I won't lie, I found it somewhat difficult to write about something as trivial as hockey in the wake of Wednesday's events. I won't touch on it any further, but I do recommend you check out James Duthie's piece about Ottawa here, or B_T's article about healing through hockey, or even stop by our open thread that's become a touching tribute from fans all over the NHL. Moving on won't be easy, but hopefully today's column will provide everyone with a much needed distraction.
Let's talk hockey.
The Hot Start
There are two schools of thought regarding the Ottawa Senator's better-than-expected start to the season: either it's a good sign that they are winning games, regardless of how it's getting done, or it's a bad sign that they're giving up a metric ton of shots even in spite of being 4-1. Personally, I'm of the mind that it's never bad to bank wins early in the season, but also that it's naive to pretend there aren't serious structural problems. Through the first five games, the Senators have given up a whopping 37.7 Shots Against per 60 minutes of play at 5v5. Only the morbidly terrible Buffalo Sabres (more on them later) are giving up more. For the sake of comparison, last year's edition of the Senators surrendered a slightly less terrible 33.3 shots against per hour of play at 5v5. Maybe because of all the time spent in their own end, Ottawa's directed a meager 26.8 shots at the net per 60, compared to a robust 33.1 last year.
What does it all mean? Not much right now, other than that it's dangerous to draw inferences from this small a sample. Ottawa won't carry a 1037 PDO for the rest of the year, though. If the plan is to win consistently, there will need to be some major improvements in the team's play.
Which is a nice segue into our next topic:
Is it Time for a Trade?
The answer is yes, and it's been yes since the start of the off-season.The Senators badly need to upgrade their blue line, as evidenced by an over-matched 36 year old Chris Phillips playing big minutes. On a team with a decent back-end, Chris Phillips would be a 6th or 7th defenseman that plays 15-17 minutes a night with PK duty and mostly cushy zone starts. So this is not to say that Big Rig is the problem all by himself, but rather it's an indictment of the depth as a whole. When Marc Methot comes back, the Senators are going to have to make some choices about their 23 man roster, but most especially their defense corps.
Say what you will about the team's record, but I can't imagine management looks at the defensive performance so far this season and thinks anything other than "we need to be a lot better". Short of a minor miracle, I don't see how any internal improvements will patch the holes this year. And that's the crux of the problem: if you think the forward depth is playoff material (and I happen to think it is) then you should seriously consider making a move to fix the team's most glaring weakness. I hear Jeff Petry is available.
The Banishment of Jared Cowen
The primary reason that the Sens find themselves in this bind with their defense is the development (or lack thereof) of Jared Cowen. Ottawa's management doubled down on the same group from last year, and a big part of that pat hinged on Cowen showing last year's poor performance was more a blip than the new norm. Cowen expressed surprise when he was first benched against the Florida Panthers, but he hasn't made it back into the line-up since. Part of that is probably Paul MacLean's penchant for not rocking the boat when the team is winning, but this is the first real message the team's sent to Cowen that his play hasn't been up to par. He's otherwise been mostly given the kid gloves treatment. When Marc Methot went down with an injury to start the year, Cowen assumed the coveted spot to the left of Erik Karlsson almost by deafult but two games of defensive miscues was enough to send him up to the press box. Given his contract, the Senators are almost certainly stuck with him for the foreseeable future so they have to hope he turns into the top 4 defenseman they so desperately crave. But if he's not playing well enough to merit ice time, he's a wasted asset sitting up in the press box. I'd propose a radical solution: send him down to the AHL. There's a better than zero chance that another team claims him off waivers, but given how poorly he's played and the long term money owed to him it seems like a safe enough bet to me. I'm certainly not an expert on how best to develop players, but what's been tried so far hasn't worked. Might as well experiment.
It's still early, but a trend to keep an eye on is MacLean's utilization of his forward lines. To date, he's absolutely buried Legwand in the defensive end; poor guy's seen only 30% of Zone Starts in the other team's end. That's in aggregate, however in the home games MacLean has leaned hard on the Mika Zibanejad - Bobby Ryan - Alex Chiasson line to drive play out of the defensive end. In fact, in the Colorado game the Z-bad line started a grand total of 0 of their shifts in the offensive end. This allowed MacLean to give easier starts to the Turris line, a marked change from how they were used last year. The results have been mixed so far (Turris line has been scoring, ZBad line has been getting pounded), but I wager MacLean will give it at least a few more games to see if they can't work out the kinks. He'll have last change again on Saturday, so we're going to learn very quickly if he's planning on sticking to his guns.
Tanking in Hockey
For those of you that don't follow the NBA, there was a vote on Wednesday by the NBA Board of Governors to reject a proposed reform to the draft lottery. For a breakdown of the implications of this surprising outcome, I highly recommend this great piece by Zach Lowe. (As an aside, Zach is easily the best sportswriter in the game right now. It's not really close, either.) The proposal was primarily put forward because of what some league observers describe as rampant tanking, most visibly by the absolutely brazen Philadelphia 76ers. To my memory, never has a team made it so blatantly clear that it intended to put a terrible product on the court for the purpose of getting a high draft pick. It's remarkable.
Tanking in the NHL isn't nearly the "problem" it is in the NBA -- franchise's fates are not so easily changed with one single player. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins wouldn't have had all of their success with Sidney Crosby alone. Nonetheless, the considerations are still the same: the best way to acquire cheap young talent is to have a high draft pick, and the best way to have one of those is to put a bad product on the ice. Philosophically it's a bit of a murky area. How much does a team owe its fans, and other teams, to field a competitive team? Personally, I'm in favour of abolishing the draft altogether and creating a relegation system similar to what exists in European soccer, but absent that it's hard for me to fault a team like the Buffalo Sabres for not exactly trying their hardest to win. When a rare talent such as Connor McDavid is available, someone who can do this:
It's easy to understand the temptation. I mean, look at that kid! The way he picks the puck up in the middle of the ice and gets to the net essentially unimpeded is something I'm more accustomed to seeing in my beer league than international play. It's silly.
So, can you blame the Sabres? If the fans say they support it, and it's a defensible strategy for making the team competitive in the long run, what's the problem? Or should the imperative to put a competitive team on the ice every game override these types of considerations?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and anything else in the comments section.
Enjoy your weekend!