The way I see it, the Ottawa Senators appear to be pretty close to being a team in Stanley Cup contention... or at least a team capable of a playoff upset. I believe that the Senator's current woes have largely been caused by a lack of experienced, competent blueliners.
The difference between last year's excellent defense corps and this year's? Andre Benoit, Sergei Gonchar, and Mike Lundin. Say what you will about these players from an individual standpoint, but each of them were experienced and mature defensemen.
This year, the 2nd defense pairing, usually counted on for approximately 20 minutes of ice time per-night on the average NHL team, is made up of a second year NHL'er who missed much of last season due to injury (Cowen), and a puck moving defenseman who played sheltered minutes all season and was sparingly used in the playoffs. Also, arguably the team's 3rd best defenseman this season (battling it out with "uh-oh" Joe Corvo for the honour) is Chris Phillips. Think about that for a second...
The defense corps does have a silver lining or two, though. Erik Karlsson is the best defenseman in the world. Marc Methot is a top 4 defenseman on any team in the league, and is as solid and reliable as they come. There is also a good amount of future potential throughout the organization (see: the current "second defense pairing"). Binghamton's defense corps has been largely successful this year, and both Cody Ceci and Fredrick Claesson look as if they may develop into solid NHL players. Who knows, maybe even Gryba or Borocop could make the jump some day? Either way, the current defense corps appears to be made up of a superstar, a solid all-around performer in Methot, a 5th defenseman in Phillips, a 6th defenseman in Corvo, and 4 7th-/AHL level dmen. This is obviously going to limit the team's effectiveness this season. It seems crazy that losing a veteran AHL defenseman and a 40 year old puck mover could have such a massive impact on defensive effectiveness, but perhaps experience is underrated? Sheer potential hasn't helped Cowen to not be generally awful this season.
This all being said, without a trade or signing to increase the level of experience on the blueline this season, it would appear as if it is time to pack up the season. There are some great building points for next year, and considering that there was never a full rebuild, things are going quite well. Despite never drafting higher than 6th overall, and even then just once in the top 10 during the "rebuild" phase, there are many some signs heading into next season:
1) Binghamton is winning: despite lacking an abundance of sexy prospects, Binghamton is chugging along. Several players are impressing, from rookie Cody Ceci performing offensively at a high level, to the solid play of Fredrick Claesson, and potential future 2nd/3rd/4th liners such as Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, J.G. Pageau, and Matt Puempel all showing good signs and generally having productive seasons. Though Ottawa's depth at the NHL level may not be necessarily impressive, there are a number of prospects who are maturing who may be able to make the jump next season.
2) A young core has emerged to lead the Sens through the next 5-10 years. From Robin Lehner in goal, Karlsson & Methot on defense, and players such as Turris, MaCarthur, Ryan, and Zabinejad up front, the future would appear to be in good hands.
But, with this young core, and the development of prospects, comes the realization that this team has an "old guard," and the times, they are a' changin.' That is to say, players such as Craig Anderson, Milan Michalek, and Jason Spezza, who were seen as being core members of the team as early as the 2011-2012 season, have been, to be blunt, woefully ineffective this season.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Micky will be traded at the deadline if the team is not in contention (ha!). At the very least, this will most definitely be his final season as an Ottawa Senator, one way or the other, and Bryan Murray would be wise to gain some sort of return for him (if he can).
Craig Anderson, who many (including myself) wanted dealt at the trade deadline last season (sell high) instead of Big Ben Bishop (buy high on Conacher), appears lost in the crease this season. He would not fetch much in a trade, but it is quite possible that he may not make a difference for this franchise ever again.
And now we come to Jason Spezza. It seems clear that the multiple back injuries have caught up to him. He simply does not make a difference most nights. He only seems to score when Karlsson gift raps goals for him on the power play. Spezza in the 2011-2012 season was the offensive catalyst for this franchise. He made plays out of nothing, beat defenseman on the outside with his speed, and made his presence felt. This season, the most remarkable thing about his game is that, since Mika Zabinejad joined his like several games ago, Mika has become the most dominant player on the line.
Spezza does, however, have something going for him: high trade value. With less than two years remaining on his current contract, at nearly a point-per-game pace this season (it is worth mentioning that his production has slowed dramatically from an early season hot streak), there are many teams which would likely look at Spezza's career point-per-game stats line and take the bait.
Is Spezza a player that you would want the Sens to spend at least $6.5 million per season on for 4-5 seasons after next? Compared to the potential return which he could provide, and the lack of return on investment which he himself has been providing the team this season thus far, it seems like it may be time to bite the bullet and trade away giggles in exchange for a solid young defenseman and prospects/draft picks.
The cash freed up by moving the $7.5 million contract for next season would allow the Senators to retool the team and hopefully find an energetic forward or two in free agency or via trade who could complement Zabinejad, the new second line centre by default.
If Spezza has been anything this season, it has been a problem. He is no longer the factor in games that he was two seasons ago. Clarke MaCarthur is a bigger factor these days than Giggles; it is time to move on, for the good of the team's future.
Let's start imagining trade packages in the comments. Keep it sane, people.