Five Thoughts For Friday: Declaring WAR on the Ottawa Senators

Looking at Senators players who might not be all that bad from an analytics perspective.

If you’re like me, and if you’re frequently on Twitter, you’re following many people who take an analytical approach to evaluating hockey players. Clever people like the EvolvingWild twins, Micah Blake McCurdy and The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn have created ways to quantify the value of an NHL player, and challenge some of our pre-existing biases of the qualities a good NHLer should have.

There’s a debate to be had on exactly how much stock should be put into models like these, but said debate isn’t relevant today. Instead, I’m going to take the ones who fully believe in hockey analytics, look them in the eye and tell them; “You’re wrong about the Ottawa Senators”.

Not completely wrong, mind you. The Senators are still in the “build” stage of their rebuild and are not at all in a position to seriously compete this year, especially in an all-Canadian division featuring the likes of Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton. What I’m getting at is that many believe that Ottawa won’t take much of a step forward this year, based on their projections of the positive and negative contributions of each Senator.

This week’s Five Thoughts are all about looking at five different players that I believe are more than capable of outperforming those projections. I’m going to be using EvolvingWild’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) model here, along with visualizations and projections created by Jack Fraser. WAR looks at a player's shot metrics and scales them to a typical 13th forward or 7th defenseman. A value of 1.0 means a player is expected to provide one more win as opposed to a 13F/7D. These are three-year weighted projections, meaning they take into account a player’s WAR from his past three seasons, with the most recent year being weighted the most. Let’s dive into the numbers.

Nick Paul

As I mentioned earlier, we’re dealing with projections based on the last three seasons, which is a solid estimate for established NHL players. With Paul, it’s a bit of a different story. He’s taken a long road to the NHL and made the jump last year in a big way, and his mental training has been well-documented to be a major factor towards this. If you saw Paul as an AHL player prior to this season, then you’re thinking like the WAR model:

To me, ranking in the 52nd percentile is something a third-liner should strive for; good news for Paul. Given his work over three seasons, he’s projected to provide a WAR value of -0.2, which is something you’d expect out of a 13th forward. As far as Sens fans are concerned though, the Nick Paul from 2018 no longer exists. This successful 2020 season should be seen as the beginning of his NHL career, and is a better estimate of what he can do going forward.

Austin Watson

As a fourth-liner, I still prefer Jayce Hawryluk, and I’m also not thrilled with the amount of term on Watson’s deal. However, looking at his career numbers, his most recent season stands out as an outlier:

Granted, this could be the beginning of a decline, but seeing as he’s twenty-eight years old, his abysmal 2019-20 season could just be a rotten apple in the bunch. Additionally, he’s a proven penalty-kill specialist, ranking in the 86th percentile among NHL forwards over the last three years, which is good news for Ottawa. Like Paul, Watson’s projected WAR is -0.2, but we’ve established that he’s a candidate for a bounce-back season. We can only hope.

Drake Batherson

Batherson falls into the same category as Paul, as he’s a player whose last two seasons are not the best indicators of his ability as an NHL player. He’s still developing, and as Spencer so eloquently put it in his recent piece, the end result is something to be excited about in Ottawa. Take a look at Drake’s numbers so far:

It’s not uncommon to encounter a discrepancy like this when looking at players with small sample sizes in the NHL. Batherson is almost certainly going to fall in between these two points next year, but where exactly? Given his improved play during his second stint in the NHL this year and additional development over the offseason, I think it’s reasonable to predict something similar to Nick Paul, a decent third-line WAR value at 1.0, much better than the -0.3 he’s projected to offer in a top-nine role.

Brady Tkachuk

Brady is one of the few Senators whose been a strong driver of play in his young career. He’s been elite at facilitating scoring chances, but he also struggles on the defensive side of things. Looking at Goals Above Replacement (similar to WAR but exclusively for even-strength offence and defence) over three years, he ranks in the 81st percentile offensively, and in the 18th percentile defensively. I’m going to need to do additional research to pinpoint exactly what’s up with Brady’s defensive game, but if D.J. Smith can tweak it a bit, he could see his value soar above the 1.4 WAR he’s projected to provide in 2021, especially since he’s still only twenty-one years old.

Matt Murray

He’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion but going by his recent body of work, it’s hard to see exactly how that pedigree alone earned Murray a four-year $6.25M/year contract from Ottawa:

The stat you’re looking at is called Goals Saved Above Expected, which tracks a goaltenders’s goals against compared to the expected goals his team allows. Even a seemingly low number like 0.3 ranked him in the 77th percentile in 2018-19, and is proof that Murray might be able to handle a lacklustre defence in Ottawa. He’s been incredibly inconsistent over his career, and I can easily seeing this contract blowing up in GM Pierre Dorion’s face, but he’s still capable of recovering his cup-winning form from ‘16 and ‘17. He’s still quite young for a goaltender, only six months older than Marcus Hogberg! Assuming a 50-game workload, Murray is expected to contribute 0.6 WAR to the cause, which is backup-quality. He is capable of being “the guy” in Ottawa, but the Senators are gambling here.


My goal today was to give Senators fans a glimmer of hope with respect to how various analytical models project the team to perform going forward. It’s not easy to suffer through heartbreaking trades and embarrassing scandals, sacrificing for the future, and then being told that the future might not be so bright. My take is that the Senators are going to take a step forward this year, again finishing within the bottom-ten, but not the bottom-five. As much as I’d love to see another Top-5 draft pick, it’s time to start winning some (not many, but some) hockey games.

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