Probably one of the most divisive players in recent Senators history, Zenon Konopka creates a very unique decision for general manager this summer, especially because by all reports, Konopka is not just open to returning, but actively wants to.
Some people (like myself) were unimpressed with Konopka's early showing this season. His play both with and without the puck was uninspired, and it seemed he frequently sought out fights for no other reason than to justify his place on the roster. Those fights themselves were uninspired as well--a known skilled fighter, Konopka was not a player most were willing to exchange punches freely with. The result was referred to on this site as "hugging."
Yet the Konopka fans got to see in the postseason was a completely different player. He was too busy being an active contributor to mess around with unnecessary fights. He wasn't just a passenger on the team. He was a leader--and this game after spending much of the final third of the season as a healthy scratch.
Still, when all is said and done, Konopka is a fourth-line player, even on his best days. On a team already laden with bottom-six players, Murray's choice is, paradoxically, simple but unclear: Do the pros of signing Konopka outweigh the cons?
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We're not going to to attempt to find traditional comparable players for Konopka in this article. Instead, we're going to do something a little unique, given that the player and situation are unique. Prepare for a simple list of pros and cons.
- One of the league's best faceoff men. This is critical because Ottawa plays a puck possession game, and the easiest way to possess the puck is to win a faceoff. Winning an offensive zone faceoff gives Erik Karlsson a free shot on goal. Winning a defensive zone faceoff can take precious seconds off of the penalty kill. Faceoffs are critical to the team's success, and this was demonstrated well in the team's playoff series against the New York Rangers. It's no coincidence Ottawa's success in the series began when their faceoff win percentage rose, and that happened when Konopka was reinserted into the lineup in game six. It's no coincidence that when head coach (and Jack Adams nominee--are you a Jack Adams nominee?) needed to shelter Mika Zibanejad from faceoffs during his nine-game audition, he chose Konopka to do it. Faceoffs are critical to a puck possession team.
- Leadership. Don't pretend this stuff doesn't matter. Anyone who's had a crappy day at work knows how important it is to have a buddy to pick up your spirits. Like this. Anyone who's been part of a team in any fashion--not necessarily sports--knows that it takes just one negative person to bring everyone down. What does it say about a guy who has every right to be negative when he's your biggest cheerleader? Part of the Senators' success this year was due to outstanding team chemistry and a positive locker room. Konopka was a huge part of that. It's surprisingly easy to imagine him being the kind of guy who boosts Kyle Turris' spirits after a bad game.
- Physicality. Again, while it was hard to be a fan of many of his decisions to fight throughout the year, they still had a measurable impact on the game. No, they didn't deter other teams from taking liberties with his teammates--that's just silly. But they did allow Chris Neil to post a 28-point season, just five points off of his career high, because he didn't have to spend as much time fighting this year--Neil had 178 PIMs this year as opposed to 210 last year.
- Cost-effective. Konopka played the last season on a one-year, $700K contract. Mika Zibanejad cost almost $1M more.
- Weak point production. No one is expecting him to average a point a game, but his five points (3G, 2A) in 55 regular season games is not good. Jesse Winchester, by comparison, had eight points (2G, 6A) in just 32 games. Jim O'Brien had six points (3G, 3A) in 28 games. Both are candidates to replace Konopka.
- Defensive liability. Konopka isn't particularly good in the defensive zone. By any measure, he had negative numbers this year. He was a minus-4, and all of his advanced statistics were among the worst on the team, if not the worst outright. Any way you slice it, when he's on the ice, Konopka isn't a major force for the team he's on.
- Penalties. He takes a lot of them. Some of that is good--as noted above, he allowed Chris Neil to focus more on playing hockey--but some of it is not. A player who spends as much time in the box as he does on the ice does not generally contribute to his team's success. Konopka also does not play on special teams, which means any minor penalties he takes are his teammates' responsibilities. Opportunities to atone for his mistakes are limited.
- Limited ceiling. The Senators have a glut of players who can fill roles on the third and fourth line. Konopka is never going to rise above that level, which limits his overall usefulness to the team.
Make no mistake--Konopka has demonstrated that he can be a valuable contributor and leader on a young team that could benefit from leadership and levity. But if he can't bring those traits to the team on a nightly basis, he'll find himself scratched for extended periods, as we saw towards the end of last season. If that is going to be his contribution, he is easily replaceable.
More than any other player in this summer's dossier, Konopka represents a judgement call for Bryan Murray. It's not an enviable position--if he's wrong, it's going to create quite a hole for the team to fill.