It’s no secret that the Senators are struggling defensively this season. No goalie has seen more rubber so far than Craig Anderson, and the team is on pace to allow over 3100 shots; this would tie the record for the highest shots against per game since it started being tracked in 1955-56, currently held by the 1974-75 Washington Capitals at 38.3.
It sure looks like the Senators could use a shutdown pairing.
That’s a term that can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people - some think of it as big guys who physically dominate the play in their own end, or can keep the puck to the outside, some see it as an excuse for a lack of offensive output. For our purposes here, we’ll stick to the more positive meanings and define it as a pairing that limits shots, chances and goals against. They’re being put out on the ice to slow the opposition’s offense down, and any scoring from them is a bonus.
Now what if I told you that the Senators have had several pairings that have shown this potential under Guy Boucher? We can start by looking at the pairings that have had at least 100 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time together during Boucher’s time in Ottawa. In total there are 20 pairings that have met this limit.
The single best pairing in terms of slowing the opposition’s offense is a pair of players who have both been moved. That is - or was - the pairing of Fredrik Claesson and Chris Wideman. As a pair, they played 164 minutes of 5 on 5 together and during that time limited the opposition to under 50 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play, shots on net to 20.1 per 60 and goals to 0.73 per 60. Scoring chances were limited to 23 against per 60, and 8.8 high danger chances per 60 minutes.
To give some perspective on those numbers, as of Wednesday morning there were 99 pairings league wide who have played 100+ minutes together this season. The lowest rate of shots on net against out of them is 22.2 and the lowest rate of goals is 0.73. Wideman and Claesson were putting up “against” numbers that rank among the league’s best. For some icing on the cake, the team gave (slightly) better than they got with the pair on the ice as well.
Cody Ceci and Marc Methot played just under 150 minutes together, and ranked second on the list of 20 for shot attempts and shots on net against per 60 minutes. The goals against, however, were much higher as the SV% was .875 behind the duo. It’s hard to suggest it was on them, though, as the scoring chances and high danger chances were kept in line with the shot attempts and shots on net - it was really just goals that spiked, and it doesn’t appear to have been due to higher shot quality.
The next pairing Ottawa has seen that was effective at keeping both the underlying numbers and end result low was Mark Borowiecki and Chris Wideman. Shot attempts against were 53.7 per 60 minutes of play in their 516 minutes together, with shots at 26.1 per 60 and goals at 1.28 per 60.
Through the top 3 pairings on the list, you might be noticing a problem in making use of this information with the current roster - after all, Chris Wideman, Fredrik Claesson and Marc Methot aren’t on the current roster. It’s a problem that continues with one or both players being ex-Senators until we reach the ninth spot on the list, where the first active pairing is Mark Borowiecki and Ben Harpur.
You might be a bit surprised since from a for/against percentage basis their results are not pleasant. The Senators have 45% of the shot attempts when they’re on the ice, 47% of shots on net and 25% of goals. If you’re a hard-line “the best defense is a good offense” person these aren’t your guys, but when you look at just the “against” numbers it puts them in the middle of our list with 60.7 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play, 29.7 shot attempts and 2.87 goals against. Those numbers are right around the team’s average under Boucher of 61.2 attempts, 31.6 shots on net and 2.7 goals against per 60 minutes.
That brings us to problem #2: Average for the Senators is just not that good overall. In that time frame the Sens rank 30th in the rate of attempts against, 24th in shots on net rate and 31st in the rate of goals against. So while Boro and Harpur were slight improvements over the team average since 16-17 (and a big jump over this season) you can’t really call them “good” when looking at the league-wide picture, and it only gets worse from there.
That leaves us with the “what have you done lately?” approach. Looking at only this season, just two pairings have over 100 minutes so far, Cody Ceci/Maxime LaJoie and Thomas Chabot/Dylan DeMelo. Defensively their numbers are… well, let’s just say neither pairing is the answer to keeping Andy’s workload down. At least the team scoring at an absurd rate with Chabot and DeMelo takes some of the edge off.
If you were worried this was going to end with nothing but doom, gloom, and pining for former Senators, you’ll be happy to know there is some potential to be found on the list.
With just over 90 minutes of 5 on 5, DeMelo and LaJoie are the third most used pairing on the season. With them on the ice as a pair, the Senators are allowing 56.3 shot attempts per hour, a number that would be average on a middle of the pack team. For Ottawa, that’s a full dozen attempts better than the team average. Shots on net come in at 25.8 and goals at 1.99, rates that are much better than middle of the pack in the league.
They’ve only logged any consistent time together in nine games, with the rest of them coming up around two minutes or less. If you just look at those games and ignore the ones where they’re being blended around, the numbers get even better. Attempts against drop to 50.1 per 60 minutes of play, shots on net to 23.8 and goals down to 1.7. Teams they played bigger minutes against include the likes of the Bruins and Lightning, both of which failed to score a 5 on 5 goal while this pair was on the ice. They’ve kept the high danger chances down as well in those games, coming in at under 6.8 per 60 minutes.
Of course, 90 minutes - 20 of which is mix & match time - isn’t enough to draw a strong conclusion from. But for a team that desperately needs to lighten the load on their goaltender it’s more than enough to warrant a longer look.