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Silver Nuggets: Do the Senators have bad depth? Or are players just being used incorrectly?

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Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

There are many things I could touch on in this space as it was quite a tumultuous week in Sens land. Bryan Murray had an eye-opening interview, Dave Cameron and Mike Hoffman Did Things, and there were some major updates on the injury front. What I'm going to touch on today is how all of this impacts something that's been a major talking point for the Senators all year long: the play of their depth forwards.

A recap: this past offseason, the Senators decided to walk away from Erik Condra's 3-year, $1.25M dollar deal for (likely) two reasons. First, the team has been burned by giving term to depth players before and they knew that there were prospects close-to-NHL ready that they wanted to give a shot. Second, they believed that the other components of Condra's line (Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Curtis Lazar) would be fine without him, especially if they have a veteran like Milan Michalek beside them, or a fired-up Alex Chiasson.

This decision has had a pretty noticeable effect on the play of the Senators as a team this season. If you look at just pure production, things seem fine for the most part: Pageau has 7 goals on the year, Michalek (before he was injured) was on pace for 17, Zack Smith had re-emerged as a strong depth centre, Alex Chiasson -- despite being snakebitten -- *looked* better, Curtis Lazar didn't do anything noticeably wrong, and Chris Neil appeared to be taking less penalties with a cut in ice-time. Good stuff.

Looking beyond that though, you start to see that something isn't quite right. Without even looking at the underlying numbers, here's the ice-time from Thursday night (via ESPN):

sens ice time v. tampa

There's a big top heavy influence, with the top two lines all above 19 minutes and the bottom two lines all under 12.5 minutes. This is something that's fine for a couple games, but I just wanted to remind you all: heading into the season, we didn't think this would be an issue. The Senators were coming off an impressive run into the playoffs where their third line was their strength and caused matchup problems for opposing teams. We all *know* that the team's offensively talented players are worthy of their current position of 7th best offense in the league (in terms of GF60), which is why it's frustrating to see this team get routinely outshot, especially when it didn't happen last season.

Here's Nichols, from his fantastic review of Dave Cameron's first full year behind the Sens bench:

It does not really help that fans are realizing last year's lineup optimization was more attributable to replaceable veterans getting hurt than it was to Cameron rewarding the team's best performers with more ice time. Throughout the course of Cameron's first 27 games, it's been a Paul MacLean redux where superior players like Chris Wideman, Shane Prince and Patrick Wiercioch were benched at the expense of lesser alternatives. (And as an aside, it doesn't help that Erik Condra's departure has turned the third from one of this team's strengths into a weakness.)

On their own none of these players will significantly impact the possession rates and swing some of the proxies in Ottawa's favour, but together, with less ice time for ineffective players, these incremental gains can help and make a difference.

As great as it is that wins give the team a bigger margin for error in the event that the team experiences a significant regression in their shooting percentage, the fear is that the organization shouldn't be waiting around for regression to occur or the losses to mount before change (or worse, they allow these results to harmfully influence their bias and player valuations).

Considering that there hasn't been any major trades including NHL talent to date this season, it appears that any hope for the Senators combating regression will have to come from within. Thus, we come full circle to the opening question of the article: do the Senators have bad depth? Or are players just being used incorrectly?

From Peter Levi:

The issue for Ottawa is not its lack of depth, but rather the preference of coaches to play guys who are "good in the corners" instead of those who can carry the puck. As bad as Binghamton has been this season there are a few players who could easily bump the likes of Chris Neil to the pressbox (and beyond) if the organisation had the wit and will, so I don't see this as a valid point-as long as the GM and coaching staffs can't see the forest for the trees then the depth is largely irrelevant.

Textbook examples of this is the recent moving of Mark Borowiecki to forward, the call-up of gritty players like Max McCormick and David Dziurzynski over skilled players like Ryan Dzingel and Cole Schneider, and the promotion of Zack Smith to the second line during the last two games. Why is this happening?

From Bryan Murray re: Borowiecki -

I thought Dave (Cameron) made some good moves. He put Mark Borowiecki up there, not because he was going to score goals necessarily, but to give energy and add a little bit of a physical presence for the short-term. When it counted, he put Hoffman back there (on the third line) and the puck came to him and he knows how to put it in the net. I've always learned one thing about it either being a coach or watching a coach, it's that they have to do things that trigger emotions. Sometimes they yell at the referee, sometimes they bench a player, sometimes they make wholesale line changes, and when it works, we should recognize it as it worked. In this case, it worked very well for us and I heard the controversy or supposed controversy and I'm not sure why that took place at all."

From Bryan Murray re: Binghamton -

What I did was I talked to Dave Cameron. I wondered who he was going to put in the lineup and who he would play. We do have options in the minors, I think. There's three or four guys down there that could come up and fill a role and be adequate. In a couple of cases, (they would) be better than adequate. I think Dave's philosophy is right: we have veteran guys here or guys here that have made the team out of training camp and if we have to dress a player to play up front like Mark Borowiecki, who can do it and do a real fine job there as far as he gives us energy and gets us a physical presence up front, it allows him to play the six other defencemen. So I've kind of been at the whim of Dave in that regard of who you want to dress on particular game against a particular team. I think it's a good message to the players here. I also think it's a message to the players down there: play above your head, play better than you're playing and maybe we'll be able to give you a game. We (brought) up David (Dziurzynski)... I can't even pronounce his name. We bring him up and I thought yesterday in practice, he was one of our better players. I think game-to-game, he'll get better and he had a real good presence the other night. I see he's playing with (Jean-Gabriel) Pageau tonight, so that's a good reward for him for enduring with us and a chance for us to be better because of his improvement.

Quite frankly, the Senators are risk-averse: it's easier to reward players who a) look like they're obviously expending effort and b) have been in your organization longer because you "know more" about them, regardless if your evaluation is wrong or not. You can definitely find *justification* for Dave Cameron acting in this matter, but is justification the same as optimally utilizing your talent? Even if Mark Borowiecki et al. provide the "safe" play that they're supposed to (they don't), is it going to result in more wins? The obvious emphasis on physical play in this organization is already causing a lot of problems in Binghamton, where Randy Lee has built a team that only features two puck-movers (and importantly, doesn't feature Erik Karlsson).

Is it all doom and gloom? How can this be changed? A couple of suggestions:

1. Move Mark Borowiecki back to defense

This one is obvious, but the Senators really can't afford to let this play out much longer. If he's at forward for short-term physical presence, why not call back up Max McCormick? If he's at forward because you're pissed at your other forwards, isn't two games enough? Given Jared Cowen's paltry ice-time vs. Tampa, especially in comparison to Patrick Wiercioch's (~12 minutes to ~20 minutes), it looks like we may see Methot - Karlsson, Wiercioch - Ceci, Borowiecki - Wideman, which is as close as optimal as this talent group can get, barring some shifting in the top-four to play different players with one another.

2. Call up skill from Binghamton

First, due credit to David Dziurzynski. He's been in the organization for 4-5 years now and has worked hard enough at his game to get off to a great start in Binghamton, warranting the call-up. However, despite his supposed lack of grit, calling up a player like Cole Schneider who's been one of the BSens top three scorers for the last three seasons may help the Senators be more consistent at generating offensive zone pressure. As we saw last season, playing "safe" often results in chipping the puck out... only to have it re-enter the zone. Emphasizing puck skills and generating offensive zone pressure are good ways to be "good" defensively as well. Just ask Erik Karlsson.

3. Send Curtis Lazar down to Binghamton.

"Sorry Binghamton, we're going to take your best offensive players. In return, here's the Golden Boy." This sounds fair, no? Murray touched on the fact that they've considered sending Lazar down to Binghamton to work on his offensive game, but are held back because the coaching staff likes his style of play. Memo to Dave Cameron: among all regular Senators forwards, the Senators give up the second worst shot attempt numbers when he's on the ice (65.63 CA60). That means that the team is giving up MORE than a shot attempt per second when he's on the ice. Of course, it isn't all Lazar's fault -- Michalek and Pageau have had surprising Corsi numbers this season as well. As you can see, there's a pretty sizeable difference in shot attempt numbers against when you compare Lazar and his most frequent linemates. As you can see from Pageau's results with and without Lazar, Curtis seems to be a big drag defensively.

CF60

CA60

Curtis Lazar

47.42

65.37

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

42.81

55.27

Milan Michalek

42.60

57.70

Those shot attempt numbers also look rather low, no? This brings me to my next point.

3. Play Shane Prince regularly.

Here's Bryan Murray on Prince:

"Well again, I think you're in your role on a team. We know that Shane Prince, offensively, brings something to our club. I think the coaching staff and all are trying to figure out, ‘Can you do enough without the puck to be a regular player on our team?' I think Shane's going to be in and out a little bit here. I see he's out (of the lineup) again tonight, but he'll get his chance. He's a talented young forward. He's an offensive type of player. At some point in the year, he'll get put back in on a regular basis, I believe, and be an important player. Again, the coaches are adamant that we've got to play better defensively. We've got to stop giving up as many chances and I can't disagree with them."

Now, I think we've already established that the depth players WITHOUT Prince are already poor defensively, so I don't get singling him out as a reason for the team's poor defensive play, especially when you consider that Prince's underlying numbers are tremendous this season -- one of the only Senators who isn't faring poorly in this department. From Nichols:

As a small hockey ops department with a limited set of eyes, maybe the Senators are too one-dimensionally focused on eye tests to realize that Prince has been one of their most effective players proportionate to the ice time that he receives. At five-on-five, only Hoffman, Ryan, Stone and Turris have been more productive than Prince's 2.09 points per 60 minutes and he has one of the best Corsi For Percentages on the team (51.3) despite playing the bulk of his minutes alongside noted possession drags like Chris Neil and Zack Smith.

Even if you're worried about lapses within the defensive zone, Prince has positive scoring chance (+10, third-best on team) and shot attempt differentials (+11, third-best on team). So whatever fears you have that he could harm the team at an inopportune time, they should be mitigated because like Mike Hoffman last season, his positive contributions outweigh whatever perceived downfalls he has as a player.

Add Prince's team high shot attempt for numbers (CF60 of 66.41) to an offensively maligned line at 5-on-5 like Pageau's and you have a formula similar to the Condra - Pageau - Lazar line of last year. Chagrined as he may due to his lack of finish, Erik Condra was a remarkably strong possession player. I'm hesitant to call Prince that after less than 30 NHL games, but it surely looks like he's of a similar type, and can perhaps be the medicine to the ailment that's currently affecting this team in many ways. Funnily enough, Prince and Condra are right next to each other in a table wherein TSN's Scott Cullen identified players who have strong possession numbers but not enough ice-time, arguing that they're 'ready for more'.

prince ready for more

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Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Sens Links

  • A "fun" week against division rivals resulted in a lot of talking points for Sens fans this week. First, the game recaps from Tuesday night's victory against the Florida Panthers. [Silver SevenSensChirp]
  • Next, the game recaps from Thursday night's loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning. [Silver SevenSensChirp]
  • Andrew Hammond and the BSens played last night, but fell to the Springfield Falcons by a score of 4-3. As always, Jeff has more. [Silver Seven]
  • Many of the aforementioned weekly talking points came from Bryan Murray's interview with TSN 1200. Some fantastic questions from Ian Mendes (REC) led to really insightful answers by Murray. [TSN 12006th Sens]
  • An injury update: As you can see from the recap above, Andrew Hammond is currently on a conditioning stint in Binghamton. The team is hopeful that Clarke MacArthur will be back for the second half, but are leaving it up to his health considering that this is a really delicate situation. Chris Phillips is unlikely to see time this year. [Silver Seven]
  • The main topic of controversy was Mike Hoffman's ice-time vs. Florida. Trevor penned a piece on Hoffman, and Nichols offered his thoughts on Dave Cameron's handling of the Hoff. Over at Bonk's Mullet, Mike has a funny piece on the Senators being risk-averse. I will note that his ice-time was 6th among Sens forwards vs. Tampa (19:01). [TSNSilver Seven6th SensBonk's Mullet]
  • As a result of all of this, Varada wrote a fantastic piece on gratitude -- bringing some optimism back into the Sens community this week. [WTYKY]
  • Speaking of gratitude, Adam Gretz has a piece on how great Erik Karlsson is as a generational defenseman. [CBS]
  • Nichols has a review of Dave Cameron's first full year behind the Sens bench. [6th Sens]
  • We often forget about them, so it's good to get an update on how their season is going. Of course, I'm talking about the Sens ECHL affiliate, the Evansville IceMen. [Eye on the Sens]
  • Your end-of-Nuggets audio courtesy of the SensCallups crew, who talk about the Sens November and what it could mean for the 'Deathcember' that we're currently in. [SensCallups]
Other Links
  • Yost has a great piece on player evaluation, and why many teams struggle with evaluating defensemen (hi Ottawa!) [TSN]
  • The Carolina Hurricanes have had putrid attendance this year, and what's pretty telling (if not symbolically), is that Quebec City's QMJHL team attracts more fans on a nightly basis. Are they a candidate to move? [Sportsnet]
  • Two Pens columns for you this week. First, a sad note that Pascal Dupuis' career is likely over at the age of 36 due to blood clots. Second, often-maligned goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is experiencing a mid-career rebound in performance -- something that is very rare. [Pittsburgh PenguinsTSN]
  • Mike Hoffman was also a topic in Elliotte Friedman's weekly 30 thoughts column! [Sportsnet]
  • Scott Cullen has an enlightening column that highlights players along with their possession and deployment statistics in order to see if they're deserving of their ice-time. [TSN]
  • A powerful piece from Patrick O'Sullivan on the abuse he received as a child playing junior hockey. [The Players Tribune]

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Thanks for reading!