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Methot’s Departure Leaves Many Questions on Senators’ Blue Line

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The Senators have lost Marc Methot, but there are a number of options to retool the D corps for next season.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators - Game Three

Marc Methot has played his final game as an Ottawa Senator (or at least until he tests free agency in two years).

With their pick of the exposed litter, the Vegas Golden Knights decided to pluck Methot from Canada’s capital despite Senators general manager Pierre Dorion’s best efforts to convince them otherwise.

The 32-year-old was a staple on the Senators’ blue line for the past five seasons, playing a solid, reliable defensive style of hockey while setting up shop alongside Erik Karlsson on the first pairing. He was a leader on and off the ice, a fan favourite and simply a fantastic ambassador for the city.

Surely, in so many ways, he will be missed.

So, now what?

The Senators seem to be the only organization losing a top-pairing defenseman in the expansion draft, and some have argued that, last night, they lost the most important player out of all 30 teams.

Luckily for them, it’s not all doom and gloom when assessing the damage heading into next season. Ottawa has a few favourable options to retool their D corps.

Right away, their cap situation immediately gets a hell of a lot more encouraging. Next summer, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone are going to receive hefty raises. And in two years, the best defenseman on the planet needs an extension. It, too, will not be cheap.

Losing Methot’s annual average value of $4.9 million, along with the possibility of adding a couple entry-level contracts in Colin White and Thomas Chabot next season, definitely helps Dorion and Eugene Melnyk sculpt a more promising future.

First, the top pairing needs to be addressed. With Karlsson losing his partner, and seemingly best friend, either Dorion needs to find a top-four defenseman in free agency or through trade, or Freddy Claesson could be given an opportunity to play more minutes against stiffer competition.

The latter will do.

Of his fellow defensemen, who did Karlsson have the best possession numbers with during the regular season (minimum 100 minutes)? That would be Claesson.

At even strength, Karlsson’s 46.9% Corsi For rating with Methot is much less flattering when compared with the 57.7% rating he had with Claesson. Now, these numbers are a bit misleading before you take into account that Methot had 800 more minutes than Claesson did with the Senators captain, but the two Swedes just flat out looked more comfortable together this year.

One thing Claesson gave Karlsson that Methot simply couldn’t was a viable D-to-D option in the offensive zone. The accuracy was debatable, although he did pot three more than Methot’s zero, but Claesson showed obvious smarts, creativity and quickness when given, or creating, himself, an offensive opportunity. In 33 games, his 1.34 points per 60 at 5-on-5 only had him behind Karlsson (1.45) on the backend.

At the other end, Claesson took gigantic strides in his coverage, aggression, 1-on-1 battles and overall confidence with the puck during a breakout scenario. It was night and day from the 2015-16 campaign.

He earned himself a one-way extension, and he’s ready to take on added responsibility and pressure. He more than proved that in 14 playoff games this year.

Moving our way down the order, it’s long overdue that the tandem of Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf be split up. And if the postseason is any determination, it’s that Phaneuf deserves to stay put on the second pairing and Ceci should play more sheltered minutes on the bottom duo.

Depending on how his summer goes and what he brings to the table at training camp, why not try the aforementioned Chabot on Phaneuf’s left? In the CHL and at the World Juniors this season, Chabot showed the hockey world he’s likely the best defenseman not playing in the NHL right now. Phaneuf has proven in the past he can play his off-side and if it isn’t working out come late October, then the Senators’ depth on defense, with regards to Ben Harpur and Chris Wideman, can fill in the void.

It feels like next year will be the first time in three seasons that Mark Borowiecki spends his fair share of time in the press box.

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Methot’s strong defensive play may be something the Senators yearn for in the early stages of the 2017-18 campaign, but what might have the biggest negative impact on the team is his absence in the room.

Bearing witness to the overwhelming success Ottawa boasted into late May, and the way they achieved it, it’s rather difficult not to attribute a great deal of their triumph to the cohesion the group had constructed in nine months.

They turned out to be a far cry from Dave Cameron’s previous squad, and it felt like the switch had been flipped almost immediately as the new crew reached its final assembly in early October.

Whether it was halfway through the season, during the playoffs or on locker clean out day, the players couldn’t stop talking about the family they’d become and how much they would miss their teammates, knowing expansion was coming and the inevitable changes any offseason brings.

With Chris Neil looking to test free agency, Chris Kelly possibly on his way out and now Vegas stealing Methot, it’s fair to say the Senators might be a better team on paper in 2018, but it’s got to be a bit troubling knowing how much they relied on intangibles to create a quality team structure and buy-in mentality. Their consistency throughout the year was always credited to the character and perseverance they possessed, and it’s hard not to believe that those two elements didn’t largely come into play with the hardships the team faced in many different forms.

Though he rarely wore a letter on his chest, Methot’s spot in the middle of the room and the obvious positive relationships he shared with the team aren’t going to be easily replaced. Maybe the best option is to promote within when it comes to the defense.

After a season like 2016-17, it’s hard not to wonder if the team will ever be that close again.