Sens go full Kijiji: E’rthing 2nd round pick OBO

According to Craig Custance, whose name still sounds like it belongs to a Dickensian brigadier general:

Sounds good to me! Sens currently sit 125 points out of the second wild card spot. Which seems like when you go a-sellin’.

I’m not one of these “Blow the team up! Blow the team up!” people. (You know what? Strap a bomb to yourself and blow yourself up.) The team ain’t all bad. They’re competitive most nights. They’ve got room to grow. But I’m excited that a lost season gives management the cover to make some changes: sell off popular vets, correct mistakes, and head into the strongest draft in years with a few extra lira in their pocket.

Who do I most want to see traded, and for what, you didn’t just ask? Here’s some words about it.

BUT WHO? (scream the fans)…AND FOR WHAAAAAAAT?? (going hoarse)

Chris Neil – for a 3rd round pick

Well shyeah. He’s not very good at hockey. He plays on the fourth line. He doesn’t score, he doesn’t drive possession, he makes everyone around him worse, and he doesn’t even fight that much anymore, if that’s your thing. Whatever it is you think Chris Neil brings to the team, I’d trade it for a draft pick.

So here’s what I propose: trade him for a draft pick. We already have Zack Smith. (…wait, do we? Is he alive?) And character pluggers are not as expensive as Neil. Way back in the day we traded Jarkko Ruutu for like a 6th. Getting anything higher than a 4th would be a coup for Neil.

Chris Phillips – for a 2nd round pick or prospect

I know, I know: this will never happen. But Phillips has found himself slipping down the depth chart and hasn’t been a positive possession player in a couple of years. He’s not very expensive, provides more of that magical veteran juice that playoff teams seem to want to load up on for playoff runs, and is apparently supposed to be a shutdown defender. If Ray Shero gave up two 2nd round picks for Douglas Murray, we can get one for Phillips.

Zack Smith – for a 2nd round pick

He’s probably hurt, which makes this unfeasible. But if he’s tradeable, Ottawa has depth down the middle and plenty of third liners on the farm team. And he’s not that far removed from seasons of 14 and 13 goals. This seems to me like the prototypical Chris Kelly trade. Solid two-way guy. Can chip in with timely goals. Punches stuff.

Milan Michalek – for a reclamation player or prospect

Milo’s been playing better lately, but he’s still way off of what the team must have hoped his pace would be. Without Spezza, he’s just another solid two-way player; he doesn’t have the kind of scoring jam they need out of him.

I hate to say that this was probably predictable, but you know what? We have WOWY stats and this was probably predictable. Murray still extended him. At this point, I’d take another team’s underachiever and see what the change of scenery does for him, though picks and prospects is probably preferable.

David Legwand – 2nd or 3rd round pick or prospect

See Phillips, Chris. Veteran player. Doesn’t actual produce offense anymore, but hey, you can trust him to make the “smart play,” even if he does get skated around by Jonathan Huberdeau so easily that he may as well be a tree. He’s got a year left on his deal, too. On a stacked team, you could see him anchoring a shut down line and providing good value for that later pick.

Jared Cowen – a good prospect / another player of the same age and ceiling

You wonder if Cowen could actually be the centrepiece of a larger trade package. After all, people are still talking about Tyler Myers as if he hasn’t been terrible for years now and isn’t on an expensive contract. But we’ve written thousands of words already about the team rewarding him for potential, and he hasn’t turned into that ideal top line pairing partner for Karlsson (even though they played him as one forever). I’m ready to cut bait.

Alex Chiasson – as part of a larger package for a big fish

Hold on, hear me out. I like Chiasson, even if the stats seem to imply that he drags his teammates down, but he’s young. He started well this season, just as he did last season, which would imply that as he matures he’ll be able to maintain production longer…

…or not. Maybe he’s just another third liner on a team of third liners who puts up a few lucky points early on because he keeps getting played on the top line. I’m just saying that if a good player becomes available and we need to include some promising young players in the package going back the other way, Chiasson’s still got some of that allure. He’s tall!

———-

Ottawa already has a high 1st round draft pick that only seems to be getting higher by the day. They have their own high 2nd round pick, plus Dallas’ from the Spezza trade. You add another couple of picks at the deadline, and Ottawa has some serious ammunition to trade up at the draft. They’re not looking for wide-net prospectin’ at this point. They need to combine some assets to draft an impact player who will help them in the next couple of seasons. This is one way to do it.

The Senators’ Long and Short Season

I had a thought the other day: is there another team in the bottom 10 of the NHL better positioned to add a top prospect and transition from mediocre to good than the Ottawa Senators?Untitled

Buffalo is in the first year of a multi-year rebuild. They’re legitimately horrible.

Edmonton has added aggressively, drafted superstars, and is still a mess. At this point they’re talking about rebuilding the club’s culture from the ground up.

Carolina is full of unwieldy contracts, from the Staal brothers to Cam Ward to Alex Semin to the tiny and oft-injured Jeff Skinner. They’re 10 games under .500 even with all of those expensive veterans.

Arizona is talking full rebuild and is buried under their expensive goalie contract. Who knows in which direction they’ll jump.

Columbus probably shouldn’t even be in the bottom ten. They’ve just had terrible luck with injuries this year.

New Jersey has the oldest lineup in the league.

Toronto has terrible contracts we read about in every paper all the time and don’t need to see listed again here.

Philadelphia’s defense is a mess, and they’ve handed long-term contracts to the like of Andy MacDonald and Mark Streit.

Minnesota could fix their goaltending and be better; they won a playoff round last year.

And then Florida, who could also be better, and at times have looked playoff-bound.

So, the Sens, Minnie, and Florida. I’d say those are the three who could add a prospect and then do some damage.

What sets Ottawa apart from the other two? Consider the following:

  • Ottawa has the lowest payroll in the league, and thus the most room to spend. You can see how restorative it’s been for the Islanders to add take advantage of teams near the cap to snag Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. A few key signings in Grabovski, Kulemin and Halak, and they’re one of the best teams in the East. That could be Ottawa, if they play their cards right.
  • Ottawa has the youngest lineup of those three. They’re the third youngest team in the league, compared to Minnie’s 13th and Florida’s 26th. They already have young players in key roles, and they’re producing. Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone have been revelations this season. Mika Zibanejad has quietly turned his season around. Cody Ceci and Curtis Lazar are both very early on in their careers, and are only growing. Alex Chiasson is a human male who can skate.
  • Ottawa has a core to build around. Kyle Turris is on a high value contract, as is Erik Karlsson. Bobby Ryan re-signed, causing the city to emit a giant sigh of relief, and he seems to be thriving in a leading role. Robin Lehner is holding a knife to my throat as I type this.
  • Ottawa has goaltending. Craig Anderson has been one of the best in the league this year, and Robin Lehner, though struggling at the moment, has finally been given the opportunity to work without a safety net.
  • Ottawa doesn’t really have any bad contracts. Sure, Colin Greening…with his $2.5M cap hit. Not exactly a crippling mistake. David Clarkson that signing was not. Milan Michalek hasn’t been great, nor has he been disastrous. Maybe Zack Smith? None of those signings is the sort of thing that will prevent Ottawa from being aggressive if and when they get the opportunity.

All of which makes it confusing to hear and read fans and bloggers describe this iteration of the team as ‘disastrous’ and ‘disappointing.’ What exactly were the expectations to begin with? A low playoff seed, maybe, at best?

One advantage of all of this parity is that there are only thin slivers of truly bad and truly good teams. Most teams are in the milky middle of the league. And so a team like Ottawa, who aren’t truly bad, can snag a top ten prospect and not have it mean that they’re years away from contending.

Ottawa’s playing good hockey at the moment. Their shots on goal are being cut down. They can hang with any team in the league on any given night. And there’s nowhere to go but up. Add a good player in this year’s draft and Ottawa could be next year’s dangerous, dark horse pick.

A systematic, game-by-game prediction of how the rest of the season goes

Here’s what we know:

Ottawa needs to go 23-11-4 to have a roughly 50% chance of making the playoffs. How close will they come? At this point in the post, I don’t know. I mean, we’re right at the top. I think you’re being unreasonable. But let’s go, game-by-game, and find out. It’s what I like to call “math,” and what my math teacher called “cheating.”

Jan 20 – Rangers – Away

They come off of a pretty solid performance against Carolina, even though they lost, and were ultra-convincing against the Habs before that. I’m going to start on a positive note and call this a win.

WIN – 1-0-0

Jan 21 – Toronto – Home

Normally I would call this an automatic loss because it’s against Toronto, but Toronto seems to be mired in a nihilistic whirlpool from which all hope escapes. It is the second of a back-to-back though, and they have to travel. And Toronto could, I guess, get a win someday. You know what…?

OT LOSS – 1-0-1

Jan 29 – Dallas – Home

It’s after a week off. It’s at home. It’s Spezza’s first time back. This one will mean something to the boys. BUT…Dallas has been unreal these past 15 games or so. This one is tough. I’m going to go conservative here and say…

OT LOSS – 1-0-2

Jan 31 – Arizona – Home

Yotes stink, Sens win.

WIN – 2-0-2

Feb 3 – New Jersey – Road

I know it’s really not very creative at all to say, “Hmm, the Sens are playing bad teams, so they should win,” but I think there’s some course correction due here. Ottawa’s shot ratio is much better under Cameron than it was under MacLean, and their record against the East hasn’t been nearly commensurate to their record against the West, which is wacky. So I’m going to call another win here. They should be able to beat New Jersey in the back half of their lost season.

WIN – 3-0-2

Feb 5 – Washington – Home

Ottawa plays Washington pretty tight, actually, and in this imaginary world I’m creating they haven’t lost in regulation in 5 games. Still, who am I to jinx the shit out of everything? I’ll say they get some bad bounces in this one, but still take it the distance and lose in OT or the shootout.

OT LOSS – 3-0-3

Feb 7 – Columbus – Home

Here’s another one the Sens should be able to take, especially with playing so many games at home and the imaginary momentum I’ve provided them. This is a soft-ass schedule. Roll them dice, keep gambling till you shit your pants, I always say.

WIN – 4-0-3

Feb 10 – Buffalo – Away

So, to review, so far I’ve said the Sens won’t lose in regulation for 7 straight games. That’s pretty great. But no one is bigger than the game. Especially when the game is as capricious and weird as hockey. Here, Ottawa not only plays the worst team in the league, but one of the historically bad teams of all time.

BLOWOUT LOSS – 4-1-3

Feb 12 – Pittsburgh – Home

Ottawa loses their second in a row; everyone writes the same article they’ve already written about Milan Michalek for the 14th time.

LOSS – 4-2-3

Feb 14 – Edmonton – Home

Afternoon game. Against Edmonton. At home. Should be an easy win.

LOSS – 4-3-3

Feb 16 – Carolina – Home

Jesus Christ, do they ever play on the road again? At this point Carolina should be all but eliminated. Maybe they’ll have started trading people. If anything, this should be a corrective to that weird bouncy shitshow goal in their last game against the Louisiana Turlets.

WIN – 5-3-3

Feb 18 – Montreal – Home

Fuuuuuuuuuuuck yooooouuuuuuuuu.

WIN – 6-3-3

Feb 21 – Florida – Home

At home??? Again??? Are the guys going to be 300 pounds from all of the at-home lounging? Florida’s played Ottawa pretty well here, I dunno. But I’m never comfortable calling games against them. We could either dominate or lose 2-0. Nothing in between. And I hate it when people call them “The Cats.” I’ll go conservative again,

OT LOSS – 6-3-4

WEST COAST ROAD TRIP SEGMENT

Feb 25 – Anaheim – Away

Oh shit. Party’s over. West Coast trips are always a thing. This is Mordor. I know I’m calling a lot of OT losses here, but it’s kind of our thing, isn’t it?

OT LOSS – 6-3-5

Feb 26 – Los Angeles – Away

Damn it. I want to call this a win, I really do. But this process is just too scientific.

LOSS – 6-4-5

Feb 28 – San Jose – Away

Who fucking knows? San Jose is the most mysterious team in the entire league.

WIN – 7-4-5

March 3 – Minnesota – Away

Damn, there are a lot of games left in the season. I didn’t think this through before I started this post. I’m going to get some pita chips, I’ll be right back.

WIN – 8-4-5

March 4 – Winnipeg – Away

Winnipeg is the only city in Canada I’ve been to where I’ve actually been pretty scared and people of many different ages have told me not to go out walking by myself. Good music and restaurant scene, though.

LOSS – 8-5-5

March 6 – Buffalo – Home

YOU BETTER FUCKING WIN – 9-5-5

March 8 – Calgary – Home

Hmmmm…. a Sunday against an unsuspecting and pretty poor team. This one is tough. Usually the Sens shit the bed on these ones.

OT LOSS – 9-5-6

March 10 – Boston – Home

LEHNER SHUT OUT. But Sens also don’t score.

OT LOSS – 9-5-7

March 12 – Montreal – Away

Fuuuuuuuuuccckkkkk ooooooooofffff

WIN – 10-5-7

March 13 – Islanders – Away

LOSS – 10-6-7

March 15 – Philadelphia – Home

WIN – 11-6-7

March 17 – Carolina – Away

That’s right, I’m calling this many OT losses. I don’t know man, the heart wants what it wants. I just don’t think the Sens solidly beat the Canes this season. Remember when JOE CORVO scored a hattie against the Sens that one time? And then we signed him AGAIN? Jesus. I don’t even really know why I watch hockey, to be honest with you.

OT LOSS – 11-6-8

March 19 – Boston – Home

LEHNER SHUT OUT. This time we score a goal. One goal.

WIN – 12-6-8

March 21 – Toronto – Home

Saturday night game. On Hockey Night in Canada. Automatic embarrassing loss.

LOSS – 12-7-8

March 23 – San Jose – Home

The rare San Jose in Ottawa game!!! It’s like a mirage!!!

LOSS – 12-8-8

March 26 – Rangers – Home

Like I said, we play these guys pretty tight. I don’t think we like them very much.

WIN – 13-8-8

March 28 – Toronto – Away

See above. Saturday night, etc.

LOSS – 13-9-8

March 29 – Florida – Home

Hmmmm. An afternoon game? On a Sunday? Against the Panthers? This one is like an exotic spice.

WIN – 14-9-8

March 31 – Detroit – Away

I’d like to think Ottawa tries to make it competitive against a division rival. There isn’t much juice left in this rivalry post-Alfie, but I think it’s close.

OT LOSS – 14-9-9

April 2 – Tampa Bay – Home

There’s hockey in April? That seems unreasonable. The season is probably too long. Oh, also at this point Tampa starts resting their stars for the playoffs.

WIN – 15-9-9

April 4 – Washington – Home

I really don’t know. This is like three months from now. What a dumb idea for a blog post.

OT LOSS – 15-9-10

April 5 – Toronto – Away

EPIC, NHL RECORD SETTING WIN AS A REWARD TO THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE READ THIS FAR. CHRIS NEIL WITH THE RARE FIVE GOAL GAME.

WIN – 16-9-10

April 7 – Pittsburgh – Home

I don’t know, I’m tired.

LOSS – 16-10-10

April 9 – Rangers – Away

LOSS – 16-11-10

April 11 – Philadelphia – Away

WIN – 17-11-10

…So there you have it. A soft schedule with a lot of home games in the back half of the season (the front half of the back half?) and a whimpering finish that actually saw me abandon my own blog post results in some momentum and more wins than losses. But we get so many OT losses it’s enough for every blog, including this one, to sort of shrug and be like “If we can win a few more of those next year we’ll be golden!”

Unfortunately, this rigorous and unimpeachable process predicts a 17-11-10 record which, according to SportsClubStats (at least before the guy who runs it gets hired by someone and we can’t access his website anymore) is….not a possibility? I don’t know.

But that’s 88 points on the season, which would be just shy of a playoff spot. If you need around 92 points (maybe 90 in the East), that puts the Sens at like….11th in the East. You know where they finished last year? 11th in the East. With 88 points.

Anyway, I’ve just now, just this second, taken up boating. Bye, hockey. It’s been fun.

Ottawa Senators at the Halfway Mark: “All that we are is the result of all that we have thought” – Buddha, 1976, New York

Hi lovers. It’s been a while; I’ve been away. Which is to say that I’ve been sitting cross-legged in a furnitureless apartment going on journeys in my mind. Which is to say that I’ve been squatting in strangers’ condos while they were away for the holidays. Anyway, I’m back at the library using somebody’s tablet while they’re in the bathroom.

THESIS STATEMENT: Turns out we were completely right about the Ottawa Senators. See you next year.

They’re a .500 team. They lose in OT or the shootout constantly. (They’re on track for 16 loser points, which is better/worse than last year’s 14 OT/shootout losses, which was tied for third worst in the league.) They’d be a lot worse without their goaltending, even now that new coach Dave Cameron seems to have somehow tamped down on the number of shots against. Milan Michalek, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil suck and make like $10MM against the cap. Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan rule.

All is right in Sensland, AKA the Sleep Country Canada parking lot where I construct a pyramid of shopping carts under which to store all of my things.

…AND YET:  as I noted on Twitter (@taylorswift13) I think I enjoy this non-playoff Sens team more than maybe any other non-playoff Sens team. Think about it: we’ve got some young and exciting players in Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Curtis Lazer, and Mika Zibanejad, all of whom have already shown that you can find your feet in the NHL and still score 120% more goals than Milan Michalek. Erik Karlsson is still an utter joy to watch, night in and night out. MacArthur is the perfect hockey player.

It’s not Picasso out there, but this is way, WAY better than those non-playoff versions of the Sens where Alex Kovalev showed Ryan Shannon that the key to consistent two-way hockey was to actively despise the team you’re playing for.

And the team doesn’t exactly stink. For all of the inescapability of the fact that they’re 8 points out of a wild card spot and their probability of a playoff spot sits at 12.7% as of today (tugs collar until I’m strangled to death), they’re as many points from the cellar as they are from the playoffs, have lost a ton of games in OT, and every single team in their division seems to be playing well.

Seriously, when Boston starts playing like Boston again, we’ll be looking at a situation where the Atlantic* (*an ocean at least 500kms away from Ottawa, if you liberally count the Fleuve Saint-Laurent) might send six out of eight teams to the playoffs. People in Toronto are losing their minds and Toronto was in a playoff spot up until recently. Florida is playing well, and are 11-6-6 on the road. Detroit might have built up enough of a lead to get over Jimmy Howard being stretchered off the ice. And my bold prediction that Tampa Bay would be overrated and not great was thankfully overlooked by every single person on the internet.

Ottawa’s PK ain’t bad. (9th.) Their goaltending is good, and there’s a succession plan in place with Lehner. The coaching change seems to have had a positive effect. I don’t know, man…in Japan there’s an expression, mono no aware, which translates roughly into “a pleasing sadness at the transience of beauty.” What do you want from me? We’re all going to die someday. Take a moment to enjoy some fucking hockey.

And Ottawa has the lowest payroll in the league. Has anyone mentioned that before? I don’t think so. I might have just broke that story just now. Lowest payroll in the league, right there. This isn’t a case of the Philadelphias. This isn’t a team that thought it was going to compete and spent like it, who traded away assets to get negotiating rights and then offered years and money up the wazoo to sign the players they just traded assets to get the negotiating rights to, as if they were doing all of these things in order to stink. Ottawa has nothing but bright futures, new arenas, ugly third jerseys and options.

What to expect in the second half? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say more of the same. They’ll finish either just inside or just outside the bottom ten in the league. They’ll sit around .500, with plenty of OT/shootout losses in the mix. Hopefully somewhere along the way they pick up some assets for Milo, Neil, Greening (ahahahahahahahaha), Condra (probably, though they shouldn’t) and Phillips (right). Anderson plays himself right into a deadline trade to St. Louis, though I hope not. Eric Gryba continues to have a mysteriously good +/- and no one will care about him.

Maybe in the draft they package their 2nd round pick with the 2nd rounder they got for Spezza and get another 1st, and then trade Anderson for a 1st, and then package those two 1sts with their own 1st to move up in the draft and get a real impact player.

Maybe Marc Methot was actually the thingy that stirred the drink all along and now that he’s back the team will gel in totally unforeseen ways and go on a winning streak unseen since the days of Cory Clouston and Brian Elliott (still in the league! As a starter on a good team!).

Maybe Ottawa finally, FINALLY makes that Chris Stewart trade, and they put him on a line with Todd Bertuzzi, and the team loses their next 22 games in a row and we don’t need to trade any picks to get an impact player in the draft.

Mono no aware. *lights beeswax candle*

In which we pretend to know anything about hockey coaching

Senators management fired coach Paul MacLean today. They were tired of his propensity to make his players skate more slowly than the other team’s players.

Also, sometimes when Ottawa Senators players shot the puck it was too high or too low or just right, but mostly too high or too low. It could have been the slow skating. They should have skated faster and followed through.

The back-to-back losses to the Islanders were the last straw. They could no longer stomach MacLean’s insistence on playing four lines for different minutes. With players on each line. Into the zone.

We at WTYKY wish Paul MacLean all the best, and hope that in his next gig he remembers that the glass goes all the way around the rink. Except in the places where it stops. So the players can get off the bench. A-doi. And that he figures out the correct proportion of grit to mix into his skill pie.

MacLean’s replacement will have a big job ahead of him. He’ll have to untrain the Senators in their current system of up-tempo sideways-skating low-tempo bullish sheepish Event Hockey and institute a strong 1-3-4-1-goalie setup until you pull the goalie when there’s time left on the clock until there isn’t anymore. As is the style in NHL 3.0.

All I know is that when we see David Legwand do what he’s known for doing–which is breaching the zone with his left leg and then his right leg, the other team will think, “Ok: these guys know what they’re doing now.”

And then this team will win the Stanley Cup.

Playoff probabilities, 2015, and thinking ‘transition year’

Untitled

Advanced stats at work

Something happened sometime last week: for the first time since the earliest days of the season, Ottawa’s playoff probability fell below 50%. After having spent the better part of the previous two months between 55% and their season-high 79%, this is the dark side of the coin in this coin-flip of of a season.

We’ve taken to calling Ottawa a bubble team for a good long while now, and that’s still fair. When the season is called, I think Ottawa will find itself just on the outside or just on the inside of the playoff picture, right in the creamy, mediocre middle of the league.

But in addition to thinking “bubble,” I’m also starting to think in terms of “transition” – as in, on a scale between a rebuild and true contention, this is the ideal year to add a key player through, say, the draft.

Before the season began, my biggest concern was whether the team would be able to re-sign upcoming UFAs Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacCarthur, Marc Methot, and Jason Spezza. Could we convince them to stay in Ottawa if the team wasn’t poised to compete?

The first two were re-signed after we put something in their drinking water that made them see New York City when they looked at Ottawa; Methot’s situation will come into stark clarity when he likely returns to the lineup tomorrow night and throws out his back; and, as we all know, Spezza retired a Senator and will never play another NHL game because he was born a Sen and he’ll die a Sen.

For better or worse, the Senators have locked up their core players – and on pretty high value deals, at that – so fans can take a breath and relax in that at least the team won’t take a huge step back in the next couple of years. Senators management can turn their attention to complementing and augmenting the team’s core.

With Methot returning and hopefully re-signing, one hopes the result will be the team outperforming more than just Buffalo on the scale of number of shots allowed. Curtis Lazar will be one year closer to the star that Bryan Murray believes he will be. Mika Zibanejad will be cured of the mumps. (He has mumps, right?) Erik Karlsson will still be in his prime, and Robin Lehner may steal a little bit more of the net away from Craig Anderson. This should be a team looking to compete for the Cup in the next 2-4 years, not necessarily right now.

I’m not ready to take Ottawa’s recent 3-6-1 spin as a sign that all hope is lost. Sure, Ottawa’s had to be pesky and have some of the highest save percentages in the league just to get where they are, but there’s still time to right this ship. And if it doesn’t get righted, then that’s okay too.

Come January, if Ottawa isn’t closer to positive on that playoff probability scale, I think it’s time to start thinking draft. There is no scenario in which Ottawa isn’t more fun to watch and a more competitive team with a very good prospect in the fold, and they aren’t going to lose anybody from the lineup as a result of a losing season. Add to that that the cap may not go up as high as some GMs think because of the sinking Canadian dollar, and Ottawa might be in a position to poach some talent the way the Islanders just did.

I want Ottawa to win as much as the next guy. I want to watch playoff hockey come spring. But thinking of this as a transition year makes the whole prospect of missing out a little bit less painful to consider.

Forbes valuations and the stagnant Sens

Photo credit to the Ottawa Citizen

Photo credit to the Ottawa Citizen

For those of us who like to take a system view of league sports but aren’t economists, Forbes’ list of franchise valuations is a vital talking point. Sure, the math is inexact. Sure, it’s a snapshot of a situation in perpetual motion. Sure, sports is a whole lot more fun when we don’t pay as much attention to the dollars and cents. With those caveats aside, I think the list is illuminating. I can’t help but find takeaways with every annual list.

On the surface, this year’s list doesn’t hold too many surprises. The league, as advertised, continues to increase in value, buoyed by regular growth and new television deals. Last year’s list had the Toronto Maple Leafs breaking the billion dollar threshold–the first in the league. This year’s list has three teams with a big B next to their name: Toronto, the New York Rangers, and Montreal. Every team gained value, with a full 23 teams gaining in the double digits and 12 gaining in excess of 20%.

A 20% return…in one year…on any investment is bananas. And thanks for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners will have a chance to keep more of that than ever before. So, the picture of league health is a good.

Now, this isn’t exactly cheery news for the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa gained a paltry 5% growth on the year–the same year they announced a 12 year broadcasting deal with TSN. While a 5% return isn’t exactly terrible, it is comparatively unimpressive when you look across the league. Teams in both non-traditional markets, like Nashville (22% increase) and established sports markets where you’d think there wasn’t room for massive new growth, like Dallas (26%), Boston (25%) and Washington (21%) are outperforming Ottawa in terms of value growth by a factor of four to five.

Some of this might be expected. Calgary gained only 7% and Winnipeg 5%, which means smaller markets and a weak Canadian dollar might be the main contributor. But the fact remains that even with its television-deal the needle barely moved on Ottawa’s value.

This with a team that has the lowest payroll in the league, and who plays in an aging building. It you put any stock in Forbes’ valuations (and not everyone, or even most people, should) it casts a bit of a pall over the future of the team, if only because there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for Eugene Melnyk to spend on the team or on the arena.

That means, potentially, continued mediocrity on the ice and a fight with city hall over who pays for a new arena. Not tomorrow, but certainly in the next few years. There’s no new windfall in the making. The owners got the deal they wanted, Bell Media showed Ottawa the money. What’s left, other than winning?

I’m not pitying Melnyk here at all, of course. He bought the team and arena for a song, and has seen almost a four-fold increase on his investment. But if the only way Ottawa is going to see growth in value is by becoming a hot(ter) commodity than it already is, then it’s going to need to win–which means either Paul MacLean and Bryan Murray working miracles with the lowest payroll in the league, or Melnyk being willing to take a loss on player salaries now in the hopes of cashing in bigger later.

Not that spending guarantees you a winner…but not spending gets you a line of Chris Neil, David Legwand, and Milan Michalek, and we’re watching the (painful) results of that every night.

Is next year a signpost for Ottawa’s financial health?

Yep, we spent all off season talking about a billionaire’s cash flow, and now hockey is finally here and we have something fun to talk about and I’ve decided to write a post about…a billionaire’s cash flow. Give me a break, I’m 63 years old. Nothing excites me like sound fiscal policy.

We talked about this a little bit on our latest podcast, which I know you’ve all listened to already so when you listen to it again now it will be like travelling back in time and watching yourself enjoy it, sort of like how everyone who watches the Dave Chapelle show basically likes to watch someone who’s never seen the Prince sketch watch it for the first time more than they like the sketch itself. What was I talking about?

Right. Ottawa recently attained the ignominious achievement of Lowest Payroll in the League. And by a good couple of million bucks to boot. Look at the teams directly above Ottawa in that list: Calgary and Buffalo, who are both in various stages of rebuilding; Arizona and Nashville, who are in non-traditional markets and have struggled financially for years; Winnipeg, who has the smallest building in the league and even then, the Jets are spending $5MM more in salary than Ottawa is. The average cap space in this league is $3MM, and the median is $2.3MM. Ottawa has $13MM in cap space.

So, yes, we ain’t flush. But what happens next year? With the cap reportedly staying about the same, Ottawa’s has new deals kicking in for Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, and Craig Anderson. (And Mark Borowiecki, though that’s not too pricey.) That’s just over $5MM in raises right there.

Then there are the RFAs: Mike Hoffman (8 points, 7 goals in 13 games) and Mark Stone (9 points in 15 games), who are currently make up one of Ottawa’s most productive lines. Mika Zibanejad, who’s struggling but is penciled in as Ottawa’s second line center until further notice. And Alex Chiasson, who’s looked great (9 points in 13 games). Fair to say that their deals will be all over the place given their different positions in the lineup, relative ages, leverage, Ottawa’s strategy of giving out years in exchange for lower pay, and how the rest of this season plays out. But if we very conservatively estimate that each player doubles his salary on a “prove it” bridge deal of $2MM per, then that’s another $4MM towards the cap.

Then there are the pending UFAs. I’m sure Ottawa would love to keep Methot in the mix. Eric Condra has been a healthy scratch lately and could be on his way out. Assuming Ottawa lets Condra go and re-signs Methot at $4.5MM-$5MM per, that brings Ottawa’s spending to about $10MM above current levels. Or, about league average in terms of spending.

With the cap staying about the same, Ottawa could catapult itself from last in league spending to the middle of the pack without doing anything overly aggressive. No trades. Not getting into the free agent market. Just standing pat with the team it has now.

Which is why next year will be so interesting. The glass half-full perspective here is that this is why Ottawa has been so prudent these last few years. They knew they’d have to spend on all of this young talent eventually. The glass half-empty perspective supposes that we’re about to see an exodus of talent via salary-dumping moves.

Surely it would be no surprise if Ottawa jettisoned Colin Greening and Patrick Wiercioch, players they’ve seemingly been trying to trade since they day they signed them. Zack Smith has also been in rumours, and with Ottawa’s surplus of third line centers would seem like an obvious trade target. Here at WTYKY we continue to pray that Chris Neil finds his way into a San Jose Sharks uniform when that team finally has its full-blown identity crisis and decides that ‘grit wins Cups.’

If those kinds of moves take place, it might be another indication of Ottawa’s financial health, or lack thereof. The TSN television deal will have started to pay at that point. If Ottawa has a strong season and makes the playoffs, ticket sales will be strong. If Ottawa doesn’t spend to at least league average, what does that say about Melnyk’s ability to support this team as its window of contention starts to creak open again?

Kudos to TSN for its classy piece on Bryan Murray

I’m sure many of you have already seen this short piece on Bryan Murray’s battle with stage 4 colon cancer, but if you haven’t, it’s poignant, authentic, and well worth your time.

Nicely done, TSN – especially having the interview conducted by Michael Farber, a cancer survivor, and then throwing to the panel to talk about how they’re all going to get colonoscopies. It makes a difference, especially in bullheaded, traditional cultures like hockey’s, to de-stigmatize these preventative measures.

Finally, you can really tell how well-respected Murray is in hockey circles. Anytime you see someone who’s dedicated half of their life to an endeavor, it deserves a moment’s recognition.

All the best to Bryan Murray from the WTYKY fam.

The Cautionary Tale of Jared Cowen and how we view Curtis Lazar

Senators-first-rounder-Curtis-Lazar-and-Edmonton-have-a-5-point-lead-in-the-WHLs-Eastern-Conference-Larry-MacDougal-The-Canadian-Press

The year was 2010, and Jared Cowen had just been sent back to junior.

The prospect’s prestige was undeniable. A first overall selection in the WHL draft, his team, the Chiefs, would win the league championship in his first full season with the club and Cowen would receive the team’s rookie-of-the-year award. He was ranked the fourth best skater heading in the NHL draft despite a terrible-looking knee injury, and was eventually selected by Ottawa ninth overall. The feeling at the time was that Ottawa might have snagged itself a top-five pick. The club began pouring echinacea directly into his kneecap and prayed.

At the time it seemed the burnish on Cowen was blinding. His ceiling wasn’t just as a serviceable NHL defender, but as a stud shutdown player, capable of playing half the game on the top pairing. He was to be the perfect defensive yin to Erik Karlsson’s offensive yang.

More than that, Cowen was the corrective to the wrong that was allowing Zdeno Chara, who would become a generationally great player and perennial Norris contender, to walk for nothing. Cowen and Karlsson would be the foundation on which the team would complete its rebuild-on-the-fly, and return the team to the high-flying years when Chara and Wade Redden formed one of the best tandems in the league.

I can’t really overstate this: coming out of the modern franchise’s first finals appearance and having lived through the devastating Heatley affair, dismissing multiple coaches, and missing the playoffs for the first time in ages, the Ottawa Senators were all about hope. They’d jump-started their rebuild by taking Erik Karlsson in the middle of the first round. Cowen was just another piece in the narrative puzzle, a stepping stone on the road back to glory.

In 2010-2011, with Cowen already having played an NHL game and expected to challenge for a roster spot, Ottawa opted to send him back to junior for the year. He was a dominant player there, the captain of his team, and capped his year by joining the Binghamton Senators on a run that would result in an AHL Calder Cup. Everything was falling into place.

It’s sort of a fairy-tale when told this way. We, the fans, want so badly for the narrative to be true: a blue chip prospect, succeeding at every level, all but destined to join the team and take it over the top.

And at times it’s seemed as if the management has wanted to believe this as much as the fans do. They’ve played him in top four minutes, often on a pairing with Erik Karlsson despite less-than-stellar results. There was the rumoured eight-year deal Ottawa had on the table, which you could argue was just an attempt to get good value out of a prospect with a lot of potential but still represented a massive gamble on a player who’d yet to really establish himself as a regular NHLer.

During what sometimes seemed like a contentious negotiation on his RFA deal it seemed like even Cowen had bought into the narrative, looking for salary in excess of $4MM a year. The team eventually settled on a deal that would pay him just a shade over $3MM for four years. It wasn’t the richest deal in the league, but keep in mind that Cowen had missed close to a whole season with a hip injury, and had played about a season’s worth of games at that point.

While there have been highlights–he had a good series against Montreal that one year, though most of the team did–we’ve come associate Cowen with mind-boggling brain farts. Despite (perhaps because of) his size, he loses his assignments in transition. Far from the perfect complement to Karlsson, he seems baffled by his linemate’s speed and mobility. He was supposed to be the safety net that would allow Karlsson to follow his riskier instincts; too often we see the gaffes inherent to Karlsson’s free-wheeling tendencies exacerbated rather than remedied by a confused Cowen. And then there are the penalties, which came early and often.

So, here we are: 11 games into the season and Cowen has already been a healthy scratch in consecutive games. It’s the nadir of his early NHL career, and the narrative is looking a little bit like a fairy tale after all. None of which is to imply that he’s a bust, or should be traded. Cowen still has potential, and Ottawa needs all of the young, potentially good defensemen it can get. It’s just that the narrative and the expectations associated with Cowen, before he was ever really a regular part of the lineup, don’t match.

Which brings us to Curtis Lazar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

Lazar was a second overall selection in the WHL draft. The Edmonton Oil Kings won the WHL championship in his first year on the team. The next year they lost in the finals, and then, the season following, won the championship again and the Memorial Cup to boot. He played on Team Canada’s Junior Team, was drafted 17th overall in the NHL draft, and the feeling was both that Lazar was a steal at that spot and almost a complete player at the tender age of 18.

But, more than that and also like Cowen, Lazar’s particular set of intangibles were thought a perfect complement to the perceived gaps in the NHL club. Lazar was gritty, determined, and a natural winner. Ottawa, and particularly its ultra-skilled captain Jason Spezza, had failed to establish an identity, were being pushed around by other clubs, didn’t work hard enough, and on and on. (I don’t believe any of that, but it was the narrative.) Once again a promising young prospect was expected to address the historical injustices of a club that’s never been able to win the whole enchilada.

So here we find ourselves, at the nine game cusp of Curtis Lazar’s tryout before his deal kicks in, and it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll remain with the big club as opposed to being sent back to junior. After all, he’s won everywhere already; what more is there to be gained from him returning to Edmonton? It’s a solid argument, but there’s a lesson here.

Cowen wasn’t able to live up to expectations, and he had the advantage of a buffer year in the juniors. I worry that Lazar sticking with the big club means even bigger expectations. By sending Lazar back to juniors you have the protection of a kid from the unreasonable, pretty much mythical expectations attendant all sports franchises. The club needs to actively manage those expectations for Lazar, and not just for this season, but for the next couple, maybe even the next few seasons. Because those expectations are ridiculous.

We have plenty of evidence that 18 year old players rarely contribute at the NHL level unless they’re a first overall pick and being used in all situations. And so far it seems like Ottawa is doing the right thing; Lazar is playing sheltered minutes on the third or fourth line, getting offensive zone starts and some limited power-play time. Nobody expects him to set the world on fire right away.

But what about next season? We’re in a fickle, Canadian market, remember? How long do you think it will be before analysts start saying that Curtis Lazar needs to “step up his game”? How long is it before Lazar finds himself in the position Mika Zibanejad is in now, under the uncomfortably hot spotlight of armchair analysts and fans?

There’s a part of me that wonders if Lazar would benefit from another year in junior, not because he needs more seasoning, or because being in the NHL isn’t better for his skill development, but because it allows us to keep the narrative just that–a narrative–for a little while longer. Sure, it holds off having to pay Lazar for another year. But it also keeps expectations abstract and distant for the moment. Lazar the savior, with the leadership and intangibles to fill the void. Lazar, representing everything and nothing at the same time.

And there’s another part of me that thinks it’s up to us, the fans, to keep our heads screwed on right. This is a teenager we’re talking about. Cowen couldn’t fill our expectations because, really, how could he? There are only 60 top-two NHL defensemen in the world on any given game night. It’s a pretty exclusive club. But he’s whipping boy number one at the moment, and perhaps rightly so. We, the fans, can avoid doing this same thing to Lazar when his time comes.

It starts now, with us busting up these narrative when we encounter them. Lazar is a promising young player. But first and foremost he’s a kid trying to make his way into the best hockey league in the world. If the club isn’t going to insulate him by sending him back to junior, then let’s let him be that for as long as he needs to be.