On Anton Forsberg and the Defence
Through 38 games this season, Forsberg has a 17-15-3 record, with a solid .918 save percentage, an impressive feat for a team out of the playoffs, let alone one closer to the first-overall pick. He’s definitely been the biggest factor towards the team winning those 17 games, but don’t let that distract you from the way the entire team has played in front of him. This year, the Sens have had one of the weakest defense corps in the league, but the worst we’ve seen from them have been to the detriment of Matt Murray and Filip Gustavsson. Not to suggest Forsberg isn’t the clear number-one goalie right now, but he’s faced the easiest workload of the three, with 2.61 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The others have had less defensive support, with a combined rate of 2.76. It's a good sign that the Sens can put together a decent record in front of a strong goalie.
Less is More
Sens captain Brady Tkachuk is in the midst of a career offensive year in terms of goals and points, and this would probably lead one to think he's raised even more hell in the offensive zone than before, but there's actually something else going on here.
Taking a closer look at Brady’s numbers this season, we’re actually seeing a decrease in individual scoring chances as opposed to last year — according to HockeyViz, he’s creating 0.88 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, as opposed to 1.14 last season. However, this might actually be part of what’s helping his production this season. Brady’s historically been a player whose finishing ability is considered one of the league’s worst when viewed through an analytic lens. Of course, his 24 goals on the year are an indicator that he, in fact, is not bad at finishing on his chances. Expected goal models tend to favour shot attempts within close proximity of the net, and while goaltenders are unable to react to these kinds of shots, they’re usually in a position such that the puck will hit them anyway. Not as dangerous as, say, a Josh Norris snapshot from the right circle.
What we’re seeing this season, is a player who’s producing more by shooting less. He’s still a good enough shooter such that he can score over 20 goals a year, but the numbers indicate he’s also leaning more on his playmaking, giving someone like Josh Norris an opportunity to use his superior shot a bit more, in Norris’ case, he’s gone from 5.52 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, to 6.65 this season, according to NaturalStatTrick, and it's helped Brady become a more efficient player in the offensive zone.
How Sustainable is Norris' Goal-Scoring?
Speaking of Norris, he added another goal to his mammoth total yesterday, now up to 31 in 54 games. A pending restricted free agent at the end of this season, he'll pose another major challenge for Pierre Dorion, who was able to get now-captain Brady Tkachuk signed to a 7-year, $8.2M/year deal right before opening night.
With goalscoring being the most expensive trait in a player (behind simply being a right-shot defenseman), Norris' deal could be similar to or even higher than Tkachuk's. The big question for the Sens is whether or not to commit long-term, based on how sustainable Norris' production actually is.
A starting point would be to separate his 5-on-5 numbers from those on the power-play. Despite an increase in goals and overall shooting percentage this year, his 5-on-5 shooting percentage has actually decreased this season, to 15.85%, which is 39th out of 462 forwards who've played at least 200 minutes.
By figuring out how much Norris's production relies on Ottawa's power-play, and then properly evaluating the team's power-play, you could project Norris' goal output in a given year with some success.
On Vital First Impressions
“Don’t judge us now. Judge us during training camp.” That was what GM Pierre Dorion told us after he acquired defensemen Travis Hamonic from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick. It was a confusing trade at the time, and still kind of is, but for what it’s worth, Hamonic has been a modest addition so far, with no points and a plus-5 rating through 7 games. Despite the lack of offense going on while he’s on the ice, he’s taking care of business in his own end, and his physically engaging opposing forwards has been satisfying to watch.
Travis Hamonic straight bullying Nick Cousins. pic.twitter.com/0isXh4mxrf— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) April 8, 2022
Of course, small sample size beware, so I’ll focus on something that’s been indisputably been proven wrong in his short stint — his character. On top of his poor numbers in Vancouver, there were reports of him not being well-liked in the locker room, potentially linked to COVID-related absences early in the season.
However, a fresh start with a new club is just what he needed, as he's shown to be well-received in the Sens' locker room, being awarded the iconic bike helmet and sunglasses in his debut with the team.
Despite his poor track record in the last few seasons on the ice, this could be a turning point which allows him to play some decent hockey and extend his career by a few more years.
On Roster Turnover
Lastly, I want to circle back to that Dorion “training camp” quote and how it relates to Hamonic. It’s likely that the club believed it was important to add him before the deadline, so he could integrate into the team and get in some valuable playing time before a full season next year.
Dorion has previously touched upon the idea that a potential reason for the team’s dreadful starts over the last two years has been the roster turnover between seasons. This makes sense in theory. Players can build chemistry with each other over time, and constantly cycling them through the roster can limit that chemistry early on.
However, looking at the players who’ve struggled the most this season, you’re looking at Nikita Zaitsev, Josh Brown, Austin Watson (when he’s not killing penalties), and Victor Mete, who many fans including myself jumped the gun on thinking he’d be a capable two-way defensemen after a small sample size of terrific play last season. Erik Brännström has also struggled at times, and hasn’t taken as big of a step forward as we’ve hoped. All five were on the roster last season.
We’ve also seen players find instant success upon arriving in the nation’s capital, such as Nick Holden this year, and Artem Zub last year.
There are other factors to consider here, such as this season’s COVID-19 breakout, and last season’s goaltending, which started out as unsustainably bad, and ended the opposite.
Ultimately, having a tight group is important, but moving players in and out as the Senators have done will have an effect only determined by the skill level of those players.