Young and Hungry

What a season. What else is there to say? With a 2.03% chance of making the playoffs on February 7th, it looked like it was over. Most Sens fans turned their sights to the possibility of winning the McDavid lottery. The hockey gods had other plans. A string of injuries opened up roster spots and opportunities for the likes of players like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Erik Condra, and Patrick Wiercioch. Then there was the Hamburglar. It all culminated into one of the greatest runs in sports history, something we may never see the Ottawa Senators reproduce again in our lifetime.

The Ottawa Senators marketing team decided to roll out the motto “Young and Hungry” for the playoffs. It turns out, this was the exact motto that management should have followed. Veterans Chris Neil and Chris Phillips have both been pillars of the team for so long, and deservedly have developed into fan favourites. Management rewarded their loyalty with contract extensions. Unfortunately, their ability to play at the pace of today’s game has plummeted from years past. Their roster spots blocked players like Pageau and Wiercioch from being able to enter the lineup, as well as blocking other prospects from getting an opportunity, and that is a problem.

Under the Murray regime, there has been plenty of talk about the strength of the Sens drafting. After the horribly managed years under John Muckler, the team finally has a cupboard full of prospects, all young and hungry to play in the NHL. For some reason though, management decided to make it near impossible for any of them to get a sniff in the big league.

There is no better example than the team’s defensive corps. They went into the season with eight NHL defencemen, EIGHT! They also ended the season with eight, deciding not to move any of them at the trade deadline. This made it impossible to call up either the Eddie Shore winning Chris Wideman or management favourite Fredrik Claesson. Talking to Binghamton fans, most of them put both of these players ahead of Gryba and Borowiecki. Would that reflect in the NHL, we don’t know. Now management has put themselves in a tough spot where Wideman is a UFA and the team may need to give him a one way not knowing how he’ll fare in the NHL.

What’s also puzzling is the Mark Borowiecki three year extension. It was handed to him with very little NHL experience. No doubt the hometown kid factor along with him being the type of hard worker that management appreciates played a role. The thing is, you just can’t hand out contracts like that without exploring your other internal options. The team should have at least given Claesson a couple of games before gift wrapping a contract for Borowiecki.

Look no further than Stone and Hoffman as perfect examples of why you should always leave yourself room to call up prospects. Both of them had very successful AHL careers, and it was certainly expected for that to translate into the NHL. Nobody could have seen them both becoming top six players in their rookie seasons though. Surprises like that are why you need to offer the opportunity for those young players in the AHL who are hungry to show their stuff.

We’ve had a peak of that during the run, where we got previews of both Shane Prince and Matt Puempel. It certainly isn’t a stretch to say they looked as good if not better than anything we’ve seen of Alex Chiasson, Colin Greening, and Zack Smith this season. The damning part is that both Prince and Puempel could be in the NHL at about 20% of the cost of Smith and Greening.

When it comes to calling players up, there’s also the issue of opportunity. It was much better this season, but in past seasons some players weren’t given a fair opportunity to prove themselves. Case in point, Pageau. For a stretch he was paired with Condra and Matt Kassian, and of course many questioned if he (along with Condra) were NHL players. Replace Kassian with a capable player like Curtis Lazar and both Pageau and Condra look like completely different players.

Essentially one hopes that management learns from this run going forward. There may be a bit too much collateral damage from the number of contracts on the team to immediately fix this in 2015-2016. However, come 2016-2017, most of the unnecessary contracts will be off the books. The team has to make better decisions when extending players. They need to be able to provide a fair opportunity to those who are waiting and could prove themselves better than the status quo. There’s no need to give multi-year extensions when they could be replaceable by someone in the AHL at a much lower cost. Don’t forget about your young and hungry players.