You know the drill. Thoughts. Five of them. Let’s dive right in.
The Mark Borowiecki Conundrum
Of all the players potentially on Sens’ the trading block for the February’s trade deadline, there’s no one I’ve been divided on more than Mark Borowiecki. The veteran defenceman’s been with the organization for over eleven years, turning himself from a fifth round roll of the dice into an NHL staple. With his contract expiring this July, the Sens have to make a decision — do they trade him for a draft pick, or keep him around and likely give him an extension?
Let’s start with the former option, a trade. To bluntly look at it analytically, Borowiecki has really not been good. Based on Micah McCurdy’s model that estimates a player’s impact on ‘threat’ for both offence and defence, Boro’s having a negative impact at both ends of the ice, especially on defence. His lone strength is hitting, which he does maybe better than anyone else in the NHL. But it still leads to lacklustre results, as much as it may appear productive in the moment, even for a 7th defenceman.
But there’s one thing that keeps pushing me back to the middle — Borowiecki is just a great guy. He’s quickly turned into a fan favourite, and you add me to the club. He’s closely involved with the Capital City Condors, he’s a vocal ally of the LGBTQ+ community, he stops criminals in their tracks, and stories of his genuine niceness and humility seem to appear every week. His recent interview with The Athletic ($) about the trade deadline felt open and honest. As much as I generally dislike the term ‘veteran presence’, this type of influence on the young players is undoubtedly valuable.
For me, the ideal scenario is to take it year-by-year. His point totals are the highest of his career, but I doubt that will really affect his contract negotiations. The Sens are still not going to be good for another year at least, so keeping him in the fold short term may not be the biggest deal. But with a crowded left side and prospects knocking on the door, keeping a sub-optimal player in the fold may not be the best way forward.
Re-Signing Ron Hainsey
The one defenceman I’m not on the fence about re-signing is Ron Hainsey, who I think should be an easy contender to be traded. The 38-year-old has played so long that he’s past veteran status, whatever that may be (pre-retirement?). But like Borowiecki, his on-ice results have been awful, not only for this season, but going all the way back as far as shot data has been tracked. He seemed like a shoe-in at the beginning of the season to be trade bait in February, but earlier this week Pierre LeBrun mentioned that the Sens are looking to potentially bring him back for another year.
I mentioned ‘veteran presence’ earlier with Borowiecki, but this variation of the definition is one that I worry turns into a miscalculation. Hainsey could very well be a great person off the ice, but if his purpose is to transfer his experience to the younger players, such as when he was paired with Erik Brännström earlier this season, I really don’t see the point. The NHL has significantly evolved since Hainsey’s heyday, especially for defenders, and the brand of shutdown hockey he’s accustomed to and continues to play is just something that’s not applicable anymore.
On a struggling team Hainsey might be a competent seventh defenceman, but there’s still a few issues. It would be completely redundant on a Sens team that already has at least four other players that suit that role (including Borowiecki). It would also be really unlikely that Hainsey ends up playing in that role anyways, as D.J. Smith has confusingly been deploying him as the team’s #2 defenceman. There’s no scenario here where re-signing Hainsey would make sense for the Sens, and they would be doing themselves a disservice if they aren’t calling contenders who are looking for the some playoff experience.
The offseasons is still a ways away, but it might be time to start thinking about some potential buyout candidates. For the longest time the Sens were seemingly allergic to buyouts, until they bought out Alex Burrows in 2018.
The name that’s been in this conversation for a couple seasons is Bobby Ryan, although given the current lack of knowledge surrounding his status it would be unfair to make assumptions about his future. He was a useful player at the start of the season too, and with only two more seasons left on his contract, the Senators may just keep his cap hit on the books.
The more intriguing option to me is Nikita Zaitsev, who’s locked under contract for another four years, expiring in 2024. He’s been oveplayed by D.J. Smith, his on-ice results have been some of the NHL’s worst this season (even below Ceci, believe it or not), and his cap hit of $4.5 million is high considering what he’s brought to the team.
A buyout would have the Sens paying him $1.167 million until 2028. That’s a long ways away and will bleed into a window where the Sens are expected to be more competitive, but then again, the same can be said for Zaitsev’s current contract. It also means that if the Sens can find a more useful replacement for a cap hit below $1.167 million, the buyout is worth it, at least in terms of comparing finances to on-ice results. That shouldn’t be too difficult of a task, making the buyout option one worth heavily considering.
Is this situation likely? Probably not. Like Hainsey, Zaitsev’s been popular with the coach for reasons beyond my comprehension. But I imagine his name will come up progressively more as the seasons go on, with the Sens potentially making the move under the right circumstances.
Bob McKenzie released his mid-season draft rankings yesterday. His poll of ten NHL scouts makes him a source unlike any other, with his list consistently performing the best at predicting what actually happens at the draft. McKenzie’s list shines a flashlight onto how NHL teams evaluate draft talent... and that’s where the issues arise.
Every scout and draft source has players that they’re high and low on, but the tendencies in these rankings are predictable, with some super questionable decisions at best which show how NHL teams still haven’t caught up to modern draft analysis.
Biases are still majorly present towards events such as the World Juniors and the Top Prospects Games, despite those only representing a tiny sample. Tall players still get a bump for just being tall, often in spite of mediocre-to-poor results. Europeans get undervalued due to a lack of viewership. These are all things that have led NHL teams to make bad picks in the past that have predictably not worked out, so it’s discouraging when there seems to be a lack of evolution.
There are a handful of key players I’ll point out that don’t match the public consensus, many of which I’ve mentioned in the Road to 2020 series. Jake Sanderson is 9th on the list after winning MVP at the All-American Prospects Game. Two of the draft’s tallest defencemen are ranked highly with Kaiden Guhle at 12th and Tyler Kleven at 30th. And a lot of Europeans are ranked much lower than expected — Anton Lundell (12th), Noel Gunler (27th), Jan Mysak (53rd), Roni Hirvonen (57th), as well as Zion Nybeck, Emil Andrae and Kasper Simontaival who were left off the list entirely. It’s shame these biases aren’t being tackled league-wide, and with the Sens heading into a very important draft, we can only hope that they aren’t falling into the same traps.
It took a bit for him to acclimate to the NHL, but if his most recent handful of games are any indication, the Drake Batherson we know and love may have finally arrived. His incredible vision was on full display against the Devils and Sabres, tilting offensive play in a way that he was unable to in his first couple stints this season.
Batherson’s been a tricky player to handle for the Sens this year, because he’s obviously too good for the AHL, but had struggled to get his legs going against NHL competition. Even if he falters in the next few games, it will be best if the Sens are patient with him. This is the perfect season to have prospects learn, go through the struggles of playing against better competition, and figure out what they need to improve. These aren’t lessons he’ll learn in the AHL, so no matter what happens with Batherson in the coming weeks, let’s be happy he’s in the NHL. It’s Bath Time.