A Night at the CTC -- Meeting Sens Brass

A Night at the CTC -- Meeting Sens Brass

Senators

A Night at the CTC -- Meeting Sens Brass

Last night a number of Senators-related bloggers, podcasters or whatever characterization you want to use to describe what @Brian5or6 does, were invited by the Senators to attend last night’s preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Originally, we were scheduled to head to the Senators’ head office last Thursday for a lengthy round table discussion with Aimee Deziel (the new chief marketing officer), Nicolas Ruszkowski (the new chief operating officer) and Pierre Dorion (the general manager) but those plans were shelved because of the Erik Karlsson trade.

So plans were reworked and the invitation to last night’s game was the work around.

After receiving the initial invite, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Having seen how the rebuild plan was unveiled and marketed to the traditional media last Wednesday, I’m assuming that the original intent was to do something similar with us on the Thursday and frankly, if that was the case, I’m glad that last night’s event became the alternative. As much as I appreciated the invite, being in a room to receive the same information that was disseminated 24 hour earlier to the larger platforms would have felt stale because that’s the reality of the news cycle.

Instead, this group of “social media influencers” were given the opportunity to come to the rink ahead of last night’s game to have an exclusive opportunity to have a question and answer session with Pierre Dorion. And later in the game, we would have the opportunity to talk at length with Aimee Deziel and Janice Nicholson (new head of digital).

Other than to be respectful and professional in our conduct, no parameters or limits were set for the discussions.

As an extension of the fan base, it was really unique opportunity for us. Not only could we ask questions, but challenging follow ups were welcomed.

And that’s where we dropped the ball.

I’ve written a transcript of the conversation with Dorion that you can read below, but if you’re looking for difficult questions that echo your frustration with the organization and deserve to be answered, I don’t think you’re going to find them here.

Personally, I found the experience pretty light, but there were some answers regarding analytics and the role they play in the organization to be pretty interesting.

Here is the transcript, as always, my own thoughts in bold.

On whether are any plans to bring in a second assistant general manager…

“There are. Obviously Peter was here, this is the first time that he’s here tonight. He’s not going to start officially until October 1st, so Peter has a great legal background. He’s got a pretty good hockey background too as far as when you’re working in the agent business, you have to know about development and what it takes because you take players at about 15 or 16 and sometimes even earlier than that at 14. So he’s got a pretty knowledgeable hockey background. He’s got a great legal background. I’m tired of arguing with every agent, so we’ll let him do that. He’s going to do a lot of things, but I think for us to get to the level that we need to — again we’re going to find the right candidate – down the road we could be adding another assistant GM. Not for the immediate today, but for down the road we are.”

The Senators have been running a pretty bare-bones staff in the front office, so another body who can spread the workload and relieve Dorion of some of the burden should be a good thing. Ideally the Senators could find a way to add someone now, but that might be difficult with the season being underway and prospective candidates already being employed by other organizations. Mind you, this wouldn’t be the first time the organization has discussed something important happening at some undisclosed point in the future. Whether this ever comes to fruition bears watching. 

On what roles and responsibilities the new AGM will have and what Dorion can expect with a lighter workload…

“So obviously Peter has I would say the complete package, but it is more expertise in negotiations, contracts and all those things. I’m probably looking more for a hockey guy, someone that we could probably… because Peter will probably be the GM in Belleville for now, so someone that could take on those responsibilities that has… Peter doesn’t come from (management) experience, but maybe (we could hire) someone with that experience. When it comes to picking candidates, you never want to put anything in Stone. We interviewed nine guys and Peter was just head and shoulders the best guy, so if it comes to that and it’s not going to come right away, once we feel that we can move forward with another candidate then we want to make sure we get the right guy. But, probably someone with a bit more (of a) hockey background or hockey experience. It could be scouting, it could be management, it could be development or it could be coaching, something along those lines.”

The news that the Senators interviewed nine candidates was news to me. TSN 1200’s Shawn Simpson acknowledged last week that he was one of those candidates who had a five-hour interview with Dorion, but he obviously was not chosen.

It would be interesting to know the full list of names who applied for the position. Given that Eugene Melnyk’s reputation for being volatile and difficult to work precedes him, I was wondering how many qualified individuals would actually be interested in the position.

On what he will do having some responsibilities being taken off his plate…

“Getting my life back, is that fair? I think it’s been a trying summer. Personally, I’ll tell you I worked pretty much every weekend. I did take a few days off. After the season, I went to Arizona and played four or five games of golf right before the lottery. I’ve worked every day, so just because… you know, we’ve never been a big staff – our hockey operations staff – and people sometimes will say we don’t want to spend money. Well, we could if we wanted to. It’s about getting the right people. When this is the number of people you could have making decisions, you know everyone’s got an input and everyone’s input going to matter. Sometimes it could be like that (with a big staff), you could be like the (Toronto Maple Leafs) and have 47 people and sometimes it’s not the best thing because you know your voice is never heard.”

For the record, I’d prefer the collection of minds that the Leafs have assembled.

It’s interesting to listen to Dorion talk about having the ability to add to his staff if he wanted to but doesn’t because quantity doesn’t necessarily lead to quality analysis. As much as his point is true, I wonder whether his hands are more tied than he’s letting on. I mean, just last December, the owner threatened to cut player payroll after gutting the front office to the bone because of waning attendance.

On a number of amateur scouting hires and whether there’s the possibility to expand the number of pro scouts…

“We’re still looking at that. We’d like to do that and (we have) a few irons in the fire, but our pro scouting staff, we’re pretty much on the average where the league is as far as the number of (staff). We’ve got three pro guys and a fourth guy who does about half of it. Steve Stirling does college (scouting), but also does pro. So (we employ) three and a half (pro scouts) and that’s pretty good. I’ll admit it to you that pretty much every night, I watch NHL hockey. It’s what I do on a pretty regular basis, so one thing that I should know and do know well is the NHL.”

The Senators’ biggest misfires often come from their assessment and valuation of NHL players — which is somewhat startling because these are the players that teams should have the easiest time collecting information (video, in-person viewings, statistical analysis and data collection) on. I’ll come back to the point about doing a better job of using analytics with scouting to draw a more informed opinion of players later, but with only so many scouts to see the league’s plethora of players, I’m assuming that the Senators are exposing themselves to gaps in their analysis simply from the way they are currently operating – even if Dorion does watch a lot of hockey. 

On the amateaur staff hires bringing the Senators to a net zero in terms of staff this season…

“Yes, we’re about the same, but the quality might be better than what we had previously. It’s never about quantity, it’s about quality. You’ve always got to be sure about it.”

The Senators moved on from Jimmy Blixt and Justin Murray while hiring Kyle Flanagan, Christian DeBlois and Petr Havluj. 

On whether there is any concern that the new scouting hires don’t have previous NHL scouting experience…

“No, not at all because (Petr Havluj) comes… his father is the Detroit scout, so he comes from a great family. I can speak (to that). My dad was a scout and I think I did a pretty good job scouting. Kyle Flanagan got some experience last year and he’s one of the smartest players that we’ve ever had. (Christian) DeBlois comes from another hockey family. Lucien is his dad and his brother is an agent. And they’ve all had experience like Kyle as a player… so he started last year after the concussion and got a taste of it. Christian has been director of hockey operations for Shawinigan and works for Saint John, so he’s got experience. There are things that worry me in life, but that’s one of the last things that worries me. As someone that values amateur scouting as a general manager a lot, I’m not even worried about it.”

Maybe these individuals will become quality scouts and help this organization draft the next wave of late round gems, but I’m always leery at the idea that bloodlines inherently make someone qualified for a position. I mean, my old man was an architect, but you will never catch me drafting or designing blue prints for a house.

On whether Clarke MacArthur has ever expressed an interest in working with the Senators in hockey operations related role…

“Yes, he has. I think as guys like Chris Kelly and… we want to make sure we find the right roles for everybody. Chris Kelly right now is so engaged in his role in player development. Him and Shean Donovan… I want to say we brought our workforce up. We doubled our workforce, but we only hired (Kelly), but we did double it (because of his work ethic). Having those two guys now, we’re getting towards where we want to go. Again, we could have 10 guys in development, but I don’t know how worth it it would be because these two guys are aligned. When they talk to our prospects when they’re in Belleville, when they’re in Ottawa, they’ll always be able to always be in the same line of what we want them to be. I met with them today. I meet with them regularly and our assistant GM is going to meet with them regularly to ensure that everyone is on the right path.”

While here, Clarke MacArthur was always acknowledged as a bright individual who was a student of the game. Any opportunity there is to bring him back into the fold in some capacity should be welcomed. 

On the idea of opening up to analytics and the possibility of expanding that area…

“Right now, I really like our analytics guy. I really like him. He’s what I’d consider a genius, but I don’t want to tell him that because he talks too much. He just goes on and goes on and goes on, but he’s a really bright guy. How we use it? For NHL scouting, we can use formulas and methods because all the data you get is pretty much on the same even plane. For scouting in junior, it can be very difficult because of how the data is gathered. It’s not done on a professional level, so we’re always very careful for that. But at the NHL level, our coaches use it. Our coaches meet with our analytics consultant on a regular basis about where we are. I get reports after… I don’t want to get a report after every game, but we get a report after every five games with where we are. Certain things that we look a lot at are scoring chances. Scoring chances really, for us, is a tool that we look at as far as how many you give up. We grade them as ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ scoring chances. (We look at) how many ‘A’ chances you give up and how those players are on the ice – those players that correlate to giving up chances or getting chances. Coaches use it for matchups, pairings and etc. I don’t want to really get into it because I don’t want (others) to know, but I’m a scout so I always believe in my scouting background. But, we’ve all learned in our hockey group that we can use it as tools and we feel that it’s important to use as tools, but at the end of the day, you still have to go with your gut feeling. But, if you’re not sure about things or you want to verify things, sometimes it’s good to go that way. And it’s something that we’re going to look to expand as we move forward, but again, we don’t want to expand it too much. We want to make sure we do it well.”

The Senators’ analytics consultant is Elias Collette and if you missed the opportunity to attend #OTTHAC18 at Carleton University on the weekend, you missed his discussion with Michael Schuckers that explored his role with the Ottawa Senators.

From that discussion, one of the things that struck me was how the Senators use Collette almost exclusively with the coaching staff. With Tim Pattyson being a former video guy and Collette being involved on this level, it’s easy to wonder how much time is being spent capturing and focusing on the data that the Senators’ staff is interested in.

With such a small staff, there obviously is less time to focus on other areas where the Senators could identify or target market inefficiencies, but it just struck me that their refusal to marry data analysis with their scouting reports at this stage of the game is bizarre. Considering where other front offices around the league are at, it just seems like the Senators are willingly putting themselves well behind the curve. As a rebuilding team where player evaluation, asset optimization and player acquisition should be paramount, it just seems like a lost opportunity to help mitigate potential mistakes. And if this is simply a case where having a few more analysts would help close these gaps, the organization should be leaping at the opportunity to be more progressive – especially with so many good analysts either being from Ottawa or cheering for the Senators. There really should be no excuse for this. 

On being with the organization since 2007, being part of the front office when the team decided to rebuild in 2011 and what he has learned from the mistakes over the past few years to ensure that mistakes aren’t made moving forward…

“Well, there was another general manager (at the time of the last rebuild) and he’s the greatest man I’ve ever met. I’ll go on the record with that. Bryan, in whatever he wanted to do… I’m not going to say we (changed plans), but we have a plan in place and we’re going to stick to it. We could go 41 and 0. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but you never know. We could go 41 and 0 to start off the year and we’re going to stick to the plan. We’re not going to trade prospects and kids to try and get better right away. That’s not what we’re going to and one thing I’ve learned, no matter what the results are, we’re not going to (deviate) from the plan. I know it’s tough and it’s not fun to hear. My buddies don’t want to hear it from me when I talk about a rebuild, but for us to be good in the long-term, we have to do it. If you look at all the teams that have won cups that have stayed at the top or are going to stay at the top, you guys know who they are. The Chicagos did it and the Torontos did it. I’m not going to name other teams because maybe they haven’t done it as successfully, but we’re not going to say that we’re going to (model ourselves after) one team. What we’re going to try and be is that we’re going to try and do our own thing and just rebuild with a great group of kids we have – and we have the best (group of prospects) since I’ve been here. And we’re going to try and use those and keep some core veterans and try to build this thing slowly but surely. Well, not slowly… at the right place.”

Dorion never really identified the mistakes that the organization has made, but he did admit that the organization deviated from the plan. The only concern I have is whether this deviation occurred because of pressure from ownership and if the Senators have some modest success and progression in the near future, would this force some more deviation in the future?

On the process taking more than losing and the accompanying high draft picks to be good and what steps the organization will take to build things and ensure things get better…

“It’s not about losing. You’re right, you’re bang on about that. It’s about seeing progression. Like, this year, we’ve got to see progression or otherwise the rebuild is not going in the direction we want it to go to. I think the one thing is we’ve cleaned up our room after last season. I’m not going to name names, but we’ve cleaned up our room. It’s always having a good room. It’s always having the veterans that can lead the kids into buying into what we can do. At the same time, I’ve talked to our amateur staff and we’re not always going to draft the highest skilled guy. We’re going to grab the guy that can help us win the most and that comes with character and that’s something… those are intangibles that we’re always going to try and (find). It’s easier to say now, but sometimes when you get into the fifth, sixth or seventh round and sometimes you try and hit a home run with a skilled guy, we’re going to do less and less of that now. Because at the end of the day, most of them don’t pan out.”

Dorion prefaced the character valuation by stating that he’s “not always going to draft the highest skilled guy”, but if character or intangibles are the difference-makers between two comparable players.

This is an organization that when they experience a losing season, they always likes to bang the drum about adding more character and leadership.

On one hand, I don’t blame the team considering some of the off-ice drama the Senators experienced last season. Changing leadership and adding character are buzzwords because they are easier to change and take less time to facilitate.

Unless you’re Doug Wilson, it takes time and patience to add significantly more talent to a roster. Character, not so much. The removal of a central figure or a winning culture can fix things in a hurry.

Admittedly, it’s a bit disappointing to hear Dorion talk about avoiding skill in the latter rounds because it’s not that hard to find third and fourth line guys for cheap. Decent depth guys can be found on PTOs each and every fall, so I would prefer the team focus on higher skilled players who have a chance to develop into top-six guys because they were overlooked because of concerns regarding their size, make-up or had injuries affect their stock.

Using games played as a threshold should never be used as a metric to identify good drafting teams. Give me the teams that do the most efficient job identifying productive NHL players any day of the week. 

On the Senators analytics consultant working almost exclusively with the coaching staff and not being used on the same level to evaluating prospective trade returns or player acquisitions…

“He is, but he doesn’t know. A few times I’ll ask him questions and… he’s not directly involved in trade scenarios, no. I’m going to be honest with you, no, but a lot of times, I’ll just throw some stuff at him to see how he responds to me – just because I want to be careful about how the information gets out. Sometimes you guys know more than I know. I’ve checked my office for bugs because it doesn’t make sense. So that part about it is, directly, he’s not involved as far as trades. I’ll admit that to you, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be involved moving forward – not directly but indirectly he will be.”

And if Elias Collette’s plate is too full, maybe hire a few more bright individuals who can help buff up the hockey analytics department.

On expanding the analytics department to ensure that there are no gaps in coverage…

“To a certain degree we will (expand his portfolio). I’m meeting with (Elias Collette) over the next few weeks and we were supposed to go play golf and I never had the chance and that was one thing I wanted to do. I want to develop a certain type of rating which we have internally to use externally with 30 teams – where the value of a player is graded and stuff like that.”

It’s proprietary information, so it’s impossible to know whether or not the Senators have their own WAR-metric that they use, but it certainly sounds like they have their own version of a single-number stat that they use to grade and compare players. It’s a discussion that I’d eventually like to discuss more at length with someone in the front office. 

On whether the Senators have been negotiating with Stone and Duchene…

“Stone we were really close on a long, long-term deal and we just… we were close enough that I think we have faith to do what we need to do, but at the same time, a lot things can happen from now and then. We can talk, but we can’t put anything really officially on paper. Duchene, they knew that we were working on something else and maybe as recently as today we talked. But, it’s just when you say stuff like that, people expect that the contract will be done tomorrow and that’s not the way it works. Anyone who’s ever done contracts knows that it’s a process and both of those contracts… if we ever get the chance to sign either and or both – they’re going to be the biggest contracts in Senators history, so we have to make sure that we do them right.”

It remains to be seen how the Karlsson trade will influence discussions with Duchene and Stone, but Duchene’s already endured a rebuild in Colorado and that was one of the reasons that brought about his trade request. With Mark Stone, it’s hard to know where things stand. The Senators could leverage the fact that he’s been a lifelong Senator or they could use the vacant captaincy as incentive to stay, but with each player getting closer to free agency with each passing day, it’s hard to imagine that either would want to stay in this environment.

On who he’s been able to lean on for help and support during this tumultuous offseason…

“Tim Pattyson, Sean McCaulay and Allison Vaughn. Allison is our manager of hockey administration. Tim Pattyson has done an amazing job as far as a lot of contract research and a lot of prep work. And Sean has done a great job in the office. No one ever hears about the people in the background, and they’ve been great.”

It certainly was a difficult summer for Dorion. Not only does he have to work under Melnyk, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he spent most of his summer trying to work out a trade for the best player in franchise history without his assistant general manager. I wish I could describe the way that he spoke about these individuals during his answer, because it was so easy to recognize how much the last few months have worn on him. 

And this is where my audio cut out, so I’ve borrowed from Silver Seven Sens’ transcript for the last remaining question.

On why Senators fans should continue to be Senators fans…

“Have faith in what we’re doing. I’m from Ottawa, I’m going to live here my whole life. And, I care about this team, I was here when the team first came. What we’re doing here is for long-term success. And we’re going to do it right, and the fact that we’ve got a lot of big, young kids I think helps us out. And it’s not always about the big names, and sometimes you have to understand that. You can have as many big names as you want but sometimes it doesn’t bring Cup after Cup after Cup. For us what we want to do is we want to contend every year for the Cup. We want to bring attributes to the team that people can identify with — character, leadership, accountability, youthful energy. I don’t know if you guys know your hockey that well, I’m not even on Twitter. I was on Twitter for a while and someone figured out who I was so I got off. I don’t know you know if you guys saw how we played yesterday. The way we’ve played now is changed from last year. We’re going to be way more exciting. Just on the first goal, where the F2 was to support the puck and get a scoring chance, and a few times in the game we reverted back to where we were last year. And you know, if we’re up by two goals with ten minutes to go, you might see a neutral zone trap where we try to just block the neutral zone and counterattack. But I’ll tell you, I met with Guy (Boucher) numerous times, and we made a commitment for the way we play to be more entertaining but at the same time to bring us success. I can say all this to you, and if our goalies don’t stop the puck we’re not going to win any games. You guys are smart enough to know that. The secret to having a good team, three things: good goaltending, good coach, and talent. It’s not very complicated. If you have those three things, you’ll be pretty good. And I didn’t say GM in there.”

And with that the interview was over.

Looking back over Dorion’s answers, they featured the same buzzwords and generalities that he’s used over the past week and I think we did a poor job asking questions about the timelines involved between the decision to chase Duchene for a lengthy period of time/decide to rebuild in February/trade Erik Karlsson. Hell, we didn’t even ask a Karlsson question or ask about Melnyk’s involvement in this process. I wish I pressed harder when asking about the mistakes that were made in the past and how they won’t be repeated in the future.

Maybe some of the questions could be blamed on the scrum format where everyone has their own opportunity to ask what they want, but hopefully in the future, there will be an opportunity to get some kind of one-one-one interview where the material can be fleshed out in greater detail.

After Dorion left the suite, CMO Aimee Deziel stayed to talk to us about the Senators’ new initiative and plan.

The Senators intend on giving credentials to bloggers and other social media-types to grant access and do a better job of marketing their product to the broadest set of fans possible. The organization wants to do a better job of getting fans invested in their players and they believe that we can help in that regard.

The interview with Dorion and the other execs was designed as a glimpse of what we could expect moving forward, but the intent is to give credentials to a number of individuals and allow them the same level of access that traditional media members have held for years. If I had any suggestions for the Senators on who to include as part of this group, I’d recommend developing more of a diverse base. More women should be included to participate.

As a writer who freelances for The Athletic Ottawa, credentials were something that I wanted to pursue because they’ll provide me with a greater scope to cover the team and hopefully it will allow me new angles that will help benefit you as the reader. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, especially since most of the stories garnered league-wide attention and were covered by the site’s heavy hitters.

That was my take on the event and thanks to the Senators for inviting me to be part of it. Hopefully you, as the reader, got something from this review. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them in the comment thread below.

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