1. Was it a good decision to keep Curtis Lazar in Ottawa for the season? It was one of the most hotly debated topics early in the season and, with the exception of a few weeks over the holiday season to captain Canada's team at the World Junior Championships, Ottawa made the decision to keep the teenager in the NHL.
But was it the right choice?
He got off to a slow start, scoring just one goal and chipping in seven points before leaving to join Team Canada. However, his time with players his own age seemed to restore some confidence in Lazar. He had five goals and nine points while helping Canada win its first gold medal since 2009. He turned a corner in late February when Dave Cameron put Lazar on a third line featuring Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Erik Condra. He even had a late season surge after eating a gross Hamburglar ice burger, scoring three goals in four games. While Condra and Pageau were the driving force behind the third line's excellent play for the final two months of the season, Lazar wasn't exactly a passenger. Ultimately, it's hard to evaluate what this experience has done for his development at this point, but more will be expected of him next season.
2. Where does Lazar slot in next season? In the past, the Senators have chosen to send prized prospects (Mika Zibanejad) to the AHL after making an impact in the NHL. They've also forced players with a lot of potential to prove they're ready to make the jump permanently (Pageau). I don't think Lazar falls into either category. If there's one thing he's universally praised for it's his attitude and character and while adorable, he doesn't seem to suffer from a lack of maturity like some NHLers his age. If the Senators fail to re-sign Erik Condra, Lazar loses one of his favourite linemates from 2014-15. Still, with a top-6 almost set in stone, it's hard to see Lazar anywhere but the third line again. That's not a bad thing, he's still only 20 and if we've learned anything from the struggles of Ottawa's defense, rushing young players (minutes, match-ups, and role) can be detrimental.
3. Lazar's adorable Phillips Adventure. Curtis Lazar spent his first season in the NHL living with Chris Phillips and his family. This is nothing new; Erik Karlsson lived with Daniel Alfredsson and family for a time when he first joined the club. It's a fairly common practice in the NHL and leads to some great stories like Willie Mitchell and Aaron Ekblad in Florida this season. Phillips and Lazar matched the Florida duo for delightful roomie stories, including a visit to Santa, babysitting, and cute drawings.
Regardless of where Lazar lives next year, it's another thing to consider during the leadership turnover in Ottawa. If he plays, this is likely Phillips' last season. Alfredsson is already gone and Neil won't be around forever. Increasingly, players like MacArthur, Ryan, and Turris have to take on these roles. That goes for Erik Karlsson too, who, besides Phillips and Neil, is the longest-serving Senator along with Milan Michalek.
4. The teammate-roommate situation points to a larger issue of institutional memory. One of the strengths of the organization has been a strong core of players, hockey ops personnel, management, and executives who are experienced and long-serving members of the organization. Why is this important? From players to the president, the Senators have always had people in the organization who understand what it means to be part of the Senators team, what it means to be part of this community, and the inner workings of the club. Serious illness has affected Eugene Melnyk and Bryan Murray, and Mark Reeds succumbed to cancer. Long-time CFO Erin Crowe left to pursue other opportunities this winter, and Phillips and Neil are near the end of their playing careers with the team. Add to that a mid-season coaching change in December and the possibility of Luke Richardson leaving his head coaching gig in Bingo in favour of the Buffalo head coaching position and there's been some significant turnover at all levels of the organization. Bringing Daniel Alfredsson back into the fold in some capacity can help with maintaining some continuity.
Turnover isn't necessarily a bad thing. While the illnesses the Senators have been dealing with are trying, extremely difficult, and sad, some of the other changes have led to an infusion of new blood. This sort of thing can invigorate an organization, like when Dave Cameron took over from Paul MacLean.
5. Jen (@RegressedPDO) recently wrote an excellent post about clearing the defensive zone. You should read it in full, but the thrust of her argument is that possession/controlled defensive zone breakouts are a lot more effective than just dumping the puck out of the zone, even when tired. This is troubling news for defenders like Jared Cowen, Mark Borowiecki, and Eric Gryba all of whom have trouble moving the puck with control and making successful breakout passes. However, it's good news for Patrick Wiercioch. I think one of the reasons some fans have resisted appreciating what Wiercioch brings to the blue line is that someone with his skills, especially his passing ability, is expected to generate a lot of offense. And Wiercioch didn't do that this season. In 56 games, he had three goals and 13 points. That puts him in the same range as Jared Cowen and Mark Borowiecki. But Wiercioch is so much better than some of his fellow defenders at controlled breakouts and that's why he's valuable. That's why his role increased dramatically under Cameron. With greater responsibility comes increased ice time and Wiercioch made the most of it in the playoffs, tying Erik Karlsson for the team lead in points against Montreal. It was a great two months for Wiercioch and earned him a spot on Canada's World Championship team, winning a gold medal. He managed a goal and four points in 10 games and didn't look out of place in Canada's stacked lineup.
6. The Senators have some significant questions regarding the team's RFAs. While some have floated the offer sheet danger, the reality is, NHL teams rarely use this valid option. The greatest danger is that some of the RFAs (Zibanejad, Stone, and Hoffman) are due significant raises. With uncertainty about the internal budget, it's unclear how much money the Sens have to work with. Further muddying the waters is that Shane Prince is an RFA in Bingo and could use an extended look at the NHL level and Condra's UFA status needs to be resolved. Some tough questions have to be asked.
7. Would you ink Mark Stone to a long term deal? Murray has a shown a willingness in the past to ink RFAs to long term deals. Some have been affordable (Kyle Turris), some have been massive deals (Karlsson, though that's also a steal), and some have been thankfully avoided (Cowen and his eight year offer). So Murray is at least open to the possibility of a long-term deal.
Stone is impressive. He's a dominant offensive player, a strong defensive player, and a possession machine. I'd be willing to lock him up for six or seven years for somewhere in the $5.5M range per season. He's that good.
8. Would you re-sign Alex Chiasson? Chiasson had a tough season in Ottawa. He got off to a hot start but endured extended goalless droughts and found himself on the fourth line toward the end of the season. He frustrated a lot of fans but his possession numbers under Cameron were decent. Giving up on a controllable asset, especially one who is not likely to cost much, is never desirable but in addition to an internal budget issue, the Sens have a roster space issue. Cutting ties with Chiasson now opens up a roster spot for a player like Matt Puempel or Shane Prince. If you're Bryan Murray, do you make that move?
9. Who's left standing? Ottawa has some surplus veterans and replacement players taking up valuable roster spots. Some people are eager to drop Milan Michalek, but his salary isn't going to be absorbed by anyone and he played much better under Dave Cameron. By my count Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, David Legwand, Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Jared Cowen, and Eric Gryba could go and I wouldn't miss them. Phillips, Neil, and Legwand might be blocking roster spots but even if all three remain with the Senators for the full 2015-16 season, all are UFAs in 2016 and I can't imagine a scenario in which any would return. They're blocking space, cost significant dollars, and it's inconvenient given certain candidates in Bingo, but it's not a long term problem. Colin Greening is likely to be bought out once the window opens, but I can't imagine the Sens are willing to stomach more than one buyout. I have no idea why Eric Gryba was re-signed last summer when the Sens intended to ink Borowiecki to a long-term deal, let alone why Gryba got a two year deal. He had a difficult season and I can't imagine he gets re-signed next summer either. Zack Smith is a decent fourth line centre but was invisible when playing on the wing this season. The reality is, the Sens have just outgrown his services. Ottawa has depth down the middle and cheaper bottom-six options at centre (Pageau, Derek Grant, and Lazar).
While none of these players are in Ottawa's long-term plans, if the Sens can move two of these players in addition to Greening in the off-season, it would create opportunities for Puempel, Prince, and Chris Wideman (assuming he can be re-signed). Most of these players are likely unmovable, but Smith and Gryba are young enough, cheap enough, and bring some of the physical play GMs occasionally go for. A late round pick for either player would be worth it to free up some space.
10. What about Mike Hoffman? The rookie had a great season despite splitting time between the top-six and bottom-six. He's got a good shot and incredible speed. Unfortunately for Hoffman, Dave Cameron seems concerned that the winger is a defensive liability. Cameron's demotion of Hoffman to the fourth line during the streak and playoffs suggests the Senators are not as enamoured with Hoffman as they are with Stone. It's odd that Murray seems intent on yet again adding a top-6 forward given that Stone and Hoffman played like top-six forwards this season. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that Hoffman is part of a package to acquire a top-six forward Murray values more.