What Are We Even Doing Here?

 

Something I have been pondering over the last few days is the idea of identity. Is identity something you are, or something you do? Is identity wrapped up in inherent signifiers and commonalities, or is it based around an quality that can be attained or lost? If I call myself a writer, does that mean I have to sit in coffee shops, wear a jacket, and go on retreats to the mountains with a typewriter, or is it enough to simply write something, anything? Is it more important to be in a state of being or a state of doing?

I ask myself these questions, because if identity is a state of doing, derived from action, I’m not sure the Ottawa Senators are a hockey team any more.

The external signifiers are still there, little things they share with other professional hockey teams. There is a coach, and there are players, and they play games sanctioned by a league, and they have scouts prospects, and they play in a rink. Sometimes fans are there.

But insofar as being a hockey team requires active participation, insofar as being a professional hockey team means attracting or retaining top talent in an effort to win games both now and in the future, that is not something the Ottawa Senators can do at this point. We are all aware of this change. Comrade Varada pointed it out earlier this week: this is different.

Sens brass has been selling the last hellish 7 months as a rebuild, and there are certainly some rebuild-like elements of the past few days. When Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel were traded for draft picks, we (or at least I) accepted these events with relative equanimity. Duchene’s days in a Senators uniform were always numbered after the team drove itself off a cliff last December. Ryan Dzingel, while a fine goal scorer and a surprise talent from the 7th round of the draft, is the sort of player who you want to be your 6th best forward and was somewhat useless on the current iteration of the Senators as he put up 20 goal seasons that were mostly empty calories. (Dzingel is also notable for being a rare case of the Senators selling high on an asset.) The returns on both players were good picks and prospects. These types of trades have been done a hundred times before, and will be done a hundred times again until some Harvard Business School graduate invents a way to deviate from the traditional boom and bust cycle every sports team eventually goes through in a hard salary cap league. Mark Stone should have been treated differently because Mark Stone is a different type of player.

Back in December, I outlined my belief that Mark Stone was a player whose abilities to tilt the ice were unprecedented in team history. My feelings on this have only become stronger with time. Mark Stone is in a class of truly elite players with Patrice Bergeron and Sidney Crosby in terms of his two-way ability. In terms of wingers, he probably stands alone in this regard. There is no stat available that does not bear this out. This season alone, Stone has put up 62 points in 59 games on the back of 19.4% shooting, which is only slightly up from his career average of 16.2%. He has scored 17 of his points on the powerplay, and is a remarkable +13 on a Senators team that has a goal differential of -41. He draws a remarkable number of penalties, while rarely taking them, and trails only Connor McDavid in number of takeaways over the past 3 seasons. There is no phase of the game in which Mark Stone does not excel. Additionally, at the age of 26, he is in the prime of his career and is likely to maintain this elite level for at least the next four seasons, if not longer. Furthermore, Stone assumed the mantle of leadership from Erik Karlsson with aplomb, even going so far as to have rookie Brady Tkachuk move in with him this season leading Brady’s father Keith to describe him as “instrumental to Brady’s development“. Stone has never found himself on the outs with the coaching staff for any reason. He has, by all accounts, an unimpeachable drive and work ethic, and if culture was hypothetically a thing that was suddenly very important to you for some reason, Mark Stone would be an invaluable contributor to a positive one.

In summary (and I’m going to put this next part in all-caps just to get the point across):

MARK STONE IS NOT A PLAYER YOU SHOULD EVER TRADE BECAUSE PLAYERS LIKE MARK STONE DO NOT GET TRADED

Even if you’re doing a rebuild, you don’t trade Mark Stone because the chances you ever find another player as good as Mark Stone are incredibly remote1. I think deep down inside, Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Sens brass know this. It’s why they desperately tried to convince Stone to stay. However, the (alleged) precarious state of Eugene Melnyk’s finances reared its hideous head once more and the owner’s refusal or inability to burnish Stone’s next contract with the signing bonuses that have become de rigueur among superstar contracts proved insurmountable.

Maybe I’m being overdramatic, and there are other teams that would also refuse to cut a Top 15 player in the league a multi-million dollar cheque each July 1st for the next 8 years. I doubt it. Certainly the Vegas Golden Knights are having no problem with it. Indeed, they seemed rather eager to merely be given the opportunity to do so. Distributing a large portion of a player’s salary at the beginning of July is now the cost of doing business in the NHL; it’s something NHL teams do, and if you can’t or won’t do it, can you really call yourself an NHL team? I think at that point you’re just a conglomeration of personnel attached to a brand which is slowly accruing value on some vaguely defined notion of a market, rather than a team, which would be an organization that’s making a good faith effort to win a championship in a well-defined timeline. This is reality for the Senators now. Until the organization signs multiple homegrown superstars to market contracts, it will always be an open question as to whether they are capable of doing so, and therefore an open question as to whether they are worthy of being thought of as anything other than some assets on a balance sheet.

Now we enter a liminal state of fandom. There will be little worth watching at the NHL level for the foreseeable future. The Belleville Senators, to their credit, have come on strong in the second half of the season and are now fighting for a playoff spot. Their ranks will be bolstered by some of the trade acquisitions from the past few days. Maybe they will put a little playoff run together. Hell, maybe I’ll go crazy and start getting attached to Drake Batherson and Vitaly Abramov. Maybe I’ll put my hope in the unknown future. I have no idea. But if I do, there will always be that niggling question in the back of my mind: What if they eventually want a signing bonus?

1. For what it’s worth, neutral third parties have reached out to me to say they think the return on the Stone trade was perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances, and that the centrepiece, Erik Brannstrom, looks like a potential superstar. I may come to love Brannstrom with time, in much the same way one may eventually develop feelings for someone they met through Ashley Madison, but for now I maintain that I would rather have actual superstar Mark Stone due to the famous Bird-Hand-Bush Theorem proved by Euler in the 1700s.

This Time It’s Different

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I’ve noticed a tendency to think of this round of Ottawa Senators trades as the latest chapter in a coherent, linear narrative: Ottawa trades or allows to walk some of their best players because the owner doesn’t have the money to pay them. I have to disagree, somewhat, that this is only the latest in a constant theme. I offer, instead, that what’s happening right now is much worse. What’s happening right now is the final emptying out of the idea of the Ottawa Senators as a shared experience, a local narrative, and a hub around which Ottawans build community.

During the 2010-2011 season, which resulted in the Ottawa Senators finishing fourth last in the league, the feeling was that the time was right for a rebuild. The team had older veterans who might garner picks and prospects – Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Chris Phillips, Alex Kovalev, Chris Neil, Milan Michalek, Sergei Gonchar, Chris Kelly, and Zack Smith. In the end, only Fisher, Kovalev and Kelly would be traded for futures. Goaltender Brian Elliott would be traded for an older goaltender, Craig Anderson, who was extended. The team elected to keep several key veterans in the fold, either because no deals came along to their liking or out of fear of losing long-time Ottawa players.

In other words, the team was loyal to a fault and maintained a higher payroll thinking they might soon return to contention.

When Daniel Alfredsson walked to the Detroit Red Wings before the 2013-2014 season, it was viewed as an inability or unwillingness to pay a franchise player who’d taken team-friendly deals (and been screwed by salary rollbacks during CBA negotiations, to boot). But on the same day, GM Bryan Murray traded for Bobby Ryan, a younger, scoring winger (theoretically; this was before his hands turned to dust) who would soon require a big-money contract. The fans felt anxiety, at the time, that Ottawa would not pay up. Instead, the team signed Ryan to a massive seven-year, $50.75 million deal.

When Jason Spezza was dealt in 2014 it came in response to a request for a trade and with the veteran on an expiring deal. He was extended by Dallas, an extension that has not looked great for the Stars who now pay him north of $7 million to play select minutes.

Ottawa made decisions that would not turn out particularly well in some cases and would alienate long-time fans with affection for their homegrown talent, but at least these decision existed in the world of logic: if your team is not contending with your current roster, you sell off your older players for futures in the hope that a future iteration will contend. Ottawa might have turned off a few because of bad decisions, but they maintained the narrative on which hockey relies: the team, and as an extension, its community, are always building toward the future.

What is happening to the Ottawa Senators right now is different, for the simple reason that teams that are lucky enough to draft good players, and lucky enough to develop them into good players, and lucky enough to still have them on their roster in their prime do not typically trade those players unless it’s for other players with the same or higher potential. For Ottawa to trade Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel – all players who are still young and could contribute to a rebuild – is a perversion of the natural cycle of team development. It is mortgaging the future on which sports mythology rests.

You amass futures and develop them so that you can compete when your window opens. You don’t amass futures and develop them so that you can sell them off for more futures prematurely. If you do the latter, it alienates your fans even worse than losing a player we feel nostalgic about because it dilutes the very premise of the sport, the underlying narrative that informs our long-term loyalty to the game. If the team is not building to anything in particular, then why should we spend any time on it? If the heroes of a particular narrative are not in pursuit of some commonly-understood objective, then why should we see that narrative through to the end?

The current state of the Ottawa Senators is not unpredictable; we’ve seen this throughout the world of sports. This is a natural byproduct of any business model that relies on sole ownership by people whose wealth is concentrated in markets that can, occasionally, bottom out. If and when Melnyk sells the Ottawa Senators, if it’s to another sole owner or small group and if their wealth is derived from a single source – real estate, pharmaceuticals, a traveling circus, whatever – we are at risk of returning to this endless cycle of building to nowhere.

The fault for this lies in part with the NHL. As I’ve written before on this site and on Twitter, until the league starts focusing on building up consortia of local business interests that make risk more diffuse among partners, we’ll always be at risk of a billionaire owner becoming less than a billionaire or, at the very least, going senile and interfering with management decisions.

I, more than some, have been able to ‘gotta-hear-both-sides’ many of the decisions made by the Ottawa Senators management over the years. While I might disagree with a particular trade or signing, I have, in most cases, been able to understand the assumptions that were made that led to it. This time, it’s different: the financial status of the owner has interfered with the natural cycle of sports narrative to disrupt our shared sense of purpose.

As a result, this is the lowest moment in the history of the Ottawa Senators, including those early expansion years. This is the moment those leading the team acknowledged that the Ottawa Senators as an idea, as a hero in their own story, as a community, are meaningless.

WTYKY Podcast: Episode 13

 

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This episode features special guest Poppy Fitzgerald of the amazing and indispensable This Amelnykan Life podcast. In addition to a discussion about their work (seriously, just fuggin subscribe) we talk about Gritty and Spartacat both being Libras, Melnyk’s bizarre statements about spending to the cap, the impending doom of Stone and Duchene at the trade deadline, and something about an Australian reality TV show that I refuse to Google to learn more about.

This Amelnykan Life: Episode 1 – Real Bloggers

In the first episode of This Amelnykan Life, Beata and Poppy introduce themselves, discuss the thick thighs and cruel lies that occupied Sens fans last year, and spill the tea on what it’s like to be an Ottawa Senators Digital Influencer.

Our music this week is Good Luck by All Day Breakfast. You can find this and more of their music at https://alldaybreakfastband.bandcamp.com
Our artwork is by Laura Nove and Angus Fitzgerald-Clark.

Mark Stone Is Incredible and Other Musings

Let’s talk about hockey. No, seriously! At the time of writing, the 2018-19 Ottawa Senators have played approximately 40% of their season, so this seems like as good a time as any to look at what the team is like both qualitatively and quantitatively. Also I have nothing unique, entertaining, or insightful to say about the ownership/Lebreton situation, so it’s either this or going back to making googly eyes at Craig Medeglia on Instagram until he makes me and the rest of this blog “Sens Influencers” and we can take our rightful place in Brian5or6’s private box.

I believe I can distill this year’s Senators team down to three key observations, which I will illustrate using the shooting heat maps provided by Friend of the Blog Micah Blake McCurdy at hockeyviz.com. These graphs, and many others, are available to you for the price of a small monthly donation, which Micah will use to keep his lights on and his children clothed and fed.

I like Micah’s heat maps because they convey a lot of information easily. Red is locations from which more shots are coming compared to league average. Blue is location from which fewer shots are coming compared to league average.

Need to impress your family with your Sens knowledge this Christmas? Here is what you need to know.

1. Mark Stone is most important player the Senators have ever had

Remember Erik Karlsson? I do! He was great! Maybe even transcendent! It is really too bad he went out for that pack of cigarettes and never came back. I’m still quite upset about it. Anyway, sorry for dredging up old shit, but I brought him up to say this: if you put a gun to my head and asked me if I want Mark Stone or Erik Karlsson on my hockey team, I’m taking Mark Stone.

The photo on the left shows where the Senators take shots when Mark Stone is on the ice. The photo on the right shows where the Senators take shots when Mark Stone is not on the ice. The quantity “Threat” is how many more goals than average the Senators would expect to score regardless of shooter talent. Basically when Mark Stone is on the ice, the Ottawa Senators play like a team with Stanley Cup winning potential. When Mark Stone is off the ice, the Senators play like a bad AHL team. Now, it’s not at all surprising that a hockey team is better when it’s best player is on the ice, but I’ve never seen a contrast so stark as with this years Sens team. For 33% of every game, the Senators are an offensive powerhouse. For the rest of the game, they couldn’t move the puck to the net with a U-haul and the vague promise of free pizza.

A similar effect can be seen with Stone on the defensive side of the ice.

The Senators are a slightly above average team defensively with Mark Stone on the ice. Insofar as “keeping them to the outside” is a thing, Mark Stone appears capable of doing that. On the right, we can see that the Senators give up too many shots from everywhere with Mark Stone off the ice. I really don’t know what else to say about this since the effect is so visually stark. Mark Stone genuinely makes the Sens look like an entirely different team.

As Mark Stone is essentially both the best offensive and best defensive player on the Ottawa Senators at this time, I believe it is in the team’s best interests to give him as much money as he asks for at whatever time he says he wants it. Travis Yost agrees. I don’t think I have ever advocated for a “blank cheque” approach to contract negotiations, but I do in this case because a Sens team without Mark Stone is literally not worth watching.

2. Cody Ceci and Tom Pyatt are not good

I don’t want to spend too much time belabouring this point, but it should still be said:

When Cody Ceci is on the ice, the Senators give up 41.5 shots on net per 60 minutes, many from extremely dangerous areas. When Cody Ceci is off the ice, the Senators are nearly defensively average if you squint a bit, insofar as giving up 34 shots on net per 60 minutes can be considered “nearly defensively average”. Now, it is true that Ceci plays many of his minutes against the hardest competition, and he only plays with Mark Stone 30% of the time. Mark Stone is a player who helps everyone he plays with and Cody Ceci’s results would look a lot better if he got to spend the majority of his icetime with Ottawa’s best player. However, even after accounting for these facts, there’s no getting around the fact that Ceci’s results are garment-rendingly horrific. Therefore, I would advocate for changing his role, and also possibly changing his team.

Tom Pyatt is often tasked with playing against top opposition. It’s a hard job, and Tom Pyatt isn’t incredibly good at it. Tom Pyatt has two points this year. Tom Pyatt is where offense goes to die. Tom Pyatt is a physical oddity who emits an extremely strong field which repels the puck. Tom Pyatt should be studied by scientists. Tom Pyatt and his linemates give up shots at nearly twice the rate at which they take them. There are some powerplays which take shots less often than Ottawa’s opponents when Tom Pyatt is on the ice. These are the facts of the case and they are undisputed.

3. The rest of the Senators aren’t incredibly great either, but they’ll still sneak up on you.

I’ll admit this one surprised me. As great as Mark Stone is, players like Matt Duchene, Thomas Chabot, and Ryan Dzingel have still been having great years themselves and I thought this would show up in the shot rates for the 1/3rd of the time when Ottawa has neither their best nor their worst players on the ice. However, even the likes of Chabot and Duchene seem unable to move the needle much offensively away from Mark Stone. Some of this, I suspect, is due to an intentional stylistic choice. I think Guy Boucher is encouraging players to capitalize on “rush chances”, turning the Sens into a One-and-Done team on offense. Anyone who has watched the Sens much can probably speak to this. The Sens generally look for a good initial chance, and if they don’t score or get the puck back immediately, everyone hauls ass on defense. They are not a team that is looking to cycle you into the ice. The Sens do not bowl you over like a pie in the face. They are quick and precise, like a pool cue to the balls. When it works, this makes the Sens exciting to watch as you get to watch the Sens exciting rookies run and gun. When it doesn’t work, the Sens are completely incapable of generating any offense at all as they have essentially no Plan B. This style does play to some players’ strengths. Matt Duchene in particular is extremely talented with the puck and having your man come through the neutral zone with a full head of steam and an opportunity to get creative is probably the best way to get the most offense out of him. That said, there can be no doubt that Duchene benefits an incredible amount from playing with Stone and vice versa. Of Duchene’s 11 primary assists, 7 of them are assists on Stone goals.

Duchene puts up results with Stone that he seems unable to generate on his own. If you think Matt Duchene away from Mark Stone is alarming, you don’t even want to know about Brazy Tkachuk. On a Senators team that still has some high end talent even after the departures of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone still stands out as a cut above the rest.

The Wisdom

Look, the Sens aren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, good. They give up too many shots and they’re too reliant on unsustainable shooting percentages (all situations sh% of 11.25%) just to keep treading water. The goaltending has barely even been average, and I’d be surprised if 37 year old Craig Anderson ever again finds the form that took the Sens to the 3rd round of the playoffs in 2016. Also Ottawa is dealing with a spate of injuries and the 3rd defense pairing is now Justin Falk and Stefan Elliott who are two players I have literally never heard of. So, things are not great.

But with no 1st round draft pick this year, there’s no harm in trying to win, so we might as well enjoy the little bits of unsustainable shooting percentage we get along the way as the Sens battle for 20th overall in the NHL. There are enough bright spots in the current team that the path to glory is clear. All the Sens have to do is re-sign Duchene and Stone, let the bad players walk, continue to draft and develop extremely well, get the goaltending figured out, make cunning free agent signings to fill out the depth, and do this all on a shoestring budget as the team continues to be enveloped in turmoil off the ice.

Easy plan. Until all that stuff happens, we’ll always have this:

 

Senstrology: How the hell do I feel about hockey right now?

Hello, fans of the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club! It’s been a rough year for us: We’ve lost some favourite players, our team is still owned by an evil broke boy who seems to be fueled by spite, and Pageau is out for the season.
Though we told ourselves we wouldn’t buy tickets to spite Melnyk, the first few games have been okay, at least not the shit show everyone expected, and we’re tempted to visit Kanata. Just once. Or does that make us hypocrites?

It’s all very confusing, isn’t it? Kinda stressful? Wasn’t hockey supposed to be an escape from these feelings? Will we ever love hockey again?

Instead of worrying your pretty little head about it, let me take you by the hand and tell you how you feel, thanks to the only thing we can trust in times of trouble: Astrology.

Capricorn
You can’t help yourself, Capricorn. When something is your thing, it’s really your thing. Even if it hurts, even if you told yourself you no longer care, you’ve probably been watching every single game. It’s okay.

Aquarius
You’re always in motion and highly adaptable. Sure, you were upset to lose Karlsson. Sure, you loathe Melnyk. But you’re thrilled to watch Tkachuk, Chabot and Duchene play. It’s not all bad, you’ll be fine.

Pisces
I know you miss Karlsson, I know you still haven’t gotten over Turris…or Alfie for that matter. I know you’re scared to love Chabot because he could leave us too. Hockey is a series of heartaches for you. Please stop crying.

Aries
No one is better at getting angry than you, Aries. You’re going to be angry until Melnyk sells the team and peace is restored. For now, we’re all enjoying your angry rants, it keeps the fire of hockey fandom rage burning.

Taurus
You’re a creature of principle, Taurus. You probably canceled your season tickets and put your jerseys in storage. You have zero tolerance for this kind of bullshit. Your love for hockey can rest for now. Maybe you’ll be back when things settle down, maybe you’ll get really into baseball.

Gemini
Let’s face it, Gemini. Paying less attention to hockey will give you more time to pursue one of your other 500 interests. Maybe you’ll try (and likely fail) to complete one of your many unfinished projects. You’ll still go catch games at the pub of course, no one can keep a Gemini away from a social gathering.

Cancer
You’re loyal to a fault, sweet Cancer. You’re hurt but damn it this is your team and you’ll keep supporting them. You’re basically married to the Senators at this point so prepare yourself to be by their side, on good days and bad.

Leo
Hockey related social gatherings? You’ll be there in your Karlsson jersey. Actually spending money on the Ottawa Senators this year? No way. You deserve better and you know it.

Virgo
Mmmmh don’t you just love a good grudge? Isn’t it so satisfying that pretty much everyone is on your side of the argument? This is almost as good as a decent hockey season.

Libra
Honestly, truly? The social aspect of hockey fandom is your favourite part anyway. As long as you can hang out with others and share the ups and downs, you’ll be fine. Can’t wait to hear you confidently tell some really dorky jokes at the sports bar.

Scorpio
No one should ever anger a Scorpio. This is not good. You’ve probably considered burning down the CTC.
Deep down, we all know it’s because you are hurting. Feeling everything this intensely is exhausting, but it means one day, when things are good, you will feel incredible. Hang in there, Scorpio!

Sagittarius
Sure this sucks but you’re okay. You probably already have a backup team you can enjoy rooting for this year. You probably have a whole backup sport you can enjoy instead of hockey. Ranting about your dumb favourite hockey team is fun but it won’t ruin your day. We’re all jealous of you.