Important note: This article was written before MacLean got fired. It hasn't changed my opinions.
On November 22nd, the Senators lost at home to the Blues, before heading out on a five game road trip. At this point in the season, the Sens' record was an unexpected 10-6-4. They then proceeded to lose four of five on that road trip, only to return home and lose to the Islanders for the second time in three nights. They followed this up with a loss to the Penguins and a come-from-behind OT win against the Canucks. Suddenly, they weren't treading water. Sens Twitter went from being cautiously hopeful to all out pessimistic. Here's a small sampling:
Hey #sens can we just tank for Mcdavid? Ill buy tickets if you do— Josh Keenan (@JKeenan47) December 3, 2014
Either the Sens are tanking, or should tank, or a mixture of both. I'm here to say that none of those are true, but I look forward to reading a lot of comments telling me I'm wrong.
First off, I don't think this Sens team is tanking. Currently, the Sens sit 21st in the league. I think it's fair to say that Ottawa's goaltending alone is enough to keep them out of the bottom. The Sabres, Hurricanes, Oilers, and Blue Jackets all look like near-locks to finish below Ottawa. Additionally, the Coyotes, Avalanche, and Flyers aren't doing too hot these days. The idea of tanking for McDavid only works if somehow Ottawa can find a way to finish below all of those teams to get the best shot at him.
If you look at the abysmal road trip, the Sens lost by one goal in three of the four losses. The home losses on either side? Again, both by one goal. Granted, in some of these games, the Sens had no business being in the game. But their goalies kept them in it, allowing them to be a late fluky shot away from winning it. The loss to the Lightning was the first time all season that the Sens lost a game by a three-goal margin. Think about that. Ottawa seems to play poorly, depend on their goalies to bail them out, and then hope it's either tied or close so they can press late for the win. The fact that every game ends close shows that it's plausible. It's not the kind of strategy that wins you a Cup, but it's also not the strategy that wins you the first-overall pick. For what it's worth, Ottawa has a goal differential of -4 on the season; Buffalo is sitting at a cool -38. As bad as Ottawa's looked on defence, they find a way to keep games close.
Ottawa also hasn't been particularly lucky to stay ahead of those bottom teams. An interesting tool to check out is the Hockey Abstract luck tool. It looks at five different luck-induced factors: the cap-hit of injured players, PDO, combined PP and PK %, one-goal games, and OT/shootout games. The weightings of each category can be adjusted to get a sense of how lucky a team has been so far this season. In keeping the weightings on the default settings, the Sens are actually in the bottom-half of the league. What this tells us is that Ottawa has actually been slightly unlucky to get to where they are currently. The high save percentage is balanced out by a pretty poor record in one-goal games.
Now if you use the same tool to look at the unluckiest teams, four of the teams I named above are the four bottom teams: Philadelphia, Columbus, Carolina, and Edmonton. This means we can expect some regression for Carolina's terrible record in one-goal games, or Edmonton's PDO. But something like Columbus's absurd bout with injuries likely won't get balanced out this season. Columbus will probably stay significantly injured, and Ottawa will stay ahead in the standings. And interestingly, the Sabres and Devils, two teams below the Sens in the standing, are currently considered luckier. If anything, regression should make these teams fall further behind the Sens.
Now the question is, should the Sens be tanking? First off, I want to narrow down what tanking means. Some say it's simply standing pat, while others want to trade veterans for draft picks in a bid to get worse. (I doubt trading veterans makes the Sens worse, given the lack of talent exhibited by Ottawa's current veterans, but I digress.) In the cap-floor world, the Sens are currently last in league spending, and only $5.28-million above the cap floor. This prevents the Sens from trading, say, Milan Michalek and Chris Neil without getting big salary in return. The only players who the Sens could realistically trade for picks are the players they don't want to trade: prospects like Mark Stone. I think we can all agree that trading Stone for a pick is in the absolute best case a wash; 99.9% chance the Sens lose that one.
So let's say tanking means the Sens stand pat. Where does that put them? I'm pretty convinced that of the seven teams I listed above, at least four will finish lower than Ottawa. This gives the Sens an 8.5% chance of finishing first overall. For safety, I'll move the Sens "up" to fourth-last, giving them a 9.5% chance of winning Connor McDavid. In that case, Ottawa has a 90.5% chance of not getting the top prize. Anyone will tell you that betting your whole future on a less-than-10% chance is silly.
A fourth-overall pick is nothing to scoff at, but it won't draft them a franchise player, especially not one for the immediate future. And I'd say for Ottawa, the immediate future is what matters. The team is now in the fourth year of a three-year rebuild. Players like Stone, Mike Hoffman, Curtis Lazar, and Cody Ceci are starting to show their value. Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch, and Mika Zibanejad are getting over some growing pains this season. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Matt Puempel, Shane Prince and others are knocking on the door in the AHL. Between all these players, you gotta expect that the Sens will have some pretty good NHL-level talent soon. Not all will pan out, but some should.
My question is whether there's any value in adding more potential to that mix. If it's taken five years for these picks to work out, what are we talking for the next batch? Another five years? A bunch of late first-round picks won't help the Sens next year or the year after. This Sens team has built up potential, and it's time for the team to perform. I don't see how another season of tear-it-up-and-rebuild does that.
Obviously, if the Sens land McDavid or Eichel, it's worth it. If they don't, a tank begets several more years of waiting for development. It's frustrating for fans, and it's frustrating for the players. A sixth-overall pick nets you a guy like Zibanejad - great, but not the kind of guy that turns around your franchise in the near future. If the team tanks this year, four years from now they'll be back in the same place. The place this team is right now isn't good enough. They need to move forward, even if it means missing both missing the playoffs and sacrificing a good pick.
I think this season will be frustrating. I think the Sens will have some poor stretches, and will ultimately miss the playoffs. The Sens' season will likely fall short in every way imaginable. Just don't call it a tank.