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As Sens fans, it's been hard the last few weeks to avoid a morbid fascination with talking about "What's gone wrong?". This was a team that most had pegged as a surefire bet to make the playoffs, and maybe even as a contender to emerge from the Eastern Conference. It's easily been one of the three or four most disappointing seasons the fan base has had to endure (07-08 and the ending to 05-06 also come to mind), and so, inevitably, blame must be heaped at the feet of the deserving and undeserving alike.
That being said, I think there are a number of overlooked positives that are worth diving into a little bit deeper. I don't think the team is all that badly off, and here's why:
1) The Sens' offense generates a metric ton of shot attempts. They're currently in a dead heat with the vaunted San Jose Sharks' offense for the lead in the entire NHL in terms of shot attempts when the score is close. Some amount of the improvement in the team's goal scoring this year versus last has to do with puck luck, getting bounces, etc, but they're actually generating even more shots against the other team's goalie than in '12-13. This is a good sign when we think about the goal scoring going forward: this year's leap from 2.41 to 2.88 goals per game looks real enough to me.
2) Their goaltending actually hasn't been as bad as all that...at 5v5. I know it's been very fashionable to blame the goalie play for a lot of what ails the Sens, but I don't think that's entirely fair. Believe it or not, Senators goalie are sporting a .927 SV% at 5v5 when the score is close. At even strength in aggregate, Sens goalies are good for a .920 SV% which would rank them 20th in the league. 20th isn't ideal, but it's miles ahead of the horrendous .907 Calgary is getting from its' goalies and it's spitting distance from being league average. League average goalie play at 5v5 should be enough to keep you competitive, provided you aren't getting killed while shorthanded.
3) But about that PK: it's not really as bad as you might think. Doing a quick sort on extraskater.com, we find that the Sens actually allow the fourth fewest shot attempts against (Corsi Against, denoted as CA below) per minute of 4v5 short-handed time:
|Toronto Maple Leafs||409.4||45||717||1.75|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||413.2||48||705||1.71|
|New York Islanders||384.1||53||616||1.60|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||423.9||43||676||1.59|
|San Jose Sharks||330.9||31||520||1.57|
|Detroit Red Wings||435.6||39||680||1.56|
|Los Angeles Kings||451.6||45||703||1.56|
|New York Rangers||347.4||31||525||1.51|
|St. Louis Blues||424.8||31||614||1.45|
|New Jersey Devils||419.9||27||596||1.42|
This doesn't completely convince me that their system is functional, but I have to admit that I was surprised at how successful the team has been at preventing shots against. The problem with the penalty kill isn't shot deterrence, but rather the actual stopping of the shots: i.e save percentage. Here the Sens rank 4th last, with their goalies sporting an alarmingly low .856 SV%. Lots of evidence suggests that short-handed SV% is highly variable and prone to luck-based factors. So while it may be little consolation going into game 77, there's reason to believe the PK has seen more than its' fair share of misfortune. I'd say that's a good sign for the future.
(Sidenote: what in the world is happening with Washington when down a man?)
4) The emergence of Eric Gryba as a serviceable NHL defenseman has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season for myself personally, and one of the under-discussed good news stories of the season. I've almost never had a player so completely change my opinion of him in the course of one off-season. It's been lost in the season of eternal struggle that has been the Sens' back end this year, but Gryba has built himself into a reliable 3rd pairing skater. It's not just that he passes the eye test either: he's gone from a negative possession player to a plus all while playing much harder ice (more D-zone starts against tougher competition). Realistically this is probably his ceiling, but given where Gryba was 12 months ago that's a big development.
5) The slow rehabilitation of Jason Spezza from an absolutely disastrous start to the year has been one of the under-reported stories in most of the Ottawa media. Long before the hot streak with Hemsky, Captain Giggles had been steadily improving his play. It's ended up putting management in a bit of a strange position where they probably still need to dump him if his salary demands are too high, but at least he's created more value for himself in the last 50 games or so. There are lots of unanswered questions as to whether the team should keep him or not, but at least at this point they could possibly trade him for something worth getting back. 25 games into this season, it wasn't obvious at all that was going to be the case.
This year hasn't been the easiest, and I'm not hear to tell you otherwise. But take a peek beneath the covers and you might be surprised at a few of the positives you uncover. I would love to hear some others from my fellow Sens fans in the comments, because I'm betting I missed a few.