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Weekly Question: Worst Season of the Rebuild?

Things can’t possibly get wo—

New York Rangers v Ottawa Senators Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

On Wednesday I got to have a lot of fun without really talking about Ottawa Senators hockey per se (because of?). Today I’ll get back to hockey but at the expense of having any fun. I respect that some folks will find this unnecessarily cynical but this team will soon miss the post-season for a new franchise record fifth consecutive year and we can’t make believe that this year has gone well in Ottawa.

Even if we knew better than to believe the “rebuild is over,” Pierre Dorion’s foot-in-mouth quote makes every loss feel that much more pathetic. Like you, I want to believe that this team has made progress over the past five seasons, and they probably have, but even the most optimistic fans can tell that after some losses this season, the vibes have felt as shitty as 2018.

Ultimately, when looking at the results, the roster, and all the off-ice components, every fan can decide for themselves which season of this five-year trudge has felt the bleakest. We find ourselves not only in the fifth year of a rebuild but also the third season affected by the pandemic. We’ve had injuries too but excuses are cheap and they don’t win hockey games. For my part, out of sheer curiosity I wanted to compare the last five years statistically to see if that bore anything out.

Let’s go over the numbers for this season and see if they offer any insight into what has on some nights felt like arguably the most painful stretch of the rebuild. Five-on-five offence has remained pretty consistent for the past five seasons but this year in particular the team has had less shooting luck so that tracks with our perceptions I would say. Five-on-five defence this season has put up some of the worst numbers yet, at over 2.6 expected goals per 60. This does not bode well after five years. You can use the injury, illness, and schedule excuse here but I would argue that even considering those factors, this team probably should have improved in four years defensively. To complicate matters, this season Ottawa has had its best five-on-five goaltending from our sample so that has papered over some defensive miscues. That being said, this season, the Sens have all but bridged the gap between expected and actual goals both for and against at five-on-five (compared to previous seasons when the percentages did not accurately reflect the reality).

Looking at special teams, take some solace knowing that the powerplay hasn’t operated this well in years and it actually underperformed for Ottawa this year based on expected versus actual goals so we have one bright spot. The penalty kill, however, looks like an unmitigated disaster and defensively has performed worse this year than any other year of the rebuild. Matt Murray (injured for who knows how long) and Anton Forsberg (not under contract for next season) worked some magic on the penalty kill this year so the perception does not line up with the reality of this defensive atrocity. It bodes very badly for Ottawa that goaltending buoyed the defence at five-on-five and on the penalty kill because even the best teams struggle to project goaltending year-over-year and management desperately needs to recognize their defensive issues and not let streaky goaltending fool them.

It also bears mentioning that both at five-on-five and on special teams (and in terms of both expected and actual goals) the team ends up with a net negative this season. You probably don’t want to find yourself in the red in every column in year-five of a rebuild. At this point I imagine that anyone who hasn’t already closed their browser probably wants me to stop writing so I’ll send it over to you, the reader. This season has felt grueling at times and the team has looked like a disaster on more nights than I can count but ever the optimistic fanbase, we must have made some progress in five years, right?