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.
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: