At their core, the Ottawa Senators are a really good team. They have one of the best top six in the league when healthy (featuring Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, and Bobby Ryan), arguable the best goalie in Sens history in Craig Anderson, and two time (soon to be three) Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson. There’s also a mix of talent in the bottom six in Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Curtis Lazar, and Shane Prince.
Unfortunately, from the top to bottom, this franchise has had the inability to address the need for an upgrade at defense and respect skill over intangibles. I truly believe the Senators have enough to be a top team in the East, but these two key points are holding them back.
This season it’s become glaringly obvious that the team needs a top four defenceman if they truly want to be a competitive team. Obviously there’s none available right now, and to add one would likely cost a top six forward. Most assume the price would be Hoffman, and I have trouble believing the net gain of a top four defenceman would actually be enough to offset the loss of Hoffman.
Opportunities have come and gone for the team to upgrade their blue line. The New York Islanders took full advantage early in 2014 when they acquired both Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Last season the Montreal Canadiens only had to part with a second and foruth round pick to get Jeff Petry. Even more recently, this past offseason, the Buffalo Sabres were able to sign Cody Franson.
Why did the team not take up any of these opportunities? Management projected their current slew of defencemen to be better than they actually were. Homegrown bias probably played a part in it, as 7/8 of our current defencemen were all drafted and developed by Ottawa, something they take great pride in.
When Cody Ceci was first called up, they credited him with stabilizing the defence. However, his recent advanced stats numbers tell another story of a defenceman that struggles to maintain puck possession. For such a highly touted prospect, it’s disheartening to not see improvement year to year. Granted, he’s only 22, and defenseman are known to peak at a later age, but would it have benefited him to spend more time in the AHL?
Mark Borowiecki is the perfect example of homegrown bias. He’s a local kid who exhibited all the intangibles including being a hard worker, playing physical, giving 100%, willing to stand up for teammates, etc. He was management’s poster child of what a prospect should strive for. In fact, they even went so far to give him consecutive hardest working player at their development camps. This would end up resulting in a three year contract extension in the summer of 2014, despite only having played 21 NHL games over three seasons. The contract was puzzling, especially the term, given the fact a 6-7 defensive defenceman of his caliber are unlikely to raise their value high enough to make another team try and outbid to sign them come free agency. He is what he is, and the advanced stats don’t paint him in a favourable light, as he has a team worst 5V5 (min 200 mins) CF% of 41.1%.
There’s no better player that sums up the defence than Jared Cowen. Drafted at #9 in 2009, the Senators thought they got a steal in the big defenceman who had fallen in the rankings due to injury. Cowen would go on to play for Team Canada in the World Juniors. His pedigree was undeniable. However, whether it was lack of development in the AHL, or the multiple injuries, he hasn’t been able to piece it together in the NHL. Management gambled on him, handing him a four year contract starting in 2013-2014 averaging $3.1 million (remember they did want to try signing him to the eight year max). For the past few seasons, management has repeated the same line of expecting Cowen to breakout. They keep waiting for it to happen while it becomes more obvious it’s probably safer to bet against it. Even coaching has realised it’s not happening, as Cowen finds himself benched or in the press box this season. It will be interesting to see if that will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and results in management finally admitting that Cowen was a bust and attempt to move him.
In the meantime, if the Sens aren’t going to be able to manage a trade to acquire a defenceman, what option do they have? There’s an easy one in Fredrik Claesson. The 23 year old LHS defenceman won the hardest worker award at the 2013 Development Camp (and to my knowledge, is the only winner of this award to not have played an NHL game) and followed it up with an extremely solid season putting up 29 points and finishing with a team high +/- of +37. He has done everything that management has asked of him, but has yet to be rewarded for it. It’s about time the team sees what they have in him. It’s certainly plausible that he could turn out to be better than Borowiecki or Cowen. They won’t know until they give him his shot.
This season has also highlighted how from management down to coaching, the franchise views skilled players. It started in the offseason as the franchise signed veterans Zack Stortini (who would be named captain) and Mark Fraser as the mentors for the Binghamton Senators. Are those really the type of players you want your younger players modelling their game after?
The recent call ups have further cemented this view. David Dziurzynski, who nobody had on their radar as being a call up, has now played 12 straight games. He’s another one of those big body intangible players who hits and gives 100%. However, in his stint in Ottawa, he’s got a 5V5 CF% of only 32.7% which is beyond terrible. Even if you don’t believe the numbers, watching the games should be enough to acknowledge that he isn’t NHL caliber. Max McCormick who is on his second callup is another one of those intangible players, who many have compared to Chris Neil.
Ryan Dzingel, a skilled player with strong skating, who is tied for the point lead in Binghamton got a callup of his own on December 22nd. Unfortunately for him, it was nothing more than a token callup, only getting 5:25 of ice time before being sent down. 25 year old Cole Schneider, another skilled player who is tied with Dzingel for the point lead in Binghamton has yet to get his call, with many Binghamton fans seeing him as most deserving. The past two seasons in Binghamton, he was their third leading scorer. Unfortunately he has been passed over for players with more intangibles, despite consistently being one of Binghamton’s best point producing players. There’s also Matt Puempel, who did get an extended look earlier in the season. Since being returned to Binghamton, he’s close to averaging a point per game, and you would figure should be one of the first to be called up with his first round pick pedigree and likelihood of being a player that could play a big role for Ottawa in the future.
When it comes to coaching, intangibles and “safety” come first. Skilled players will take more risk in order to try and produce offense. This can backfire in a big way, as their turnovers are usually more visible and can result in a high quality scoring chance against (see Jason Spezza). On the other hand, “safe” players will keep it simple, with plays such as the dump and chase. The result is no turnovers that lead to high quality scoring chances against, but at the same time, minimal to no offense produced. The goal in hockey is to outscore the opposition, “safe” players usually take the brunt of shot attempts against, as they don’t have the skill to produce offence and keep the puck in the offensive zone. Dave Cameron seems content to fall back to his “safe” players though, as they do exactly what’s expected of them, and as long as Anderson stands on his head, the strategy does work.
There is no better player than Shane Prince to demonstrate this. He led the Binghamton Senators in points last season and was expected to carry that over to Ottawa. He’s done the best he can with what he’s been given so far. He’s got 10 points in 23 games and a team leading 5V5 CF% of 50.7%, which is extremely respectable, given that he has spent half his ice time on the fourth line. How has he been rewarded with his play? He’s found himself benched in close games, and even worse scratched in favour of Dziurzynski (a callup none the less) and probably even worse, by a defenseman in Borowiecki. Cameron appears to view skilled players as a liability, players that are prone to a potentially big mistake that can result in a goal against. Despite the offence they may produce, it’s not worth the risk to him. This could be seen last year with Hoffman’s consistent demotions to the fourth line. It’s up to the player to show over a long enough stretch of time that they aren’t a defensive liability, while the “safe” players are allowed to get outshot game after game with no repercussions. This was shown this past game when Max McCormick was promoted to top six duty, getting to play alongside Turris and Stone, while Prince still lingered on the fourth line.
This mentality likely has rippling effects through the organization. It probably makes it more difficult for skilled players to play their game, knowing a single mistake could set their NHL time back and having to wait a couple more weeks. That is, if they even get the initial opportunity. Recall that Dzingel only got to play 5:25 in his one callup game before getting sent down, while Dziurzynski and McCormick have been given every opportunity to succeed. What do the skilled prospects in the AHL do? They see the players with intangibles being given these chances, but aren’t being rewarded themselves for putting up points. Instead, the team seems content to lose by death by a thousand cuts as they are continuously outshot game after game.
The core is there to be competitive, but will the team take the next step? The moves by management and coaching this season have me doubtful, but stranger things have happened as recently as last season. At the least when Bryan Murray steps down as general manager, it will be interesting to see if the new general manager continues the trend this team has been going in, or swerves it in a completely new direction. For the present, it’s back to hoping for another Sens miracle that they can beat the numbers, and squeak into the playoffs despite their horrid shot differential.