Once under appreciated, under estimated and just plainly neglected, Patrick Wiercioch finally broke through into a full-time player in the Senators' lineup halfway through the 2014-15 season.
But to get there, he had to prove time and time again that he was overwhelmingly a much better defenseman than over half of Ottawa's blue line.
Chris Phillips was soon to be the Senators' longest serving player; one who bled leadership, praised for it on and off the ice. Eric Gryba and Mark Borowiecki were the tough customers, the guys that everyone who had lived through the enforcer years absolutely adored.
Then there was Jared Cowen. The 24-year-old first-round pick was presumed to be a favourite. Though management actually reportedly received numerous phone calls even when Cowen was playing inferior to all his fellow defensemen, Bryan Murray and company refused to ponder the possibility of a trade.
In the end, Wiercioch beat out every single one of them.
It took time - way too much time, if you ask anyone with at least an amateur's grasp for analytics - but finally the coaching staff couldn't say "no" to the 25-year-old B.C. native. Since mid February, Wiercioch hasn't missed a single game, including the playoffs.
Before his breakthrough, the problem was as follows. Wiercioch failed the eye test - his slow stride and lack of aggression were apparently to blame - and the others were experienced, stronger and much more combative.
But for the past three seasons, he had been the Senators' best possession driver, even better than Erik Karlsson and far superior to those beating him out of the lineup most nights.
Now, fast forward to the current season and the Senators have a new Patrick Wiercioch, so to speak.
Chris Wideman made the NHL roster out of training camp for the first time in his four-year professional career. With Phillips already injured and unlikely to play the first month of the season, there was an opening and Wideman was the best player available to fill it.
Out of the 11 games Ottawa has played this year, so far, Wideman has appeared in just three, and only because Marc Methot was out of the lineup nursing a concussion.
Head coach Dave Cameron has yet to healthy scratch a player in favour of Wideman, hence the Wiercioch comparison.
It wouldn't be a fair comparison if Wideman didn't deserve to be in the lineup like Wiercioch had for so long. But he does, and it's obvious.
The 25-year-old spent his fair share of time in the minors. And not only did he put in the work, he dominated.
In the 2013-14 AHL season, the second of Wideman's career, he helped Binghamton clinch the East Division and finished with 51 points in 73 games. The year after that, in a disappointing season that saw the Senators missing the playoffs, he excelled even further notching 61 points and managed a plus-9 rating on a team that was minus-16 in goal differential.
Wideman would go onto win the Eddie Shore Award for the AHL's best defenseman at season's end.
But as you probably know, an exceptional minor league resume isn't everything. Thankfully, Wideman has played rather well in his few opportunities at the NHL level.
Wideman's 3 GP vs. Sens' Season AVG. And THIS is the player who will be a healthy scratch when Methot comes back. pic.twitter.com/8v2obaEW2x— Sens Charts (@SensCharts) October 25, 2015
Standing in his way of suiting up on a regular basis is the tandem of Cowen and Borowiecki. A pairing beloved by their coach and intolerable to their fans.
"Why are they so popular with management?" you may ask.
Well, Borowiecki, for one, is the type of player the Ottawa Senators have had a habit of inviting onto the team over the years. The guys who punch other guys in the face have always been trendy in the nation's capital. During the current decline of the enforcer, we haven't seen as many tough guys in Ottawa as we used to, but this is still an organization that employed Matt Kassian for two seasons, also allowing him to play in five playoff games.
Borowiecki is also from Ottawa, which is another factor. "He's a local guy," has been muttered by Murray as a reason to like a player every single time the Senators sign someone from the area. They love to call Jean-Gabriel Pageau a hometown player, even though he grew up in a separate province and played junior hockey in the QMJHL.
Wideman is from St. Louis, Missouri. He doesn't exactly have the hometown thing going for him.
And then you have Cowen. The Senators' ninth overall selection in 2009 has had a difficult time in Ottawa, but management has stuck with him every step of the way, far past what most teams would. Far past what they should have.
In the summer of 2013, the Senators offered Cowen an eight-year contract extension after the Saskatoon native had only played 90 NHL regular season games. They wanted him to turn into the Zdeno Chara they never kept, and they still haven't given up the dream.
A year after Cowen declined the eight-year offer, his persona had done a complete 180 degree flip. In the 2013-14 season, he had quite the off year. Many blamed it on rushed rehab of an injury, some shamed the long contract talks and the fact he didn't get a full training camp. His performance that year was swept under the rug.
The next season would prove to be no different, though. But management, yet again, made sure everyone knew Cowen was here to stay. Murray went as far as to trade Gryba almost specifically to get Cowen more ice time.
"Dave’s going to let (Cowen) or he’s going to have to let him now get on the ice and be more of a role guy on the team. But the coaches only do so much for you. You have to accept the role that they give you. He has to come back to camp this year understanding that 'I am what I am,' and that’s a big, strong guy that can play defense. He’ll benefit from it and we’ll definitely benefit from it." - Bryan Murray. NHL.com.
So, they've both got politics on their side. But politics can only save them for so long if they keep playing this way.
In fact, just a few days ago, Cowen and Borowiecki were, statistically, the worst defense pairing in the league.
Cowen-Borowiecki now dead last in Rel CF% among >50min pairs. Unlikely to catch Guenin-Zadorov at 28.6%(!!!) Corsi. pic.twitter.com/KBNEhkyggq— Emmanuel Perry (@MannyElk) October 31, 2015
If Cameron is to stop the madness and bring in Wideman for a respectable trial run, then it's obvious who should step out for a while.
When Wideman was played in relief of Methot, he and Cowen paired up. They looked like a serviceable duo, and their numbers looked even better. While Cowen and Wideman managed a 61.5% Corsi-for (EV) together over three games, Cowen and Borowiecki together have been a horrendous 37.1% (EV) over eight games.
The comparison is eye-opening. Nightmarish, for many.
Having Cowen and Borowiecki in the lineup is a problem, but putting them together is a disaster.
Allow for Chris Wideman to be the Patrick Wiercioch of now; the one who finally got his chance and hasn't looked back since.
He's sat long enough.
How should Dave Cameron manage the defensemen?
|Keep sitting Wideman. Cowen and Borowiecki are doing fine.
|Sit Cowen. Bring in Wideman.
|Sit Borowiecki. Bring in Wideman.
|Sit one of the top four. Bring in Wideman.