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Spare Parts: Depth Defensemen

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For all the excitement about the team's future, there seem to be players that don't fit into that future. This is the fourth in a five-part series looking at what to do with these spare parts.

Cowen and Ceci have been counted on to be top-four defenseman for the Sens this season.
Cowen and Ceci have been counted on to be top-four defenseman for the Sens this season.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ottawa's future looks bright, there's no question. The problem is, this team also has a lot of players who don't fit with this forward thinking model. You've got the 2007 Cup Run leftovers of Chris Phillips and Chris Neil. Both have had long careers with this franchise, but both are quite ineffective in their roles today. There's Milan Michalek, who has two more years after this one at $4-million. There's David Legwand, who has been a healthy scratch after looking like a solid free agent acquisition in the summer. How many of you still remember that Zack Smith plays for this team, and will at some point return from injury and need a roster spot? This team has eight defencemen, and you have to think that at least one out of Mark Borowiecki, Eric Gryba, Patrick Wiercioch, or Jared Cowen will need to be off-loaded. This is the fourth article in the series, taking a closer look at the defensive depth in the organization.

The first thing you might think when you see this title is: "defensemen? I thought the Senators NEED defensemen??" To that, I reply with, yes, the Senators need defensemen - good, skilled, talented defensemen. With Marc Methot's return, the Senators have two (!) top-four defensemen, and in order to be a contending team, they need two more. Some of us here (including me) would argue that Patrick Wiercioch brings that total to three, but if the team isn't going to play him despite a coaching change and "mandate" to get younger, he's included in the list above as players that can potentially be traded to bring in assets for the future. Cody Ceci isn't going to be included past this point in the article because Sens management and I think he has potential to become a top-four defenseman on the right side, and his progress as a young defenseman in the league bodes well for his future. I would argue that he's not there yet, but I have the patience to wait another 1-2 seasons to see what he can do.

That leaves us with Methot on the left side, with Karlsson and Ceci on the right, and for the rest of the article, I will argue that everyone else on the current Senators defense could be made available as a "spare part", with the exception of Phillips who was touched on in the first part of this series here.

Mark Borowiecki

The fact that Borowiecki is the cheapest of four remaining defensemen is a good thing for his future in Ottawa. Signed to an extension prior to the start of the season, Borowiecki is not going to "hurt" you much salary-wise as a 6th/7th defenseman on an NHL team at $1.1M till 2017-18. The rationale for the Senators when signing this deal is as follows: rewarding a hometown, homegrown player with an NHL deal for bringing something that the organization values (character, grit, fighting) to a defensive corps that didn't have that type of player since Matt Carkner left. I am of the opinion that you shouldn't give term to "replaceable" players, but clearly the Senators and I disagree on what replaceable means. Although Borowiecki might not hurt the team in the wallet, he currently takes more penalties per 60 minutes (1.8) than any other Senators player, and has poor possession numbers relative to the rest of the Senators defense. I am a bit skeptical that the organization doesn't know what they really have in Borowiecki, as his usage (lowest offensive zone starts on the team at 44%) doesn't hide his weaknesses (poor zone exits) very much. However, because of his long-term deal and the intangible things that Borowiecki brings, it would surprise me if he's not on the Senators roster in the foreseeable future.

Eric Gryba

Ol' Grybeard is having a tough year. After being thrown to the dogs (literally, facing the toughest competition after Karlsson's injury) in the lockout year, Gryba rebounded last season in a big way with surprising mobility and good gap control, despite his poor puck skills. This year, however, Gryba has been "bad", and unlike his rookie year, I don't think we can attribute it to tough competition. As with all of the defensemen in this article, usage definitely contributes to the problem. I'll repeat it again: the Senators are currently not talented on defense and as a result, they end up putting players in situations that are likely unfavourable to them (or do not hide their weaknesses/play to their strengths) out of necessity. Thus, given Gryba's porous puck moving ability, it shouldn't surprise you that he's played the best with another puck-mover - the frequently scratched Patrick Wiercioch (oh hey, another reason why he shouldn't be scratched!).

Senators D pairs 5 on 5

Shamelessly stolen from the wonderful @IneffectiveMath on Twitter, this graph showcases all of the Senators defensive pairs this season at 5-on-5 with respect to Corsi For (offense) on the x-axis and Corsi Against (defense) on the y-axis. Anything under the red line is good, and as you can see, the only time Gryba is under the red line is when he's playing with Wiercioch. Given that he's a right-handed defenseman, he hasn't seen 30+ minutes of icetime with the team's other puck-movers, Erik Karlsson and Cody Ceci. As an aside, one thing I've noticed about the Senators is that they light to adhere to formulas, despite their lack of progressive-ness. They've often said that they like to have one "offensive" player and one "defensive" player per pairing, almost like having the puck in the offensive zone most of the time isn't good defense. I'd much rather have the "let's have two good players per pairing" approach.

Anyways, back to Gryba. I said earlier that Gryba rebounded in a big way last season because that's really what I thought. He "looked" better and was screwing up way less. Well, after looking at the numbers below, I think I may have fell for a psychological bias. I was looking for the "big screwup" and because I didn't see the "big screwup", I thought things were fixed. This made me ignore the rest of the data, which probably wasn't wise.

TOI/60

Corsi Rel QoC

Corsi Rel

On-Ice SV%

Penalty Differential

Offensive Zone Start

SCA60

2013-14

13.88

0.774

-6.8

.935

- 0.3

43%

26.3

2014-15

12.61

0.134

-9.2

.928

- 1.1

42.7

25.7

Here's a collection of Gryba's statistics from Behind The Net and War-On-Ice. Corsi Rel QoC is a measure of competition - anything positive means that Gryba was facing tougher competition relative to his teammates; Corsi Rel is the same idea except with respect to shot attempt differential. The last number that I think needs explaining is SCA60, which stands for "Scoring Chances against per 60 minutes".

As you can see, Gryba is playing less minutes and facing easier competition than last year, but is performing worse on practically all accounts (really similar scoring chance against/60 numbers). With respect to the psychological bias stuff I was spewing earlier, although Gryba was facing tough competition last year, he probably shouldn't have been as he was getting pummelled in terms of shot-attempts directed at the Senators net (Corsi Rel) and scoring chance numbers against - the second highest mark on the team last year. Why didn't I notice that he was playing poorly? It may have to do with the On-Ice SV% number - Anderson and Lehner were stopping most of the pucks when Gryba was on the ice, and that .935 was easily the highest on-ice sv% for Senators defensemen last year. In case you were thinking "It's Gryba's play that results in the goaltenders stopping most of the pucks when he's on the ice - he's good at clearing the front of the net"... defensemen appear to have little impact on on-ice sv% year-to-year. The .928 this year looks similar, but that's in just under half of the games played, and given the dramatic difference in possession numbers, I don't expect that to stay that way.

I hope that by this point, I have likely convinced you that Gryba should be a spare part on the Senators defense to be replaced by another, better (but likely worse in beard corsi) defenseman. He's still signed for another year at $1.3 million, an inexpensive number for a team looking at a depth defenseman on the right side. Gryba could be included in a package to get a better asset, or straight-up for a mid-round pick. One thing that could potentially keep Gryba in Ottawa other than his contract is that the Senators don't have many other right-defenseman in the system that are NHL-ready other than AHL-star Chris Wideman, which sounds great until you realize that this would result in the Senators likely breaking up their "one offensive, one defensive defenseman per pair" mentality. A Borowiecki - Wideman bottom pair is one way around this and may Be A Thing in 2015-16.

Patrick Wiercioch

Thankfully for all of you, I used up my rant for this piece on Gryba. To give you a quick rundown on my current thoughts on one of the most polarizing current Senators players, give this quick twitter conversation a quick read.

(seriously go read it)

Most of the statistics we have tells us that Wiercioch is a very capable NHL defenseman, and the best top-four option on the left side after Methot. If you'd like some more confirmation, go back to the graph I showed when talking about Gryba and look at how all of Wiercioch's defense pairs are under the red line. I looked at Wiercioch's career as a whole and argued for him getting a top-four opportunity during the offseason. However, despite all of this, he is still a regular member of the Press Box Brigade and in a situation that's practically the exact opposite of Mark Borowiecki: the Senators do not currently value what Wiercioch brings to the table, and despite evidence saying that they should think otherwise, he's likely to be out of the organization soon.

I see Wiercioch traded as part of a package deal with another young asset (pick or prospect) to get a more bonafide, established player (which I hope is another defenseman). Kent Wilson listed Wiercioch as a trade target for the Flames here, and a team like Calgary, Chicago, Anaheim, Vancouver, etc. who are looking for a depth pairing puck-mover that can also lead the second powerplay unit may come calling for him. Wiercioch makes $2.2M this year and that number goes up to $2.7M next year - a number that I'm sure Eugene Melnyk doesn't want to pay for him to sit in the press box for most of the year. Thus, we're reaching the breaking point that's sure to sort itself out either at the trade deadline, draft, or in the offseason. Wiercioch is a controllable asset as he's an RFA after his current deal expires, so I think he could be potentially worth a fair bit as a good young asset, but given his treatment, I'm doubtful that the Senators value him properly. I just hope they get a better asset back for him because Wiercioch playing regular minutes in the organization next year is certainly not the "worst case scenario".

Jared Cowen

In the offseason, I wrote a piece about Jared Cowen being under pressure to perform this season and concluded with this:

Now, for 2014-15, Cowen's hip should be darn close to fully recovered, and thus, the start of this year should be a big indicator of where his game is at. With last season's performance in the past, Cowen should come into camp with renewed confidence, as clearly the organization still believes in him if they gave him a 4 year, $12.4M deal coming off his surgery, and hopefully the increased mobility will limit his defensive gaffes. I don't expect Cowen to ever live up to his high draft position and potential as a "shutdown two-way defender", given his point totals in junior weren't outstanding and we haven't seen any evidence that he can play tough minutes in the NHL yet, but I will be happy if he can be more than just "big". Cowen played at the level of a #5 defensemen in 2011-12, and should still have a reasonable chance to be a second-pair defender given his age (entering his prime) and development stage as a defenseman, who usually take longer to develop. If there's a repeat of last year, expect Cowen's stock to fall even further and the Senators to have trouble dealing a fringe NHL player with a $3.1M cap hit. With replacements like Fredrik Claesson and Mikael Wikstrand, who's averaging 21:37 minutes a night against men in the SHL, presumably ready for 2015-16, Cowen could easily find himself subtracted from the blueline if he doesn't step up, and is under pressure to deliver this season.

The season started off rocky for Cowen, being scratched early on by Paul MacLean, but has since "rebounded" to have a better year. Here's a table featuring the exact same numbers as the Eric Gryba table, taken again from Behind the Net and War On Ice:

TOI/60

Corsi Rel QoC

Corsi Rel

On-Ice SV%

Penalty Differential

Offensive Zone Start

SCA60

2013-14

16.64

0.462

-3.7

.929

- 0.6

49.9%

28.2

2014-15

15.39

0.455

-2.2

.896

- 0.5

44.6%

26.3

Cowen's been playing less with worse offensive zone starts, but has faced roughly the same level of competition while improving his possession (Corsi Rel) and scoring chance (SCA60) numbers. Even if you include Cowen's rookie year in the NHL, this has been Cowen's best year. Is he fixed? Should he be playing top four minutes? I don't think so. He's been anchored to the left defense slot on the second-pair since returning from his healthy scratching, but still has middling possession possession numbers. His improved scoring chance against/60 numbers is a good sign, but it's just gone from "worst on the team" to "second worst on the team" - only Chris Phillips has worse numbers. However, given his size and draft position, I think that there may be suitors out there for Cowen - who may be valued even more than Wiercioch due to weird interpretations of his pedigree. The Senators need a top-four left defense option NOW, especially given the age of their core group of players. Although Cowen has improved a bit, I don't think the organization can afford to use the remaining two years on Cowen's contract to "try him out" until it works. His contract is also something that may put other teams off of him, as his salary jumps to $3.7M and $4.1M over the next two years, but perhaps a team like Edmonton, Carolina, or Arizona could have patience for Cowen and could give up assets that could potentially be flipped for an established top-four LD option.

Summary

The Senators have a glut of middling defensemen who aren't quite good enough (or aren't valued as) top-four NHL defensemen - the team's biggest need. Given Mark Borowiecki's cheap contract and "valued" intangibles, I don't expect him to be going anywhere. The other three: Gryba, Wiercioch, and Cowen could all be had and there are arguments that the Senators would be better off shipping one or two of them away in open up a roster space for other players in the system like Fredrik Claesson, Chris Wideman, and Mikael Wikstrand, or to use their salary (in the case of Wiercioch + Cowen) on a better, more established option.

Thanks for reading!

Note: All data from @IneffectiveMath, War On Ice, Behind the Net, and NHLNumbers.