Thoughts on Roster Structure

Ya, I feel the same Paul. - Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Despite the recent win over the Winnipeg Jets, the Senators are in an uphill battle to make the playoffs, and Paul MacLean's player usage seems all out of whack.

A simple twitter search of "Paul MacLean" these days yields such results as:

And of course...

Needless to say, people aren't exactly enamoured with the guy. And it is understandable why. This team was supposed to be better than this. A LOT better than this. Without their most offensively gifted forward (Jason Spezza), their number 1 goaltender (Craig Anderson), and their best player (Erik Karlsson) for large chunks of the season last year, the Sens still comfortably made the playoffs.

With those players healthy, and the addition of a young, talented 30+ goal scorer in Bobby Ryan, this season was supposed to be one in which the Senators took the next step up the ladder in a weak Eastern Conference.

Instead? They've been plagued by a case of the consistently-inconsistents. Erik Karlsson has been great as always, and Jason Spezza has been healthy and putting up points. New additions Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan have found chemistry with teammates and have produced. Kyle Turris has continued to grow into a very good NHL centre.

So what has gone wrong?

Well, essentially, everything else.

Chiefly among those things has been Craig Anderson's inability to play at a record-breaking level for any stretch of time this season, the disarray of the back end once you look past EK, and the team's penchant for taking an extraordinary number of penalties.

But all these things have been talked about. At great lengths. And people know these things, even to some extent understand them. But people cannot figure out what Paul MacLean's issues are.

This guy could have ran for mayor last spring. Now, he's got people calling for his head. They hate the way he has deployed his forwards this season. But I have a theory. That's all it is. No fancy stats to back it up. A theory. But it seems to fit some very strange facts. The theory is simple:

To win in the NHL, you need good players, and they need to play a lot.

So how is this a problem for the Senators?

3 of the team's 6 best forwards are centres.

Jason Spezza. Kyle Turris. Mika Zibanejad.

Now, most teams think strength down the middle is important. And it is, no doubt. The real problem for the Senators is this:

There are not enough talented wingers for each of these players.

As a result of this, you have two options (which MacLean has flopped between all season)

  1. Try to spread out the capable wingers between the three centres: This has been tried recently, when we saw Ryan-Zibanejad-Hoffman, Condra-Turris-MacArthur, and Michalek-Spezza-Conacher. The trouble with this configuration is, what is your top line? You don't have one. Zibanejad is the third best centre of the group, but he has the best winger (Bobby Ryan). Turris has been the best centre this season, but Erik Condra is on his line. What ends up happening, is none of these lines is very good. Each has just enough talent to be a half-decent line, but no line has enough to be a serious threat. Since all of these lines have basically the same talent level, MacLean ends up playing them all similar amounts. In reduced minutes, and with reduced talent, these lines do not produce well. As a result, MacLean "tries to fire up the boys" by playing everybody's favourite "energy line" too much. RESULT: Anger. Fans upset about not enough ice time for Bobby Ryan and too much ice time for Zack Smith and Co.
  2. Put all of the talent on two top lines: This was tried most recently last game when we saw Ryan-Turris-Hoffman (which would be MacArthur when healthy) and Hemsky-Spezza-Michalek. Up until last game, this has been a configuration that hasn't worked perfectly due to the ineffectiveness of the Spezza line. In addition, this configuration leaves Mika Zibanejad with Matt Kassian and Erik Condra (or some other awful combination). What happened in this case early on was, if the Turris line wasn't working, there was nothing being generated. In those games (YOU GUESSED IT), MacLean "tries to fire up the boys" by playing everybody's favourite "energy line" too much (seeing a theme?). RESULT: Anger. Fans upset about Zibanejad getting the shaft and too much ice time for Zack Smith and Co.
I think option two is the best one, of the two, especially if the Spezza line can be stabilized. The thing is, in the NHL, to win, you need your best players to play together, and to play A LOT. I have a few pieces of weird information that appear to support this.

  1. Paul MacLean's Jack Adams: Yes, I know. The goaltending. However, if you look at ES TOI for last season, Kyle Turris played more than a minute extra per game than he is this season. What does that mean? It means MacLean needed to lean harder on his better players due to injury. Turris played virtually the whole season with Daniel Alfredsson, and that was the go-to line. Because of the injuries, he was able to choose between a handful of other unproven lines to be the 2nd unit each game, but the Turris line was unquestionably #1.
  2. The Matt Kassian Effect: Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan each played 20 minutes last game, well above season averages. With Kassian pulling only 5 minutes on the ice, the rest of the 4th line ice time goes to the better players. When your better players play more, you win. I don't know if I buy the Matt Kassian Stat, but its getting harder to ignore. They certainly don't win with him in the lineup because he's scoring a bunch.
  3. The Toronto Maple Leafs: Wait! Hear me out! The Maple Leafs have had great goaltending this year, and that is one reason why they are where they are. But at the same time, the best players on the Leafs play a BOAT LOAD. Phil Kessel plays over 17 minutes a night just at even strength! By comparison, Kyle Turris plays about 14:30 a game in the same situation. Sure, the Leafs dress a whole line of Matt Kassians, but that means the best players play quite a bit.
I think the answer needs to be: play the best forwards on this team together, and play them more than they are currently playing. Does that mean that for now, Mika Zibanejad gets stuck with limited ice time and line mates? Maybe. But last year, Paul MacLean leaned on his horses to get the job done, and this year maybe he's trying to spread it around too much.

The best players need to play.
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