The Senators were an awful defensive team in 2018-19. They were last place in the league in goals against per game (3.67), shots allowed per game (35.7), shot attempts allowed per game (65.7, via Natural Stat Trick), and 5v5 shot attempts allowed per game (53.9), not to mention they were also the worst team in terms of share of 5v5 shot attempts (Corsi, 44.9%), 5v5 unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick, 45.5%), and 5v5 shots on goal (45.3%). Any way you slice it, the Sens were depending on their goalies to be otherworldly if they were going to win games. And though some of this comes down to coaching systems and having forwards who can move the puck the other way, a good amount of it falls squarely on the shoulders of the defensive corps. Some of that had to do with experience — the Sens had five rookie defencemen in the lineup, three of whom (Wolanin, Jaros, Lajoie) played in 30 or more games. That’s a lot of rookie defensive responsibility. Add in that Thomas Chabot was in his sophomore season, and the Sens’ inexperienced crew struggled, though some of that also had to do with veterans who weren’t exactly reliable either.
Thomas Chabot: A
Reader Grade: A
Thomas Chabot had arguably the best season of any Sens player. Last year, he looked like he belonged in the NHL with 25 points in 63 games. In 2018-19, he exploded for 55 points in 70 games, and for a little while in the fall even led the league in scoring by a defenceman. He did slow down down the stretch, which may have been due to the team losing their top scorers, but also could’ve been due to him playing 25 minutes per night of NHL hockey. Among players with at least 10 games played, only three players had a better share of 5v5 shot attempts than Chabot: Mark Stone, Nick Paul, and Brady Tkachuk. Not only was he scoring, he was the best defensive defenceman on a team starved for defence. In a season full of sore spots, Chabot was arguably the brightest spot of the season.
Cody Ceci: D
Reader Grade: C
At least we started these grades with consensus optimism, because from there we move straight to arguably the most controversial player on the team. Ceci has been mired forever in this weird situation where he puts up awful 5v5 stats, and yet keeps being put against other teams’ top lines. Most Sens fans would say he struggles in those big minutes, but some argue he’d thrive in a bottom pairing role, while others say he doesn’t even belong in the NHL. What can be seen is that most players see a boost in their 5v5 stats when they’re not playing with Ceci, and those who don’t see Ceci have a bigger drop without them than they see without Ceci.
Ceci and Lajoie spent 579 minutes together at 5v5 this season (nearly 10 full games!) and were a black hole in posession, getting just 40% of the 5v5 shot attempts. When separated, they got 48% (Ceci), and 46% (Lajoie). So you could maybe argue that this was Ceci’s best season in a while, and he just was stuck playing with a rookie in over his head. The problem with that narrative is that Ceci has never been a postivie possession player, has never scored more than 26 points in a season as an “offensive” defenceman, and has now played 440 NHL games so very, very likely won’t improve. You can’t argue he got the bulk of defensive starts, because Borowiecki, Harpur, and Jaros all got more defensive zone starts than him, and Wolanin was nearly the same. You can’t argue he gets the toughest assignments, because Borowiecki, Jaros, and Wolanin all had tougher competition (as measured by Corsica.Hockey’s Quality of Competition xGF%).
It’s tough to know what Ceci’s future is. Management for some reason seems to keep insisting he’s a great, core player that you build around. At the same time, they couldn’t reach a pre-arbitration agreement with him over the summer, and he’s eligible to be a UFA next summer. There were rumours he might get traded at the deadline. So we’ll see if Ceci gets traded over the next few months, or if he gets extended to a big-money, big-term contract. Right now, it’s looking like the latter.
Dylan DeMelo: B
Reader Grade: B
“F#$%in’ rights ‘Melo” was possibly the best surprise of the year. Coming over as an unheralded piece in the Erik Karlsson trade, he turned into a perfect complement defender à la Marc Methot. His steadying presence and poise with the puck made him an ideal partner for a puck-mover like Thomas Chabot. I think most of us saw DeMelo as a third-pairing defenceman, and seeing him hold his own in a top-four role was a nice surprise in a season that needed them.
Maxime Lajoie: C
Reader Grade: B-
Lajoie was this year’s training camp surprise, making the team unexpectedly out of camp. He then delivered on that promise, scoring a goal and an assist in his first NHL game. Of course, it’s hard to maintain that kind of pace as you continue your NHL career. But it seemed that Lajoie fell off a cliff (though playing with Cody Ceci will do that to you). He still managed 15 points in 56 games, but probably played way too long at the NHL level. He was a nice training camp story, he had a great debut, but he stayed up far longer than he should have given how quickly it became obvious he wasn’t ready for regular NHL commitment. He actually finished with just three points in his last 30 games, and was a defensive liability for much of that time as discussed before. Still, it’s hard to fault a guy whose expectations for the season were “bottom-four AHL defenceman” for not looking quite NHL ready. It was too bad to see him miss the last couple weeks of the season with sports hernia surgery, because Belleville could’ve used him in their final push to make the playoffs. Lajoie’s season transformed him from afterthought to part of the discussion as to who should make the Sens as a left-side D next season.
Christian Wolanin: B+
Reader Grade: B+
Lajoie’s training camp success was Wolanin’s loss, because the North Dakota product got to start the season in the AHL, and other than a brief call-up for the first western road trip of the season, didn’t play in the NHL until after Christmas. Once he did get up though, he quickly established himself as the team’s best left-handed defenceman not named Chabot (though we’ll see if Erik Brannstrom has anything to say about that next season). Injuries and continued steady play allowed for Wolanin to stay with the big club for much of the homestretch. It was good to see him given opportunities to run the powerplay with Chabot injured, and to be the defenceman to start 3-on-3 overtime. The firing of Guy Boucher only helped Wolanin, because he quickly changed from being a healthy scratch or sixth defenceman under Boucher to being relied upon under Marc Crawford. His average ice time rose from 14:57 to 19:24. He should get a shot to start with the big club next year, but given the presence of Brannstrom, the emergence of Chabot, and the issue of both Borowiecki and Harpur under contract as LD, he’ll be in for quite the fight.
Christian Jaros: C+
Reader Grade: B-
Jaros, similar to Lajoie, was hard to rank because his pre-season projection was a handful of NHL games. Instead, he found his way into 61, and would’ve played more if not for breaking his hand in his first NHL fight. He only scored 10 points, but was often played in more of a shutdown role. His status as a right-handed defenceman means he’ll probably be in the NHL next season as well, due to the lack of righties in the Sens’ system. In terms of 5v5 shot attempts, only two defencemen on the team were worse than him: Harpur and Lajoie. Watching Jaros play, it was obvious that he had offensive instincts, and sometimes made great plays with the puck. There were also times he suffered from rookie-itis, and made mistakes where a bit more NHL experience may have helped him out. Overall, he struggled in the NHL, but not as much as Lajoie, and this is likely why he fared a little better than him in our rankings.
Mark Borowiecki: D+
Reader Grade: C
Ceci is the most polarizing player on the Sens, but Boro is likely the second-most. Some see Boro as a warrior, the kind of player who gives it his all, hits everything in sight, and is a good role model. Others see him as a defensive liability who isn’t good with the puck, and shouldn’t even be in the NHL. Really, probably both of those things are true, and it all comes down to how important you think fighting and hitting are. Boro has been at the bottom of the NHL for possession stats his entire career. He scored five points in 53 games this year, but we all know he isn’t paid to score points—he’s paid to hit people. And hit he did, his 4.0 hits per game good enough for third among players who played more than two games. The problem is that not all hits are effective. Good hits separate a player from the puck, while bad hits put the hitter out of position without causing a change in possession. Boro definitely does some of the latter, which is why his shot attempt share stats are never good, and this year he was second-worst on the team.
Off the ice, Boro had a good season. He joined Anders Nilsson as the only active Sens players to ever march in an Ottawa pride parade, and his comments were pure gold. This adds on to his work taking over with Capital City Condors after Kyle Turris was traded. These grades likely don’t reflect his off-ice work, but it definitely deserves mention in this season wrap-up.
Ben Harpur: D-
Reader Grade: C-
On a team full of questionable decisions, Ben Harpur might be the questionablest. You could point to Ceci’s offensive instincts, or Borowiecki’s hitting to explain their appeal. Harpur doesn’t really have either of those things. For a guy who’s 6’ 6”, you’d expect him to be a bit better at clearing the net or separating guys from the puck. He seems to have poor defensive instincts. All of the compliments he gets come with the same caveat — “He skates well for a big guy”, “He handles the puck nicely for a big guy”. Harpur was this team’s least dependable defenceman this season, and he still has another year left on his contract, though at a very cheap $750k. The good news is that he was a healthy scratch sometimes down the stretch, so maybe the team will be willing to pay him to not play. It just doesn’t bode well for Harpur that on a terribly defensive team, he stood out as the worst defenceman.