Five Thoughts For Friday: Bad Defense, Worse Goaltending

Can Staios upgrade all three positions in a single offseason?

Five Thoughts For Friday: Bad Defense, Worse Goaltending
Photo by Calvin Ma / Unsplash

Bad Defense, Worse Goaltending

There's been some discussion on whether team defense is more liable for the Ottawa Senators' disastrous 2023-24 season than goaltending. And to be honest, I don't know why.

It's not like team defense has suddenly become terrible. It was bad when Link pulled out the Master Sword and it hasn't become good even after his seven-year slumber. But the goaltending hit a new level of suck, unlike anything we've seen before. With Travis Hamonic playing second-pairing minutes and D.J. Smith behind the bench in 2023, Anton Forsberg posted a .902 save percentage. The year before, with the same coach running Nikita Zaitsev and Josh Brown in the lineup, he posted a .917. Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord, and Forsberg all did a respectable job with an even worse group in 2021, and even the 30th-place Sens team from 2020 featured three goalies with save percentages over .900. And let's be real. How are we going to say Forsberg had no support this year when his .890 save percentage came with a 15-12-0 record? I rest my case.

This Time It's Personnel

How do you take a team of losers and make them into a playoff-caliber squad in a single offseason? It seems like an insurmountable task for GM Steve Staios, but we've seen it done in the nation's capital before. They've gone from the 6th overall pick in 2011 to Game 7 of the first round in 2012. They've gone from missing the playoffs in 2016 to Game 7 of the conference finals in 2017.

That said, the most significant case of a few tweaks leading to a major change would be the 2015 Hamburglar run. I'm not saying this wasn't an improbable miracle, but there were a few key personnel decisions on top of the titular goaltender that directly led to better results. Moving Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman from the third line to the top six helped immensely, as Stone went a point-per-game in the final 30 games of the season. Jean-Gabriel Pageau becoming a mainstay on the fourth line was also a step in the right direction. Most important, however, is probably Jared Cowen out, and Marc Methot returning from injury. Erik Karlsson's 2015 season was arguably even better than his 2017 one, and the games in which he had Methot as a partner were when the team was at its peak, at least during the 2010s.

Management has had a much-needed overhaul, and if they can replace a few players that held them back last year, they could get it done. Aside from replacing Travis Hamonic and Dominik Kubalik for better options, I'd move out Jakob Chychrun and bring in someone like Trevor van Riemsdyk in return, who won't produce nearly as much but would be a much better fit alongside Thomas Chabot. I'd also give some younger prospects opportunities over Mark Kastelic and Jacob Bernard-Docker.

On Sacrificing for the Greater Good

Now, here's the tricky part. Depending on which players are available, and the attached price tags, it may be difficult to sign the ideal contract for a few key players, namely, Shane Pinto. A long-term deal under $5.5M/year would be ideal, but I'm also concerned that it could leave other areas of the team without a solution. The potential moves mentioned earlier and potential goaltending moves (though I'm not sure how realistic any trade involving an Ottawa goalie is), may force Staios to sign Pinto to a bridge deal. Assuming other roster spots are filled for under $1M each, that leaves around $10M to sign Pinto, Erik Brannstrom, and two more key players. Moving Chychrun would free up space, but another defenseman would need to be acquired to replace him, so either way, it'll be tough to squeeze everybody in.

On Learning Humility

It almost seems like teaching players how to defend is not as important as instilling discipline into your players. Not the discipline that keeps the PIMs down, but the mental discipline that allows you to stay focused and keeps your ego in check. Recall that 5-1 victory over Detroit last year, heading into a game against Carolina, when the boys were feeling themselves a bit too much, Brady Tkachuk talking about putting on a show for the fans. EXCUSE ME? My guy, you're a .500 hockey team going up against a perennial Cup contender! This would be concerning coming from Nathan MacKinnon, or your brother, let alone the captain of a team that was last relevant when Chris Kelly was on it. Fuck.

This is why I'm not interested in what systems Travis Green has to offer. I just want him to make it clear that as a group, they've accomplished nothing. I want them to play humbled and embarrassed. I don't want any Mike Babcock shenanigans, but a pinch of Tortorella here and there would do these guys some good.

The Forbidden Move

If Staios really wants to send a message to his players, there's one move he could make that seems crazy at first, but would more likely than not give the team a big chance to improve. No, I'm not talking about moving Tkachuk or Tim Stutzle, though at this point I wouldn't be upset at either one being punted. Confused and disagreeable, maybe. But not upset.

But let's say you've got a player making $8M a year, that's had significant injury issues, and has contributed 33 points to your cause over the last two seasons. This contract could become an albatross for the Senators. If Josh Norris is reasonably healthy in the next month or so, buying him out this offseason would get Ottawa over $8M in additional cap space – since he's under 25 the first few years of the buyout penalty would have a negative cap hit for Ottawa. There are many UFAs and trade pieces available this year, and you'd be able to get someone on the same level as Vladimir Tarasenko, and at least one other useful player by reallocating Norris' salary. There are, of course, less desperate measures Ottawa can take. Moving Norris to the wing would likely fit his strengths better. You may be able to put him on LTIR for his own seven-year power nap, but the first approach isn't guaranteed to have a positive result. The second might result in Ottawa being docked another 1st rounder since they're not the Golden Knights or Lightning.

I'm not suggesting a desperate move for the sake of it, because hockey is an incredibly luck-heavy sport compared to others, but adding that much space before jumping into a talented free-agent pool would help in the short term, with the long-term risk at least remaining the same as if they hold on to Norris.

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