Fans and media alike have painted the Sens’ offseason as somewhat of a disaster (with the notable exception of the David Legwand signing)(edit: and the recent pending UFA extensions). Coupled with last season’s subpar performance, it’s not difficult to understand why some fans are predicting (often quite loudly) that 2014-2015 is going to be a tough year for the Sens. That being said, enough digital ink has been spilled pertaining to possible pessimistic predictions;I hope to inject a little optimism into the mix. Though the fabulous "Reasons for Optimism" series that SSS was running earlier this summer has done a great job in lightening the mood around here, I’m hoping to offer a bigger picture impression of why I think next year COULD be a great year (or at least a better than expected one) for the Sens.
Ironically, I hope to offer this "Big Picture" perspective by focusing on individual players, providing what I believe are reasonably optimistic projections for each of them. I’d like to stress that these projections are supposed to be both reasonable, with no single projection straying too far from what we, as fans, can reasonably hope to expect from the player in question next year, and optimistic. That being said, it may be (and probably is) exceedingly unreasonable to expect ALL of these players to meet their respective"optimistic projections." If even half of the players meet reach these ever-so-slightly-lofty expectations, however, then I would argue that we’re looking at a playoff team.
I will say, however, that the lone issue for which I can’t seem to muster any optimism is the Sens’ hope of replicating last year’s luck with injuries. I suspect they’ll have to miss more man games (or at least more important man games) to injury this year than they did last. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it and hopefully the crowded forward and defensive ranks we've heard so much about will step up.
Final caveat: What I think is a reasonable hope may strike you as patently unreasonable and I look forward to plenty of discussion in the comments.
Erik Karlsson: Karlsson had, as usual, a strong year, notching 74 points (20g + 54a) and driving the team’s offence, but the general consensus was that his level of play did not match that of his Norris year. As recently as the beginning of last season, Karlsson complained of his Achilles still not feeling quite right, and the injury is generally expected to take a year before it is fully healed. Bearing that in mind, I don’t think it is unreasonable to hope that Karlsson puts up yet another 70+ point season (in spite of the departure of fellow offensive catalyst Giggles) and to also up his defensive game (not that it was terrible last year) to his Norris/pre-injury levels. A fully healed, confident Karlsson can take over games. And let’s not forget that Karlsson just turned 24 recently and is likely still progressing and improving as a player. A strong, healthy confident Karlsson is one of those rare players than can significantly improve those around him and will do wonders for the Sens as a whole. Prediction: 22g, 50a, 72pts, Norris form.
Marc Methot: A rare(semi) bright spot on defence last year, Methot developed a previously unseen offensive side, potting 6g and 17a (23pts). It is my hope that Methot will be able to come close (but not quite) to replicating his newfound offensive success, while also using his defensive acumen to help cover for any offensive risks his (likely) more offensive partner (whether it be Karlsson, Wiercioch or even Ceci) takes. Sprinkle in a few bone-crushing hip checks and baby, you got a stew going. Prediction: 5g, 15a, 20 pts, strong defensive partner playing in the top 4.
Patrick Wiercioch (Please note that this hopeful projection is based on the premise that Coach Mac extricates his head from his backside and plays Wiercioch for the entire season): Last year was an odd one for Wiercoch. After a weak October (though no weaker than any of Ottawa’s other defenders), Wiercoch’s performance rose back to the level of the effective offensive defenseman we’ve come to know and love (4g, 19a, 23pts in 53 games). His strong play was not rewarded by Coach Mac, however, with the Paulrus frequently scratching Wiercioch in favour of others (like the absolutely brutal Jared Cowen). Given that Patty W’s stats prorate to 6g, 29a and 35pts over 82 games, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a similar level of production over a full season (especially given that he was also on a comparable pace during the lockout shortened season and has a superlative corsi rating to backup this offensive production). Given another offseason to add some bulk to his admittedly narrow frame coupled with the natural progression of a 23-year-old D (not always a given, but as I am being hopeful here, I’m going to assume some minor progression in our various young D), it is also not unreasonable to expect some improvement to the defensive side of Wiercoch’s game. I have very high hopes for Wiercioch. Prediction: 6g, 30a, 36pts, a number 4 defenseman with offensive flair and who doesn’t hurt us defensively.
Jared Cowen: It’s been said over and over again: Jared Cowen did not have a good year. Not to dwell on the matter too much further, but he struggled throughout 2013-2014, failing to use his big frame to intimidate the opposition and often looking lost on the ice. At best, he played to the level of a mediocre 6th or 7th string defenseman. As many have pointed out, even during Cowen’s ostensibly better 2011-2012 season, he was mostly sheltered and played as a 6th string d-man. But, importantly, he was a SOLID 6th d-man, putting up 17pts (5g, 12a) as a rookie and not looking out of place. Many have speculated that Cowen may have been still recovering from the injury that robbed him of the vast majority of the 2012-2013 season. I don’t know if I am generous enough to subscribe to that theory, but I am willing to admit that a (self-inflicted) late start/missed training camp in 2013 paired with his missed season may have exacerbated what was essentially Cowen’s sophomore slump. It is my hope that a full summer of working out and, more importantly, a full training camp to get in sync with the team, will help Cowen gain a little confidence and strength, allowing him to slightly better his 11/12 season. I realize this may be a lofty goal, given how atrocious 13/14 was, but I’m allowed one (reasonable) hail mary. Prediction: 6g, 12a, 18pts, plays to the level of a 5th/6th d-man.
Cody Ceci: Ceci was unexpectedly thrust into the big leagues after a strong start to his professional career in his first half-season in the AHL. After impressing early (who can forget that OT goal against St-Louis?), Ceci’s performance dropped slightly, though he stayed in the NHL for the remainder of the season. In 49 games, Ceci put up 3g, 6a for 9pts in sheltered minutes, acting as a 6th d-man. In contrast to Cowen, my hopes for Ceci are very modest. A reasonably optimistic projection for Ceci is that he remains in the NHL for the full season and maintains a more consistent performance level (similar to his first few games). Prediction: 6g, 12a, 18pts, a relatively steady 5th – 6th string d-man.
Eric Gryba: Gryba was another mildly bright spot on the Ottawa blue line last year. For a strictly defensive defenseman who, quite frankly, wasn’t very good last year (and wasn’t really expected to be an impact player), his 2g, 9a, 11pts and +9 rating (though +/- is a flawed stat, I feel like it provides an accurate reflection of Gryba’s improvement) were impressive totals. With Borowiecki’s contract shifting to a one-way deal this year, the blue-line is getting awfully crowded, but I certainly hope that Borocop is not promoted at Gryba’s expense. All I ask is that Gryba maintain his performance. Prediction: 2g, 10a, 12pts, big, strong, physical, somewhat dependable 5th – 6th string dman.
Chris Phillips: The gradual age-regression of our two remaining Senators-lifers (Neil and Phillips) has been well documented. Last year, Phillips put up 1g, 14a and 15pts in minutes that weren’t as sheltered as they should have been. It is clear that Phillips, at this point in his career, has lost several steps and needs to be deployed accordingly. In a perfect world, Phillips would be traded to a contender for a draft pick, but I am not confident that Murray would be willing to split with such an important part of Senators history so soon after Spezza and Alfie’s departures. So I suspect the Sens are stuck with him for a few more years. With some cooperation from Paulrus, a reasonably hopeful projection for Phillips is a replication of last year’s performance (staving off further age regression) but in more sheltered minutes. Given the choice, I would prefer Gryba play more minutes than Phillips. Still, his experience could be valuable against lesser competition on the 3rd pairing. Prediction: 2g, 8a, 10p, sheltered role as a 6/7 d-man (that’s TWO guaranteed wins!).
Mark Borowiecki: Aside from a 13 game cup of coffee, Borocop spent the year in Binghamton. During his stint in Ottawa, he scored a single goal. Borowiecki, quite frankly, has done next to nothing to suggest that he is an NHL defenseman and he should probably remain in the AHL. He is prone to putting himself out of position in an attempt to land a big hit and offers little upside when compared to a stronger, more experienced player in Gryba. In a perfect world, Boro would be traded to a team in need of a poor bottom pairing young defenseman in exchange for a very low pick. More realistically, Boro will hopefully spend most of his time in Binghamton (in spite of his one-way contract), and will only be called up if the Sens’ blue line is ravaged by injuries. In fact, I’d probably prefer Freddie Claesson be called up first. Prediction: 0g, 0a, 0 pts, 0gp, stays in the AHL or is traded. Edit: Now that Borocop has gotten an extension, it seems he's here to stay and will likely get some time in the bigs... Prediction: 1g, 4a, 5pt in 40 games.
Fredrik Claesson: In the magical world where Borocop’s one-way contract is ignored and he is stashed away in Binghamton for another year, Freddie Claesson would have the chance to leap frog him in the depth chart. Claesson had an amazing, if understated, year in Bingo, posting a staggering +37 rating in addition to his solid 29pts (3g, 26a) in 75 games. He put up these impressive numbers while receiving next to no PP time (obviously more relevant to the point totals than the +/- ranking). Claesson is still young (21) and has room to grow. He has also proven to be incredibly durable and reliable (70+ games in his 2 first seasons in Bingo). A reasonably hopeful (though this is again predicated on the less than reasonable hope that Boro does not see time in the NHL) projection for Claesson would see him playing 25 games as an injury call up in the big leagues, posting 5 points and translating his solid, dependable style to the NHL level. During his games at the AHL level, Claesson would become a leader on Bingo, receiving greater overall ice time and PP time, bumping up his numbers and ice time while maintaining his solid defensive acumen. Prediction: 1g, 4a for 5pts in 25 NHL games, 6g, 19a for 25pts in 50 AHL games, leader in Bingo, solid rookie in NHL.
Summary of Defense:
Again, if even half of these predictions come true, the Sens are in good shape. But which half? There are 9 different defenders discussed above, so 4 or 5 predictions would amount to half. But there’s a huge difference between Gryba, Phillips, Claesson and Borowiecki matching or surpassing their hopeful predictions and Karlsson, Wiercioch, Cowen, Methot and Ceci doing the same. The higher ceilings of the latter players make their success far more important to the team in both the short and long terms. Hell, if Cowen were to slightly exceedhis hopeful projection (unlikely, but entirely possible) and rise to the rank of a passable #4 defender, the Senators would have arguably four top-4 defenders (Methot, Karlsson, Wiercioch and Cowen). Even if the only improvements on the Senators’ blueline were to be Wiercioch getting a full season, Ceci improving ever so slightly, Gryba maintaining his level of play and Phillips staving off further regression, then their defense would STILL be noticeably improved from last year.
The fact of the matter is, while the Senators defensemen were unabashedly awful in 2013-14 (or perhaps BECAUSE they were so bad), I have a hard time seeing them getting any worse. Ottawa has far more younger (ostensibly developing) defenders than they have older (ostensibly regressing) ones. It may be close to Freud’s definition of insanity, but I expect a different (more positive) result from deploying the same players, even if the improvement is only marginal.