There's a popular saying in screenwriting: kill your darlings. It stands for the proposition that no matter how much you like a scene or a line in your screenplay, you need to get rid of it if it does not move the plot forward or advance the story.
The Senators could learn a lot from this simple maxim.
Today's signing of Mark Borowiecki was simply the latest in a long string of regrettable moves showing that the Senators struggle with evaluating their own talent. One of the problems is that the Senators feel the need to reward the so-called "intangible" characteristics shown by Chris Neil, Colin Greening, Chris Phillips, and Mark Borowiecki without thought to the most important thing in roster development: whether the move puts the team in a better position moving forward.
Simply put, there's no excuse for the contract the Senators just signed Mark Borowiecki to.
This isn't meant to be a hit piece on Borowiecki, but rather an indictment of the Senators management. Borowiecki did nothing wrong, and he deserves sincere congratulations for his accomplishments. That doesn't change the fact that the Senators took a dumb, unnecessary risk, though.
Borowiecki might be a third-pairing defenseman in the NHL. I don't know yet because he's only played 21 games in the NHL and has only one point to show for it. But at 25 years of age, Mark Borowiecki is who he is. He could be a $1.1M player in the NHL, but we can't say for sure. It's unlikely he's more than that, which is why this contract makes no sense.
Borowiecki was under contract for 2014-15 and the Senators had more time to evaluate him, more time to determine if he's worth spending a roster spot on for the following three seasons, and more time to see what their roster would look like in 2015. As mentioned, he might be a fine 3rd pairing NHL defenseman at the end of the day, but those are not players you need to worry about giving three year deals to before they've played 25 NHL games -- especially when that guy failed to make what might have been the worst blueline in the NHL in 2013-14, beaten out by Eric Gryba, Joe Corvo, and a 19 year old rookie.
The problem is not that the Senators are giving out too much money on this deal, it's that they have now filled a roster spot for four years with a replaceable player. Borowiecki is joining a team that, barring a trade, has more bottom-pairing defensemen than it knows what to do with. Remember: if Borowiecki gets ice-time as a 6th defenseman, that pushes two of Chris Phillips, Patrick Wiercioch, Jared Cowen, Eric Gryba, and Cody Ceci to assist Karlsson and Methot with the top four duties for the next two years. If you struggled watching Ottawa's awful blueline last season, I'll borrow their former tagline -- READY FOR MORE?
Even ignoring the impact this has on giving a chance to Senators prospects like Fredrik Claesson, this also hinders the team from improving in free agency. Every year on July 1st there are talented yet undervalued players available to be had for cheap. Last offseason, Tom Gilbert signed a one-year deal for $900,000 and put up 28 points on a bad Florida Panthers team. And while that's an extreme example, at least a dozen players similar to Mark Borowiecki signed cheap one-year deals this July 1st, as they did the past five offseasons and will do the next five. By having Borowiecki in place, the Senators will be reluctant or unable to look at free agency for options on the blue line.
This isn't just an issue the Senators face on the blueline, though -- contracts like the ones given out to players like Colin Greening and Chris Neil prevent improvement up front as well. Looking just within Ontario, last season the Senators signed Clarke MacArthur to a bargain deal in free agency. The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the past two years, have signed Mason Raymond, David Booth, and Daniel Winnik to extremely cheap, short-term deals. The thing about free agency is that while you have to pay a premium to get a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman, there's usually a number of third/fourth line forwards and 5th/6th defensemen available on the cheap. They're not necessarily cheap because they are bad, they are often cheap because of extenuating circumstances: Raymond had some injury issues, MacArthur was buried by his coach, Winnik has an awful shooting percentage, etc.
People often defend contracts like the Borowiecki or Neil ones by saying that it's not much money in the grand scheme of things. Which is true, but it misses the point that these players fill roster spots that can't be used by better players. That's the real problem. By filling your roster with long-term deals given to replaceable players, particularly on a cash-strapped team, you're accepting replaceable players as your talent level. Teams should aspire to have more than grinders on their fourth lines and more than fringe defensemen on their bottom pairing.
There was no reason for the Senators to extend Borowiecki for three years at this point. They could have, and should have, waited until later in the season when they had time to evaluate him at the NHL level. The worst case scenario if the Senators had waited is that they might lose Mark Borowiecki to another team that somehow decided they wanted to give him a three-year, one-way deal for more money. What were the chances of that happening, and if it did, would it really be that bad for Ottawa?