Weekly Question: When was the last time the Sens had four NHL-quality top-four defencemen?

Join me for a trip down the blistering hellscape that is the Ottawa Senators defensive depth chart.

Here are your “top-four defencemen” by minutes played per game for every season over the last decade (via NHL.com):

  • 2019-20: Thomas Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Dylan DeMelo
  • 2018-19: Thomas Chabot, Cody Ceci, Dylan DeMelo, Maxime Lajoie
  • 2017-18: Erik Karlsson, Cody Ceci, Dion Phaneuf, Thomas Chabot
  • 2016-17: Erik Karlsson, Cody Ceci, Dion Phaneuf, Marc Methot
  • 2015-16: Erik Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf, Marc Methot, Cody Ceci
  • 2014-15: Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot, Chris Phillips, Cody Ceci
  • 2013-14: Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot, Jared Cowen, Chris Phillips
  • 2012-13: Erik Karlsson (inj.), Sergei Gonchar, Marc Methot, Chris Phillips, Jared Cowen (inj.), Eric Gryba
  • 2011-12: Erik Karlsson, Filip Kuba, Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips
  • 2010-11: Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba
  • 2009-10: Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Erik Karlsson/

I don’t know about you, but I had three initial thoughts when reading this list. First: I miss Erik Karlsson. Second: I seem to only have memories of Dion Phaneuf playing on the team in the 2016-17 run to the Eastern Conference Finals and was blown away that the ex-Leafs captain spent at least three seasons with the Sens in a top-four role. Lastly, there... are not many good hockey players on this list.

Remember, this question is different from us asking “when was the last time the Sens had four NHL-quality defencemen?” because in my opinion, the team has had a number of capable defenders playing third-pair minutes over the years. Names like Mark Borowiecki, Chris Wideman, Fredrik Claesson, Eric Gryba, Patrick Wiercioch, and Andre Benoit all had standout seasons, and were the source of arguments on this very website about their playing time at some time or another.

Evolving-Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model is a nice, quick way to try and get a sense of a player’s value. In their 2019 write-up which is worth reading in full, Josh and Luke note that an individual season WAR above 1 is what would classify them as an above-average player — one who was in the top 28.23% of players in a season. They also cite the quote below from FanGraphs on ways to think about WAR:

“You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players. WAR offers an estimate to answer the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins, which means it is highly likely that Player X has been more valuable than Player Y.

WAR is not meant to be a perfectly precise indicator of a player’s contribution, but rather an estimate of their value to date. Given the imperfections of some of the available data and the assumptions made to calculate other components, WAR works best as an approximation. A 6 WAR player might be worth between 5.0 and 7.0 WAR, but it is pretty safe to say they are at least an All-Star level player and potentially an MVP.”

Those defencemen I mentioned earlier played third-pair minutes and had very respectable seasons in the range of 0-1 WAR, representing an ‘average player’ — 41.02% of the players in a given season — speaking to the fact that the team has had some defensive depth over the past 10 seasons. However, over the last decade, only the following defencemen have had a single-season WAR above 1:

  • Erik Karlsson — 6x (2011-12, 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18)
  • Marc Methot — 3x (2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17)
  • Thomas Chabot — 1x (2018-19)
  • Dylan DeMelo — 1x (2018-19)
  • Sergei Gonchar — 1x (2010-11)
  • Chris Phillips — 1x (2009-10)
  • Anton Volchenkov — 1x (2009-10)
  • Matt Carkner — 1x (2009-10)/

There are even years, like last season and 2012-13 — when Karlsson missed most of the year with his achilles injury — where the team didn’t have a single defender above 1.

Using this estimate of player value, the closest the team came to icing four “good” NHL defencemen, point blank, was 2009-10 where Phillips and Volchenkov were still playing quality hockey in top-four minutes, Erik Karlsson was a slick rookie mentored by Filip Kuba, and Matt Carkner was delivering quality minutes on the back-end. There’s a chance that the teams from Ottawa’s mid-00s glory years might have featured an elite defensive corps, but we don’t have WAR data for seasons before 2007-08.

Hence, when we hear news of the beloved Mark Borowiecki likely leaving, the team thinking of giving up assets to acquiring a goaltender like Matt Murray, or about the lack of a true number one centre in the prospect pool, I go back to a wish I had all throughout our Karlsson years: can the Ottawa Senators please ice four good defencemen. While I think highly of Christian Wolanin, and believe that Erik Brännström, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and potentially Jamie Drysdale or Jake Sanderson are going to have better futures that the team’s former top defence prospects like Cowen, Wiercioch, and Ceci, it’s a lot of pressure on a young group. With a flat cap, revenue troubles, and roster squeezes in the minds of many general managers around the league, if Pierre Dorion is going to look to move quality assets for something, I think there’s a good argument to be made — especially given the team’s current NHL depth chart — that he should look for a skilled, right-shot defenceman.

Do you have a different definition of what makes a “good” top-four defenceman? Do you think trading for a primo right-shot defender is the best use of the Sens’ assets in the current NHL landscape? Let us know in the comments!

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