A transitory year: Analyzing the Senators' free agency moves

For all his talk about making a splash in free agency this year, Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray made what amounted to a few ripples:

  • He talked about landing a top-6 forward, but pulled out of pursuing Zach Parise and Rick Nash.
  • He talked about landing a top-4 defenseman but did not sign any of the top free agent players at that position.
  • He allowed Filip Kuba, Erik Karlsson's current defensive partner, to walk away for a contract that was only $300K more than he was currently making.
  • He signed a castoff defenseman, essentially replacing what he had traded away in Brian Lee.
  • He signed a forward who has played 27 games in the past two years--one with plenty of talent but questions about his work ethic when he's healthy.
  • He traded the team's fifth-leading scorer for a defenseman who had been bumped out of the top four for a lottery team.

At first glance, we see what look like lateral moves, and no one would be faulted for wondering just how much the decisions helped improve the team. Just what is going on here?

It's extremely notable that both of Murray's signings yesterday were one-year deals. This gives us our first clue about his plan.

It's also worth noting that his biggest move, the trade of Nick Foligno, was the only move to acquire a player with a term longer than one year--and that Foligno's spot on the team was being pursued by several prospects, not the least of which is Jakob Silfverberg, a prospect who has earned praise from just about everyone except for Don Cherry for his enormously successful season.

Finally, it's worth noting that this season will mark the second of a rebuild that had just begun in earnest one year ago.

I believe putting these clues together gives us a solid idea of Murray's intentions: while the moves may be unpalatable by themselves, what he has done is add players who will help the team transition through the season at a very reasonable cap hit without an appreciable loss of talent with the expectation that the true talent--drafted last year and developed internally--will be ready to step into those roles full-time in the following season. The only player not on a transitory deal, Marc Methot, is highly regarded as a strong defensive defenseman, and addresses a major need in the team's defensive corps--most of the team's best defensemen are better known for their offensive talents. Ottawa's play in its own zone was a liability in 2011-12. Methot will change that.

If you believe that Murray's contract extension--three years--reflected the expectations of a planned rebuild, then these moves would seem to fit in very well with that plan. The 2012-13 Ottawa Senators will be a team capable of taking any Eastern Conference opponent (unless Pittsburgh signs Parise and Suter) to seven games, but the 2013-14 Ottawa Senators will be a team loaded with young, well-developed talent--two superstars surrounded by a hungry young group of players: a foundation for sustained excellence throughout the future.

Guillaume Latendresse represents an extremely low-risk investment. The worst case is that he fills in Foligno's spot for a year while Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad, or Mark Stone get ready to take it in the near future. The best case is that one of those players is ready now, and Latendresse slides down to the third line to play with Zibanejad and Peter Regin, a variation of the improvement I imagined when proposing the addition of Peter Mueller.

Mike Lundin represents a very similar move. He can play on the third pairing with Chris Phillips should Mark Borowiecki not prove ready. If that should not prove to be the case, Lundin fills the seventh defenseman need for very little expense. In 2013-14, Cody Ceci will likely be ready to play for a roster spot, making Borowiecki's development a luxury--he will take Lundin's spot no matter what happens with BoroCop.

Methot, as we have already mentioned, addresses the team's need for improved defense. He also allows head coach Paul MacLean the luxury of finding what pairings work best: does Jared Cowen move up to support Erik Karlsson? Does he stay and support Sergei Gonchar while a more reliable defensive veteran supports Ottawa's most dynamic threat? Those are good problems to have.

It's disappointing to think about the players the Senators lost yesterday--they were some fan favorites. It's equally disappointing to realize the Senators did not get much better yesterday, until you recognize they did not get worse either. Sure, it would have been fun to see Murray go all-in in pursuit of a Stanley Cup, but is it ever practical to abandon a plan the second it starts to show success? Pluck the leaves from a young plant before it has time to take root and it dies.

On closer inspection, I think Senators fans will find the moves Murray made yesterday did, in fact, improve the team, but the results won't be visible for one more season--and I think that was the plan all along. We shouldn't be so excited by last season's success that we lose sight of that fact.

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