Now that the Ottawa Senators have finished celebrating their good fortune with Erik Karlsson, it's time for them to turn their attention to finding a partner to play with him.
Last year, that role was played by impending unrestricted free agent Filip Kuba. Healthy for the first time in three years, Kuba's play contributed to Karlsson's Norris-winning season. While Karlsson was racking up 78 points, Kuba himself posted a pretty remarkable turnaround himself. His plus/minus rating went from minus-26 in 2010-11 to plus-26 last year. He also appeared in 73 games, which was the highest total he managed in an Ottawa jersey.
Interestingly, though, Kuba's 32 points (6G, 26A) represent a decline in his production: In 2008-09, he produced 40 points, and he was on pace for 41 the following year before an injury finished his season. He managed an atrocious 16 points (2G, 14A) last season, but we can dismiss that as a factor of his being completely out of game shape due to injury. What we know is that Kuba, when healthy, was good for about 40 points--yet when paried with a dynamic and skilled partner, his production curiously dropped. Why?
Elliotte Friedman summed it up quite well in his June 18th "30 Thoughts" column:
26. Couldn't help but watch Rob Scuderi and think of Filip Kuba. Both men are paired with stud defencemen, Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson. Those guys are great players, but need an egoless partner who recognizes how to be a perfect complement. Scuderi/Kuba are exactly that. UFA Kuba appears ready to leave Ottawa, and it'll be interesting to see who the Senators view as Karlsson's next mate.
Bottom line: Karlsson's partner needs to sacrifice the limelight to allow him to excel.
Does that sound like Ryan Suter to you?
Does it make sense for the team to break the bank on the top defenseman so he can sit back and let Karlsson do his thing? Does it make sense to give a player like Suter a massive contract and then play him in a role not with Karlsson, forcing head coach Paul MacLean to juggle minutes trying to use his best defensemen as often as possible?
What the Senators need in a partner for Karlsson is a player who: is capable of playing large chunks of minutes next to him, has the patience to let him be creative, has the defensive ability to cover for him when he makes a mistake, and has the hockey intelligence to know when to pick his own spots.
Does that sound like anyone on the current Senators roster?
It should. I believe that description fits defenseman Jared Cowen perfectly.
Playing big minutes
Think back to December 16th, 2011. What were you doing? Okay, you don't remember. But do you remember the Senators beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-4 that night? Or that they did it on the strength of Cowen's one goal and three assists? Or that he did it while playing 28:11, the most of any Senators skater that night? Or that his partner for much of that game was none other than Karlsson?
Cowen obviously isn't going to score four points and carry Karlsson (who only had three assists that game) every night playing next to him. But for a stretch in Decemeber and January, Cowen was playing an average of 23 minutes a night, doing much of it alongside Karlsson.
Kuba--Karlsson's typical partner--was injured during this time, and the second pairing of Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips was not nearly as strong as the Gonchar-Cowen pairing, so when Kuba returned, Cowen was bumped back down. But in that audition, he demonstrated his ability to play significant minutes alongside Karlsson quite clearly.
Patience with a creative partner
The 2010-11 Senators roster was in quite a bit of turmoil defensively. Gonchar had been added to replace the departed Anton Volchenkov, Kuba had broken his leg the first day of training camp, and head coach Cory Clouston was forced to create effective pairings out of Karlsson, Phillips, Gonchar, Kuba, Matt Carkner, Chris Campoli, and Brian Lee.
It was not successful.
Gonchar, especially, was ineffective. The league's premier offensive defenseman for the past decade, he had been lured away from the Penguins on a three-year deal that saw him earn $5.5M per season. In just 62 games with the Penguins in the previous season, Gonchar had produced 50 points (11G, 39A). With Ottawa, in 67 games, he produced slightly better than half of that: seven goals and twenty assists, for a total of 27 points. In more games!
Part of the decline was Clouston's mystifying use of Gonchar. But part of it was the inability of the team to find him a quality partner.
Interestingly, Gonchar rebounded well this year, producing 37 points (5G, 32A) in 74 games. While not coming close to matching his Pittsburgh pace, it did represent an increase from .4 points per game in 2010-11 to .5 points per game. This, came despite being 37 years old for almost the entire season. Typically, players don't improve statistically as they approach 40.
What was the difference? Part of it was the implementation of Paul MacLean's system, and part of it was the steadying presence of Gonchar's new partner. Of course, that partner was Jared Cowen. Cowen allowed Gonchar to resume the playing style that had brought him success in Pittsburgh--namely, to read the play and creep into where he thought the opening would be. Cowen's presence also allowed Gonchar to pinch and shoot more frequently. Of course, Gonchar's reluctance to backcheck after a gaffe also affected Cowen.
Defensive ability to cover for mistakes
For this section, I am going to give the floor to our own AmeliaL, who put together an excellent look at how Cowen was developing for her Senators Alphabet series. If you missed it the first time around, I highly recommend it. But by the virtues of copy-and-paste, here's the gist, in her own words cleverly rearranged by me:
It's important to note that [comparable players] [Shea]Weber, Brent Seabrook, [Dan] Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, and [Zdeno] Chara play significant minutes with good, defensively responsible partners and that Cowen often plays with Sergei Gonchar.
[...] if we want to understand if Jared Cowen can mature into an elite shutdown defenseman in the NHL, we need to compare his defensive stats this year with the stats of some of the NHL's best known shutdown defensemen.
While Cowen is obviously not an elite shutdown defenseman yet, he is holding his own with a group of pretty good rearguards. It also shows that Zdeno Chara doesn't do the things we think great shutdown d-men do (takeaways, blocks) with the frequency many assume he does. We can justify high giveaway numbers from offensive-minded defensemen, but Chara's not rushing with the puck like Karlsson, and his giveaways seem high and takeaways low. We also see a marked decline in Phillips' status (which we knew already), and that Dan Girardi dominates several categories which indicate he also dominates on the ice. I was surprised by a couple of Cowen's stats. With the exception of Girardi (who plays shorthanded an average of six seconds more a game), Cowen plays significantly more shorthanded minutes per game than his opponents in this group. Cowen may not play against the other team's best players for most of the game (the way Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara and company are matched up throughout a game), but he is on the ice a lot when the opponents' goal scorers have the man advantage. I was also surprised that Cowen led this group in hits. Cowen is big, strong, and capable of physical play, but when I watch him it always seems that he uses his size to gain position rather than to punish opponents physically, but apparently he does both.
The stat I'm most impressed with? Cowen's 3:15 SH TOI/G. That's almost 45 seconds more than Seabrook and Girardi and almost two and a half minutes more than Norris candidate and shutdown defenseman Shea Weber. Rookie defensemen, even those with great promise, generally aren't given the kind of responsibility Cowen has been given this season.
Ultimately, what these tables suggest is that Cowen is on the right track to becoming an excellent shutdown defenseman. We've already seen he can log big minutes in a game and we can expect those minutes to increase against the opponents' top players in the near future.
Knowing when to pick his spots
An important part of playing with Karlsson is the mental ability to be ready at all times. There's more to being his partner than simply passing him the puck and watching him skate away. Part of Karlsson's skill is putting the puck where there are opportunities to score. That means if you can read the play and put yourself in that position, you'd better be ready to do something when the puck comes your way.
Though Cowen is primarily going to be a defensive defenseman, he's demonstrated the ability to make smart plays throughout his career, putting up 48 points (18G, 30A) in 58 games in his final season with the Spokane Chiefs. He went on to add another four assists in ten playoff games with the Binghamton Senators during their Calder Cup-winning playoff run--after adding nine assists in nine games for the Chiefs during their own playoff run.
The Senators have good reason to let Flilip Kuba walk away from the team tomorrow. They have a younger, cheaper, more physical replacement waiting in the wings. Cowen is ready for a top-pairing role, if only because playing with Karlsson naturally insulates him from some of the pressure associated with that position--and it also lets him play to his natural strengths at the same time.
His ascendancy to that position doesn't mean the Senators don't still have a need for a defenseman. Should the team plug Cowen in next to Karlsson, they'll still have a hole to fill next to Gonchar. Chris Phillips has already demonstrated he is a bad fit there, and proved he was more capable of excelling in a third-pairing role. Cowen's readiness is a blessing for the Senators, because it allows them to pursue a top-four defenseman in free agency rather than a top-two one. That market is limited to one player, and an expensive one at that. Finding a partner for Gonchar is going to be a lot more palatable in terms of choices and cost than finding one for Karlsson would have been. This is the approach that makes the most sense for the Senators, and fans should not be surprised if it's the one they execute.