First things first: a happy 2015 to all of you! We've said it before in a few other articles, but I wanted to add my personal well-wishes to the community. You've all been great to me; I look forward to it every time I fire up my laptop to write a piece for the site. That said, my biggest hope for the year ahead is that the Sens get their act together and give us some good hockey to talk about because it's always more fun when the team is winning.
Speaking of good hockey:
What to do with Mike Hoffman?
Now that January 1st has come and gone, the Senators are able to open negotiations with Mike Hoffman on a contract extension. Pierre Dorion has been quoted as saying management would like to begin negotiations in the new year, and that they think Hoffman has proven his worth as an NHL player. It's been a rapid ascent up the depth chart for Hoffman, but the truth is that he showed signs of being a bonafide top 6 winger last season as well. It's fair to say he's been getting his share of puck luck of late, but the volume of shots he's producing is right in line with his total from last year (10.51 shots/60 at 5v5 vs. 10.24 last year). He's also been putting up his impressive point totals this season without the benefit of much time on the power play. Add in the world class speed and puck skills and I'm sold that he's the real deal; you should be too.
He's two seasons away from being an unrestricted free agent, so the Sens are left with two sensible options: 1) a two-year bridge contract that walks Hoffman to UFA after the 2016-17 season or 2) a longer term gamble similar to the Kyle Turris or Colin Greening deals. If I'm Bryan Murray, I would push hard for a 4, maybe even 5 year deal at 3-3.5MM per season. This is probably the riskier of the two options, but also has the potential to pay the biggest dividends. One of the realities of being a budget team is that you need to take risks on the development of your own players. It's a strategy the team has used several times before, sometimes to great effect (see: Karlsson, Erik or Turris, Kyle) and sometimes it's blown up in their faces (see: Greening, Colin). Hoffman's a safer bet than Greening ever was; show the man his money and by 2017 we'll all be laughing at how great of a bargain his contract will be.
The Ottawa Senators' power-play is a study in mediocrity when it comes to scoring efficiency: their 18.1% conversion rate is good for 18th in the league, and their Goals/60 of 6.5 has them sitting 16th. It hasn't been particularly bad, it hasn't been particularly good in that sense. It has, however, been remarkable in another way: how much of the offense comes from directly Erik Karlsson. Among players that have played at least 50 mins at 5v4 this year, Karlsson ranks 8th in the league in shot rate and 4th by shot attempts. The stratification is particularly noticeable when you hone in on just the Senators:
All stats in the above table are courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
That's a fairly sizeable gap between Karlsson and the rest of the team, particularly when we consider all shot attempts (iCorsi) instead of just shots that got through to the net. Add to that the ridiculously large burden that Karlsson shoulders on the power play, he's played almost 50 more minutes than the next closest skater, and it becomes all the more clear that the team largely lives and dies by the captain. At this stage, I'm not ready to pass a value judgement as to whether this is a good thing or not; after all, Washington has long had one of the most productive power plays in the league and their strategy is even more slanted towards their talisman. I will say this though: I wouldn't be shocked if it was more conducive to funnel a larger percentage of the shots to the forwards. I'll also be keeping my eyes out for tactics specific to the Senators that are helping to produce this kind of disparity. This isn't the last time I'll touch on this subject this year, I'm sure.
Pageau has been earning his stripes
Jean-Gabriel Pageau has been quietly impressive since being recalled six games ago, and he was rewarded for his efforts with some time on the second line in Monday night's game against Buffalo. I don't expect he'll continue to see top six minutes, but he's more than handled himself considering he's been giving a defensive role that limits his offensive opportunities. Pageau's just played the six games, but only David Legwand has received a larger share of his zone starts in the defensive end than Pageau at this juncture. He's still getting mauled in the face-off circle, and it's somewhat difficult to imagine someone his size ever having much success in that area of the game, but the Sens are more than breaking even shots-wise when he's on the ice. He's used his speed to great effect on the forecheck, and his skill with the puck have been a welcome addition to a bottom six that sometimes embodies the term "stone hands". The tricky part comes when Curtis Lazar, Zack Smith and Chris Neil are available to return. My personal preference is for Pageau to remain in the line-up, but my hunch is that he'll have to put a few points to ward off his competition.
Speaking of call-ups:
About those reinforcements...
The Sens have been hit by the injury bug in the last month, and with Marc Methot seemingly still a ways away from re-joining the line-up the team has been reduced to 18 healthy skaters and two goalies. There's an expectation that a defenseman will be recalled from Binghamton following Mark Borowiecki's gruesome injury, but management has made it clear that's not a given. Barring a flameout from Team Canada, Curtis Lazar isn't slated to return to the team until next Tuesday and there has been not even a hint of chatter on the subject of recalling a forward other than Pageau. It's not the end of the world by any means, but it's still a bit strange to not have anyone immediately available in case of injury given that the team plays back-to-back games on the weekend.
Slowly Turning the Ship Around Defensively
Monday night's dominating effort against the Buffalo Sabres marked the fourth consecutive game the Senators had at least broken even in the shot attempt category, and also the fourth consecutive game they'd held their opponents under thirty shots. I'm not ready to break out the champagne quite yet, but the team's play of late has been markedly better than during long stretches this year. I'm also not quite ready to assign credit or blame, but there might be something to be said for giving the kids an even longer leash. Just a thought.
Thanks for reading!