At the start of the season, it was generally agreed that the Ottawa Senators' blue line would be their greatest strength. It doesn't take a genius to look at a group made up of Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Jakob Chychrun, and Artem Zub and think "Gee, these guys might be good!" The question wasn't whether the four would work together, but rather how best to arrange them for maximum effect. So while this campaign hasn't exactly unfolded as the Sens had hoped, it's worth underlining that, when healthy, the top four have actually been about as good as we could have expected. It's become fashionable to speculate about potentially trading one of the rearguards, most commonly Chabot or Chychrun, but that seems premature to me. A commonly touted reason to pursue a trade is a lack of "balance" among the foursome. To that I say: why not stick with what's working?
First, let's try to quantify the impact of having a healthy blue line on the team's performance. We're focused on 5v5 play since that is the area where two functioning pairs will make the biggest impact. The difference between games where all four play and games where even one is missing is sizable:
|With All of the Top 4 Available
|Without All of the Top 4 Available
When all four of their best defensemen are available, the Sens profile like a good-to-very-good team at 5v5. A 51.66 xGF%, for example, would rank 12th in the league.
Last week, Trevor gave us the rundown of the team's performance since the coaching change and the aggregate results are, for the most part, quite good – especially of late. All of what comes next is not to discredit the work that Jacques Martin and his staff have done, but rather to underline the key message: when their best four defensemen are all healthy, this roster looks like a play-off contender. Even under the much-maligned DJ Smith, there was a marked difference for this squad in the (very few) games they played with their top two pairs intact: