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Silver Nuggets: Discussing Offseason Priorities

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On Tuesday, I asked all of you a really difficult question around what the team's BIGGEST offseason priority was. Here are the poll results:

poll results

Pretty split, right? Four of the six options got a fair bit of votes, with the clearing of contracts taking the cake. Interestingly, a lot of the options talked about here were discussed by different Sens bloggers this week, so today's Nuggets will be integrated in that I'll play around with some of your comments while touching on some of the things others wrote as well.

Let's start from the bottom and talk about stable management and/or Cameron's assistant coach choice. No one voted this option as the most important, but news did come out this week that Bryan Murray plans to step down from the GM role at the end of next season. In that same CBC report, Murray touched on how he'd still be involved with hockey (if health permits) but likely in an advisory position. B_T had a quick post on this news, and notes that this was the initial plan after Murray signed his contract extension last year. User be_rad had this to say:

BMGM is a hell of a man. I wish it had been decided to choose his successor by now, and to have him transition with grace and intention. I can't help but say, however, that the decisions the team faces are critical, and I would like the person making them to be the one responsible for them in 2-3 years. I want those decisions taken by a management team that has fully embraced the value of analytics, while still having the superb scouting and drafting team already in place.

In terms of celebrating Bryan Murray - I'm all for it. He's led this team through a ton of adversity and is a well-respected figure in hockey. Given this week's news, Michaela decided to go through some 'top' Bryan Murray this moments earlier today, and I'd highly recommend you check that out here. With respect to transition, I completely agree that Sens management HAS to be more progressive. It appears that they have been in terms of their amateur scouting department - the results speak for themselves - but not so much in terms of using things like analytics to help with player evaluation and/or trades. At this point, it looks like Ottawa may make the easy transition to "young homegrown talent" like Pierre Dorion or Randy Lee, which may not be good for management that's in need of some 'new blood'.

With only 3% of the votes, it looks like the much publicized 'search for a top-six forward' isn't something that you all think is very important. I agree. be_rad touched on this again with a comment that many of you appeared to agree with:

After watching the teams advance in the playoffs, it's tough to see how we can join them without an elite scorer up front. Is that Stone? Ryan? Hoffman? Perhaps. Do we have enough size, strength and skill in the middle? Perhaps. Our lower 6 seem loaded with specialty and energy and possession players. Can that compensate for a slightly underwhelming top 6? Perhaps.

Speaking of playoff teams, Ross compares the careers of Matt Beleskey (ANA) and Bryan Bickell (CHI), who have been receiving a lot of attention recently as playoff contributors. Both are forwards play a gritty game, with Bickell's obvious size as something may attract Murray. Added onto Chicago's perilous cap situation, and Bickell may be on his way out. I was surprised to learn that Beleskey isn't really that big (6'0, 207lbs) but it's clear that he plays the straight line game that Murray seems to like. He... hasn't been all that successful though, with this year (his age 26 season) being his "breakout" year with just 32 points (22 goals) in 65 games. He had a pretty decent junior career with Belleville, with numbers almost identical to former Sens 1st round pick and current teammate of Beleskey, Stefan Noesen. Trevor talks about why Beleskey is a bad signing, especially if he may command somewhere near $5M (!) a year. Lost in all this is a current top-six forward that the Sens currently have under control, Mike Hoffman, who is the subject of Jack's piece at SenShot. The speedy RFA has arbitration rights, but had a way more productive year in many metrics than both Bickell and Beleskey, will be cheaper, and is a fit on the left-side with Mika Zibanejad. WHY ARE WE EVEN TALKING ABOUT THIS.

Next, with 16% of the vote, is the pivotal goaltending situation. To start, James from WTYKY has his player grades for the Sens goaltenders this year, which is a good (and funny) backdrop to start our discussion. It's clear how the goaltenders are categorized:

Anderson - proven, veteran professional who performs well in the playoffs when the team needs it the most; oldest by a long shot

Lehner - the goaltender of the future for many years now, and one of the only U23 goalies with NHL experience. Health is a little bit of a ? because of a concussion, but even so, he hasn't gone on a consistent run yet in the past two years, making management uncertain especially because...

Hammond - the unproven, unknown 'tender who went on a historic, perception-changing run to take this team into the playoffs (though a lot of it is also due to Cameron's line combinations). I don't think anyone expects him to put up a .920+ but it seems reasonable that he can be a solid backup at the NHL level, seeing as that's what his performance was during the last two weeks of the season. The cheapest option.

With the signing of Hammond to a three year deal, Murray and co. have to move either Anderson or Hammond as I can't recall a situation that a team went into training camp with three healthy NHL-calibre goaltenders on one-way deals. As SensChirp outlines, there are a couple teams who are interested in Anderson + Lehner (and even if this is a bit of a PR move on the Senators end, there's good reason for teams to like at least one of the two options). User degenerate5883 has a packed comment that touches on this, and how the goaltender decision sets up the rest of the roster:

One of our goalies would be a piece in play for any skater position addition. The fact that 6 teams have contacted BM is exciting. This will hopefully drive the price up. Personally I hope both Lehner and Anderson are still with the team. I'm scared of any other scenario. If we don't have league average goaltending it won't matter if we have another top 4 dman. I'd be interested in what teams would have contacted BM. I think it's a given that Edmonton, Buffalo and San Jose are the obvious ones. I would think Dallas, St. Louis and Carolina would be the other teams. If these were the teams in play it would be interesting to see who BM would be targeting. I'm really intrigued by Carolina going into this year's draft. Do they go for complete rebuild? I know Carolina has talked about trading down in the draft already. They have a number of top 6 guys that could be moved. Question marks in nets. I really think they could be a good trading partner.

Carolina is a team who I never thought of, but is a really interesting option as a potential fit. Obviously I always take reports like "Ron Francis is willing to part with the 5th overall pick" with a grain of salt, seeing as any team will part with any pick if they're receiving a lot for it (minus Edmonton), but given Carolina's roster structure, they may actually be a good candidate for trade. They were a really strong possession team last year, and their 51.5 score-adjusted Corsi was better than six playoff teams. Cam Ward is very old and Anton Khudobin's poor year may lead to a trade for a goalie like Craig Anderson, especially given that the Staal brothers are in their prime and want to win now. Jack examined five goaltender trades over at SenShot, and unfortunately for the Senators, found this:

There have certainly been many teams in history that have regretted trading their goaltender, especially if the return was less than optimal. There have also been teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs who traded their promising young goalie (Tuukka Rask) for a more proven one (Andrew Raycroft). Lehner may end up being what Rask is to the Leafs, which would be infuriating. He clearly has the potential to be very good too.

I still don't know why the team decided to be loyal to Hammond instead of saying thanks for his services and see ya, especially if it's Lehner who ends up being traded. I can buy the financial logic if Anderson's gone, as ~$4M in savings can be used for the RFAs, even if a Lehner - Hammond pairing is very volatile and something Bryan "I like two number one goaltenders" Murray won't like. If it's Lehner gone and Anderson ends up hurt/falls victim to the aging curve, it's all up to Matt O'Connor and Marcus Hogberg, even though Lehner has a better prospect pedigree than both. What's even MORE frustrating for fans is the fact that Murray and co. may use Anderson/Lehner as a way to get rid of a bad contract (Greening, Cowen, etc.) instead of bringing back a better quality NHL piece, especially since many of the bad contracts that the Senators currently have were preventable. The link is to an article by Nichols over at the 6th Sens, who is just as mad as I am.

No one wrote this week about the third highest vote getter, bringing in a top-four defenseman via trade or free agency, though it is something that is of utmost importance, even if the Sens brass don't think so. Be_rad makes a really interesting point about a certain playoff team that I think the Senators should take note of, especially if they want to be a Cup contender rather than a playoff attendee:

Defence is a definite weakness. Chicago is really struggling with basically a short rotation that forces them to ice guys longer than they would like because they get exposed. But their upper 3 or 4 are, on balance, better than ours. How do we get from here to a rotation that does make us wet the bed every time we let the 5-6 guys out, and that doesn't underperform when the 3-4 guys are out?

BigRig_GR and Marvellous agree:

Defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense defense
Pretty please?

YES, DEFENCE
I second that emotion!

While jnewman68 looks at the situation a little differently:

So while it would be great to see the Sens add a legitimate top 4 blueliner, I think if push comes to shove we can make do with what we have in the organization already. PW46 and Ceci, if paired up from the start of the season are pretty close to being top 4 capable already. As for the 3rd pairing surely there will be some voices in the front office pushing for the team to give Wideman or Claesson a shot as the 6/7 D-man?

Two of the players that we asked for your opinions on in the "Your Say" series this week were defensemen who are both signed for another year on one-way NHL deals: Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba. The duo could not be more different. As jnewman points out, Wiercioch is someone who eventually found his rightful place in the Sens top-four with Cody Ceci, and is perhaps a reason why the Senators don't need to find another defenseman - they played just fine with Methot - Karlsson, Wiercioch - Ceci. Gryba, on the other hand, is someone who may (*cough* should *cough*) be headed somewhere else in order for Chris Wideman or Fredrik Claesson to get NHL minutes after spending the past 2-3 years in Binghamton. Looking at this from a financial perspective, I don't see any way for the Senators to sign a free agent defenseman because a) no money and b) no roster space, so the only way one could potentially come back is if the Sens get one as a return for Anderson or Lehner, or as part of a bigger package for some younger assets like Mike Hoffman, Shane Prince, etc.

This situation depends a lot on what happens with the RFAs, who 24% of you feel is the biggest priority in terms of them being signed to good, team friendly deals. If negotiations fall apart with Hoffman, Pageau, Zibanejad, then perhaps the Senators could acquire a top-four defenseman for one of their more attractive pieces. This is something it appears that jnewman68 agrees with, given this comment:

The RFA's, on the other hand, are going to determine how long this teams window of opportunity is going to be open or whether it will open at all. Zibby and Stone HAVE to be signed. I'd like to see both signed for 5 years minimum. Whether they end up signing for a manageable term and dollar figure is going to go a very long way in determining who else gets signed. I'd like to see Hoffman and Pageau signed, and Prince and Wideman. Again, whether they are or whether they become trade bait probably has more to do with how much the team invests in stone and Zbad than anything else.
Lock up Stone and Zibby at a price they can afford and suddenly we have a core group that looks very good for the next 5 years and enough flexibility to add the parts necessary to go all the way.

I'm firmly on board the "sign Zibanejad and Stone to long-term deals" train, especially when it looks like Hoffman and Chiasson are only going to get 1/2 year deals given their arbitration rights. Pageau is an interesting player, and the best bottom six centre on the current Sens roster, so it'll be interesting to see if he gets term like Zack Smith, or whether management has learnt their lesson to not give term to depth players. Given the Hammond deal, everything is up in the air for the Gatineau native, other than the fact that he'll be in the NHL next season.

Finally, we get to the option that 36% of you put as the team's biggest offseason priority, the dumping of bad contractsNichols went in-depth on this topic in an excellent piece that features this paragraph as the conclusion:

These savings can be put to far better use by reallocating payroll and applying it to the team's RFAs or to whatever options may be available to the team in unrestricted free agency. Now maybe that doesn't vibe with the organization's "we spend smartly" claims, but nobody should really care about those claims if the organization can act smartly to rid themselves of some bad contracts that block better young players from being a part of this roster moving forward because next season, you can't expect these veteran players to conveniently get hurt again.

Chirp outlines players who may fall into the "bad contracts" section below, while also touching on the stark financial reality that faces the Senators due to their poor decision-making:

Up front, players like Colin Greening, David Legwand, Zack Smith and Chris Neil aren't exactly locks to be among the team's top 12 forwards. On defence, Jared Cowen and Chris Phillips both look like number 6 or 7 defenceman that could be in and out of the line up all year.

...

On defence, there are eight guys under contract including five left handed defenceman. Ask most fans and they'll say that getting help for the defence should be a priority this season. Well right now, the fact is there's no room. With 8 bodies already back there, the Senators would almost certainly have to move someone out before bringing another defenceman in.

The Senators have close to $59 million committed to 20 players. They have five RFAs that are going to earn $12-$13 million next season. And that's a conservative guess. They could probably fit it all in under the league salary cap but as Murray indicated in his season ending press conference, this still isn't a "cap team".

The so called bad contracts mentioned above add up to close to $15 mil...

There's a lot in that Chirp piece on specific players like Colin Greening and Jared Cowen, as there are a few potential routes the Senators could go with these players. However, there is the unfortunate reality that the Sens could be stuck with both of them taking up ~$5.6M on the roster next season. User spencerdjblake has this to say on Cowen, which is the sentiment that Bryan Murray has publicly shared on the 6'5 defender:

I didn't include Cowen in this list of people because I'm still on the fence about him. He's been up and down (ok, mostly down) during his time in Ottawa but he's also a young defender insert "defenders take longer to develop" cliche here. If they can move others listed and end up keeping him because they don't like the return they're being offered, I probably won't dwell on it much.

User joecanuck disagrees with Spencer on Cowen, and instead responds with this:

Cowen is a lost child in an amusement park when he gets the puck in his own end and Legwand is simply too slow. Greening needs to be bought out and I just don't see where Smith fits in anymore. Phillips and Neil aren't a big deal, both going into there last year and they're cheap, they can ride the pine and get in a few games if necessary. We need to make room, I can't see guys like Puempel, Prince, Schneider, Wideman and Claesson continuing to hang around Binghamton hoping for a chance to play, they're going ask to be moved eventually like Baertshi did in Calgary.

Needless to say, Cowen's name will be talked about a lot because he has the biggest contract among the "bad" contracts. Legwand, Phillips, Neil, and Gryba are all only here for a maximum of one more year, and are all potential trade deadline sells if the team is out of the playoff picture. Cowen and Greening, in addition to Zack Smith, are all potentially here for an extended period of time and are taking a spot over players like Wideman, Claesson, Prince, Grant, and Puempel. In my opinion, the Senators will have a lot of flexibility with the goaltender situation if they manage to move Cowen and Greening out, as the savings there could go towards the RFAs, but all we can do right now is cross our fingers.

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Hope you liked this format for the Nuggets! It was interesting to try and incorporate all the different storylines and arguments for each point, and I know it was a tough question to try and answer. Here's hoping that Murray and co. have an easier time than I did. Thanks for reading!