4 Pithy Observations of Questionable Importance from the Season Opener

Hey, there was a hockey game last night. Did anything interesting happen? Anything historic? Oh, a 19 year old consigned to many years of indentured servitude in the most vicious market in the NHL due to the vicissitudes of some ping pong balls had an outstanding individual game in his team’s OT loss.

On Auston Matthews:

I can’t really work up much of a froth about Auston Matthews himself. Any player scoring four goals is an incredible feat. That Auston Matthews scored four goals in his first NHL game ever is remarkable. The Auston Matthews chants that went up around the CTC were well deserved. I have no comeback to any of that.

I still gotta get on my Hater Grind though, and let’s face it, that is also why you are here. Let’s throw up that picture of Goldstein on the screen and get to…

THE TWO MINUTES HATE

It’s gotta be said that the Sens did lots to help Matthews look good. No one could clear the garbage on the first goal. Matthews’ second goal was a great showcase of his doggedness on the puck and the highlight that brought peace to the Middle East, but all I see when I watch that highlight is Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman failing to control pucks, Erik Karlsson being too soft on his own stick, and Craig Anderson getting beat by a really bad angle shot. If just one of those Sens does their job, Steve Dangle’s gotta find a new tombstone. Moving on, why are the Sens so soft on Morgan Reilly’s zone entry here? What is Dion Phaneuf covering, other than his own house in deep shame? What position does Cody Ceci think he’s playing in the buildup to Matthews fourth goal? The Sens had horrific breakdowns on all their goals against last night, and a single player benefited considerably from each of them.

Auston Matthews is gonna have a great individual career, but Toronto’s seen great individuals that still couldn’t drag the entire team to wins. This has also been the norm in Edmonton. Personally, I’d be wild tight if my team’s best player scored four goals in a losing effort. That’s the most Oilers-ass thing I’ve ever heard of.

Good game from Matthews though. Good for him. He’s good, a very good player. Good good good.

Good.

On the crowd at Canadian Tire Centre:

I saw a lot of rending of garments and gazing of navels on Twitter in the leadup to the home opener apropos of the (large) number of tickets still available. Ordinarily, a team’s first game of the season should be one of the better attended games of the year. It’s an Event! Hockey’s been gone for so long and it’s back! You get to see new players for the first time! Erik Karlsson is there! If you can’t bring out a big crowd to the home opener, you might as well pack it in, right?

Counterpoint: I can totally understand why Average Sens Fan wouldn’t want to pay Premium Ticket Prices to go out to a game mostly populated by Leafs fans on a Wednesday. Those Leafs/Habs tickets are ~3 times as expensive as a game against Minnesota or New Jersey. I know I wouldn’t pay that. If I didn’t know a guy who gave me a deal, I wouldn’t have gone either.

Leafs-Sens games in Ottawa make me believe in segregating supporters like they do in European soccer. It’s not a good vibe at the CTC for these things. It just isn’t. It’s always got tons of weirdly aggressive Leafs fans who just come out of the woodwork. I don’t mind that people cheer for the Leafs, but why do they have to be so in-your-face about it? Cheer for whoever you want, but I don’t want to have to see it.

So yeah, Loudmouth Bro in the Matthews Jersey negatively affected my experience. I’m not about to judge any Sens fan who stayed home because they wanted to watch the game on their television or mobile device sans pants and fans of the other team. Who did or did not show up to the game on Wednesday is not a commentary on the fanbase; it’s just a commentary on socioeconomic factors over which most of us have very little control.

On the Sens being bad:

The Senators were not good for long stretches of the game last night, and they were not good in many interesting ways. For all of Guy Boucher’s talk of systems and defensive structure, I didn’t see any last night. On an individual basis, the Sens were also sloppy. Between the failed zone exits, missed passes, pucks fired blindly up the middle, and lack of puck control, the Sens put on a masterclass of Bad Hockey. For all the fans who spent the off-season bemoaning the team’s mediocrity, this must have been very satisfying. You did it, my Boos. You were right all along. The team was bad. (A BAD TEAM THAT WON, THAT IS.)

The good news for the rest of us is that sloppiness is often transient. Anyone will tell you that the only way to get game reps is in games. Maybe we can send the whole team to Binghamton for a conditioning stint before the next game on Saturday so they can all play through whatever malaise is gripping everyone’s normally silky mitts.

As for the defensive zone coverage, we’re working on it. Still……working on it. *places shirt collar on Elon Musk’s shuttle and has it tugged it to Mars*

KOACHING KORNER
1. Cody Ceci needs to watch this game tape until he’s internalized the message.

2. Thank you for that demonstration of Mark Borowiecki. I am now ready to see Thomas Chabot for comparative purposes.

On the Sens being good:

Erik Karlsson’s going to have 400 shots and 100 points this year. Dude is playing Sweet Georgia Brown in the offensive zone at Petersonian speeds.

I think Dave Cameron encouraged EK to be more of a distributor instead of a shooter last year, and early signs are that Guy Boucher has instructed Karlsson to bomb the net like he’s Bruce Willis and it’s the only way to save the Earth from an asteroid strike.

Derick Brassard is good, extremely good. I think he might be better than Mika Zibanejad. His goal on a great individual effort was soul soothing and restored my waning spirit.

While Ottawa didn’t score on the powerplay, they should have as Mike Hoffman was robbed by Andersen off a beautifully worked shot late in the 1st period.

Finally, I would like to express my great appreciation for that piece of performance art that was Ottawa’s overtime shift. Everything about those 37 seconds was perfect. Karlsson’s patience to enter the zone, and then leave it again after he didn’t like what he saw was consummate professionalism. The tic-tac-toe setup to finish the game was the greatest existing argument for giving Michelin stars to hockey plays.

Some people might give Matthews a hard time for losing Turris on the play, but I don’t really think it’s right to do so. He’s only 19 years old. He’s got time to learn. Plus, Matthews had already scored 4 goals! Toronto isn’t even in the position to lose that game in overtime if not for Matthews. One defensive lapse does not wipe out all the good Matthews did in that game. In short, I will not stand for the Spezzification of Auston Matthews. I know a lot of people will want to hang the blame for this loss on Auston Matthews, but it’s wrong and anyone doing such things should be ashamed of themselves. If you’re someone who is perpetuating the idea that it’s Auston Matthews’ fault that the Leafs lost, you should ask yourself if you’d still want him on your team. I think we all want Auston Matthews on our team, we just don’t want him on the ice in overtime when one defensive mistake can cost you the game. That said, he’s just one man; he can’t be expected to do it all himself against all-world talent like Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Kyle Turris. Even if Auston Matthews could have done better on that play in particular, it’s not good form to point it out. Let’s just celebrate what an amazing night this young man had, instead of dwelling on the single fly in the ointment which is the blown defensive zone coverage on Turris’ overtime winner. I will not send The Soup of Matthews back to the kitchen simply because The Cockroach of Kyle Turris resides within. Such bad defending during a critical moment of the game could have happened to anyone, but it didn’t; it happened to Auston Matthews and that’s not his fault, except for the ways in which it is entirely his fault, which is most of the ways. Ok, even if it is his fault, there’s a kind of cosmic justice in the fact that he got to ruin his own debut. Sure, Kyle Turris’ glorious snipe over the listless glove of Frederik Andersen was like Sidney Crosby’s mustache painted over the Mona Lisa, but at least Da Vinci himself i.e. Auston Matthews was the one who painted it. As Thelonious Monk once said, “If you make a mistake, play it loud. Then people will think you did it on purpose.”, and by that standard, there can be no question that Auston Matthews made this mistake loudly, and on purpose. Let us all just move on from this mistake that Auston Matthews made.

6 Pithy Observations of Questionable Importance from RITHAC

[Ed note: Things are slightly busier than usual at what a cynical observer would refer to as “my real job”, but I had half this post written and I wanted to finish and post it while it could still be remotely considered “topical”. Please enjoy this mostly unedited, poor excuse for content and, as always, thx u 5 reading.]

I don’t really “do” hockey analytics. I’m just a guy who knows how to math and read, or at least that’s what I put on my resume. I still try to keep abreast of what’s going on in StatsWorld (AKA the least exciting theme park in existence) because it broadens my horizons in terms of my ability to understand what’s happening on the ice, and gives me another interface with which to connect to general hockey discussions.

That said, I know stats aren’t everyone’s jam. But here’s something to consider: if you’re a person who dismisses analytics as unimportant, first of all that’s really cool because I had no idea Brian Burke read this blog1, and secondly you’re on the wrong side of history. Mathematical analysis started trumping human intuition in a bunch of other fields before it got to sports. No one raves about their stock broker saying “I love this guy! Doesn’t use any mathematical tools at all, he just goes with his gut!”, and analogous attitudes really shouldn’t persist in sports once Don Cherry goes off the air. If this fact bothers you, you ought to start making your uneasy peace now. Science works, and it is precisely for that reason that it’s not going anywhere.

(If you’re simply the sort of person who dismisses analytics in hockey as uninteresting…I can’t really help with that and you should probably stop reading now. I promise I’ll be back next month with a funny post. Sorry.)

Anyway, in a halfhearted attempt to stay ahead of the curve, I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology Hockey Analytics Conference last weekend to talk hockey with some of my favourite nerds, and also Steve Burtch. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, here is what I think you need to know about where hockey stats are at and where hockey stats are going.

1. There is no one-size-fits-all analytics background

When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When you’ve got a finance background, as Kyle Stitch does, you can use that to apply beta values to analyze player consistency and contract risk. When you’ve got a business background, as Carolyn Wilke does, you’re particularly good at examining performance expectations with respect to contract size. When you’re a former goalie like Nick Mercadente, you become a lawyer, but then you also talk a lot about goalies. Hockey analytics is made all the more rich by the wide variety of backgrounds in the community, and you ignore people who are coming from a “non-traditional” background at your own peril and ignorance.

2. It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future

At the team level, it’s been shown pretty consistently that shots (shots, in this case, being used in the Micah Blake McCurdy sense of the word, which is to say a shot on net, a miss, or a blocked shot) is a good indicator of team success in the long term. There will always be exceptions, but in the aggregate, shots are cool and good. However, if one is trying to use analytics to determine an individual’s talent level, things get a little more tricky. Ideally, you want a metric that measures talent to be fairly repeatable because you’re assuming talent is constant. To this end, goaltending and defense still lack a comprehensive and repeatable metric that can be used with authority. Evaluating junior players across different leagues also remains an underdeveloped area in hockey analytics.

The state of the union is that while goaltending, defense, and drafting are three very important considerations for a hockey team’s long term success, these are the things that have proven most difficult to create useful metrics for. When The Non-Believers say “Stats can’t tell you about what’s important”, in a way they’re right (for now).

However if you MUST trot out a stat about any of these things, please bear in mind that goaltending talent is differentiated most by save percentage of “high danger” shots, relative shot percentage (CorsiRel%) is a pretty repeatable metric for defensemen except when it’s not, and your guess is as good as mine when it comes to drafting.

3. This ain’t a scene, it’s a damn arms race

One of the more interesting trends is manual creation of new data sets. Jen Lute Costella in particular seems to have an ability to marshal a large number of loyal followers that is rivaled only by Voldemort (Look, you may not have agreed with everything The Dark Lord did, but you can’t deny he was a fantastic community organizer.), and she has used her army of devotees to track everything about every goal for the past seven years. This has resulted in a terrifingly large data set which, I’m told, has information that goes out to Row DO in Excel. Ryan Stimson’s Passing Project is another great example of people going out there and collecting data they wanted but didn’t have.

As the analytics community continues to approach the limits of what can be learned with shot-based metrics, the real cutting edge work is going to be done by people who have an infrastructure in place to create new, accurate data sets. As such, the days of becoming the next big hockey analytics superstar with nothing more than a spreadsheet and a dream are likely over at this point. You’re gonna need to bring some friends.

4. Work being done on the old data is going to inform what to look for in the new data

It seems reasonable to assume that more data is always better, but I don’t think that’s true. Everyone in analytics is trying to find the needle of truth inside the haystack of data, and simply dumping more data onto the haystack does not necessarily mean better inferences can be drawn. Faulty assumptions may mean that you end up going down a rabbit hole for a very long time. You still have to have an idea of where to look for what you’re trying to find. As such, a strong fundamental understanding of what’s important will be paramount in future research.

A good example of this was in Micah Blake McCurdy’s excellent presentation on zone starts. Intuitively you’d think that player usage must have an effect on player shot metrics, but Micah has shown that this effect is exceptionally small on average. The idea of a player who gets sheltered or buried is mostly a myth, but an assumption that usage is important may have led to bad analysis later down the line.

5. This new data is going to be difficult to interpret without knowledge of hockey systems

I would like to use an example from Jen’s spiffy data set to illustrate this point. One of the things Jen and Her Merry Band of Geeks tracked was the zone in which the 1st and 2nd assists originated. One of the things I noticed was that Kyle Turris has five times as many assists that originate in the defensive zone as Bobby Ryan. Now, is this because Kyle Turris plays with better puck moving defensemen, or is it because Bobby Ryan is not very effective off the rush? One couldn’t tell you without watching a lot of video or having a great deal of knowledge about Ottawa’s breakouts and offensive zone systems.

Context is important when using a stat, and it will only become more so in the future.

6. Integration is the watchword at the professional level

One of my least favourite tropes on Twitter is “If Hockey Team X hired an analytics expert, they could spend $100K a year to save $5 million a year.” There seems to be this idea that a smart person with access to war-on-ice.com should be able to pop up at meetings and say “Don’t sign Dan Girardi!” and fix the New York Rangers forever. However, as professionals such as Jack Han and Matt Pfeffer spoke at length about their experiences within hockey organizations, it’s clear that organizational buy-in is necessary for an effective contribution. Unless an analytics specialist has the ability to be involved in multiple levels of the hockey operation, they will simply be the person who delivers graphs to the coach or GM.

BONUS OBSERVATION: 7. The phrase “driving possession” needs to die.

“Drive possession” is just a way of saying “be good at hockey” for people who want to sound smart. It’s a term so catch-all that it’s been rendered largely meaningless. In the future, come specific or don’t come at all.

1. Low key, I think Brian Burke is one of the smartest guys in hockey. For one thing, his ability to troll a community that consists almost entirely of ostensibly intelligent people is unmatched. Dale Tallon could hold a press conference solely to announce “People who are interested in stats do not understand hockey, nor will they ever experience the loving touch of another human.”, and he wouldn’t even trend on Facebook. Only Brian Burke possesses that rare and wondrous ability to be totally confident in his own ignorance in such a way as to infuriate those around him. Also, if you take Burke at his word (which is not something I believe you should necessarily do), he is a guy who willingly eschews information that most people agree would make his job easier while still being quite good at his job. Think about that for a minute: Brian Burke intentionally handicaps himself, and yet is still one of the world’s thirty or twenty or fifteen best hockey general managers. That is amazing to me. Don’t dismiss Brian Burke; he’s got a lot more going for him than he’s given credit for.

9 Pithy Observations of Questionable Importance from the 2015 Rookie Tournament

While I was putting in work in London last weekend, I figured I might as well watch some games while I was in the area. This was my first opportunity to see a number of Sens prospects in person, and I have some thoughts which I will now share.

So without further ado, let’s play Eye Test!

1. Who was there was just as notable as who was not.

While Ottawa still sent a good percentage of their prospects, they still weren’t playing with a full deck. Nick Paul was held out due to injury, and Mikael Wikstrand was forced to withdraw midway through the first game against Toronto. Freddie Claesson wasn’t on the team for reasons I can’t be bothered to look up. Players such as Colin White, Kelly Summers, Miles Gendron, and Quentin Shore were held out for NCAA eligibility reasons. Consequently, Ottawa filled out the rest of their roster with players on amateur tryout contracts. This is obviously a win-win for everyone, but it also means given that Thomas Chabot and Marcus Crawford is unlikely to be a pairing we ever see again. Grains of salt for everyone!

2. Thomas Chabot is pretty decent.

It took me a while to come around on Chabot. Chabot’s a perfectly adequate defender in his own zone, but didn’t blow me away at any point. Then with the Sens Rooks down a goal late in the game against Toronto, Chabot took off on an end to end rush that resulted in the tying goal. Chabot would go end to end a few more times against Pittsburgh, always looking dangerous when he jumped up into the rush. What I liked most about this was that Chabot wasn’t just a free-wheeling downhill player; he was obviously picking his spots very carefully. He’s no Ceci or Karlsson i.e. the type of defensive prospect who can jump right in at the NHL level at contribute right away, but there’s lots to like already and I’m looking forward to watching his development.

3. Gabriel Gagne was the surprise of the tournament for me.

Most of what I’d heard about Gagne could have been summed up in two adjectives: big and lazy. The day he was drafted, I heard someone tell Ian Mendes “To watch him play, you’d think he’d scored his 35 goals by accident.” Check out this post by The 6th Sens to see what other sick buzz Gagne was getting. Based on this, I expected a big lumbering forward who just parked himself in front of the net and waited for rebounds to enter his stick swinging radius. What I didn’t expect was his speed. There’s a big difference between being a fast skater and looking like a fast skater (Just ask Colin Greening), and Gabriel Gagne looks fast. He was not afraid to take people on, beat people to pucks, and go hard into corners. If that’s what Gagne looks like when he’s lazy, I can’t wait to watch him when he tries.

4. I don’t get the Ben Harpur hype.

I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t see what the Sens see here. Harpur looked big, slow, and took bad penalties. He’s probably the player I have the lowest opinion of following the tournament. I’d like to see a Freddie Claesson call-up well before I see a Ben Harpur call-up.

5. Tobias Lindberg reminds me of Jakob Silfverberg and I’m not just saying that because all Swedes look the same to me.

Having watched Tobias Lindberg thrive in the OHL last year, I was really looking forward to seeing him in person. As my favourite part of the Puempel-Dzingel-Lindberg line, he did not disappoint. I thought his game was very reminiscent of Jakob Silfverberg’s. He didn’t have speed that would blow you away, but he was very solid at both ends of the ice and showed off his lethal shot and quick release in overtime against Toronto. Any Ottawa fan worth their salt loves them some Swedish prospects, and Tobias Lindberg will fill that Silfverberg shaped hole in anyone’s heart who still misses Jakob even though we have Bobby Freaking Ryan on the team now.

6. Matt Puempel has just the slightest whiff of Dany Heatley about him.

One of the wisest things about hockey I’ve ever heard was “The difference between a good Dany Heatley game and a bad Dany Heatley game is two goals.” Basically if Dany Heatley wasn’t scoring, he wasn’t helping your team win. That line was constantly running through my head as I watched Matt Puempel. Puempel would be out there, playing solid, but not really stepping outside his lane or doing anything special. Then suddenly the puck would be in the back of the net and #26 was celebrating. Insofar as “having a nose for the net” is actually a thing, Matt Puempel does appear to possess that trait. Away from the opposing net, Puempel looked good but not exceptional.

Keep in mind that Puempel spent time on the penalty kill, so I wouldn’t want to give the impression that he’s deficient in his own zone. He was obviously one of the stronger defensive players on the team or the coaching staff wouldn’t have put him in that position. Still, one might worry how he’ll look if he’s on a line with Zack Smith and Chris Neil during the preseason. I would put him on a line with Mika Zibanejad and Bobby Ryan just to see what happens.

7. Filip Chlapik did not impress-uh-me much.

I’m already on a pretty big hater grind when it comes to the Q. Sure it’s the league that produced Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux, but it’s also the league that produced Alexandre Daigle and Marek Zagrapan. Whenever someone says, “This QMJHL prospect looks super skilled.” what I hear is “This prospect looks super skilled in a league where defense and goaltending are just hypothetical constructs.” This is not to say that I don’t believe good players can come from the Q because that would be ridiculous. However, I do know a lot of people who really wanted to draft Sean Couturier over Mika Zibanejad who don’t believe that anymore.

What does this have to do with Filip Chlapik? Well, I can’t say that he stood out to me. On the other hand, his wingers, Max McCormick and Francis Perron, both had huge tournaments (4 points in 3 games) so he must have been doing something right. Also he’s only 18 so maybe I should just chill out and rag less on a guy playing his first games in a Sens uniform.

If I were to sum my impression into one headline it would be “Area Prospect Will Require Some Years to Develop”. Call me, Ottawa Sun.

8. William Nylander is a menace to society.

Nylander was the best player I saw all weekend. He looks poised to fill The Phil Kessel Memorial “I Can’t Believe We Have To Play This Guy Again” Role on the Leafs for years to come. I can’t wait until they run him out of town.

9. 3-on-3 overtime is like the Wild West.

There is so much open ice during 3-on-3 play. Every rush either feels like an odd-man rush or is an odd-man rush because one of the wingers got stuck low when the puck went the other way. I can’t wait to watch this in the NHL. Each overtime will be assured two things: it will be very fun, and it will not last very long. Sounds like my wedding night, basically.

Your Half-Assed 2015 Draft Preview

43-the-draft-is-coming-back

PROLOGUE

Through a series of poor life decisions, I recently found myself engaged in conversation with some Leafs fans. I had been lured to the bar under the false pretense of “Watching the Jays”, but upon my arrival, I realized I had stumbled into a trap and the gathering was actually a Mike Babcock Celebration Dinner.

“The one thing we know,” said one of my so-called friends, “is that if you give Mike Babcock good players, his systems are pretty much unbeatable. Just look at what he did in the Olympics.” The other Leafs fan nodded gravely. “Canada shut down Sweden in that Gold Medal Game. It wasn’t even close.”

“Yes,” I replied as I tried to resist the urge to carve out my own eyeballs with a spoon, “Only Mike Babcock was capable of making the hard decisions like ‘Do I start Carey Price or Roberto Luongo?’ or ‘How much ice time should I give Marty St. Louis?’. My dude scratched P.K. Subban. I bet he’s gonna love Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly.”

Undaunted, they continued: “He’s exactly the sort of coach I want coaching our young players. I think they want to draft Hanifin most, but they’ll take Marner if Hanifin’s not available.”

“Yeah, I bet Marner would be great in Toronto. I’m sure the famously forgiving Toronto media would not go out of their way to destroy the spirit of a Good Local Boy. By the way, how much alcohol do you think it would take for me to forget this conversation forever?”

Just as I was about to rush the bar and chug a bottle of tequila before anyone could stop me, a question was posed. “Hey Luke, where are the Senators drafting in the first round?”

I racked my brain. “Umm…something like 17th? I haven’t really been paying attention to draft position on account of having MADE THE PLAYOFFS.”

“So who would you like to take there?”

“I like the look of…Oliver Kylington?”, I said naming the most obscure Swedish prospect I could.

“Oh man, he’s dropped like a stone in the scouting rankings this season.”

So much for trying to impress by dropping names I heard on Twitter once. Turns out Leafs fans are pretty up on their draft minutiae. I guess that’s what happens when all you’ve had to look forward to for 8 months is that moment when you finally learn which teenagers will inevitably disappoint you. Being a Leafs fan is a lot like being an expecting parent of triplets in that way.

I’m not about that life. I’m not about to sit here and deliver blistering hot takes on a bunch of players I’ve barely watched. (Sample Hot Take: “I watched Lawson Crouse play in Kingston once. He impressed me, but not as much as Erik Gudbranson impressed me when I watched him a few years ago. Thx 4 reading.”) Amateur scouting is pretty difficult even if you’re a professional. You think I’m gonna buy what Craig Button has to say? He couldn’t even trade up to select a halfway decent pocket square.

Some teams who hire actual professionals can’t beat Central Scouting Services on average1, which is a little like going on Top Chef and losing to a guy with a frozen dinner and a microwave. Unless watching prospects is your life, your draft preview article should be exactly seven words long: “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Will that stop me from telling you exactly what I expect this weekend? Absolutely not! I’m gonna make like Balaam and start talking out of my ass!

Pierre Dorion or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Draft

Here’s something you rarely hear talked about: The Ottawa Senators are a hockey team which operates within fairly tight financial constraints. Normally these constraints manifest in the form of spending less money on hockey players, but the Sens also seem to have developed some guidelines to try to maximize drafting and development value as well. Based on what we’ve seen for the past seven or eight years, here’s what I expect to see this weekend:

1. The Senators will play it safe in the first round

Cody Ceci and Curtis Lazar were Ottawa’s last two first round picks in 2012 and 2013 respectively (Ottawa selected Bobby Ryan in the first round last year), and they’re both notable for how “projectable” they were. Lazar in particular was noted for having the game that would “best translate to the NHL” even as flashier players such as Anthony Mantha, Frederik Gauthier, and Hunter Shinkaruk were still on the board. The Bryan et. al. have rightly concluded that a budget team like Ottawa can’t afford to whiff on too many first round picks, and looking at their track record, you’d have to say they’ve done a pretty good job at drafting NHL players. Since 2008, I’d say the closest thing to a bust Ottawa has drafted would be Jared Cowen or Matt Puempel. And by bust, I mean “Jared Cowen has played 200 NHL games, and Matt Puempel’s going to have a good chance to make the team out of camp this season.”

Whoever the Senators draft in the first round this year, I’m sure Bryan Murray will say he’s capable of being a real good player in this league, but more importantly, he’ll probably be right.

2. The Senators might not play it safe in the first round

On the other hand, sometimes the Senators look at what’s available and say “You know what? We’re going to trade up (!!!) for an undersized Swedish force of nature who has one goal in seven games against men.” or “Actually, we’re going to pass on the QMJHL All-Star in favour of the kid whose favourite hobby is also the first two letters of the team he plays for in Sweden.” Is a history of reaching for risky Swedes an argument in favour of Oliver Kylington? Your guess is as good as mine!

Speaking of Swedes…

3. The Senators will not draft any Europeans, unless they’re Swedish

Click this link and as you scroll down, take special note of the nationality column. Ottawa is drafting players from a selection of countries that even most NFL teams would find limited in scope. The one player not part of the Canada-United States-Sweden triumvirate is Jakub Culek tha GAWD who was drafted out of the QMJHL. I think in light of the Senators’ limited resources, they don’t really bother scouting European players at all, preferring instead to maximize their return on investment in North America and Sweden. (This is also why I think the Senators were never going to take Vladimir Tarasenko with the draft pick they trade for David Rundblad, so we can nip that little bit of revisionist history in the bud.) Basically, unless your favourite Slovakian wunderkind happens to play in North America at the moment, I doubt he’s coming to Ottawa. Sorry, Europhiles.

4. The Senators will draft A Good Local Boy

The phrase “hometown discount” gets thrown around disparagingly from time to time, but you can’t tell me that Marc Methot or Jean-Gabriel Pageau didn’t take one. Kelly Summers, Vincent Dunn, Cody Ceci, Corey Cowick, and Mark Borowiecki are some other examples of Good Valley Boys who got drafted by the team they grew up watching on the CBC The New RO. The reasoning goes that if you draft players who like the Ottawa area because they are from the Ottawa area, they’re going to be more likely to want to stay in the Ottawa area (regardless of how much some might want them to leave). Here’s the thing though: it works! Listen to Pageau talk about his new deal2. The first words out of his mouth are about how he’s from the area and how he’s thrilled to be able to stick around where he’s got his family and friends.

Get excited, Sens fans, because this weekend the Senators are gonna be drafting The Pride of Merrickville Ontario, whoever he is.

5. Watch for “upside” in the mid to late rounds

If you’re confident in your ability to draft solid NHLers in the first two rounds, it means you can afford to take a few more risks later on. Maybe that means drafting a guy with soft hands who can’t skate and was injured for most of his draft eligible year. Maybe that means taking a flyer on a guy who has high end skill, but also has concussion problems. Maybe it means taking a look at a guy who played for an off-brand US junior hockey league, but had more points per game than Johnny Gaudreau that year.

The good news is that you only need to hit on one of these guys every four or five years to make it worth your while. Who else is feeling lucky?!?! *blows on dice at craps table*

The Wisdom

210 players are drafted into the NHL every year, but most will never see an NHL game because there’s less than 700 roster spots available in the league. If three or four of the seven players you draft see any amount of NHL time, you’re doing better than average. Without a Top 10 pick, it’s unlikely the Senators draft the next Erik Karlsson or Mark Stone this year, but that’s only because it’s unlikely that they could draft the next Erik Karlsson or Mark Stone any year. I bet they’ll draft the next Condra or Pageau or Wiercioch though, and while that may not be the most exciting thing in the world, that’s the type of basic hockey team building competency that stops the Senators from turning into the New Jersey Devils.

The Draft: Like a long-term savings bond for your hockey team. Who wouldn’t be excited for that?

1. This is a good read. Turns out Ottawa comes out pretty far ahead in terms of their drafting ability over the long term.

2. Not the FDR type of New Deal.

Your Round 1 Playoff Preview: Being Concise is for Losers

“A burger appeared to me in a dream last night.”, explains Carey Price as his teammates start to visibly lose interest in the story.

There’s lots to say about what the Sens have achieved this season, and I plan on saying most of it later (hopefully much later), but if you will allow me a single moment of reflection, I’d like to start by talking about this:

At first glance, that stat might seem a little surprising. After all, the NHL has been around for quite a few years[citation needed] and 14 points is only 7 wins. #Actually, 14 points might as well be from here to Mars. 14 points was the difference between playoffs in the Western Conference and the 4th overall pick last year. 14 points is a +40 goal differential. 14 points isn’t what separates the contenders from the pretenders, it’s what separates the contenders from those who shouldn’t even bother. What’s really going to blow your mind is the fact that at the time the Senators were 14 points out of the playoffs, they were 19 points back of Pittsburgh WHO THEY EVENTUALLY PASSED. I could talk about this for hours, but I guess the takeaway is this: anything is possible when you don’t lose for two full months. Ask your doctor if winning is right for you.

By far the weirdest thing about this whole “improbable run to make the playoffs” thing is the knowledge that we’ve already seen the most absurd thing the Senators are going to do this year. Where can they possibly go from here? Come back from 0-3 down to win a series? Whatever, that’s already happened 4 times in NHL history. What if they win the Cup? No big deal, someone wins the Cup every year. It’s like opening a magic act by pulling a rabbit out of a hat you’ve sawed in half while unicycling across a tightrope blindfolded: no matter how impressive it is when you pull the seven of clubs out of a volunteer’s ear later in the show, its impact is going to be slightly reduced due to what preceded it. Like it or not, you’re being graded on a curve from the moment you stick that unicycle dismount as a flock of doves flies into the rafters.

With all that being said, I plan on enjoying the hell out of whatever’s next. The phrase “house money” gets thrown around a lot these days, but all that really means is that Sens fans no longer have any right to complain. And thank God for that! Frankly, complaining was the only thing we had going for us for a while.

So pour yourself a Talisker, put the needle on your favourite Steely Dan vinyl (It’s Aja. Self-explanatory.), and take a seat. I’m here to tell you everything you need to know. Some of what I’m about to tell you may veer dangerously close to “analysis”, but just hold my hand and we will get through this. Together.

In the (United in) Red Corner: The Ottawa Senators

It took about 60 games, two coaches, and some injuries that were not blessings in disguise so much as blessings in a broken pair of Groucho Marx novelty glasses, but the Ottawa Senators finally know who they are and what they are doing. To wit:

The Forwards

Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris have become such strong two-way 1st liners that it’s starting to raise serious questions about whether or not Randy Carlyle and Dave Tippet know what they’re talking about. But like I always say: one man’s entitled high draft pick is another man’s backbone of the team for years to come. (Related: I can haz Taylor Hall? Call me, Edmonton!) In other news, Mark Stone simply does whatever the hell he wants regardless of what the other team has to say about it.

It’s no secret that Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Bobby Ryan, and Milan Michalek have been inconsistent this year. Lately Mike Hoffman’s been spending time exploring his dual nature as The Only Team-Leading Scorer Who Regularly Spends Time on the 4th Line™ and Emergency 2nd Line Nitrous Boost. Mika Zibanejad had two huge slumps at the beginning and the end of the year, but outside of the first and last 10 games of the season, Mika had 41 points in 61 games. Also he’s turning 22 on Saturday, so put down that mixing board and please buy DJ Z-BAD a goal for his birthday. If you can, also pick one up for Bobby Ryan who has scored on only 1 of his last 58 shots. This is a trend that I will generously describe as “outside Bobby’s established pattern of behaviour”. If he’d scored on a career average 12.9% of his shots this year instead of just 8.1%, he’d have 28 goals, 64 points, and we’d be talking about what a great Bobby Ryan Year Bobby Ryan just had instead of pondering how important having non-injured hands is to the act of shooting the puck. Sens fans to Bobby Ryan: There’s no “I” in “team”, but there’s a “U” in “slump”. Milan Michalek started slow but was really starting to cook before becoming the first player in NHL history to have an upper body injury in his knee. It looks like he’ll be back in time for Game 1, but who knows how long it will take him to get back to where he was. Basically as we go into this series, Ottawa’s second line is like a box of chocolates: they’re an unimaginative and lazy gift for people you don’t really care about that much. The good news is that even if the offense isn’t there, the 2nd line generally doesn’t get rolled possession-wise and can be trusted in all situations so it could be worse! *Hands out T-shirts with “The 2nd Line: Even when they’re bad they’re ok!” written on them*

Erik Condra, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Curtis Lazar have been the Sens’ best possession forwards for the past month. They are the greatest thing since cats’ pajamas made out of sliced bread. Fun bar game: between Condra, Pageau, and Lazar, which one do you want to adopt, which one do want your parents to adopt as your new brother, and which one do you want to time travel into the past to become your father while saving your mother from a homicidal robot? Discuss among yourselves. You’ll be there for hours. (Lazar son, Condra brother, Pageau dad btw.)

Zack Smith, David Legwand, and Alex Chiasson make up The All Disappointment Line. David Legwand wasn’t brought in to be a 4th liner, Alex Chiasson might not even be here after this summer, and Zack Smith’s new scruffy look can’t hold a candle to what Mike Hoffman’s got going on these days. However, if I may unsheathe this old #ACTUALLY that has been passed down in my family for generations, I’d like to make an observation: as much as Sens fans were expecting and hoping for more out of Legwand and Chiasson, 27 and 26 points is #ACTUALLY fairly decent production for a couple of 4th liners. Although Zack Smith may not have a long term spot on this team, he still looks like an NHL player, unlike some other Neils I could Greening. To recap: the Sens’ 4th line centre is the same guy who led the Red Wings in points last year, and not, for instance, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jacob De La Rose, or Brandon Prust. This ok with me. (More on that in a minute.)

The Defense

In terms of defense pairings Karlsson and Methot will drive the play, Gryba and Borowiecki will drive me to drink, and Ceci and Wiercioch will take care of the rest. Nothing new there. There have been rumblings on The Twitters that Erik Karlsson is playing hurt. Given that he hasn’t practiced in quite some time, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he’s a bit banged up, and by “banged up” I mean “still playing 30 minutes a night”. How hurt is he really? No idea1, but you gotta hear both sides. (Unlikely, given that playoff injury information is more closely guarded than nuclear launch codes.) On the other hand, the last time Ottawa played Montreal in the playoffs EK absolutely ran show against the Habs (5GP, 6P, +5) on one leg. This time around, I’m going to say Karlsson’s going to be in even better shape on account of not having had surgery in the past two months.

The Goaltending

Much could be made of Ottawa’s decision to continue to start rookie Andrew Hammond, but I can’t say I’m that worried about it. Hammond’s already been starting some big games over the past 2 months, and the pressure has formed him into a giant burger shaped diamond. Even if he finally crashes back to earth, the Sens will turn to Veteran Good Goaltender Craig Anderson, and that will be that. Also, Robin Lehner is a goaltending prospect with the Ottawa Senators organization.

Ok, enough about the Ottawa Senators. What about the team about which I don’t know what I’m talking?

Know Thine Enemy: The Montreal Canadiens

Hot take: Some of the players on the Montreal Canadiens are good. Max Pacioretty gets a lot of shots, a lot of goals, and a lot of points. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov combined for 110 points this year. Brendan Gallagher put up 47 points this year, has been Montreal’s best possession forward since December, and he’s only 22. Tomas Plekanec looks like Bobby Bottleservice. Carey Price has been en fuego for the past two seasons, will certainly win the Vezina Trophy this year, and should probably win the Hart. I think Ottawa’s going to have their hands full with Montreal’s top 6 and the Subban-Markov pairing, just has been the case for everyone else all year.

Luckily, the rest of Montreal’s team borders on disappointing. Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin have been getting crushed during 5-on-5 play. PA Parenteau and Devante Smith-Pelly were supposed to be the missing pieces that pushed the Habs over the top, but they can’t even touch David Legwand or Chris Neil numbers. Speaking of “David Legwand numbers”, guess what Lars Eller has! Dale Weise is tied for 4th on the team with a +/- of +21, but is rocking a cool 105.3% PDO and also looks like Ori from The Hobbit. Once you get past Montreal’s top 8 or 9 players, there’s a long list of guys that make you go “Oh, we can definitely beat THOSE guys”. Speaking of segues, did you know Sergei Gonchar is on Montreal now? If you hold your ear up to his contract, you can hear The Circle of Life playing.

In conclusion, the Habs, while not unformidable, are precisely two lines deep, and Max Pacioretty’s recent head injury will only further exacerbate that problem if he can’t fake a doctor’s note between now and puck drop. Division winner? More like DERISION winner!2

Pithy Observations of Questionable Importance

1. The Ottawa Senators have spent the 2nd least amount of time down 2 or more goals in this year.

2. Montreal’s had one of the better penalty kills since Paul Maclean was fired.

3. Brendan Gallagher and Dale Weise have the best penalty differential on the Montreal Canadiens which is SO ANNOYING BECAUSE I HATE THEM AND THEIR DUMB FACES.

4. Carey Price hasn’t been great against Ottawa recently.

5. Ottawa had 1093 PIMs in 2013-14, but only 841 PIMs in 2014-15. That’s four games worth of time Ottawa didn’t spend in the box this year.

The Wisdom

Ottawa’s depth is their biggest advantage in this series and there are lots of ways for Dave Cameron to exploit this fact. He could sacrifice Lazar-Condra-Pageau to the Habs’ top line to free up other matchups, or he could just roll 4 lines and dare Michel Therrien to try to keep up. Either way, I don’t expect Montreal to dominate play for long stretches of time.

The wild card here is, of course, Carey Price. Now I realize I just spent 1700 words to get to the revolutionary analysis of “goaltending is important”, but seriously: if Carey Price stands on his head, it won’t matter how bad Bryan Flynn is. In fact, that’s how we got here to begin with.

The good news is that even if Carey Price does Carey Price things, I don’t expect the Senators to panic. The one lesson they’ve learned over the past two months is that when they trust the system, good things happen. They’ve won every which way to get into the playoffs. They’ve won from 3 goals behind, they’ve won in a shootout from 4 goals ahead, they’ve gone on the road and played “perfect road games”, and they’ve blown out teams at home. They’ve seen it all, and I don’t expect them to panic just because someone tells them that now the games matter even more. Winning tends to instill confidence, and this is a good time of year to be confident.

And now A Serious Thing:

With the tragic passing of Mark Reeds today, life that happens off the ice (i.e. most of it) has been thrown into sharp relief. Over and over, Bryan Murray has talked about what a tight knit group of players the Senators are this year. It can’t be easy to process the loss of a person with whom you worked daily, a person who taught you to be better at your craft, a person who you’d seen and who’d encouraged you not 10 days ago, but goddamn if this doesn’t seem like the sort of group that’s just gonna go out there and play their hearts out for a guy that was clearly well-loved by everyone in the organization. I can’t emotionally handle more inspiring hashtags at this point, so just do the damn thing, Ottawa. #LetsWinItAll #DoItForBryan

Prediction: Sens in 6. Carey Price is a goalie, not a miracle worker. Get at me, haters!

1. Thx 4 reading.

2. If you would like to high five me, I will be posting up in the Rideau Centre from 1:30 to 3 PM this Saturday, April 18. Please contact the website for more details.