With the changes made this week, the Senators are well into their most important offseason yet at a hockey operations level. The team has stagnated, rife with inconsistency that has plagued the fanbase over the last four seasons.
After deciding to tear down the remaining legacy of the late 00s-era Senators and build around young talent like Erik Karlsson and Kyle Turris, the team reached almost immediate success with new coach Paul MacLean and took the highly-touted Rangers to 7 games in 2011-12. After losing Erik Karlsson to injury in the lockout year, the team won their first (and only) playoff series in the last 8 years against the hated Montreal Canadiens. Things were looking up! They responded with a year where they finished 5th in the Atlantic while being without a Top-10 pick. Then came 2014-15, which started off so poorly that Paul MacLean was fired, but ended so amazingly that everything else didn't matter. Finally, we ended up with this year, to which Pierre Dorion said:
On whether their stretch run last season and their easy success negatively impacted their approach to games this season...
"I think you'd have to ask (Dave Cameron). It's just we didn't play in the same manner that we played last year, especially after he took over. This year, right from the get go, we didn't feel that we played in the same way. Even though we were winning some games in October and November, I don't think you can say that we were playing some good hockey."
Dorion also had one more interesting answer in a press conference that Nichols diligently translated and responded to (in bold):
On what changed from last year to this year in the way that the coaches approached their job...
"I don't know if it was expectations. We asked ourselves that many times. I can tell you, Bryan (Murray), Randy (Lee) and even (Daniel Alfredsson) - who wasn't here last year - we've asked ourselves that question many times. What changed from last year? When Dave (Cameron) took over, we weren't given up as many shots. Our special teams weren't where they were this year. We were 30th in shots against this year. Bryan pointed something out to the players yesterday. ‘You know guys, there are 30 teams in the NHL and we were 30th in giving up shots against.' To me, that's unacceptable and that's talking about our commitment to playing better defence."
What happened from last season to this one?
The blue line was never addressed. The team's second pairing failed to live up to the expectations that it created for itself in the second half of last season - granted, Patrick Wiercioch took the brunt of the mainstream criticism even though Cody Ceci was an anchor and dragged down every partner that he played with. Renewed faith in Jared Cowen and Mark Borowiecki backfired. Ignoring the circumstances for what drove and made last year's third line so successful, the organization dealt away Erik Condra to create room for prospects like Shane Prince. Instead of replacing Condra with a similar two-way player, the organization threw Milan Michalek there failing to recognize that the sum of Condra's parts was greater than Michalek's whole game. Rather than find another responsible possession driving winger, Jean-Gabriel Pageau languished in his third line role and the third line, one of Ottawa's greatest strengths down the stretch last season was dominated by the opposition in the early going because Pageau was saddled with shitty wingers who couldn't transition the play or play with the puck. Mix in untimely injuries to top-six forwards like Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris and Andrew Hammond getting a concussion at a critical juncture of the season where Craig Anderson burned himself out during the difficult month of December and you have a recipe for disaster.
There, that wasn't so hard.
Let's brush off the fact that the Senators hockey operations team has had trouble diagnosing the issues of this year's squad, considering that even when they DO identify the issues (*cough* defense *cough*), they don't seem to be aware on how to implement changes, hence the team being in the bottom-10 in shots against consistently since 2011-12. I don't expect Dorion to come out and poo-poo on specific players like Nichols can below, mainly because that's his current group. However, I do think it's worth examining how the team can be *preventative* so that they can rebound next year. Where are their gaps on the current team? Are there signs that things aren't what they seem?
1) Top-Six Left Wing:
I don't know about all of you, but I got worried at Dorion's statement that the team has "nine 20-goal scorers", as it's being extremely optimistic. Hoffman, Stone, Turris, Zibanejad are the four I'm most comfortable with; Ryan and Karlsson following. The remaining three -- likely Clarke MacArthur due to history, Zack Smith due to this year's 25 goals, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau getting close -- are all making major assumptions.
Can MacArthur even play next year? If he does, will he be the same player? When constructing a team, do you take into consideration that one more hit ends his career?
Does Zack Smith shooting 20% concern you, especially when his shot totals are the lowest in his three full (80+) game seasons in the NHL? Dave Cameron's system allowed wingers to get free and play high rather than doing grunt work along the boards -- does a new coach follow the same strategy? Should you not explore trading an asset that never showed *once* in his career that he was better than a decent top-nine player until now?
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, bless his soul, only scored 8 goals at 5-on-5 this year. There's an increasing amount of work being done on special teams play, and many analysts are going to be paying a lot of attention to whether the Sens PKSH% will stay as high. The easy bet is no, and if so, There goes half of Pageau's goal production. Of course, Pageau should likely play with better wingers than the ghost of Milan Michalek and the ineffectual Alex Chiasson next season, right?
2) Top-Nine Right Wing:
Curtis Lazar, who spent time at all three forward positions this season, is already letting folks know that he would like to play at centre. Both Paul MacLean and Dave Cameron have publicly mentioned before that they prefer Lazar's game down the middle but played him down the middle as a necessity -- which makes Dave Cameron's late season usage of Lazar even more dubious but oh well, the dude's fired. The reason why I bring up Lazar is that if he's at C and Chiasson isn't qualified (likely), who fills in?
Erik Condra A two-way, puck possession presence would be nice, and I would go as far as listing that as the team's biggest priority in free agency, as these players are usually pretty cheap. If you're wondering about Binghamton, Jason Akeson and Casey Bailey could likely fill in, but are doubtful to be important or even regular NHL players at this point.
3) Getting the Fourth line right
The Shane Prince-led fourth line was actually one of the bright spots this year until he was traded (along with a 7th round pick) to the New York Islanders for a third-rounder. As you can see below on Chris Neil's season overview from HockeyViz, the fourth line played even or won the shot battle (third graph - black line higher than red line) when Prince was with Neil. Afterwards, playing regularly with [likely 4th line centre] Curtis Lazar and call-up Nick Paul, the line was generally in the negative (red line higher than black).
Despite the praise of Paul, he needs more time in Binghamton to better develop his offensive game. Thus, it'll be up to Ryan Dzingel or Matt Puempel right now to drive play on that line, despite neither being of Prince-like quality as it stands. The worry here is that if you bring in a L4 left-winger, you're likely losing two assets that may pan out given proper time (like Dzingel).
4) The NEW second pair, better than the OLD second pair?
Two Actual NHL Defense Pairs are better than one, right? Unfortunately for the Sens, they've primarily been a one-pair team for much of the last 4 years. Isn't that asinine? Patrick Wiercioch seemed to be the answer alongside Ceci during the stretch run, and the team made the same decision that I would have heading into this year -- play the two together and hope for the best. They likely reacted too late to save this season, but the hopes and dreams are pinned on the $7M that Dion Phaneuf will be getting over the next few years, and if he doesn't work out, the team is going to be in a big pinch both in terms of asset management AND financially. The good news? When Phaneuf - Ceci were on the ice this year, 48.5% of the shots went Ottawa's way -- three percentage points better than Wiercioch - Ceci and a bit better than the team's overall average. The bad news - that's still subpar. Will improvements to Ceci's game and a new system finally provide the stability that Ottawa needs?
5) The damage of a porous bottom-pair
With a cool 45% 5-on-5 CF% and a -4.74% CF% relative, Mark Borowiecki was in the bottom third of all defenders this season. Likely not NHL quality skill-wise but LAUDED for his intangibles, can the team afford to play Borowiecki as a regular defenseman every night? We constantly hear the "it's only 12 minutes" or "He's only making $1.1M" arguments, but exploring efficiencies for a cheap, puck-moving defender on the bottom-pair can really give Ottawa the advantage that they need to succeed on a small budget. Setting up the team to win at every possible level is the job of Dorion and co. and it's becoming hard to argue that they're doing that with a poor bottom-pair.
So, what you do think is the biggest gap on the current team? How do you think some of these problems can be solved? Let us know in the poll and comments!
- Your final set of game recaps for this season, in case you want to go back and microanalyze things. First up, the heartbreaking comeback loss against the Penguins. [Silver Seven, SensChirp,
- Hey, at least the Sens ended the season on a good note. First, sending the home fans happy with a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers. It was a win where Erik Karlsson did this. [Silver Seven, Bonk's Mullet, SensChirp, Ottawa Citizen]
- Finally, crushing the Bruins playoff dreams for the second season in a row. [Silver Seven, SensChirp,
- Only one BSens game, but it was a win! [Silver Seven - v. Albany]
- Of course, the big news this week came courtesy of a Sunday morning press conference where Bryan Murray stepped into an advisory role, opening up the GM spot for Pierre Dorion. [Silver Seven, 6th Sens, Eye on the Sens, SensChirp]
- We're probably going to see more of these, but SensChirp penned the first Bryan Murray retrospective. [SensChirp]
- The entire Sens coaching staff (Dave Cameron, Andre Tourigny, Jason Smith, and Rick Wamsley) were dismissed on Tuesday morning, with only Smith returning to the organization in a different capacity. [Silver Seven, SensChirp, 6th Sens, Eye on the Sens]
- Nichols has the transcripts from Pierre Dorion's interviews after making his first big decision as Sens GM. [6th Sens - Dorion presser, Dorion on TSN1200]
- Sens owner Eugene Melnyk spoke about this week's happenings and A LOT more in some radio appearances. Over at Bonk's Mullet, Rob has applied for the position of Sens speechwriter after these gongshows. [Silver Seven, SensChirp, 6th Sens - Melnyk on Tim & Sid, Melnyk on TSN1200, Bonk's Mullet, Ottawa Citizen]
- Finally, Dave Cameron also spoke about his experience as the Sens head coach. [6th Sens, Ottawa Citizen]
- With Claude Julien likely staying in Boston for another year, who's the favourite for the Sens job? Chirp thinks that it's former Wild bench boss, Mike Yeo. [SensChirp, Ottawa Citizen]
- One prospect signing: top 2014 pick Andreas Englund will be crossing the pond to Ottawa or Binghamton. [Silver Seven]
- Despite not being in the playoffs, we still have some interactive playoff coverage for you here at Silver Seven! First, find out who to cheer for with our Sens fan playoff cheering guide. Then, sign up for our 2016 playoff bracket! Best of luck. [Silver Seven - Cheering Guide, Bracket]
- There was lots of discussion about the NHL's current playoff format, and how it can lead to some intriguing but not exactly fair first round match-ups. A SensChirp reader had some thoughts, with some important implications for a potential Senators playoff run that involves going through Montreal AND Toronto in the future.. [SensChirp]
- Still want to watch some Sens players? You can -- at the World Championships! Mark Stone, Cody Ceci (CAN) and Chris Wideman (USA) will be suiting up. [Silver Seven, Ottawa Citizen]
- Two season recaps for you! The first from Joe (it's special) and the second from Ken Warren. [Bonk's Mullet, Ottawa Citizen]
- Trevor has a pair of pieces on the Sens season: one looking at five positives, and the other about the Sens becoming his worst nightmare. [Silver Seven - Positives, Nightmare]
- Want your tactics fix? Callum breaks down my favourite set play. [Silver Seven]
- Catch up on last week's news and talking points with Michaela's Five Thoughts! [Silver Seven]
- Your end-of-Nuggets audio this week comes courtesy of Episode 2 of the Battle of Ontario podcast, featuring Jamie McLennan as a special guest! [Silver Seven]