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The Sports Daily > The 6th Sens
Senators Poised to Take A Step: Forward or Back?

Thanks to their offseason activity thus far, the Ottawa Senators have put me in an inquisitive mood this summer. With the exception of Erik Karlsson’s contract extension or the draft selection of a local hockey product like Cody Ceci, there have been no major trades or buzz-worthy free agent signings that typically give fans reason to get excited about the forthcoming season.

Not that I’m complaining mind you, like many Sens fans, I’ve been impressed with management’s restraint. Rather than offer inexplicable contracts in a weak free agent market, the organization has opted for cost-efficient, short-term deals with low-risk, high-reward players like Guillaume Latendresse, Mike Lundin and Peter Regin.

While these signings may not sell merchandise or have long lasting effects, the organization can avoid rushing some of their prospects; thereby allowing them to develop at their own pace. Unlike last season, there shouldn’t be another situation in which a player like Stephane Da Costa gets ten to fifteen games to determine whether or not he can hack it. The bulk of the roster that returned the Senators to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 has been brought back.

Yet for all the praise that we can bestow upon management for finding good value on the free agent market, it’s not like the organization didn’t try to pursue some expensive, big name talent.  According to reports out of Columbus, Bryan Murray got deeper into Rick Nash trade negotiations than any other team.

Yes, the same Rick Nash who, with a 7.8 million dollar per season contract that lasts through the next six seasons, not only would become Ottawa’s highest paid player, he would most certainly stand no chance of out-producing the value of his contract. If Nash wasn’t 28 years of age and entering his prime instead of leaving it, such a move would make sense for the Ottawa Senators. Perhaps if Ottawa’s roster was on the brink of Cup contention, he could potentially be that final puzzle piece that could help put this team over the top.

But Ottawa’s not there. Not yet.

In fact, such a move seems counterintuitive to what the organization has done since the organization aggressively fast-forwarded the rebuild initiative at the 2011 NHL trade deadline.

It is entirely possible however that their level of interest in Nash was partially driven by optics. The same optics that Tim Murray acknowledged in a radio interview – explaining that management has to kick the tires on these sorts of players because they do have to answer to ownership and a demanding fan base. At least now, the organization can point to these well publicized trade negotiations and say, “Hey, we tried to make a splash.” Or perhaps their much publicized interest in Nash was the equivalent of sending a flare up to the other 29 NHL organizations – but not in that “I’m Jay Feaster, you can take me to the cleaners” kind of way — that the Senators are willing to move young assets in a package to land a quality talent whose best seasons lie ahead of him and will likely align themselves with the young talent that the organization has done an excellent job of stockpiling.

Even with Daniel Alfredsson’s imminent retirement – whether it’s this summer or next – it’s somewhat staggering to see the number of people who have emphasized the need to find another top six forward who can help the organization take that progressive next step towards contention. Over the past few weeks, bloggers and the traditional media types have been spit-balling ideas and concocting unlikely scenarios that could net the organization productive wingers like Nash, Alex Semin, Bobby Ryan or even Shane Doan. Nevertheless, even without adding one of these players, the optimism surrounding next year’s Senators team is unmistakable.

And it’s for that reason that it pains me to bring up a filthy word like regression during the offseason -that time of year when the standings reset and every NHL fan base should be filled with renewed optimism and hope for how the next season could unfold.

Unfortunately, for a Senators team that had exceeded so many expectations last season and had so many things go right, I am wary about the team’s potential performance this season.

With 192 man games lost due to injury during the 2011/12 season, the Senators were tied with the Los Angeles Kings for the fifth lowest total in the league. For comparison’s sake, the Calgary Flames led the NHL with 401.

In looking at the injuries that Ottawa accumulated, they were fortunate enough to have their best players go through the season relatively unscathed: Daniel Alfredsson missed seven games thanks to the concussion that he suffered from Wojtek Wolski; Erik Karlsson sat out one game with general body soreness; Milan Michalek missed six games; and Jason Spezza only missed two (although neither game was attributed to injury – if I remember correctly, I believe he missed only one game due to the birth of his second child.)

As much as I like the utility of the team’s biggest victims – Jesse Winchester (50 games) and Peter Regin (74 games) – neither player is really one of much consequence.

With the career years that Michalek and Karlsson enjoyed while veterans like Kuba, Spezza and Alfredsson flourished, Ottawa was fortunate that their best players were able to stay healthy and productive. (As an aside, I still have concerns about the organization’s designs to enter next season without another reliable faceoff man to insulate Spezza. Players like Winchester and Konopka afforded Paul MacLean the option of not using his best offensive player to take important defensive zone draws. In consequence, it prevented Spezza from expelling energy in winning draws, gaining puck possession and exiting the defensive zone. Instead, MacLean could use his center for more offensive zone draws where his skill and energy would be better served.)

The rate at which Ottawa scored is not without question either. According to Quanthockey.com, the Senators finished tenth in the NHL with a 9.514 shooting percentage. Had they shot the league average of 8.94 percent, it would have meant a difference of 13 fewer goals.

As I’ve outlined in a previous post for SenatorsExtra.com, Milan Michalek is just one player whose numbers I expect to return to his career norms, but in an excellent post at NHLnumbers.com, Kent Wilson also illustrated that Erik Karlsson’s even strength production rate is rarely duplicated.

Erik Karlsson was on the ice for a league high 90 goals for at even strength. He contributed to 50 of those goals, for a league leading individual points percentage (IPP) of 56% amongst defensemen. Here are some other defenders who have contributed to 50% or more of their team’s ES offense recently, plus their IPP the very next season:

  • Duncan Keith went from 0.50 to 0.26 in ’10-11
  • Ed Jovanovski went from 0.52 to 0.30 in ’08-09
  • Cam Barker went from 0.50 to 0.30 in ’08-09
  • Steve Montador went from 0.57 to 0.31 in ’08-09
  • Brett Lebda went from 0.50 to 0.21 in ’09-10 (yup…Brett Ledba)

Again, the league average for regular defenders over four years was an IPP of about 29%. Most league leaders sit around 35% on the blueline and the year-over-year correlation of IPP for rearguards is just 0.24. Last season, Nik Lidstrom’s IPP for Detroit was just 27%. Duncan Keith, who was at 50% during his aforementioned career season, sat at 35% for the Blackhawks in 2011-12. Only a handful of defensemen crested 40% (Matt Carle, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Boyle, Kevin Bieksa) and only two others broke the 50% barrier with Karlsson (Byfuglien and Keith Yandle).

So, in short – getting an IPP over 50% is difficult, rarely duplicated and dependent to a non-trivial degree on factors outside of a player’s talent level.

One of the most common arguments that I have heard fans allude to when describing why Ottawa can be better next season pertains to Craig Anderson. From October through December, the Senators’ number one goalie sported some ugly peripherals like his 3.23 GAA, zero shutouts and an 89.8 save percentage. From January through April however, Anderson’s peripherals regressed to the mean. It was during these months that he posted a 2.38 GAA, three shutouts and a save percentage of .931.

Given these numbers, one would assume that had Ottawa gotten better goaltending from Anderson during the first three months of the season, they would have been an improved team. Interestingly however, his record during these two splits is almost identical – a 17-12-3 record from October-December versus a 16-10-3 record from January through April. In other words, despite Anderson’s poor individual performance, the team still won a similar proportion of the games in which he played because he was bailed out one of the league’s highest scoring offences.

In getting back to the staggering number of people who want to see this team acquire a top six forward however, I’m shocked that more people aren’t comfortable with the blue line heading into this season.

Hockey Prospectus had a glowing review of Marc Methot in last year’s annual, but even they acknowledged that he struggled against an improved quality of opposition.

In Hockey Prospectus 2010-11, Andrew Rothstein predicted Marc Methot’s breakout year defensively, as a truly exceptional start helped him replace Jan Hejda on the top line and lead Blue Jacket defenders in defen­sive GVT. While the tougher competition caused his exceptional Corsi to drop from 11.0 in 2008-09 to -9.1 last season, Methot is still one of Columbus’ great value players—a sixth round selection signed at a bargain price—and perhaps their toughest blue line presence, finishing 16th among NHL defensemen in hits, including some whopping hip checks on Kris Versteeg and Evander Kane.

On last year’s exceptionally bad Columbus team, his underlying numbers grew even worse. But now he’s a member of the Senators and is expected to compete with Jared Cowen for the opportunity to play alongside Erik Karlsson.

For all the criticism that Filip Kuba received for his non-physical play, he excelled as a strong positional defender who relied upon his reach and active stick to disrupt the passing lanes. Moreover, I always felt that his passing skills were underappreciated.

So as we head towards the 2012/13 season, whether it is Methot or Cowen, one of the most heavily scrutinized storylines will be how well Karlsson adjusts (or vice versa) to his new partner. (As an aside, Erik Karlsson did play approximately 473 5v5 minutes without Kuba last season and he actually produced at a higher offensive rate without his regular partner. Albeit, he also was on the ice for a higher rate of goals against.)

Should Methot continue to struggle against difficult competition, it could put the organization in a tough spot. Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips will be one year older and both should be playing sheltered minutes. In the event of an injury, it may be too much to ask of either player to step up and be thrust into the limelight.

Instead, that role should fall to the sophomore, Cowen. With one year under his belt, he’ll be counted upon to take a step forward and help stabilize Ottawa’s top four.

While replacing the Matt Carkner/Brian Lee/Matt Gilroy spot with Mike Lundin – who we hope can be an unheralded Tom Preissing/Brian Pothier-like addition — should be an upgrade, the sports hernia procedure that he had last season is concerning; especially in light of the fact that Ottawa would have to turn to a Mark Borowiecki, a Patrick Wiercioch or an Andre Benoit. The organization just lacks that skilled depth on the blue line.

But the Prospects May Step Up!

Fans who point to the internal growth of young prospects like Mika Zibanejad or Jakob Silfverberg may want to temper their expectations slightly as well. While researching a post on why I believed it was in Ottawa’s best interests to return Zibanejad to Sweden rather than have him burn a year off of his ELC, I looked at current NHLers and their age and production during the first three years of their ELC. For current players who were held back one season after their draft year, the average production of a sixth to tenth overall draft selection was 11.5 goals and 29.38 points. (Note: Zibanejad was selected sixth overall in 2011.)

Combatting Regression?

For a player like Silfverberg, who is expected to play on one of the team’s top two lines, the production hopefully will be a little higher than what reasonable fans can expect out of Zibanejad. If he, Latendresse and Turris can produce at improved rates that are proportionate to their skill levels, the Senators can help offset whatever regression can be expected from players like Milan Michalek.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the loss of veterans like Nick Foligno, Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka. While we can bemoan the loss of some grit and pugilism, the team will not miss their penchant for taking undisciplined penalties. With fewer power play opportunities against them, Ottawa should be able to reduce the number power play goals that they gave up last season – their 56 power play goals against trailed only Tampa Bay (58) and Columbus (64).

Final Thoughts…

For an organization that exceeded every expectation last year, it’d be unfortunate to see some expect and hold this franchise to some linear progression.

This isn’t a case of me doing my best impersonation of Alice Cooper and saying, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”.

Given the current state of the lineup and some of the question marks that are attached to it, it’s important for fans not to take last year’s playoff appearance for granted and assume that Ottawa can get back there easily. In a league with so much parity, it will be a grind for Ottawa to finish in the top eight. Last year, a lot of things went right for the Senators and the same will have to hold true for them in 2012/13 to make the postseason. 

Under the circumstances, it would hardly qualify as a shock to see this team come up short next year and fans should realize that too. Fortunately, for Ottawa, the future still looks bright and as the St. Louis Blues showed last season, it’s possible for an organization to take two steps forward after one step back.