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Have the Ottawa Senators Turned It Around?

Is the team’s hot play of late the real thing?

Buffalo Sabres v Ottawa Senators Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

After a 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on December 1st, the Ottawa Senators found themselves at 4-15-1. Things were looking pretty grim!

Since that time, however, the team has compiled a 7-4-1 record and have, for the most part, seemingly played some pretty good hockey, Last night’s defeat to the Buffalo Sabres, for example, is typical of the type of loss that can befall a good team as the Sens were better throughout but simply couldn’t convert enough of their chances. Sometimes in hockey, the bounces just don’t go your way. But if you carry the play like Ottawa did, these things tend to even themselves out in the long run. That is to say: even in defeat, there were plenty of positives. That’s not something that could always be said earlier in the season.

There is a feeling among fans, analysts, and even the team itself that a threshold has been breached. Certainly the results have been better, but what’s changed? Has Ottawa really turned it around, or is this just a dead cat bounce? Let’s dig in.

By the Numbers:

We’ll start with an overview of how things are going at 5v5, the most common game state and typically the best indicator of a team’s overall strength.

5v5 Categories

5v5 Category Season Total First 20 games Last 12 games
5v5 Category Season Total First 20 games Last 12 games
CF% 44.73 43.75 46.33
xGF% 46.31 44.32 49.75
SH% 8.3 7.6 9.39
SV% 91.11 90.72 91.81
Goal Differential -14 -16 2

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the Sens have, for the most part, been out-shot, out-chanced, and out-scored by their opponents at 5v5. The good news is that there has been improvement across every category during the recent good run of play. In the twelve games since December 1st, the Sens have posted a 46.33 CF% and a 49.54 xGF% — good for 23rd and 17th respectively during that stretch. The improvement in CF% is more modest, but the bump up to nearly break-even on xGF% is noteworthy as no legitimately good team is consistently out-chanced by their opponents. This is a needed improvement.

As for the rate at which the Sens are converting their chances, that’s up too: Ottawa’s scored on 9.45% of their shots during the last 12 games at 5v5 — up from 7.68% in the first twenty games. The improvement is large enough that it’s likely the most important factor contributing to the positive goal differential at 5v5 during the hot run of play since the SV% increase is of a smaller magnitude. The Sens are getting a bigger share of the chances than they were in the first twenty games, and they’re scoring on more of their chances as well; a good combination.

While 5v5 is the most common game state, a team’s performance can also be buoyed (or sunk) by special teams. Note that I’m using total goals scored minus total goals allowed for Special Teams Goal Differential. The idea here is to measure the overall impact of special teams on winning.

Special Teams

Special Teams Season Total First 20 games Last 12 games
Special Teams Season Total First 20 games Last 12 games
PP% 20 17.7 24.3
xGF/60 6.91 7.12 6.52
PK% 78.4 73.4 86.8
xGA/60 8.65 9.11 7.97
Special Teams Goal Differential 0 -5 5

The top line improvement, from a negative five goal differential to a positive five goal differential, is enormous. It’s the difference between the 7-4-1 record and something like 6-6 instead. The biggest change is the penalty kill as Ottawa was the worst team in the league on the PK for the first twenty games, and have been more than respectable for the last twelve. The “why” of the PK improvement is beyond the scope of this particular piece, but I will point out that the uptick in PK% appears to be at least in part driven by allowing fewer chances — as the lowered xGA/60 would indicate. I will also note that the Sens have scored a remarkable three short-handed goals in the last twelve games while only allowing five goals down a man. This is all unquestionably good news.

Meanwhile, the power-play has also been more efficient of late though I would caution here that they are actually generating fewer chances and are still a ways back from the league leaders in this regard: the Sens’ 6.91 xGF/60 with the man advantage ranks 17th — almost 3.5 expected goals behind the league leading Oilers’ 10.37. If I had to pick one area of recent success which might be due for a bit of a regression the power play would be it.

From the numbers, then, it’s pretty clear that Ottawa has improved its overall play at 5v5, and is scoring on a few more of the chances they’re generating to boot. On the special teams side of things, the penalty kill has been vastly improved and the power play is cashing in at a pretty high rate despite not necessarily generating that many more chances.

Let’s talk a bit about a few of the things that might be driving those changes:

Tim Stützle at Centre

While it’s true that Smith’s decision to move Stützle to centre actually goes back to a few games before the current streak, there can be very little doubt that the change has paid off in a big way. During his time at centre, the Sens are both out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition to the tune of a 51.57 CF% and a 55.70 (!) xGF%. Only three other forwards are above 50% for xGF during that time and they just happen to be Stützle’s most common linemates: Connor Brown, Nick Paul, and Alex Formenton. Beyond the numbers, Stützle’s dynamic play has given the Sens two viable lines for the first time since the rebuild began. Out of all of the individual player development storylines this season, Stützle’s demonstrating that he can be a very effective two-way centre is maybe the biggest. It’s not a coincidence that the Sens have had one of their longest periods of sustained 5v5 success since the young German took over the 2C role.

Formenton Finds the Touch

Speaking of the second line, Formenton’s scoring outburst has been another pleasant surprise. The speedy winger has notched eleven points during the twelve game run, and he’s seen his ice-time increase in commensurate fashion. The 19:09 against Toronto and 18:30 against Calgary were the two highest ice times of Formenton’s career to-date. With his speed, there has never been much doubt that he would play a regular shift in the NHL but this stretch is the first time that we’ve seen Formenton show off the type of scoring flair that would help the team’s second or third lines. If the progression is real, that would be welcome news indeed for a team that’s struggled badly to find secondary scoring.

Zub and Holden Get the Bounces

This is less of a clearly good news story, but I did think it was worth highlighting as the Artem Zub-Nick Holden partnership seems to have becomes DJ Smith’s preferred shutdown pairing of late. The good: the Sens have a positive goal differential when the pairing is on the ice, and in fact are +3 at 5v5 during the twelve game hot streak. The bad: the Sens are getting out-shot and out-chanced in that time at 43.65 CF% and a 44.57 xGF%, which is quite poor. The optimist view is that they are playing tough minutes (they are) and that the underlying numbers will come around with a larger sample. If Ottawa can find a pairing that can produce positive results that doesn’t include Chabot, that would be a real improvement. I’m not totally convinced that this is the pairing to do it, but I’ll definitely be watching to see how things shape up in the weeks ahead.

So...What’s Our Conclusion?

As with any examination of a small-ish subset of games, I have to lead with the usual caveats: squint hard enough at a tortured dataset and you can convince yourself of almost anything because a lot can happen in a small sample. That being said, there are, to my thinking, some real causes for optimism that the latest run isn’t a total fluke:

  • The 5v5 shot and chance numbers look better, particularly xGF%
  • The penalty kill has improved not only its efficiency but the number of chances given up
  • The Sens have the workings of a real second line for the first time in a long time

Likely the Sens have gotten a bit “lucky” to go 7-4-1 all things considered, but they’re no longer playing like the dregs of the league. Over the course of a full season, a team with their statistical profile from the last twelve games would likely be a fringe play-off contender. That’s probably what management had in mind at the outset of the season. With the slow start dooming any realistic chance at contention, we’ll need to wait until next year to see meaningful hockey but that doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t be looking at the last fifty games to measure up and figure things out.

Have the Sens turned it around? Sort of, maybe, at least a bit! Honestly, that’s a lot more than I could have said six weeks ago. I’ll take it for now and we’ll check back in when they’ve got a few more games under their belt.