To Tank Or Not? Where To Go From Here

With the Ottawa Senators now 12 points back of the final wild card spot, the question still being argued is whether or not this team should tank. Tanking obviously has its advantages. With such a strong draft class including Connor McDavid, every spot a team falls brings their odds that much higher to nabbing the first overall pick. On the flip side, some will argue that until you’re officially eliminated, anything can happen. Ottawa seems to be caught in the middle of these two views, and it should stay that way.

The Senators are too good to tank. They can’t compete with the likes of the Buffalo, Edmonton, Arizona, and Carolina when it comes to terribleness. If they wanted to commit to the tank, they would have to go back to Paul MacLean’s player usage. That is, heavily depending on the veterans. The would have to give plenty of minutes to Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, and David Legwand. You would bring Colin Greening back into the lineup, and insert Zack Smith when healthy. It would probably involve trading away Craig Anderson, which would lead to the struggling Andrew Hammond getting his share of starts. This won’t happen. The fan base wouldn’t accept it.

On the flip side, the Senators aren’t good enough to make a miracle run to the playoffs. To do so would likely require a stretch of winning 10 of 12 games. That’s not happening for a team that has struggled to even string two consecutive wins together. It’s a pipe dream. Trading for a rental is a fruitless maneuver that will only ruin your draft position as well as the loss of future assets.

So Ottawa is destined to be a middle of the pack team that won’t nab a top five pick, and won’t make the playoffs. Where do they go from here? The best path forward is to prepare this roster for a playoff run in 2015-2016. It’s clear that the Senators will still be a budget team next season. They need to find a way to clear up cap space to have the flexibility to upgrade this roster when the opportunity arises.

First and foremost, the alternate captains Chris Neil and Chris Phillips have to be dealt. At 35 and 36, their best years are well behind them. They’re the last two remaining players from the Daniel Alfredsson era. They have both done tremendous work on and off the ice for this city. There is no questioning that. It’s a new era though, one that belongs to Erik Karlsson. It’s time to start it. Karlsson doesn’t need the presence of Neil and Phillips hovering around him any longer. Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris are part of the future, and are both ready to accept leadership roles within the organization.

From a cap standpoint, Phillips (1 year remaining, $2.5/year) and Neil (1 year remaining, $1.9/year) also need to be moved. As a budget team you just can’t afford to have declining veteran contracts on the book. $4.4 million of cap space is almost enough to extend impeding UFA Marc Methot. It would be ridiculous to lose Methot while keeping Neil and Phillips. The return on them doesn’t even have to be great. A late draft pick for each would do. You’re trading them to open up cap space, nothing more. Any additional return is a bonus. The organization just has to play it off as giving both a chance to finish their careers with a contender. They would probably both be welcomed back when they retire and given another role within the organization.

Assuming the Senators do move Phillips, they should also clear out an additional defencemen to bring them down to six. The most likely candidate to be moved is Patrick Wiercioch (1 year remaining, $2.0/year). With him being unable to find a way to secure a permanent roster spot, it’s best for both parties to move on. Give him a chance to try and succeed somewhere else.

When it comes to forwards, Ottawa needs to see if anyone is willing to take on David Legwand (1 year remaining, $3.0/year). He makes far too much for what he brings to the table, especially on a team crowded with centres. The team will also need to consider moving Milan Michalek (2 years remaining, $4.0/year) who has been producing of late. Take advantage of that, because it’s more than likely those numbers will drop over the next two seasons. You can’t afford to have a bottom six player making $4 million. The last player Ottawa will need to make a decision on is Zack Smith (2 years remaining, $1.88/year). His injury has resulted in Jean-Gabriel Pageau supplanting him at a cheaper cost. Unless Curtis Lazar is moved to the wing, there isn’t room for Smith in the centre rotation. Assuming Smith can come back healthy before the trade deadline, you can probably give Edmonton a call about him. Ideally the return you’re looking for on any of these trades are draft picks or expiring contracts.

These moves would clear out the necessary cap space to sign Methot and give appropriate raises to Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman. The leftover space can be used to try and acquire a defenceman to help shore up one of the weakest bottom four in the NHL (at which point another current roster defenceman could be moved, likely Eric Gryba). Of course, acquiring a player at the trade deadline isn’t out of the question. As long as it’s not a rental. It would be a good opportunity to ease in a player that will be part of your future.

Moving these bodies would also open up some roster spots. With no chance at making playoffs, there is no better opportunity for the Senators to give Fredrik Claesson, Chris Wideman, Shane Prince, and Matt Puempel extended looks in the NHL. They’re at the point where you need to see what you have in them. You never know, some players do surprise when they’re called up. There is no better example than Gryba who nobody anticipated making the NHL. Injuries happened, and it resulted in him earning an NHL contract. Even if only one of the four works out, you’ve just filled another roster spot with an entry level contract.

In the end, what you want is to be able to evaluate the team of 2015-2016. You have plenty of solid pieces to build around. You have the opportunity to be a seller at the deadline and unload some contracts that will play no part in the future. You have prospects that are itching to show their stuff. You have an offseason to address the biggest needs. Let the chips fall where they may when it comes to this season. There’s no doubt in my mind that this team can compete for a playoff position next year, especially in the East. Now’s the time to start building the team that will do so.