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Ottawa’s Achilles Heel in the Playoffs

Heading into the playoffs, there’s one thing that’s worrying about the Senators: their 2nd defense pairing

Ottawa Senators v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After going on a season-long six-game winning streak, the Ottawa Senators have immediately followed that up with a disappointing 0-2-2 week. It was frustrating losing to Montreal in back to back games to say the least, and Senators fans seemed to be more angry than they have been since the beginning of the season.

If you want to be optimistic, the playoffs still seem like a certainty, barring a horrendous finish to the season. The sky has not fallen just yet, and Ottawa should be playing in some meaningful games in April.

The only problem is, Ottawa seems to have an achilles heel that can hopefully be minimized come playoff time.

That’s right, Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci are two reasons why the Senators could get exploited. If the team does do poorly in the playoffs, it would be difficult to simply pin the blame solely on these two players. Having said that, Ottawa’s second pairing has simply not been good enough, and it is the team’s most obvious flaw right now.

I feel like some people have gotten it drilled into their head that the second pairing has become “stabilized,” which is the furthest thing from the truth. This is the kind of thing I kept seeing over the summer:

“Phaneuf’s addition stabilized Ottawa’s top four defence pairings, with Ceci and Phaneuf paired together for most of the remaining games of the regular season on Ottawa’s second pairing. With a stable veteran stay-at-home NHL defencemen on the other side, Ceci was able to show the offensive upside that Ottawa 67’s fans saw in the 2011-12 season where he had 75 points in 82 regular season and playoff games played”—Chris Crawford, The Hockey Writers

I was hopeful Phaneuf would “stabilize” things, but that hasn’t happened.

It is the third pairing that has vastly improved, while Phaneuf and Ceci have not looked good in terms of shot attempts and goals. It’s awfully tough being a top-notch team if you’re second pairing cannot contribute much of anything besides some special teams ice time.

So why could this pairing be Ottawa’s achilles heel? Let’s go through how the partners have played together this year.

In 1286 5v5 minutes that Cody Ceci has played this season, 824 of them have come with Dion Phaneuf. For a single season, that’s quite a large sample. Using Corsica’s defense pairing stats, I wanted to see how the two of them compared to the rest of the league.

I set the minimum time on ice together at 300 minutes, and found 92 results. Theoretically there should be 90 (three for each of the 30 teams), but of course there are some players who show up more than once. How do Phaneuf and Ceci rank amongst these pairings? Take a look at this table

Ceci/Phaneuf Stats Together

Stat Value Rank (out of 92)
Stat Value Rank (out of 92)
CF60 50.37 77
CA60 62.78 82
CF% 44.52 85
GF% 41.38 70
xGF% 45.29 79
SCF% 45.73 68
CF% Relative -4.62 79
DSZ% 34.88 20
PDO 98.71 67
Penalty Difference -10 80
Ceci/Phaneuf stats

This is not very pretty. The highest number on this list is their defensive zone start percentage, which is partially a reason why their shot metrics are so bad. However, that cannot be an excuse for having the 85th worst corsi out of 92 pairings.

Sure, their PDO is a bit low, and perhaps they have been a tad unlucky in terms of shooting luck. At the same time though, their expected goals for percentage is fourth last, so maybe there won’t be any positive regression to the mean anytime soon.

A lot of times when a defense pairing is getting killed in their own zone, the team will defend it by citing their plus-minus, or essentially their GF%. But Ottawa can’t even point to actual goal totals and say that Phaneuf and Ceci have been effective at outscoring the opponent.

A 41.38 GF% is not good enough for any pairing, let alone the 2nd one.

There is just no way to look at this table positively. I honestly tried to look for something small, but there is nothing. Even their penalty totals have hurt the team, as they are 80th in that category.

Last year the two of them had a 61.5 GF% and a 48.5 CF% together, which is decent enough, but that was only in 235 minutes. This year is showing that they are not cut out to be a quality second pairing. And yes, Boucher has given them tough minutes, but they obviously have not been up to the challenge that he has given them.

The thing that worries me the most about these stats is that not many playoff teams have pairings that are this bad. In terms of CF%, the only playoff team that has a worse pairing is the New York Rangers with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.

Furthermore, Dennis Wideman/TJ Brodie and Morgan Rielly/Nikita Zaitsev are the only pairings on playoff teams that have a lower GF%. One could say that these three other pairings are just as vulnerable as the Senators second pairing, and that is true.

At the same time, that doesn’t make me feel any better about the situation.

The numbers that Phaneuf and Ceci are putting up this year are what you would expect from a non-playoff team or perhaps a playoff team’s bad third pairing.

Although I would love to see Marc Methot swap places with Phaneuf to help out Ceci, I can’t see Guy Boucher changing things this late in the season. Sadly, that could ultimately be the team’s downfall.

In the playoffs, teams get to play you at least four times, and they will eventually find a way to exploit your biggest weakness. The San Jose Sharks had a solid top two pairings last year, but Pittsburgh was able to expose the slow third pairing every chance they got.

It’s worrisome that it isn’t just a few depth players that might get into some trouble...Phaneuf and Ceci are averaging 22:57 and 23:15 in ice time, respectively. They will be out there during important parts of every game, and I have little faith that they will all of a sudden become a quality pairing.

Inevitably, there will be some who comment about Ceci still being young and that he’ll eventually figure it out. While I disagree with that, it is moot point regardless. All that matters is how good of a player he is right now, and it’s almost impossible to defend his play this season. Phaneuf is the better, more seasoned veteran, but he still has plenty of holes in his game.

I don’t mean to be a downer especially coming off a four-game losing streak, but I find it fascinating how little this issue has been talked about. Ottawa’s second pairing has been a problem all year, and it will be a problem in the playoffs.

Let’s just hope the rest of the team can pick up the slack like they have all season.