Last year Ottawa's top-six forward group ended up being the strongest part of the team, even if Mike Hoffman was strangely demoted to the fourth line for much of the latter part of the season. The group of Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, and Bobby Ryan looks to be a formidable group once again in 2015-16, and it's the one area that we shouldn't be worried about.
I think we can all agree that the top lines will (or at least should) look like this:
After those lines though, things get a little tricky. There are six other forwards with one-way contracts, plus Curtis Lazar, Shane Prince, Matt Puempel all battling for spots. You see, that's nine players with only six spots available. Ottawa has quite the logjam at forward and defense, and the problem is that they may be forced to play inferior players because they cannot (or don't want to) get rid of them.
In a perfect scenario, Greening and Neil would be off the team. In that case, here is what my bottom two lines would look like:
Shane Prince-Jean-Gabriel Pageau-Curtis Lazar
Milan Michalek-Zack Smith-Alex Chiasson
You could swap Prince and Michalek also, which would be fine. That looks like a solid bottom six group, if unspectacular. The third line has quite the potential as Lazar and Prince are expected to be offensive contributors this season. Even the fourth line isn't that bad, as Chiasson is definitely capable of that role and Michalek can score the occasional goal. I don't mind Smith if he is playing with non-grinders, which is why I would keep him on that line.
Perhaps Puempel could look impressive, in which case that would make the bottom six even stronger. However, here's the problem: Greening and Neil still exist, which could mess with both lines at least at the beginning of the season.
After Bryan Murray decided to not buy out Greening this summer, it looks like he may get a shot in the lineup. Plus it would be hard to imagine Neil being a scratch every single game, so that means we could see the return of the infamous Greening-Smith-Neil line.
That line simply has not been effective over the past few seasons, and it would be a waste of an entire line to put them together. Here is an interesting graph from Domenic Galamini which is called the "Glass To Crosby Scale," measuring several things like points per 60, and possession numbers:
The trio ranks well below average as a line as you could have guessed. Not only would the fourth line be detrimental to the team, it would also force others out of the lineup.
As I said earlier, if I were the coach I would have Greening and Neil out of the lineup because they simply don't deserve it anymore. Here is what their performances looked like last year via Bombay Charts made by Sens Twitter friend @MannyElk:
These charts measure 10 different things, and the grey dotted line is the average player. Last year Greening was only slightly above average in corsi against per 60 and overall possession, although his past tells me he isn't a strong possession driver. Neil was only a tad above average in his goals for percentage and corsi against per 60 as well, but this whole chart is not pretty.
With the Greening-Smith-Neil line possibly starting the season, the third line situation gets complicated. Besides being loaned to the World Juniors, Lazar was in the NHL the entire year in 2014-15. It would be odd to see him go down to the AHL, but it's a possibility if there's no room. We know that Pageau will be the teams third line centre, and that Michalek will be on the team unless he takes a major nosedive in performance.
That would leave just one spot open for Lazar, Prince, Chiasson, and Puempel on the third line. I think that the Senators will open the season with eight defenseman in order to keep Chris Wideman up, so that means they can only keep 13 forwards. Chiasson has a one-way contract, so he's essentially guaranteed to stay.
In a perfect world I would love to have all three of Lazar, Prince and Puempel with the team, but in this scenario only one would be able to stay as an extra forward. I think it would be Lazar in this case, which would be a damn shame to not have Prince in the NHL. He has nothing left to prove in the minors, and he definitely would make Ottawa better.
Perhaps Ottawa doesn't even start the season with a Greening-Smith-Neil line, or maybe the experiment is short-lived. In any case, they have two forwards that they don't need right now, and it's costing two young players spots on the team. Furthermore, it will make the fourth line much worse. Even if just Neil is on that line, it will ruin the other two spots. If Prince is put on his line to take over Greening, he won't produce much while playing with Smith and Neil.
Hopefully this isn't an issue as the season goes on, because there are good young players that need to be in the lineup. Third and fourth lines are more important than ever, and Ottawa needs all the improvement they can get.
Thanks for reading!