To Fix or Not to Fix: the Senators Blue Line is a Mess
Judging from Silver Seven’s comment sections the last few days, the situation on defense is the most pressing concern for most Sens fans.
First off, a quick recap of where things currently stand. Ottawa has four NHL-proven defensemen: Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot, Sergei Gonchar, and Chris Phillips. No concerns about Erik Karlsson; he's been lighting things up in Finland and is in game shape. Sergei Gonchar, while another year older, has been keeping in shape in the KHL with his best bud Evgeni Malkin. He's earned himself a KHL All-Star game berth and is still a serviceable second pairing defenseman.
And that's where things get concerning. I'm generally excited about the addition of Marc Methot, he seems like he'll be the perfect complement to Erik Karlsson and will get every opportunity to partner with the Norris-winner. But I have two concerns: first, with the exception of a few games representing Canada at the World Championships in the spring, Methot hasn't play in approximately one year. He missed the final 28 games of the 2011-12 season with the Blue Jackets after breaking his jaw. Rust, combined with adjusting to a new partner and system mean it might take some time for Methot to hit his stride.
Second, Methot was brought in essentially to replace Kuba. As much as I think it was the right decision not to bring Kuba back on a multi-year deal at his age, he ate up a lot of minutes, and a lot of penalty kill and power play minutes. While Methot can probably soak up Kuba's PK minutes (Kuba averaged 3:23 SH TOI/GP last season; Methot averaged 2:56 SH TOI/GP in 2010-11 and 2:17 SH TOI/GP in 2011-12 during an injury-shortened campaign), he probably won't be picking up Filip's PP time (Methot averaged 0:20 PP TOI/GP in 2010-11 and 0:03 PP TOI/GP in 2011-12; compare with Kuba's 1:58 PP TOI/GP in 2011-12). It's unrealistic to expect Gonchar, who averaged over three minutes of power play time a game last season to pick up the slack and while Karlsson can probably add a few more seconds, he already plays almost four minutes on the power play each game. Someone needs to take these minutes.
And then there's the Jared Cowen injury. While the seriousness of hip injuries should be left for another post, for our purposes, Cowen is out for the season. With the departure of Kuba and the injury to Cowen, Ottawa has lost their two most relied on penalty killers from 2011-12. If Methot can mostly soak up Kuba's minutes (minus Kuba's power play time) that still leaves Cowen's almost 20 minutes per game, and perhaps more importantly Jared's 3:08 SH TOI/GP from last season, unaccounted for. It seems a tall order to ask Phillips (3:02 SH TOI/GP) who will be 35 in March and Gonchar (1:49 SH TOI/GP; 3:06 PP TOI/GP) who will be 39 in time for the trade deadline, to improve on their numbers from last year.
The most likely course of action? Erik Karlsson becomes the answer to every question asked of the Senators defense. Remember that silly debate about Karlsson being ineligible for the Norris because he doesn't kill penalties? I'm pretty sure he's going to do that a lot this year. Karlsson averaged over 25 minutes per game last season; I wouldn't be shocked if he reached over 30 minutes a game on a consistent basis this season and some of those minutes are going to be on the penalty kill.
Since Chris Phillips' biggest off-season headlines had to do with the opening of his new restaurant, conditioning is a concern for the aging defenseman. While he has played on the charity circuit, in all likelihood he is not in game shape. Compounding the issue is the fact that Phillips had a bounce-back year last season in part because Paul MacLean had the luxury of playing Chris in a reduced role and in sheltered minutes. Asking him to once again play top-four minutes is a tall order.
At this point, it seems like the remaining two spots will be filled by players currently in Bingo. Bryan Murray has indicated that Patrick Wiercioch, Andre Benoit, Eric Gryba, and Mark Borowiecki will be in camp fighting for those final two spots. While Benoit's play and maturity might give him the inside track, the organization (read Tim Murray) has always been high on Borowiecki. His physical style of play might address the toughness lost with the departures of Konopka, Carkner and Foligno in the off-season. Some commenters have suggested that the organization would be wise to bring-up both Wiercioch and Benoit, as both have been playing together this season in the AHL. With all of Ottawa's defensive pairings in a state of flux this year, this makes a lot of sense. When Mike Lundin gets healthy, maybe he takes one of these spots.
Of course, Bryan Murray could look to add via trade or free agency.
The easiest way to shore-up Ottawa's backend would be to add an experienced unrestricted free agent.
The problem is the unrestricted free agent route is not that appealing. Who would you bite at? Kurtis Foster? Colin White? Kent Huskins? The only player on this list under 30 is Chris Campoli and frankly, we've tried that before. Signing an unrestricted free agent would at best fill a third pairing spot. I think those spaces are better served by giving the guys in Bingo a chance.
It doesn't make sense to me to try and fill the 5-6 spots with a free agent or trade candidate. Bingo candidates, Mike Lundin, and possibly Chris Phillips can fill that role this year and next. With Jared Cowen going down in the fall, the Sens lost a top-4 defenseman for the season and will lose another at the end of the season when Gonchar's contract is up (or earlier if he's traded at the deadline). While Cowen will be back next year, that leaves a top-4 opening for at least the next two years. The Sens blue line issues can only really be improved by adding a top-4 guy and they have the opening/need to make such an investment.
But who should they pick up?
Possible candidates fall into a two categories. The first is big contract/buyout candidates. These players are capable of top-4 minutes but because of their contracts or their current team's salary cap issues, they are potential trade bait.
#7 / Defenseman / Pittsburgh Penguins
Mar 05, 1981
|2011 - Paul Martin||2||25||27||9||18|
Martin's name has been kicked around in the comment section lately. Martin has three seasons remaining on a five year deal with a cap hit of $5 million. Martin didn't get off to the best start in Pittsburgh and many have labeled him as a potential buy-out candidate in the summer. Not an offensive or defensive specialist, Martin is a capable top-4 defenseman who could take some of the Sens PP and PK minutes (2:36 SH TOI/GP, 1:49 PP TOI/GP in 2011-12).
#4 / Defenseman / Calgary Flames
Sep 27, 1983
|2011 - Jay Bouwmeester||5||24||29||-21||26|
Bouwmeester's contract runs out at the end of next year with an average cap hit of $6.8 million per season. He'll make $6.6 million in each of those seasons and while he is not worth that money, he's a reliable top-4 defenseman. He eats minutes (he averaged almost 26 minutes per game in 2011-12) and is a constant on the power play (2:10 TOI/GP in 2011-12) as well as penalty kill (3:18 TOI/GP in 2011-12). While his offensive numbers have fallen since his arrival in Calgary, Bouwmeester was once the most coveted free agent defenseman of the summer and I wonder if playing in Paul MacLean's offense-oriented system would revive that part of his game.
#4 / Defenseman / Chicago Blackhawks
Jun 06, 1987
|2011 - Niklas Hjalmarsson||1||14||15||9||14|
The Blackhawks have only $3.5 million in cap space for this season, but the problem really hits home next season. The Blackhawks have the second-least cap space in 2013-14 with $59.4 million committed to just 18 players. With Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and the emergence of Nick Leddy in 2011-12, Hjalmarsson and his $3.5 million cap hit might be expendable. I wrote about this in the summer, check it out.
I see Hjalmarsson as the most realistic of these three options. He's young, capable and affordable. While the Sens have the cap room to take on Martin or Bouwmeester, their real dollar salaries are high and it seems unlikely Ottawa would take them on. In addition, if Martin (or Bouwmeester for that matter) is a buyout candidate in the summer, it seems more likely that the Sens would wait until the summer so as not to give up an asset (or two) as well as a salary reduction.
The second category is the "big splash" category. Adding top-4 talent isn't cheap or easy. If Bryan Murray is going to try and land the type of talent to Ottawa's blue line could really use, why not go big?
#88 / Defenseman / San Jose Sharks
Mar 09, 1985
|2011 - Brent Burns||11||26||37||8||34|
I don't see the Sharks wanting to move this guy. Yes, he makes a lot of money ($5.76 million/season). Yes, his contract starts this season and doesn't end until 2016-17. But he's only 27 and adds the size lost by the Cowen injury and Carkner's departure (and I suppose, Kuba, not that he really used his size). At 6'5" and 225 pounds, he's quite simply a beast. He kills penalties, spends time on the power play, and chips in offensively.
#76 / Defenseman / Montreal Canadiens
May 13, 1989
|2011 - P.K. Subban||7||29||36||9||119|
Use the offer sheet Bryan Murray. Subban is still without a contract and while he's due a hefty raise from his entry level deal, Ottawa can afford it. He played over 24 minutes a game last season, while being an important penalty killer (2:36 TOI/GP) and an integral part of Montreal's power play (3:29 TOI/GP). Not a big player, Subban is physical and generates offense. At 23, he is still developing and maturing as a player but will deliver during his second contract.
Michael Del Zotto
#4 / Defenseman / New York Rangers
Jun 24, 1990
|2011 - Michael Del Zotto||10||31||41||20||36|
P.K. Subban not your style? How about Michael Del Zotto? Again, use the offer sheet Bryan Murray. Coming off of his entry level deal, Del Zotto is still without a contract and like Subban, will be due a raise. Del Zotto is 22 and an offensively-minded defenseman who spent some time on thpenalty kille last year (1:23 TOI/GP) and ate all of the power play minutes for the Rangers in 2011-12 (4:11 TOI/GP).
I see Del Zotto as the most realistic option. The Rangers have $57.4 million in cap payroll in 2013-14 and are committed to only 17 players. New York is paying Marc Staal $3.975 million for each of the next three seasons and Dan Girardi $3.325 for the next two. Ryan McDonagh is entering the last year in his ELC and will need to be renewed in the off-season. The Rangers may not be willing to commit dollars to Del Zotto as they try and stay under the cap. Del Zotto will be tough to afford this season if they can't find a taker for Wade Redden (ugh it shouldn't be us) and it will be even harder in the summer even if they buyout Redden. I can't see the Sharks getting rid of Burns. Dan Boyle is aging and Burns will probably take on a greater role in San Jose this season. Montreal's cap situation is a mess, but Subban is one of the faces of the franchise and the Habs would probably match what we offered him.
Any of these big moves while require not only a significant financial investment from the Sens, but also a commitment to move substantial assets (picks, prospect, or some combination of the two). Such a move would probably see Bryan Murray move a prospect Sens fans have become accustomed to. But Murray showed last year that's he's willing to move prospects for young players who can help now; maybe, just maybe, he has something surprising up his sleeve.