic blow. It’s tantalizing from a marketing perspective.

I can’t think of any other move that Ottawa can make that would generate more enthusiasm around the team coming out of the pandemic and after years of PR damage from the poorly messaged rebuild. This would change the entire dynamic of the Atlantic division.

SIGN BRADY TKACHUK TO A MASSIVE EIGHT-YEAR EXTENSION AND PROMISE MATTHEW THE SAME

Another protestation to trading for Matthew Tkachuk is that his deal expires after next season, though he is an RFA. Presuming the Tkachuk brothers want to play together, their respective deals can act as hooks to keep the other in the fold.

Brady is due a new deal, and the speculation is that in a flat cap world, teams and players alike prefer short term deals of three to four years. I think that’s plenty likely, with Brady’s deal likely to look like the 3 x $7M deal Matthew signed in 2019. But if there’s a possibility to offer Brady a deal that starts with Thomas Chabot’s – 8 x $8M – the team should take it.

It’s true that the players may like to gamble on themselves and a rising cap in the next few years to try to cash in big down the line. But when somebody puts a starting bid of $64 million in front of you, it tends to get the gears moving. Give him $70M and the C, and he’ll re-sign.

When Matthew’s deal is up at the end of the year following, the team can offer him the exact same deal as Brady to keep harmony in the lineup and in the family. Hard to think the Tkachuks won’t think long and hard about a team who’s willing to give at least $140 million to their family.

SIGN CHEAP CENTER DEPTH

Presuming that the Senators let Artem Anisimov walk in the offseason (and they should) and Chris Tierney is select by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the Senators will need some cheap, young, reliable center depth, even if Shane Pinto makes the team out of training camp.

There are four candidates I can see that are 1) cheap (no more than $4M per season), 2) young (under 30), 3) a net positive on shots generation/suppression (all courtesy of Hockey Viz) and 4) pending UFAs presumably available on the free agent market.

  • Nick Bjugstad (MIN)
  • Mikael Granlund (NSH)
  • Phillip Danault (MTL)
  • Jordon Weal (MTL)

If the Sens can lock up one of these players for fewer than four years and no more than $4M per, they should do it – especially if it means weakening the depth of a division rival, and appealing to those players’ desire to stay near Montreal where their kids go to school, etc.

SIGN A SECOND PAIRING DEFENCEMAN AND RE-SIGN MIKE REILLY

Mike Reilly has been a bright spot on an otherwise defensively atrocious hockey team, driving play at a very affordable price point of $1.5M. If he can be re-signed at fewer than four years and only a slight raise, the Sens should seriously consider it. For the purposes of this simulation, let’s presume a nice raise to an annual salary of $2.5M.

I’m also assuming that the Sens find some way to jettison Joshua Brown’s $1.2M salary next season. He’s been an absolute boat anchor in terms of driving shots. Maybe Ottawa can find someone who will give up a late pick or future considerations. Unfortunately, his real salary goes up to $1.4M. He might find himself in Belleville.

Also, it goes without saying that Gudbranson and Coburn are fired into the sun at the first possible opportunity.

Of course, it would be incredible if the Sens went all in and tried to sign Dougie Hamilton, a legit elite defenseman who would be perfect for a team that wants to take the next step. Considering how few of those make it to free agency, I assume all kinds of richer teams will be in on him and he’ll earn maximum term on a $8M+ per year deal. The Sens should probably stay away. As I said above – the Sens financial situation probably hasn’t changed.

This basically adheres to the structure set above to seeking out depth centers: 1) cheap (no more than $4M per season), 2) young (under 30), 3) a net positive on shots generation/suppression (courtesy of Hockey Viz) and 4) pending UFAs presumably available on the free agent market. I also targeted left-handed D.

I see three defensemen Ottawa can target:

  • Jake McCabe (BUF)
  • Jamie Oleksiak (DAL)
  • Ryan Murray (NJ)

Of those three, Murray probably attracts the most attention on the free market, having been a former second overall pick. McCabe, on the other hand, is relatively unknown, has spent the season on the abysmal Sabres, and has had a solid 3-4 seasons of reliable, stay-at-home defensive hockey with a net positive shot suppression rate. He also draws way more penalties than he takes. He doesn’t do much offensively, but he could help to tighten up the leaky ship that is the Senators’ defence.

THE GOALIE SITUATION

I don’t know, man. This is a tough one. On the one hand, that Matt Murray contract looks killer, but on the other, the Sens have shown they have a fairly deep pipeline of young goalies in Gustavsson and Daccord. I don’t see them being able to do much here. You’ve just gotta hope that Murray can get it together in the offseason with a new goalie coach.

I assume that Murray’s contract is unmoveable, that Hogberg gets another chance, and Forsberg walks in the offseason. (Hopefully finding some term somewhere – Godspeed, gentle warrior.)

LINEUP

Forwards

B. Tkachuk ($925k) – Norris ($925k) – Batherson ($736k)

Stutzle ($925k) – Pinto ($925k) – M. Tkachuk ($7M)

Paul ($1.35M) – White ($4.75M) – Dadanov ($5M)

Formenton ($747k) – Bjugstad/Granlund/Danault/Weal ($4M) – Brown ($3.6M)

(Watson) ($1.5M)

Defence

Chabot ($8M) – Zaitsev ($4.5M)

McCabe/Oleksiak/Murray ($4M) – Bernard-Docker ($925k)

Reilly ($2.5M) – Zub/Brannstrom ($925k)

Goalies

Murray ($6.25M)

Gustavsson/Hogberg ($760k)

Cap total: $60.243 million – just a hair over the $60.2 cap floor.

This is a lineup that improves its center depth and defensive depth, adds a bona fide star in their top six with a compelling story that will sell tickets, and maintains plenty of cap and financial room for Brady’s monster deal the season following and a bridge deal for Josh Norris. Even with Brady making $8M+ per year, the Sens would find themselves $10M+ under the cap as it exists today.

It also allows for the young players to continue to grow. It doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue of the goaltending, and I could still see this lineup finishing well outside of the playoffs. But with a series of boat anchor veteran contracts off the books, development of the youngins taken into account, improvement around the margins, and the special sauce of a Duel Tkachuk Attack, you could see this team giving fits to the Division and the Conference.

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.

Has this 6-game stretch been as bad as it’s seemed?

Winnipeg Jets sweep three-game series with Senators, open homestand with  6-3 win over Ottawa - Winnipeg | Globalnews.ca

The Ottawa Senators are off to a blistering 1-4-1 start through their first six games of the 2020-2021 NHL season. In most 82-game seasons, that kind of start makes it difficult to recover and sneak into the playoffs. Over 56 games? That’s 10 percent of the season, and the Sens, though considered a long-shot for the playoffs anyway, are pretty much toast. They play their next six games on the road.

The public display of futility, especially following their 1-7 loss to the Canucks on January 25th, has Sens twitter asking pointed questions about coach DJ Smith’s player usage and powerplay coach Jack Capuano’s repeated use of the same zone entry strategies. In response to that pessimism, I’d like to offer that, despite the record…the Sens haven’t been all that bad? *ducks rotting fruit* Allow me to explain.

One of the convenient side effects of the all-Canadian division and compressed schedule is that it allows us to study how teams have played against one another in more controlled conditions. It’s not a series of one-offs; teams play each other several times in a row, often with the same lineup. We can assume home ice advantage is mitigated somewhat by the lack of any discernable differences between empty arenas. So let’s take this series-by-series.

V. Leafs – 1-1

In their first game against the Leafs, who most have picked to win the Canadian Division, shots were even, and they gutted out a 5-3 win. In their second game they were heavily outshot, 40-19, and the game was only close because of Murray’s .925SV%.

Verdict: The Sens were good in that first game, playing a Cup contender to a draw and capitalizing on their chances, and almost stole the second game despite being badly outplayed. They were genuinely outclassed, but will happily take the split. The Murray trade was looking smart through two games. NOT THAT BAD.

V. Jets – 0-2-1

After being caved-in by the Leafs on the shot clock in their previous game, the Sens turned around and hung over 40 shots on the Jets in their first game while keeping them below 20. They also scored twice on the powerplay and took 54 percent of faceoffs. They played well, despite blowing the lead and losing in OT. The middle game is remembered as a bit of a drubbing with a 1-4 loss, but that’s not that fair: they matched the Jets in shots despite Winnipeg receiving seven power plays (and scoring on none of them). Murray was pulled in this game, and it might be a classic example of a game they could have easily of won with a few more timely saves. The Sens lost their third game 3-6, and were heavily outshot. Despite that, they went into the third with a lead and controlled play for large stretches of the game. A bad penalty by Stepan in the third gave away the lead for good.

Verdict: The Sens were good again through two games before turning in a genuine stinker in the third game, with much of that stinkiness taking place in the third period. To be honest with you, despite going 0-2-1 against the Jets, if you could simulate this performance across 100,000 games, you might end up with a winning record. NOT THAT BAD.

V. Canucks – 0 so far with two games to go in the series

The Sens suffered their worst loss of the young season, losing 1-7 in their first game against the Canucks, but here’s the thing: they outshot them handily until the third period and ended up with a shot advantage at game’s end despite being curb stomped in the third. Poor goaltending did them in early, and then the wheels came off the wagon. But you have to almost admire a team that maintains a shot advantage after going 36 percent in the faceoff circle.

Verdict: It’s difficult to defend any game that ends with that score, and the Sens never seemed like a threat to steal the game, but I remember turning on the game after wrapping up a late night of work and seeing them down four goals in the second period with the Canucks having only generated 20 shots, and couldn’t help but feel that this was just a weird one. This might be a classic example of “show me a good coach and I’ll show you a good goaltender.” NOT THAT BAD.

Takeaways: This post might seem like it’s begging to be mocked. “Ottawa Senators fan believes team that ranks 25th in GF/GP and dead last in GA/GP thinks his team is NOT THAT BAD.” It is mockable. I get it. But here’s the thing: for a team with a bad record, they’ve outshot their opponents many nights, and at least two of those losses can be blamed on goaltending and taking stupid penalties. The Sens were also missing Jimmy Stutzle for the entire series against the Jets.

All that to say: it’s not time to blow it up yet, not time to fire to coach, not even time to start swapping out bottom six forwards wholesale. The team’s faceoff wins are second lowest in the league at 44 percent. Improving that even a few percentage points will result in greater control of the offensive zone. Giving Logan Brown a shot and keeping Christian Wolanin on the backend may help. And Murray might not be the workhorse they want him to be. The single biggest improvement this team can make is receiving league average NHL goaltending. If they get that, they’ll end up with a record that implies they are NOT THAT BAD.

The Limits of Draft Analysis and the Ottawa Senators 2020 Draft Strategy

Roby Järventie drafted to Ottawa Senators • Tampereen Ilves

In the days that followed the 2020 NHL Draft, analytics-oriented prospect writers scored each team’s draft performances in a way that friend and colleague Luke Peristy described on our most recent podcast as “Draft Bucks” analysis. This is the most useful way of thinking about ranking draft “performance” by NHL franchises that I’ve encountered. I don’t know if Luke came up with it, but send him $5 anyway.

In Draft Bucks analysis, you think of each draft pick as a denomination of money, and each prospect as having a monetary value. How much value did each team get for the money they spent? If Team A walks in with $200 Draft Bucks and walks out with $250 worth of players, then they drafted well. If Team B walks in with $400 Draft Bucks and walks out with $350 worth of players, they drafted poorly, even if they walked out with more overall value than Team A.

You can only really think of Draft Bucks in one of two ways: the total value the team walks away with based on how much money they walked into the draft with, and the total value the team walks away with relative to the money they had to spend. Ottawa walked into the draft with more draft picks than any other team, and with two top five picks, so they left with more value than anyone else. In that way, for Ottawa, 2020 was essentially an idiot-proof draft. Many noted, however, that with every pick taken outside of the top five, Ottawa elected to take a player who was projected to go later in the draft – sometimes much later. In other words, they received ‘poor value’ for their picks according to the valuations of prospect writers on hockey websites. Ottawa subsequently received a number of failing grades for their approach to the draft.

The Draft Bucks approach to rating a team’s drafting has the appeal of being quantifiable and numbers-driven: you calculate the difference between x and y and rank the teams accordingly. What this approach doesn’t do is ask why a team would have not only different, but much different valuations of players, why they would depart so markedly from what seems like a common-sense valuation of a player, or why not only one team, but numerous teams, might be motivated to depart from the quantification of individual prospect’s tools. In other words, what overarching drafting strategies – let’s call this, for the sake of grandiosity, META DRAFTING – compels a team to spend their Draft Bucks in a way that doesn’t comport directly with player valuations?

Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti were two prospects projected to go in or around the 5-8 range of picks. They slid to 9th and 10th. As a result, the teams that took them – Minnesota and Winnipeg – received good draft grades as a result of receiving good value. After all, they spent fewer Draft Bucks to take those players than those players were worth. While appealingly elegant in its simplicity, this analysis is also a tiny bit lazy. It dodges the question of why not only Ottawa, but Anaheim, New Jersey, and Buffalo also passed on those prospects. It also sidesteps any Meta Drafting analysis – what do teams’ drafting strategies say about their opinions and information about the process of drafting itself?

If we think outside of the Draft Bucks Box, we can start to look for patterns not captured in Draft Bucks analysis, and in doing so better identify and explore some of the weird and idiosyncratic cultural aspects of hockey before we decide a team won or lost a particular draft.

Importing a Fully Baked Culture

The University of North Dakota is one of the highest ranked college hockey programs in the United States, having won seven national championships and produced alumni such as Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and TJ Oshie. The Senators have four UND prospects in their system: Jake Sanderson, Tyler Kleven, Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Outside of Sanderson, every one of those players was drafted too high for the liking of Draft Bucks analysts.

It’s not unusual for a team to draft from a highly-ranked college hockey program. But to return to the well of a particular program as often as Ottawa has, and in the case of Tyler Kleven to have even moved up in the draft to take him in the second round when he was projected to go later, might be a tell. In the Draft Bucks paradigm, this can only be gross misspending of draft assets, chalked up to some kind of oversight or incompetence by people who spend all day every day thinking about the valuation of hockey talent. It’s certainly possible that this is the case, but strikes me as somewhat unlikely. Moneyball was first published in 2003, 18 years ago, and I can’t help but think that the image of the old-boys-club room of scouts talking about if a player has a good body or a pretty girlfriend is slightly outmoded.

I wonder if Ottawa is taking a bet not only on the ability of the program to produce NHLers, but that by taking players that have been taught in a certain system, who understand their roles in that system, they can import not only the players but also the system, the roles, and the understanding of expectations. The players’ relationship with one another have a mutually reinforcing nature, a plug-and-play element, perpetuating milestones for success and creating a cultural sense of accountability to the team and to one another.

In a vacuum, Tyler Kleven should have cost fewer Draft Bucks than Ottawa spent to draft him, but looking only at those numbers ignores the broader context of Kleven playing on the same defensive unit as fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson, the kind of prospect who, if successful, could transform the competitive landscape of the Atlantic Division. (And if he isn’t, could set back the Senators’ competitive window for another decade.) Spending the Draft Bucks to enhance the probability of Sanderson’s success is well worth it, especially considering those second-round picks spent to draft Kleven are statistically likely to produce depth players, of which Ottawa currently has plenty.

Jake Sanderson, right, and his talentless waste of a draft pick friend, Tyler Klevan, left.

Ottawa needs to hit on both producing a certain amount of depth and on their high draft picks. Drafting so many players from the same program could increase the likelihood of all of the players included in that unit being successful, and of the top pick of hitting his potential. An area for further study might be to look to teams who over the years had the greatest number of players from the same development programs and how consistently those players performed relative to their expectations.

Drafting for Depth

Check out this paragraph from Scott Wheeler’s take on the Senators’ second day at the draft:

A year ago, the Senators picked Shane Pinto (then my 50th-ranked prospect) with their first pick of the second round. This year, they selected Roby Jarventie (my No. 55-ranked prospect) at 33. Both are big, versatile forward prospects who can create in a variety of ways, whose only real question mark is their pace of play. Both project as middle-six, complementary pieces with mid-level offensive ceilings and potential PP2 upside. Both are efficient and useful without having a star quality tool that defines them. Jarventie’s off to a good start in Liiga this season, too, and if his post-draft season is anything like Pinto’s, he’ll work his way up my board in retrospect.

This seems like the kind of sentiment you’ll find on most draft rankings: that every team should be using every pick to take players with potentially high ceilings, even if those players are boom-or-bust. GM Pierre Dorion has used far more moderate language when talking about his goals for each draft: when speaking about prospects, he often describes them as having a real chance to be a player in the NHL – full stop. This seemed to be on display with the Senators’ third first-round pick, which they used to take checking forward Ridly Greig. Finally, the Sens have a propensity to draft over-agers: players closer to achieving their projected ceiling, and thus easier to project, but still available to draft, meaning likely to have a lower ceiling overall. One wonders if the Senators’ focus on certainty over high-ceiling uncertainty has become a discernable factor in their draft strategy.

Why is that important? In emphasizing depth talent, the Senators are usually docked points in Draft Bucks analysis, which holds as a fundamental truth underwriting the valuation of players that depth is plentifully available on the free agent market while high-end talent has to be drafted. Due to the trends in NHL player contracts, the time might be coming for us to ask if this is still the case.

Between the current and previous NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, there’s been one major change in the way NHL contracts are structured: core, franchise players are receiving their big payouts much earlier, on their second deals – their RFA deals. Fewer of them are opting for bridge deals, except in states with no state taxes and favorable earning prospects. On the 31 Thoughts Podcast, Stan Bowman, GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, pointed out that the team that won the Hawks their three Cups wouldn’t be possible in today’s NHL, because they won with Toews and Kane on affordable, five-year, $6.3M/year RFA deals that allowed them to add players like Hossa to expensive, long-term UFA deals. If the Hawks drafted a Kane or Toews today, they’d be earning at least $8M-$9M right after their entry-level contracts. The Blackhawks would not necessarily be able to add good NHL depth on the free agent market, even on $2M-$3M/year deals. They would have to rely on their draft pipeline.

Ottawa is going to experience this soon, when they extend Brady Tkachuk. They’ve already had to extend Thomas Chabot to a deal paying him $8M per year rather than a bridge deal. If Tim Stutzle works out, in four years he could be in-line for a similar payday. How does a team having to do this with their core ensure depth throughout the lineup? Where once a team could afford to waste seven of their draft picks on swinging for the fence knowing that they were eight or more years away from having to pay their stars, now they must ensure they’re bringing in checking line players and secondary scoring on entry-level deals: higher-certainty prospects with lower ceilings.

Ottawa has targeted overage players in this and previous drafts, players generally thought to be easier to project, but with lower ceilings. They’ve also targeted players who can play multiple positions. Today’s poor value draft picks who top out as third- and fourth-line NHLers are tomorrow’s third- and fourth-line NHLers on entry-level contracts. It could be that Draft Bucks analysis, with its emphasis on high ceiling talent throughout the draft, hasn’t caught up to the present-day reality of NHL economics.

When Taking an Objective View Makes it Difficult to Stay Objective

The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” has at this point taken on the cliché of business, dulling us to its continued relevance. There’s something incredibly alluring about the cold, mathematical analysis that led us to Draft Bucks paradigm, an approach that has, over time, illuminated the ways in which teams can and do become fixated on factors that don’t matter in the calculation of a hockey player’s skill.

What we might also be seeing when we read NHL Draft Grades, however, is that the culture of this analysis leads one to conclude that outliers are always evidence of inefficiency or underperformance as opposed to cause for further investigation. When a team like the Ottawa Senators, in the middle of a rebuild that will be vital to the fortunes of the team over the next decade, trade up in the second round to take a player projected to go in the late second or third round, and that player happens to play with the player who was just drafted by the same team fifth overall, that should cause us to ask more about the strategy employed by the team, to dabble more frequently in Meta Draft analysis, to explore whether efficiencies uncaptured by Draft Bucks analysis remain to be discovered.

WTYKY Podcast Episode 25

It’s the WTYKY Podcast’s 25th Podcast Milestone! We’ve bee producing these at a solid 4-5-episodes-a-year clip, and we saved up all of the best stuff for this occasion. This episode includes how we finally forced the team to adopt the logo and jersey we’ve been demanding for literally years and the results of the most important draft in franchise history. Luke Peristy, James, and Varada are here to get you through the pandemic with the Ottawa Senators Podcast three out of 10 physicians agree has a 14 percent chance of enhancing antibodies under very specific conditions.

The WTYKY Guide to Which Player’s Name You Should Get on the Back of Your 2D Jersey

It’s still hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that the Ottawa Senators actually did something the fans asked them to do. Maybe they did it because the cost and effort of producing an entirely novel logo was prohibitive. Maybe they did it was because they were saving this cash cow until they needed it most. But you know what they say about gift horses and mouths and not looking in them. However we got here, the Ottawa Senators now have the sharpest design in the NHL after having worn the cartoon 3D gladiator for an endless 13 seasons.

When you consider that the new jerseys are streamlined from the baggy-sweatshirt cuts of old, feature the blockier, bolder number fonts and nameplates of their current jerseys, tone down the sparkly gold, and clean up some of the striping, the new 2D jerseys might even be sharper than the old ones.

Predictably, Sens fans are lining up to drop three hundred of their hard earned dollars on pro-quality versions of the new jerseys. However, the question of what player you get on the back is more difficult than it might seem at first blush. First of all, the Sens don’t currently have a TON of great players to choose from, or certainly not players that are evidently franchise cornerstones. Certainly, we don’t have as many as cornerstones as those regular season juggernauts of the mid-2000s. Back then, you could agonize over which player to choose taking only the Pizza Line into consideration. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, because these are retro jerseys, it makes some sense that you’d be able to choose a player from those deep days, when they also wore the 2D logo. It would be sort of weird to get, say, a Mike Fisher Heritage ‘O’ jersey, given he never wore it. But a Mike Fisher 2020 2D jersey? Is that a faux pas, or fair game?

In order to maximize the value, and fun of spending money on a shirt you can’t really do anything while wearing, I offer here the following codification to help you in your decision-making:

Captain Obvious Wins the Slam Dunk Contest: Tkachuk, Chabot

The Sens have two blue chip burgeoning stars on the current roster. One embodies the attitude of the franchise. The other is an electric, puck-moving defenceman who surely will never be traded away for a collection of depth roster players, mid-level prospects, and draft picks. It’s true that you can’t really go wrong, here, but you have to ask yourself: how will it make you feel, sitting in the CTC with the 2D Sens jersey you purchased, to look at the rows in front of you and see a series of coin-flips between Tkachuk and Chabot staring back at you? If your answer is, “That would make me feel just fine,” well then you have your answer, and this Choose Your Own Adventure game has come to an early close. If the answer is anything else, then read-on, weary traveler.

Money Doesn’t Have the Same Value for Me As It Does for Other People: Stutzle, Sanderson, Batherson, Norris, Formenton, Brannstrom, Bernard-Docker, Thomson

These players represent the top of the prospect pipeline, and in that sense they embody hope for the future. These are players we hope to see in the very 2D jersey you want to buy for years to come. How could they not represent the best possible value for your dollars? They haven’t even really started playing for the team in any meaningful way (unless you count Brannstrom getting stuffed into a locker for a few games last year), so if you get one of these names on the back of your sparkling new, not-yet-soiled-from-a-too-long-OC Transpo-bus-ride-home-from-Kanata 2D jersey, it’s like you’re marrying into a rich family, right? Just sit back and accrue cred for being early.

Not so fast. Let me tell you a story. A tragedy, really.

Many years ago, when I had some money, but not much, I became obsessed with getting a heritage ‘O’ Robin Lehner jersey. It seemed foolproof: the jersey was the best we’d ever had so clearly Ottawa would adopt it soon enough as our primaries. Lehner, meanwhile, had an incredible pedigree, having won a Calder Cup with the B-Sens. He was going to be the goalie of the future. He was Swedish, like Alfredsson and Karlsson. Furthermore, he seemed deeply badass, with the kind of sass not seen since Ray Emery fought the entire Buffalo Sabres’ lineup like an avenging angel. So, what happened?

  • The Senators did not adopt the heritage jersey.
  • Robin Lehner was traded to the very Sabres Emery once fought like an avenging angel.
  • Lehner became a Trump-loving provocateur for a time.

Sure, Lehner has redeemed himself in everyone’s eyes, and he’s legitimaltly awesome again, doing incredible work to reduce the stigma of mental illness and substance abuse, but he still serves as a cautionary tale for any of us considering investing in a jersey we like with the name of a good-seeming prospect on the back: things change, and they change suddenly. I urge you to consider that if any of these players end up on another team, it is your constitutionally-enshrined duty to not like them anymore.

While it’s possible that a Rundblad jersey COULD be cool (we used to call him Mecha-Karlsson), it’s certainly not the sort of treasured artifact you’ll hand down to your children in lieu of a social safety net and ecological stability. Have you ever seen a Matt Puempel jersey in the wild? Matt Puempel might not even own a Matt Puempel jersey anymore.

Mucking With Space Time: Alfredsson, Neil, Fisher, Chara, Redden, Hossa, Havlat, Spezza, Heatley, Vermette, Hasek, Phillips, Volchenkov, Lalime, Schaefer

The ultra-rare signed-Chara-while-he’s-wearing-a-C-in-a-Sens-jersey pic

Man, those were the days, huh? These teams were deep, seriously fun, and could beat you any number of ways. Remember Vermette winning a face-off, Schaefer cycling the puck along the boards, Havlat finishing with pure skill – and that was our second line? Plus, each of these players, at some point or another, wore the 2D Senator. This is a throw-back jersey, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t it be okay to put the name of a player who wore (basically) this jersey on the back of (basically) this jersey while we celebrate our heritage, history, and nothing traumatic ever happening in the playoffs? As SteveOnSens said it above, other teams treat their team like an unbroken lineage, all accessing the same morass of ephemeral hopes, dreams, and blah blah blah. The Senators have for too long treated themselves as an expansion franchise who barely has the right to be here.

How awesome would it be to look into the stands and see not only Tkachuk and Chabot jerseys, but also the occasional Alfredsson, in a 2D jersey, looking back at you? Papa? Is that you, Papa??? You run down the CTC concourse trying to catch up as he weaves in and out of pedestrian traffic, that collection of Hossa and Spezza nameplates bobbing around you – “Papa, come back!” you cry out, following that fire-red flow. The 2D centurion is everywhere you look, winking and whispering: “Alfie, Alfie. Papa, papa.” Am I Hugo? you wonder. When you finally catch up and put your hand on the shoulder of the person wearing that Alfredsson jersey, turning him around, you see that it’s not him, after all. It’s even better. It’s your actual papa.

Alternate Reality Choices: Karlsson, Zibanejad, Stone, MacArthur

Erik Karlsson is the greatest player to ever play for the Senators, and so you probably get a pass for putting his name on anything, and Zibanejad was our last great hope coming out of a rebuild. Stone is a player the Sens plucked from nowhere and turned into one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and MacArthur is a heart-and-soul player whose brilliant career was cut short.

None of them ever played in the 2D, though. If you saw a Karlsson 2D jersey in the wild, it would feel weird, like the Uncanny Valley, where something isn’t quite right but not obviously wrong, either. It might be a jersey foul. If you’re going to mix-and-match good hockey players with your current jersey, why not put Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos on the back of your 2D jersey?

This would come awfully close to being a faux pas, a sort of wishful thinking that also happens to make it look like your Great Aunt walked into a store, picked up a jersey because she knows you like hockey (and she loves you), asked the prick kid behind the counter who the best Ottawa Senators player ever is, and voila.

My point is, I think you can do better than this. You’ve gotta let the past be the past, to allow for growth. If I see you in a 2D Zibanejad jersey, my first reaction will definitely be, “Okay, Zibanejad is the coolest looking name aesthetically and coolest sounding phonetically,” but after that, I’m gonna wish you well, because you’re clearly working through some stuff.

The Make Me Feel Pain Pick: Yashin, Daigle

It feels like the unacknowledged subtext of the 2D jersey debate is that the Sens were really bad during large swathes of the time that they spent wearing that jersey. Though we on Sens Twitter have spent enough time marinating in the notion of a 2D return that we’ve become numbed to the idea of how it might be perceived by the rest of the league, I’ve gotta think that there are some out there who think we’re naively opening a mummy’s sarcophagus that we found out in Kanata. It’s sort of like when people said the heritage ‘O’ looked like a zero. It’s a true that it didn’t matter, because that jersey is rad, but it’s also true that it kind of does look like a zero.

What better way to acknowledge that, like, dude, we know, than to get the name of one of the two players who exemplified the team’s cursed early years? Yashin was actually pretty great when he was with the Senators, but held out for most or all of some seasons asking to have his contract re-negotiated. Daigle was never particularly good, but going into the draft he was hyped beyond belief. The entry-level contract the Senators offered him was so generous, the league actually created new rules that live until this day about how much you’re allowed to offer rookies. The Senators were such a shit-show that the league had to change its rules to prevent other people from ever being that stupid. This, on many levels, is amazing. When you think about it, that might be the most enduring impact the Ottawa Senators have ever had on the NHL.

Enough time has passed for us to own this. Daigle and Yashin both played in the alumni game on Parliament Hill, and looked great in that 2D to boot. Bygones are bygones, and to put Yashin or Daigle on the back of your beautiful new 2D jersey is sort of like saying that pain can no longer touch you, but passes through you. You might get some eye-rolls from those who think you’re being ironic, but you’ll know better. Getting Yashin or Daigle on your 2D is having the grace to accept that which you cannot change while acknowledging that the awesome person you are today was informed by the challenges you lived through in the past.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

The Deep Cut: Smolinski, McAmmond, Arvedson

Ottawa was blessed with a number of effective depth players and NHL veterans during those deep years. They were nobody’s favorites, but we couldn’t have been the Ottawa Senators without them. And, they all wore the 2D. You have to offer up some grudging respect if you see these names on a new jersey, although there is sooooooome degree to which it feels a little too cute by half. Take it from me; I call myself Varada on the internet.

The Really Deep Cut: Peter Bondra, Pavol Demitra

Peter Bondra joined the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline in 2003, after a whopping 14 seasons with the Washington Capitals. I remember him scoring in his first game (I think?) and Hossa being absolutely psyched. He had 14 points in 23 games, went pointless in the seven-game loss to Toronto in the first round, played two more seasons in the NHL, then was out for good. While it’s hard to believe that he was ever anyone’s favorite when he was in Ottawa, there’s no denying that 1) Peter Bondra was a pretty rad player, and 2) he wore the 2D:

2004 Season: Player Peter Bondra of the Ottawa Senators. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Pavol Demitra, of course, was drafted by Ottawa in the ninth (!) round, traded for nothing and then turned into a superstar for St. Louis. He wore the 2D. He is also beloved and fondly remembered after his tragic passing at only 36 years old in a plane crash. Wearing a Demitra 2D signals simultaneous appreciations for history, good drafting, bad trades, what could have been, and an all-around pro. It’s a little bit like insisting that Nirvana’s Bleach is their best album: you’re not right, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Covering Your Bases: White

Hear me out: first of all, do you even know what White I’m talking about? Is it Colin, or Todd? Jerseys don’t have first names. Both wore the 2D. Both will be considered promising young players on squads ultimately much deeper than what they themselves can offer. (Relatable!) Yes, this could apply to “Brown,” too, but Colin and Todd White could both credibly be, even if it’s a bit of a stretch, someone’s favorite player on the team. Todd White had a respectable NHL career, and Colin White was drafted in the first round and will probably play in the NHL, almost invisibly, for years to come. Getting “White” on the back of your 2D jersey is at the same time a deep cut, because they are, of course, not Karlsson or Alfredsson, and an inoffensive, vanilla selection signifying that you are passingly familiar with the entire lineup of your favorite hockey team. You may as well get the word “Hockey” on the back of your 2D jersey – and I mean that in a good way!

Okay, just kidding, get an Alfredsson jersey.

The 2020-2021 WTYKY Guide to How to Feel

As far as I can tell as a guy who was 12 when the Senators came back to life, there have been six major phases of Senators fandom:

  1. 1992 to 1992.5: Isn’t it cool to have a hockey team?
  2. 1992.5 to 1996: I’ve made a huge mistake.
  3. 1997 to 2007: Nothing is true, everything is possible.
  4. 2008-2015: We were wrong not to appreciate what we had, yet are luckier still to have what we do.
  5. 2016-2017: Erik Karlsson is the greatest hockey player on earth and he’s an Ottawa Senator.
  6. 2017-2020: We were right to hate ourselves.

Squint and look sideways at that list and you can almost suss out a cosmic cycle, like the rising and setting sun, or the inevitable decay of life in turn feeding saplings. Is it possible that we, Ottawa Senators fans, like Norrin Radd, believed ourselves to be making a sacrifice (becoming herald to the mighty Galactus to save our beloved Zenn-La) only to discover that he himself is servant to the grand ballet of the universe? Should we now embrace our hard-won perspective and know that life is suffering but also ephemeral and transitory? Should we turn away from our grievances and accept that we all have a role to play, and we can play this role with grace and care and thoughtfulness and patience? The answer, of course, is no.

It is the opinion of this humble WTYKY beat writer that we should enter the 2021 season with an unbelievable chip on our shoulders. Hockey is supposed to be fun and every season and game that’s taken place since we watched Erik Karlsson drag this team within a goal of the Stanley Cup Finals has been most definitely Not Fun. We’ve been robbed of the fundamental element of sports, which is Puck Goes Into the Whizz Bang Net, Team Red is Better Than Team Blue simplicity, and it’s been replaced with the stuff of city council meetings and deals with higher cap hits than salaries. We’ve been reminded that our hobby, and our culture, and our community, is the plaything of the billionaire owner who – even worse! – also happens to not have a billion dollars.

I don’t want to dwell on any of this. There have been so many post-mortems for our collective interest, many of them written by my friends and me. Instead, we need to look forward, not with positivity, but with anger.

So your Ottawa Senators traded a marginal pick for a depth forward with term who is a borderline enforcer. How are you supposed to feel about that? If this were the 1992.5-1996 Ottawa Senators, you’d think we were just trying to protect some semblance of our dignity while losing record numbers of games. If this were the 1997-2007 Senators, you’d be riding a ten-year playoff streak but still be traumatized by playoff losses and so would view Austin Watson through the prism of insecurity and overcompensation. If it were 2016-2107, you would think that even these moves around the margin represent missed chances to give Karlsson one more option to get the puck to. But this is the 2021 Ottawa Senators. How should we react to the fact that we traded for Austin Watson? We should react like we’re Austin Watson, which is to say, we should punch a vending machine to death for looking at us the wrong way. Nobody respects us. WE barely respect us! Act accordingly.

We have the deepest prospect pool and the best jerseys in the league. Nobody takes us seriously. There’s only one logical way to deal with this, which is to act like we have the deepest prospect pool and best jerseys in the league and ignore everything else. If there’s anything being alive in 2020 has taught me, it’s that blind confidence will carry even the most mediocre person pretty damn far. Maybe even to the Presidency!

We need to forget about 1992-2017 and take all of the embarrassment and frustration of the last three years and distill it into pure, unapologetic, shit-eating enthusiasm for our terrible hockey team. I’m not talking homerism. When we do something stupid and bad, don’t apologize for it, and don’t try to explain it. Embrace it. “Of COURSE we fucked that up – that’s because we rule. What, are you stupid enough to care about doing this the right way?” There’s enough room for this anger and our usual repugnance for Eugene Melnyk. I’m talking about basically becoming Flyers fans but stopping just short of whipping batteries at Santa Claus.

We don’t need to adopt somebody else’s vision of the Hi Haters mentality, either. I don’t want to pretend I liked that Joker movie, or watch Bill Burr stand up, or own the libs, or do any of the other things that make poor excuses for toxic infantilisms. We can build something special, something entirely our own – a unique brand of anger and spite and utter freedom centered on our Poor Stupid Terrible Awesome Ottawa Senators.

It’s strange that it’s taken me this long to land here; our best player is Brady Tkachuk! He understands the hate. He embodies it. He is also awesome and a good guy, etc. Dude is going to get under the skin of 85 percent of the league before he turns 25 and still be flossing with kids. He’ll be our captain soon enough, and thus be in charge of our Culture Department. What we need to do is be there with him, in The Shit with him. Brady’s gonna put us on his back like the contery itself, and in turn we may need to put him on ours – as well as on an ad on the side of a stalled LTR with the slogan “fuck around and find out.”

Are NHL GMs a Mystery to One Another?

On October 8th, the Ottawa Senators traded a fifth round pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson, having been drafted third overall by the Florida Panthers a decade ago, will be joining his fifth team, and despite being Pretty Big, is also Not Very Good.

It’s hardly the kind of deal to get worked up over. A fifth round pick isn’t worth very much, and a team who was almost $20 million below the salary floor at the time added a Not Very Good NHL veteran with only a year left on his deal to a team expected to be also Not Very Good next season. Gudbranson will probably be on his sixth team in 2022, and Ottawa picking in the top five. While a bit of a head-scratcher, the trade is the definition of inconsequential.

Then, on the same day, the Columbus Blue Jackets traded Ryan Murray, drafted second overall in 2012 and Actually Pretty Good (though not Pretty Big and also Oft Injured) for also a fifth round pick. Ottawa Senators Twitter was alight with condemnation; how could this team, having just traded away nothing for nothing, decline to instead trade nothing for something? It’s a fair question. Asking it slams us up against the opaque old boy’s club of NHL hockey relationships, leading us to conclude, by dint of our lack of information, that the team making the inferior deal must naturally be an inferior assessor of talent. There’s another question worth asking, though, which is: how do the conversations leading up to NHL trades even work? Did Dorion even know Murray was available?

A few days later, the Colorado Avalanche made a lopsided trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, sending bona fide top-six forward Brandon Saad to the Colorado Avalanche for odds and ends. These deals beg the question: is there anything resembling an open market in the NHL? Anecdotally, I’ve heard mentioned on various podcasts, like 31 Thoughts, that there’s a closely-guarded listserv of some kind where NHL general managers share information about the players they’re trying to move, and what it would take to obtain them. But I’ve never encountered anywhere information about a market, in any kind of formalized sense, where players are objectively quantified and understood in terms relative to one another and to draft picks. Anyone who’s dicked around on Yahoo fantasy hockey has seen it: the trade boards, where one designates what they’re looking for, and what they’re willing to give up. Is it naïve of me to wonder if an equivalent doesn’t exist for NHL GMs?

It’s easier said than done, of course. Quantifying value is loaded, and the subtext of it is why there are so many people writing about and trying to get into hockey. But there are so many examples of teams making deals that seem fine in the moment only to find that these deals are sub-optimal relative to another deal that happens soon after that one has to wonder whether NHL GMs even communicate with one another. Is the GM community simply cliques within cliques?

Another puzzling rumor is that the NHL is eager to bring former Edmonton and Boston GM Peter Chiarelli back into the fold, perhaps in a role with the Arizona Coyotes. Chiarelli, though a veteran in NHL circles at this point, has been lambasted for a series of brutal trades and signings during his time in Edmonton. Why would he have not just currency in the NHL, but powerful actors within the bureaucracy of the league itself advocating on his behalf? It’s possible that he’s a good soldier, upholding the values of the league and conducting himself with consummate professionalism. It’s also possible that navigating the waters of NHL general management requires an understanding of the idiosyncratic gatekeeping that keeps any ol’ schmo from simply consulting the best practices and going about their business. Chiarelli has a membership in the Old Boys Club, and while that might seem like a self-legitimizing reason to grant him readmittance to said club, the health of the league is dependent on GMs that actually talk to and do business with one another.

This all goes back to that fateful day over four years ago when a series of bananas trades took place within hours of one another, all of the NHL media having been caught sleeping on the fact that any of them were even in gestation.

How could Edmonton trade Taylor Hall, a former first overall pick in the prime of his career, for a decent but unremarkable top four defenseman? How could Montreal trade the younger and cheaper PK Subban for Shea Weber? It’s not that these trades are not defensible if you squint and look sideways at them, but the experience is a familiar one for most hockey fans: “How could my team not have beaten that offer?” The answer, it seems to me, is that maybe they weren’t even aware that a market for that player existed. What we should wonder, as nerds on the internet, is how that can possibly be so.

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The most consequential moments in Ottawa Senators history

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If the league keeps with recent tradition, then shortly after playoff seeding is determined for the 2020 NHL season, it will hold the draft lottery determining where non-playoff teams will pick in the 2020 draft. Every one of the 15 teams to miss the playoffs will have a chance at the first overall pick. The odds for the remaining teams will then be adjusted proportionally for the second drawing, for the second overall pick, and then again for the third drawing, for the third overall pick. The remaining teams will then receive the remaining picks in the inverse order of the standings.

This statistical exercise in the likelihood of ping-pong balls with certain numbers to fall out of the machine first, which amounts to an exercise in controlled randomness, may be the most consequential event in the 28-year history of the modern incarnation of the Ottawa Senators. Not a playoff series, or even a particular play in a significant game, but an utterly random event that doesn’t even resemble hockey.

That’s because of four things we know, or at least suspect, to be true:

1) For a team to be a true contender, it needs at least one true ‘needle-moving’ player, a blue-chip, franchise guy who can drive play by himself if need be

2) Needle-movers have traditionally been found in the top few picks of a draft, and even then, not every year.

3) The 2020 draft is a deep one, with multiple sources reporting a higher likelihood than usual of real needle-movers being available in those top few picks.

4) As of this writing, Ottawa has two picks in the top ten. Their own is likely to be bottom five. San Jose’s, which they received in the Erik Karlsson trade, could realistically be anywhere among those 15 non-playoff teams, as the Sharks’ playoff chances currently sit at about 2.5 percent.

In the Spring of 2020, Ottawa could learn that it will select not one, but two franchise players. This has the potential not just to improve Ottawa’s chances of a Stanley Cup, but to drastically alter the competitive landscape of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference for the next decade. What happens because of those ping-pong balls could alter other franchises’ decisions about whether or not to rebuild.

…or, Ottawa could end up with two middle-round 1st, a place in the draft known to produce decent NHL players perhaps, but not of the franchise-player caliber. In this latter scenario, the Senators draft two Jared Cowens, remain a playoff bubble team for the next ten years, and hope to build by coalition a team that can sneak into the playoffs where anything can happen. (Some Sens fans are having paroxysms of agony at the sight of the words “anything can happen.”)

Maybe it’s better this way. Where we might still litigate Lalime’s 2004 playoff performance against the Leafs and just how soft those two Joe Nieuwendyk goals were, the fall of ping-pong balls is out of the control of any of the players, coaches, or managers of the Ottawa Senators. No matter what happens next, it will be neither fault nor glory of anyone in the Ottawa Senators’ organization, or of the referees, the fans, or even of the league. It is, in the space of a few minutes, an elegant testament to the chaos and indifference of a universe that doesn’t just not care about hockey – it doesn’t care if you live or die! 🤗

This got me thinking: is there anything in the Senators’ history more consequential than this upcoming draft lottery? Anything that could be said to have more meaningfully affected the likelihood of the Ottawa Senators winning a Stanley Cup?

I came up with a few contenders.

Breaking Ground in Kanata

The Senators’ arena seems oddly isolated, its location chosen seemingly arbitrarily in the suburban west end of the city, as if designed to limit accessibility and growth. It’s true that it’s only a 25-minute drive from downtown…on a good day. Add rush hour traffic, some snow, or if you’re coming through downtown from the east end, and it’s not unusual to spend closer to an hour. Anyone who’s spent that hour on a bus trying desperately to hold a game’s worth of beer in their bladder knows what I’m talking about.

This might sound like whining to someone like me, who navigates the United States’ busted infrastructure on ultra-long commutes to overcrowded cities, but in Ottawa, where people consistently have no idea how good they have it, that kind of drive to see something you could watch in your neighborhood bar seems insane. As a result, a hockey mad city that didn’t have  much competition until CFL football was revived once again in 2010 has at times faced attendance issues and trouble growing the game beyond the most hardcore of fans.

As Bruce Firestone recalled in an illuminating 2017 article, the original Senators ownership group wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with quality choices. Ottawa is laced with federal lands and a National Capital Commission loath to negotiate it away to corporate interests. (Which, don’t get it twisted, kicks ass.) While it’s true that a downtown arena could have been a game-changer in terms of making the Senators a have, rather than a have-not franchise, it doesn’t seem as if there was an actual, consequential choice at the time…unless the Senators wanted to keep playing at the 9,500 capacity Lansdown arena, home of the OHL Ottawa 67s. (Which, again, would kick ass.)

All the same, the location of the Senators’ arena has been hugely consequential in terms of their ability to raise revenue and compete, and remains a defining aspect of the franchise.

Drafting Alexandre Daigle

If you don’t think drafting Daigle was considered consequential, consider that the deal Ottawa offered to Daigle was so generous that it resulted in the introduction of a whole new class of contracts into the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the player’s association. That’s how big the hype was for the phenom: it permanently altered the legal apparatus upon which all league business is predicated.

Had Daigle turned out to be a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, and been added to a lineup that already had Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson, then the early years of the Senators franchise might have been quite different. Imagine if Daigle, like Crosby, turned into a lifelong franchise player, multiple trophy winner and Olympic medalist. Imagine Crosby in his prime playing with Alfredsson, also in his prime. Had Daigle brought a Cup to Ottawa, the team could have attracted free agents for generations. Everything would have changed.

Daigle, of course, would become a perfectly mediocre player even after given multiple chances and oodles of ice time, would bounce around the NHL and then finally play in Switzerland, only to be heard from along with Patrick Stefan every year when someone writes up a Biggest Busts article.

Trading Alexei Yashin to the Islanders

God bless Mad Mike, but I almost think that he gets a bad rap here. Sure, in retrospect, trading a hall-of-fame defenceman and the 2nd overall pick, which would turn into Jason Spezza, for Alexei Yashin doesn’t look great. (It wasn’t helped by the 10-year deal the Islanders handed Yashin, then subsequently bought him out of.) But in a pre-salary cap league, without the same understanding of the value of RFAs, Mike Milbury brought in a 27-year old with recent 88- and 94-point seasons, who had scored at close to a point-per-game clip for his entire career, in exchange for a defenceman who, at that point, was being used as an enforcer, and a pick that could turn out to be anything.

Imagine if, in the 2001 draft, the Senators had selected Alex Svitov, also a center, who went third overall to Tampa and scored all of 37 points in 178 NHL games. Or even Stephen Weiss, who went fourth overall and had a perfectly decent career but scored only 423 points in 732 games and retired after the 2014-2015 season.

Chara and Spezza would go on to help make the Senators a regular-season behemoth, and, after losing Chara to free agency, Spezza would center the famed Pizza Line alongside Heatley and Alfredsson and bring the Senators to the 2007 Finals, losing only three games along the way. Spezza would become captain of the team for a short time, and is even now still in the NHL, albeit playing for some fly-by-night contractors called the Leafs. Chara, of course, would become the Wolverine, complete with healing factor, captain the Bruins, win the Norris, and bring a Cup to Boston.

Daniel Alfredsson’s Best Contract in the League

Imagine that you draft a natural leader with an excellent two-way game and a goalscoring touch in the sixth round. Now imagine that he loves playing for your small-market, low-budget team, even if at one point it’s come close to bankruptcy and they reportedly had trouble cutting pay checks. Now imagine that he signs a team-friendly, five-year deal.

Now imagine that, as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players union agrees to roll back all existing contracts by 24 percent.

While the Senators would go on to buy out Aldredsson in 2009-2010 purely so that they could re-sign him to a fair deal and make him whole, they basically got one of the best all-around players in the entire league for less than $5M per season for years on end. This allowed them, among other things, to pay Heatley and Spezza after the Finals run, and keep intact a deep team throughout numerous regular season runs. Had Alfredsson held out in the early aughts for the kind of $7M+ contract he could get elsewhere, Ottawa might have found themselves without their captain, and never had had a shot at the Cup at all.

Dominic Hasek Goes to the Olympics

Sometimes we forget just how good that 2005-2006 Ottawa Senators team was. The Pizza Line. Spezza-Fisher-Smolinski-Vermette down the middle. Redden, Chara, Phillips, Volchenkov, all in their prime. Heatley, who had one of his 50-goal seasons, and Havlat on the wings as scoring threats. Quality depth all over the lineup, including Chris Neil, Patrick Eaves, and Chris Kelly. Then add Dominic Hasek, whose GAA and save percentage at the Olympic break would be the second-best in the league.

Hasek’s equipment was left behind in Ottawa, causing Hasek to miss vital practices in Turin, and he would injure himself in under 10 minutes in the opening game. He never returned to play for the Senators, who were eliminated in the second round after starting the promising but inexperienced Ray Emery, who managed only a .900 save percentage in those playoffs. Worse, the “will he-won’t he” quality of Hasek’s return kept the Senators from getting an experienced netminder at the deadline.

It’s possible that the Senators should have played better in front of Emery, or that a team that deep should have been able to defeat the Sabres, or at least take them further than five games. (Buffalo would lose in seven to eventual champion Carolina in the Conference Finals.) It’s possible that they should have brought Hasek back the next season, considering his strong play in Ottawa and willingness to play for a base salary so long as it was for a contender. But the fact that players were permitted to engage in long-shot Olympic bids, risking injury, and that the Senators would never be quite so deep again is why the Olympics remain so contentious in negotiations between the league and the players’ union today.

Hossa for Heatley

Imagine that you draft and develop a star player, and that player leads you to seven games in the Conference Final in the last year of his contract. It’s the first time your team has gone so far, having spent the better part of a decade as the punchline of the league after navigating uncharitable expansion rules and incompetent management. Your team then signs said star to a three-year deal without a no-trade clause…and on the same day he’s traded.

It’s wild to imagine now. This would be roughly the equivalent of the Senators trading Karlsson the same day as they signed him. But while Hossa would go on to have a 100+ point season with the Atlanta Thrashers, the Senators brought back Dany Heatley and had their greatest run of sustained success in franchise history. While Heatley had back-to-back 50 goal seasons in Ottawa, he would infamously demand a trade for which Ottawa could not receive fair value and quickly go into decline. Hossa’s career outlasted Heatley’s, and, despite missing out on back-to-back Cups with Pittsburgh and Detroit, he would win multiple Cups in Chicago.

It’s not clear why Ottawa traded Hossa, let alone why they traded him in a way that would erode trust in management so publicly. It might have been that they were not confident they could extend him beyond the three years he’d just signed after what had already been a long negotiation. But given Hossa’s longevity and the sour manner in which the Heatley relationship ended, it’s possible that Hossa takes Ottawa even further or extends their success.

Choosing Redden Over Chara

This has been litigated to death, especially with Chara still in the league at 42 and Redden having retired almost a decade ago. I maintain that with Phillips and Volchenkov in the fold, Ottawa leaned more heavily on Redden’s passing than they did on Chara’s shutdown skill and were reasonable to choose as they did. It was only after Chara left for Boston that he blossomed into the complete, all-around player with multiple 50+ point campaigns. In any case, Ottawa elected not to even offer Chara a contract, and signed Redden instead, but only to a two-year deal.

Ottawa would make the Finals without Chara, but would be dummied once they got there by the physical Anaheim Ducks, and it’s the perpetual game of Mirror, Mirror to debate what would have happened if they’d had a fully armed and operational Zdeno Chara over Redden’s 10 points in 20 games.

Perhaps more consequential than choosing two years of Redden over Chara was that first Chara, and then Redden, would walk from the franchise without Ottawa recouping so much as a draft pick. Ottawa once had two franchise-quality defencemen and got so much in their own heads about choosing one over the other that they lost both for nothing. Ottawa hasn’t made a Cup Final since, and wouldn’t even come close until…

Drafting Erik Karlsson

Here it is, the closest you might come to the randomness of ping-pong balls: drafting a 150-pound puck moving defenceman at 15th and seeing him turn into the best skater and defenceman in the league since Niklas Lidstrom. Winner of two Norris Trophies, robbed of two more. Single-handedly dragged a thoroughly mediocre team to the Conference Finals on a surgically reconstructed ankle. Fifth in league scoring…as a defenceman.

Ottawa has never had a player like him and perhaps never will again. Ironically, even with the potential for two picks in the top five in a very deep draft, Ottawa is unlikely to draft a player as good as Erik Karlsson was when he was in Ottawa. It’s too bad that his time in Ottawa coincided with an ownership who could not surround him with talent, and with a relatively barren prospect pool.

There were a number of pretty good NHL defencemen in the 2008 draft, even after 15th: Jake Gardiner at 17th, Michael Del Zotto at 20th, and this year’s likely Norris winner John Carlson at 27th. This makes it even more interesting and unlikely that Ottawa would not just take a chance on Karlsson, but trade up for him. He’s only surpassed by Alfredsson in terms of influence on the direction of the franchise.

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WTYKY Podcast: Episode 21

In this episode, James, Varada and extra special guest Chet Sellers discuss:

  • The Ottawa Senators suck the life energy from the San Jose Sharks, Emperor Palpatine style!
  • The Sens have many players of varying quality on expiring contracts and we share the latest on where we think they might land based on what we’re hearing from our extensive network of well-connected insiders!
  • Some much-needed Borowiecki love after having spent hours on previous podcasts using him as an example of why the Senators are stupid!
  • The 2020 NHL draft: the most consequential moment in modern franchise history!