Identifying alternative options on defence

Here are eight players not named Jakob Chychrun for you to think about

John Marino, traded to the New Jersey Devils. MacKenzie Weegar, traded to the Calgary Flames. John Klingberg, signed to a one-year deal by the Anaheim Ducks.

In the midst of the best offseason in franchise history, Senators fans are clamouring for general manager Pierre Dorion and his staff to complete one more move: acquire a top-four defender. With the three players named above seemingly off the table, many fans only have one other option on their mind, and that’s 24-year-old Jakob Chychrun of the Arizona Coyotes. The 16th overall pick in 2016, Chychrun has been the big catch in the rumour mill for teams looking to acquire a defenceman since the ‘Yotes started tearing things down, and the asking price is huge for a player who is signed at $4.6M for three more years.

While I think there’s plenty to say about whether Chychrun is the right fit for the Senators, I’m more worried about fans getting singular in their focus and missing the bigger picture. The Ottawa Senators need to improve their defence, they don’t need Jakob Chychrun to do it.

In this article, I aim to identify other options for the Senators (and you, dear reader) to consider.

The Method

I started by manually combing through every right-handed defender listed on Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz, looking at his player isolates to identify defenders who break even or prevent expected goals against per 60 while they’re on the ice as a metric of defensive ability at even-strength. To read more about the statistical modelling that contributes to Micah’s isolates, check out this article detailing the fifth version of his attempt to estimate individual impact on 5-on-5 shot rates.

To be safe, I ran these players past another expected goals model — the one created by Josh and Luke Younggren at Evolving-Hockey. All of the players listed below played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 last season and have an expected goals against per 60 rate (xGA/60) better than Artem Zub’s team-leading 2.57 according to their model.

Finally, I browsed these players’ individual and team profiles on CapFriendly, manually eliminating those who are already signed over $6M on a long-term deal or who — in my estimate — are a part of another team’s “core”. As the old adage goes, every team is looking for a top-four defender. They’re difficult to trade for. The point of this exercise is to see if there are undervalued options that a team could be convinced to part with, and I find that proposition easier if the player doesn’t scream ‘core’ player.

This analysis resulted in three categories of players, which we will now dive into. All tracking data cited in this article comes courtesy of Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones initiative, which you can access on Patreon like I do. Corey’s data provides immense value — here, I’ll use it to try and explain how each of these players appear to be driving results in a manner that leads to strong defensive results at even-strength.

Short-term options who likely won’t cost a lot to acquire in a trade:

Many of the players listed in this category don’t have the name recognition as other defenders, but have on-ice results that indicate that they’ve been adeptly helping their team win the shot- and goal-share battles when they’re on the ice. These players are often unsung heroes of playoff teams, making little cash relative to their performance. While this could provide immense value, I rarely see players of this ilk going for a ton on the trade market.

Connor Clifton

Boston’s Connor Clifton just completed his fourth year of pro hockey, suiting up regularly on the Bruins third-pair over the last two seasons. A fifth-round draft pick in 2013, Clifton went to Quinnipac in the NCAA and contributed to three consecutive playoff runs — including an appearance in the finals.

Clifton’s xGA/60 of 1.97 leads all players mentioned in this article, and his defensive prowess also shows up on the penalty kill, where he was elite this season. Clifton is extremely engaged at all times, starting with using his anticipation and skating ability to prevent scoring chances against when he’s targeted on zone entries, protecting the middle of the ice with great gap before using a quick pivot to retrieve the puck, and get it out of the zone quickly. Offensively, he isn’t scared to jump in as a neutral zone carrier on zone entries, and is an active part of the Bruins next layer of offence — using his positioning to get into a dangerous area to receive a pass or to shoot off a rebound.

Paired with Derek Forbort this season against other teams’ bottom-six forwards, Clifton’s sense and skating combination makes me wonder if he’d be a nice stopgap option on a team’s second pair for a season and at $1M, you can’t really go wrong. The Bruins have eight defenders on one-way contracts for next season and while he’s not a right-shot, they recently re-signed 25-year-old Jakub Zboril to a two-year deal; hence, I wonder if they could be enticed to trade Clifton if the Sens pony up.

Trevor van Riemsdyk & Nick Jensen

While these next two players are unlikely targets for Ottawa because they could’ve acquired either in a swap for Connor Brown, Washington’s Trevor van Riemsdyk and Nick Jensen are two who have played second-pair minutes in their career — generally as #4s — on playoff teams.

The 30-year-old van Riemsdyk is in his eighth season of pro hockey, coming into the league in 2014-15 with Chicago after signing as a college free agent out of the University of New Hampshire. He played second-pair minutes in two of his three seasons with Chicago, before joining the Carolina Hurricanes in a third-pair role given their immense depth on defence. Last season, he played third-pair minutes alongside Justin Schultz but faced all levels of competition equally as head coach Peter Laviolette rolled his pairs regularly.

31-year-old Jensen has almost exclusively played second-pair minutes over his six pro seasons, split between Detroit and Washington. A fifth-round draft pick by the Wings in 2009, Jensen played three years with St. Cloud State and three years in AHL Grand Rapids before making the Wings in 2016-17. He’s put up his best point production of his career playing second-pair minutes with Dimitri Orlov this past season.

Both TVR and Jensen were asked to play second-fiddle for their more dynamic partner — Schultz and Orlov. Both helped the Capitals exit the zone with possession with regularly — 54.4% for van Riemsdyk to 52.6% for Jensen — with TVR moreso letting Schultz’s dynamism play out to a greater extent than Jensen’s split workload with Orlov. When it comes to defending the rush, both were targeted at a similar rate, and both protected the middle of the ice to prevent scoring chances against. The main difference between the two was offensively, where van Riemsdyk’s fewer adventures more directly led to scoring chances for himself — by getting into a good position for a shot off a high-danger pass — or his teammates, compared to Jensen’s more consistent offensive engagement overall via sharp passing on the zone entry, a set-up for his teammate from the point, or shooting for a deflection or rebound. It’s perhaps this offensive ability that’s led to the contract difference between the two; while both are signed for one more season, Jensen has a $2.5M cap hit while van Riemsdyk is making a paltry $900k.

It’s interesting to consider who Washington would choose to part with in a trade: is Jensen’s offence and top-four performance this season worth three times the price? Regardless, with Erik Gustafsson coming into replace Schultz, the Caps are entering next season with the same defensive corps, and I imagine a trade with Washington would have to feature a replacement.

Honourable mentions:

  • 31-year-old Chad Ruhwedel has been quietly providing reliable defensive minutes for Mike Sullivan’s Pittsburgh Penguins for six seasons now, carving out a career on league-minimum salary. He absolutely demolished third-pair competition with the now-departed Mike Matheson this season to the tune of a 57.88% xG share when he was on the ice, but a look at the tracking data relative to his teammates didn’t see him standout in the same way Clifton did on the Bruins. His best quality is his ability to hold his blue line while defending zone entries, where he interestingly tracked similarly to John Marino. Offensively, he’s active during the Penguins forecheck and cycle, regularly flying down the wall to put shots on net to generate rebounds for his teammates. My primary hesitation on including Ruhwedel with the main group is his deference to Matheson on retrievals and zone exits, but don’t get me wrong: he’d surely be at least Ottawa’s fourth-best defender next season.
  • A 29-year-old career New York Islander, Scott Mayfield has played second-pair minutes consecutively since 2017-18, featuring alongside talents like Nick Leddy, Devon Toews, and most recently, Adam Pelech. Signed to a bargain five-year deal at $1.45M per year in 2018, Mayfield is a staunch denier of zone entries but needs help on zone exits and doesn’t contribute anything offensively other that stationary shots from the right point. The Islanders only have four defenders signed right now, with Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov as RFAs, so I imagine a Mayfield trade might also require a defender back — potentially a reunion between Nikita Zaitsev and Lou Lamoriello? Regardless, Mayfield is someone who could provide a defence-first stopgap but might not reduce Thomas Chabot or Jake Sanderson’s puck-moving burden enough, hence he’s included in this category instead of as a primary option.
  • Like they did when they signed Artem Zub, the organization could scout the European free agent market for U25 defenders performing well league-wide. Candidates like Artyom Minulin (KHL), Nuutti Viitasalo (Liiga), and Lukas Pilö (Liiga) are tracking well as options to consider by my amateur eye./

Short-term options who might cost more to acquire in a trade:

These next two players have enough pedigree — a history of playing quality second-pair minutes — that will necessitate at least an asset like the second-round pick Ottawa got back from Connor Brown to acquire their services.

Christopher Tanev

Players like Calgary’s Christopher Tanev are rarely available. The defensive side of Vancouver’s top-pair with Alexander Edler for many seasons, Tanev provided quality minutes alongside Noah Hanifin, Mark Giordano, and most recently, Oliver Kylington on two playoff-bound Calgary Flames teams after signing there as a free agent. Why am I even speculating about him? For one: Tanev ended the year with a torn labrum, separated shoulder, and sprained neck — ouch — with a recovery time of 4-6 months from the start of June. Moreover, the Flames have a glut of right-shot defenders after re-upping Nikita Zadorov and trading for MacKenzie Weegar, all while having 25-year-old Rasmus Andersson signed for four more years.

Tanev would be a near-perfect fit to mentor Jake Sanderson while playing 20 minutes a night. He tracks as one of the league’s best in defensive zone puck retrieval and zone exit metrics, reliably helping his team prevent prolonged shifts in his end. He’s capable of splitting the puck-moving burden with his partner, like he did with Kylington this season, and contributes to a team’s offence off the rush through smart identification of passing options — a quality the Senators severely lacked as the second-worst driver of rush offence in the league last season. Signed for two more years at $4.5M, there’s value in having your top-four set to allow Jacob Bernard-Docker or Lassi Thomson to start off in third-pair minutes, as well.

Damon Severson

In many ways, the New Jersey Devils have been on the same ride as the Ottawa Senators these past few years, they’re just sitting a little closer to the front. Jack Hughes’ new eight-year deal kicks in this year, meaning the Devils’ top-two centres are making $15.25M against the cap; the team signed veteran winger Ondrej Palat as a free agent; another top winger, Jesper Bratt, is prime for a big raise as a RFA; and Dougie Hamilton plays the role of Thomas Chabot — earning an extra $1M per year for his added effectiveness. The Devils’ young core is getting paid this offseason, and unlike the Senators, they’ve added on defence through trading for the aforementioned John Marino and drafting defenceman Šimon Nemec with the second-overall pick.

All of this means that longtime Devils rearguard Damon Severson, signed for $4.16M on an expiring deal, might be available. Severson has played the minutes of a number one defenceman consistently since 2018-19, averaging two more minutes a game than Hamilton this past year alongside Jonas Siegenthaler or Ryan Graves, while featuring heavily on both special teams.

Like Tanev, he ranks near the top of Sznajder’s dataset on many defensive zone retrieval and zone exit metrics, regularly relied on to be the primary passer to help his team successfully exit the zone with possession 70.3% of the time (Chabot’s percentage in the same metric is 64.2%). Severson’s able to defend the rush multiple ways, either stepping up early on opponents to hold the blue line and force a dump-in or through utilizing his range to protect the middle of the ice. Offensively, he tied a career high in goals with 11 while setting a new best in points with 46, primarily through assist with the Devils’ offence off the rush or setting up attempts from the point.

New Jersey will be materially worse this year without Severson, but given the acquisition of Marino and his heir apparent potentially on the roster as early as this season in Nemec, I imagine the Devils might want to get something back for Severson instead of letting him walk. For the Senators, it’s clear to see how he could play alongside Thomas Chabot and on the team’s first penalty kill unit, with this also being an audition to see if he’s a longer-term fit given that none of the Senators internal options are of Nemec’s quality. It’ll all be about acquisition cost — if it’s significantly less than Chychrun, it might be worth it even if it’s just for a one-year push. Thomas Chabot would know Severson well from their time together on Team Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Championships.

Long-term options (not including Chychrun):

Dante Fabbro

A player who I’d sell the farm for, Nashville’s Dante Fabbro is next in-line to claim the role of “underrated defender playing in Nashville” among hockey discourse. While his name hasn’t ever been floated as “available” in the same way Jakob Chychrun’s is, the Predators enter next season with just $12M in cap space with only 9 forwards, four defenders, and one goaltender signed, and already have Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and newly acquired Ryan McDonagh making above $6M on their blueline. Fabbro, a 24-year-old drafted 17th overall in 2016, came into his own last season — playing 66 games alongside Josi in Nashville’s top-four against all competition.

Fabbro does his part defensively, keeping opposing players away from the front of his net with regularity, and is starting to grow into his own as a passer who can generate dangerous chances for his team at the other end. In Sznajder’s tracking data, Fabbro’s showing tendencies that help him successfully retrieve the puck and help his team exit the zone with possession — turning into a one-man breakout like Ekholm and Josi — being asked to exit the zone around 24 times per 60 minutes and successfully doing so 19 times on average. While he might miscue more than Josi, a perennial Norris contender, he was actually asked to carry more of the burden defensively than the Swiss international last season. Nashville, as a team, ranks among the best in the league at preventing zone entries alongside Boston, Dallas, LA, Carolina, and Seattle, and Fabbro more than held his end of the bargain.

Offensively, he’s learned from Josi to positively contribute to the team’s attack, moving laterally across his blueline or creeping up to the right faceoff circle to set up a teammate, shoot for a deflection, or generate a quality rebound. It’s what Preds fans expected of Fabbro earlier in his career given his status as a first-round pick — last season was his third of pro hockey — but their patience has paid off in a big way. In suggesting trading for Fabbro, I’m wondering if the Predators might consider him expendable given how they’ve set up their roster for next year when you factor in the raise you might expect from his current $2.4M cap hit. For Ottawa, Fabbro would fit right in beside Thomas Chabot, a free-wheeling defender with a bit of Josi in him.

Sean Durzi

A 23-year-old rookie who was part of the return in the trade that sent Jake Muzzin to Toronto, Sean Durzi was a big part of the Kings’ playoff run after a three-year period that found the former cup contenders near the bottom of the standings. Durzi was drafted as an overager in the second round in 2018 by Toronto after putting up 49 points in 40 games for Owen Sound. He was traded the season after to Guelph, where he led the Storm to the OHL Championship with 27 points in 24 playoff games and another seven in four Memorial Cup contests. He then turned pro, playing two AHL seasons where he scored at a similar rate to Lassi Thomson this past year — around 0.50 points-per-game — before starting the 2021-22 AHL season with 16 points in his first 13 games. When the Kings ran into injury troubles, Durzi was thrust into a second-pair role with fellow rookie Tobias Björnfot and had a respectable campaign, steadily seeing his ice-time climb as the games got more important.

Durzi played in all situations for the Kings, manning the top of the umbrella on the powerplay while featuring in on the team’s second penalty kill unit. His best metric in terms of Sznajder’s tracked data is his ability to deny zone entries at a strong rate, solidly featuring in the middle-of-the-pack on a Kings team that did well as a group. Durzi had a bigger burden than other players on this list in terms of having to feature as one of the Kings’ primary puck retrievers in the defensive zone, as the group could struggle to exit with possession at times, and as you’d expect, his ratio of successful exits to failed exits was worse than Fabbro’s, with Durzi being able to successfully exit the zone only two-thirds of the time. Offensively, Durzi contributed to controlled zone entries and once in the offensive zone, he was pretty mobile — adeptly getting assists through shots through traffic getting deflected.

The Kings are stacked on the right-side: Drew Doughty and Sean Walker — both signed for multiple years — are returning from injury this season, while veteran Matt Roy is signed to a team-friendly $3.1M deal and 21-year-old Jordan Spence shows more flash than Durzi and is two years younger. Helge Grans and Brandt Clarke are also in the system as high-end talents. The Kings are a year ahead of the Sens in the “process” and are facing a cap crunch, with only $1.5M in space left and Mikey Anderson, a left-shot defender, still to sign. This leads me to believe that the Kings might be happy with a decent pick in return for Durzi, where they’d be selling relatively high on a player they’ve let marinate but cannot sign; in return, the Senators would be getting a player who helped a team in a similar position make the playoffs and could support the second-pair with the ability to defend zone entries, play on the penalty kill, and not be prohibitive cost-wise while being under team control for multiple seasons. Of the players I’ve profiled today, Durzi seems like the most straightforward acquisition.

Ethan Bear

Much has been written about 25-year-old Ethan Bear, whether it was from the loud collection of Oilers fans who were upset when he was traded to Carolina last offseason or the obnoxious Edmonton media members this past month who were clamouring that the Oilers got it right after previously-unsigned Bear struggled with the Canes. With his contract situation resolved — a one-year deal at $2.2M — Bear is looking to flip the script on a Canes team that features plenty of competition for minutes on the right-side after the addition of Brent Burns. Is there anything about Bear’s on-ice game that’s polarizing?

A fifth-round pick in 2015, Bear was an unequivocal leader for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds — putting up near point-per-game totals in his two seasons post-draft while helping the Thunderbirds have two long playoff runs. Bear split the 2017-18 season between Edmonton and Bakersfield, which is interesting given that he spent all of the 2018-19 season in the AHL, before making the Oilers full-time in 2019-20 — suiting up for 71 games alongside Darnell Nurse. Again, though, there was an uncertainty around committing to Bear’s good results; in 2020, the Oilers coaching staff played Kris Russell and Adam Larsson more than him. To his credit, Bear turned in an effective season alongside Caleb Jones. With the Oilers looking for offensive depth, they exchanged Bear in a deal for Warren Foegele, and the now Carolina Hurricane found himself paired with Jaccob Slavin to start off the year. However, despite results around the team average, Bear only played around 16 minutes per-game and was benched during the playoffs, putting his long-term future in Carolina in question. Bear told The Athletic’s Sara Civian that he struggled getting back up to game speed after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Offensively, Bear has the best skillset of the long-term options I’ve included in this piece. He’s a menace, creating chances for himself and his teammates at high rates in the offensive zone, drawing penalties with his mobility, and supporting both the rush and the cycle with his vision. Defensively, he ranked in the middle of the pack among Canes blueliners in terms of preventing zone entries and helped the team exit the zone regularly. To me, this screams of a player who, for a reason that’s hard to discern with public data, does not mesh with a head coach’s playing style. Assuming Bear’s medically cleared of long COVID symptoms impacting his pulmonary function, I see the potential of a rebound year. For Ottawa, I see similarities between the way that Thomas Chabot and Darnell Nurse play and think “well, it’s worth a shot for at least a year”. Let the metrics ring clear: Bear would’ve had the best results among all non-Chabot Sens blueliners last season.

So there you have it: eight options and two honourable mentions, outside of Jakob Chychrun, for Senators management to consider when thinking about addressing their dire need on defence.

There are multiple reasons why a short-term option might be the better fit.

  • It’ll keep the organization’s prospect pool relatively intact — which has been an understated source of pride among fans as they think about the moves already completed this offseason. Shaan and Spencer wrote about this over the last two weeks, making arguments for players like Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson potentially being ready for this opportunity as soon as this year or as late as next year.
  • Six of the seven defenders I’ve identified are only signed for one more season, meaning that we’ll have another season to better evaluate improvements among Bernard-Docker and Thomson, and also have a better sense of how much money Dorion will have to spend to sign Tim Stützle, Alex DeBrincat, and Shane Pinto.
  • There are free agent options, like MacKenzie Weegar, who might be better fits for the organization available next summer.
  • Adding a player, instead of entering the season with status quo on defence, still sends the message that the Senators want to seize an opportunity for massive improvement this season. Stützle, Sanderson, and Pinto are on their entry-level deals — a bonus for contending hopes — and none of the players here will take up an exorbitant amount of cap space, leaving space for a potential addition at the trade deadline for the first time in years. /

All that being said, I understand the rationale of fans clamouring for a long-term fit.

  • It’s clearly a need for the organization, especially when you consider that Senators haven’t fielded four top-four calibre defenders in well over a decade.
  • Bernard-Docker (2018) and Thomson (2019) have been with the organization for years, and I’d hope that the team would feel relatively confident with their internal evaluations of those players. Maxence Guénette is the other primary option currently playing pro hockey, with prospects Tyler Kleven, Ben Roger, and the 2022 draftees a few years out — past Chabot’s prime.
  • Chychrun, Durzi, Fabbro, and Bear are all under the age of 25 and could be with the team during their RFA years or exchanged for another need if any of the prospects hit/

Overall, I hope you’re leaving this article with a better sense of the many options available to the Senators heading into October. Let me know what you’d prefer in the comments section!

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