Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, this Organization has settled on a playoff berth as being the bar for what constituted a successful season.
It always felt that they were selling themselves and this fan base short.
In a league where more than half of the teams reach the postseason, making the playoffs alone shouldn’t resonate with Sens fans.
It would be one thing if Ottawa was a non-traditional market where hockey isn’t the only sports entertainment in town, but this is Ottawa and hockey is king.
Ottawa will never be to the scale of a hockey market like Toronto or Montreal, but the fans are passionate and sophisticated.
For a few years following their 2007 Cup Final appearance, the Senators struggled to put this moment in the rearview mirror and it wound up costing the organization years of wasted time. As Frank Provenzano wrote, “It’s really difficult to objectively analyze where the sun will shine tomorrow when you’re looking through the shadows of the past.”
Fans have been clamouring for this team to build a sustainable winner for quite some time and playing in a few extra home games in April does not change that.
Yet, this organization has refused to shake its habitual reminder that anything can happen if they could just get in.
If anything could happen in the playoffs, it wasn’t happening often enough for Senators fans… until this season.
It will one that Senators fans will surely never forget.
It wasn’t without its bumps in the road however.
Considering how the Senators kept selling its fans on the anything can happen mantra for years, but Senators fans literally stopped buying in this season.
From their failure to sell out their home opener against the division rival Maple Leafs to the postseason when the Senators failed to sell out game one of their second round series against the New York Rangers, attendance was a big story this season and ultimately, in combination with Eugene Melnyk’s preference to bring in someone who had expertise in helping developing large-scale sports facility property deals, the Senators’ declining attendance numbers contributed to the dismissal of the team’s director of marketing this past December and shortly thereafter, team president Cyril Leeder was let go as well.
There is no getting around the fact that the organization had grown stale and its marketing department could use a proverbial kick in the ass, but the firing of this organization’s last remaining founding father might have proved that even in the regular season, anything can happen.
Unfortunately thanks to the magnitude of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the attendance predicament put the Senators under the microscope and led to some off-base criticisms by outsiders who used the opportunity to throw shade at this fan base without ever really understanding this market.
Instead of recognizing a convergence of factors that contributed to this market’s willingness and ability to spend – like the impact that an unpopular owner and an organizational philosophy that contributed to years of mediocrity can have, the Senators’ season ticket holder base has dwindled (as an aside, I’ve heard rumours suggest that this number lies somewhere between 6,500 to 7,000) to the point in which it puts extreme pressure on the sales department to sell individual tickets — many pundits belaboured the playoff attendance talking point and used the opportunity to undeservingly drop trou on Sens fans.
If attendance wasn’t the focus, the cynicism snowballed and some went to considerable lengths to poke holes in Ottawa’s success.
From the criticism that the Senators weren’t very good because they were the only playoff team that finished the regular season with a negative goal differential (minus two) to explaining that the Senators only advanced because they faced a decimated Boston Bruins team, Senators fans were repeatedly cracked on.
After getting past the Bruins, the criticisms kept mounting.
Who could forget the inane referendum on whether the Senators’ truly represented this country as Canada’s team – of course the Senators did themselves no favours by putting Canadian flags on the back of their helmets — or the assertions that the Senators were only competitive against the Penguins because of their injuries or the Rangers because of Henrik Lundqvist was doing his best Tommy Salo impression?
When the talking heads weren’t busy focusing on the shortcomings of the opposition, they emphasized that the Senators’ success was rooted in their boring style of play.
I don’t think anyone will argue that Guy Boucher’s passive 1-3-1 is the most entertaining brand of hockey out there. With that said however, no one in the nation’s capital gives two shits if people outside this region disapprove of the Senators’ postseason success simply because it wasn’t entertaining enough. It’d be like outsiders shitting on the Penguins for implementing their 1-2-1-2 system – which saw the Penguins intentionally shit the bed for years, go through bankruptcy and then threaten their city with relocation to before going through four drafts that netted the organization Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal consecutively. It’d be like saying, “Bet all those Cup wins feel hollow because you tanked like and got some generational talent! You should have tried to be as competitive as you could cowards!”
The criticisms kept coming however and one particular writer suggested that the Senators’ run was counterproductive because it would lower their draft position.
The criticisms ranged from fair to outrageous, but it not only led to Sens fans spending as much time defending as the Colorado Avalanche, it brought some to wonder whether or not Senators fans were more sensitive to criticism than other NHL fan bases.
It’s an impossible question to answer because every fan base has a sect of fans on the internet who respond or lash out whenever their favourite team is ridiculed. It happens during each and every playoff round as teams are eliminated and fans on the outside feel the need to boost their own sense of self-worth.
There’s no question that Sens fans do have to look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge that some of these insecurities exist. I mean, this is the same fan base after all that claps along to the organ and chants ‘Leafs suck’ at each and every home game.
But is this fan base the most insecure?
I don’t even know how you even begin to quantify this, but who cares?
For as much as I loathe the infatuation with everything Toronto, there’s a part of me that just wants to tell each and every single person out there who shat on this team and its fans during this postseason to kindly go fuck themselves.
Nobody in Ottawa really cares if you like our team and we certainly don’t care if you feel the need to root for it during the postseason because your life needs a little sense of fulfillment and your own favourite team fell short.
This is an organization that entered this season winning just one playoff round in the last 10 years, so maybe let us savour and enjoy a run that took the team to being one goal away from a Stanley Cup appearance.
It’s not like we don’t realize that this team wasn’t particularly strong or that this postseason run of theirs portends future success.
Most of us recognize this because of their history and the fact that throughout the course of the regular season, this team struggled to demonstrate that they were anything near resembling a contender.
Not only did the team secure its postseason berth in the last week of the season, a quick glance at their regular season’s underlying numbers (via NaturalStatTrick.com) did nothing to inspire.
|Scoring Chances For||48.18||T-24th|
The Senators were on the wrong side of a number of these stats, but fortunately for them, their goaltenders stopped 92.69-percent of the five-on-five shots (the eighth-highest mark) and stopped 88.38-percent of the oppositions’ high-danger five-on-five shots (the ninth-best mark in the NHL).
On special teams, the Senators weren’t much better. Their power play clicked at a 23.0-percent success rate, good enough to be tied for the league’s 23rd-best mark, and their penalty kill was only marginally better clicking at a 79.7-percent success rate (22nd in the NHL).
The Senators were very much a middling club, but once in the postseason, they proved that anything can happen by taking advantage of their circumstances.
Were they fortunate?
Thanks to a weak Atlantic Division and the NHL’s playoff misguided format that tries to manufacture divisional rivalries, the Senators not only snuck in as the Atlantic Division’s second-highest seed, their positioning rewarded them with home-ice advantage and a weaker first round draw. From there they lucked out by running into some poor goaltending in the second round before meeting a banged up Penguins team that just finished playing a tough seven-game series against the Washington Capitals.
All of it.
But these considerations shouldn’t prevent fans from enjoying the Senators’ success any less simply because they were able to take advantage of the circumstances that were afforded to them.
It’d be like shitting on Carolina Hurricanes fans and telling them that their 2006 Stanley Cup victory doesn’t mean as much because Dominik Hasek destroyed his adductor and because of it, they never had to go through a healthy Ottawa Senators team to reach the Cup Final.
It doesn’t matter that the postseason is an exercise in good luck or that you need a lot of it to reach the sport’s pinnacle. It’s easier to downplay the Senators’ good fortune when you ignore the fact that the Senators won all four of their regular season meetings with the Bruins this year and had a 4-2-0 record against the Rangers and Penguins because it makes for an easier story.
The organization and this city should be proud of the Senators’ playoff performance, but having said that however, it would be silly for fans and most importantly management to believe that circumstances can replicate themselves across seasons and that this extended run signals bigger and better things in the near future.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done.
There isn’t an embarrassment of riches here or an accumulation of innately talented players that gives the organization a sizable window of contention that ideally offers multiple opportunities at winning a Cup.
At their best, these Senators are still a pseudo-contender whose success is predicated more on good luck than it is on innate talent.
That the Senators were one goal away from moving past one of the prohibitive Eastern Conference favourites to the Stanley Cup Final shouldn’t be used as a barometer for recognizing how good this team actually is.
This is important because it is really easy to romanticize this run and praise the resiliency of this group this group of players.
At his end of the year media availability, general manager Pierre Dorion proudly listed off all the players who suffered through some kind ailment.
It read like this: Erik Karlsson (fractures in his heel, muscle issues in the ankle); Mark Borowiecki (high ankle sprain); Alex Burrows (high ankle sprain); Cody Ceci (broken finger); Viktor Stalberg (ribs); Dion Phaneuf (wrist); Derick Brassard (shoulder); Chris Neil (sprained hand); Mark Stone (leg); Craig Anderson (back); Fredrik Claesson (back); Marc Methot (finger); Ryan Dzingel (wrist); and Tom Pyatt (ankle).
Even though he explained that he trying to do the media a plus-one by revealing the extent of the injuries, it served a dual purpose because he was also trying to dispel the criticisms that the Senators advanced solely because their opponents were hampered more by injuries.
The Senators were banged up too, but I want to use this opportunity to single out a few players for their resiliency.
My heart goes out to players like Craig Anderson and Clarke MacArthur. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the kind of mental focus and fortitude that it takes to play goal in the NHL on a good day, but to not only do it but thrive when a loved one is dealing with a rare form of cancer? It is unfathomable for me and for it, Anderson is totally deserving of winning the Masterton Memorial Trophy. And I will never, for the life of me, forget the closing moments and the raw emotion he displayed at the end of his 37-save shutout performance in Edmonton last October.
With MacArthur, I think about all of his setbacks and of the anguish a competitive professional athlete who worked so hard to prepare his body for the possibility that he could play again if his brain could cooperate and heal. I thought after his setback in March that his career was over, but he not only passed a baseline test on April 4th, he unexpectedly dressed for the game against the Red Wings later that day.
A few weeks later when MacArthur eventually score the series-clinching goal against the Bruins in overtime, it just pulled at my heartstrings, especially when you think of how much the players care for him and helped support him through this process.
Hell, even for Erik Karlsson to suffer two fractures in his heel blocking a shot against Philadelphia on March 28th and then fly to Detroit on his own in the last week of the season with him team’s postseason fate hanging in the balance.
That is leadership.
Not only did he play through the pain but he logged 30:11 of ice time and registered a goal and two points.
He’s an incredible talent who’s well on his way to cementing his place as the best player in franchise history.
Not only did he help secure the Senators’ playoff berth, but his exceptional play continued through the next three rounds of the postseason and garnered him the widespread attention and praise that was deserved four or five years ago. Hell, he was so good that his performance garnered him a Conn Smyth vote despite the Senators not even appearing the Cup Final.
Going back to Dorion’s end of the year media availability, he emphasized how the players felt about their group.
“They felt, a few players here and I’m not going to name them this year, felt that this was the greatest group of guys. A few players that were here in the past said it was the biggest culture change that we’ve ever had and I think that was part of the success.”
The danger therein is that Dorion has to weigh these feelings against the realization that the Senators have some fundamental flaws with their roster and how it’s been constructed.
From the outset of the season, the Senators were projected as a competitive playoff bubble team and projecting forward this outlook doesn’t change simply because of their deep playoff run.
As much as we can emphasize and dwell on the fact that the Senators had a great run, but the organization needs to look at the other side of the coin and ask itself a few important questions: if the Penguins were healthy, how quickly could they have eliminated the Senators? Could the Senators have handled a healthy Bruins team? Would the Senators have been outmatched had they faced the Capitals in the first round or the Eastern Conference final?
With a few bad breaks, the tone surrounding this team would be completely different, but to get a balanced perspective of the club, they are the kinds of questions that Dorion needs to ask when he’s looking critically at this roster.
The NHL’s cap ceiling next season has been increased to $75-million, but the presumption is that the small market Senators are pressed up tight against their self-imposed internal cap.
Ottawa’s internal cap situation has been roundly criticized by fans and it’s pretty painful to see fans constantly shit on this organization for not spending to the cap ceiling. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things to criticize ownership for, but whining about the budget is a waste of time and energy. Yes, as much as it sucks that the Senators can’t spend with the big market clubs it’s the reality of their situation and it’s out of their control. The Senators are a small market team and it’s not like their small market status is going to change in the foreseeable future.
It’s hard not to envy the competitive advantages that the big market teams enjoy. With fewer dollars to spend and an unwillingness to buy contracts out or paper over mistakes, the Senators’ margin for error is smaller which makes prohibitively expensive contracts that much worse.
According to CapFriendly.com, they currently have $60.1-million committed to 17 skaters. Vegas’ claim on Marc Methot helped clear $4.9-million off the books, but it’s safe to assume that most of that money will be reallocated towards new contracts for Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Ryan Dzingel. Getting these two back in the fold shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s impossible to ignore the lack of flexibility that the Senators have when it comes to their budget.
Admittedly, it’s easy to look at this playoff run’s nine home gates or the $16-million in expansion dues from Vegas and believe this will allow Melnyk to pump more money into the player budget, but considering the low attendance figures throughout the season and the fact that Melnyk blamed his chief marketing officer for costing him millions early in the season, there’s no guarantee that a significant chunk of this money will be reinvested back into this team. Expect there to be some roster casualties and the loss of Methot might just be the tip of the iceberg.
Did I neglect to mention that the contracts belonging to their 36-year old number one goaltender, their first line centre, their franchise player in Erik Karlsson and their best forward in Mark Stone all expire after the next season or two?
We can blame expansion for expediting the process, but it was only a matter time before the consequences of the Ryan and Phaneuf contracts were felt.
It puts Pierre Dorion in an unenviable spot.
Not only does Dorion have to deal with an eccentric owner and his mandate to make the playoffs, Dorion needs to fulfill this goal while adhering to a tight budget as the increased expectations created by this year’s playoff run hang like a weight over his head.
A lot of Ottawa’s success can be attributed to the fact that the bulk of its roster are signed to relatively inexpensive first or second contracts, but as these contracts expire, any raise these players get means that there’s less money to spend augmenting the roster with talent.
In other words, Dorion will have to weigh this group’s projectable upside against the idea of giving his core more money and having less money to work with to augment this group.
Colin White and Thomas Chabot represent a significant chunk of this safely projectable upside, but along with a blue-chipper like Logan Brown, it may take a few years for this group to establish themselves and develop into productive players.
Given the uncertain development time needed for the Senators and the fact that Ottawa’s best players all need new deals soon, these next two years that Ottawa’s best players are paid cheaply probably represent Ottawa’s window of opportunity.
During these two years, it’s going to be hard to expect many of Ottawa’s young players to be difference players, but in the meantime, the Senators will have to continue to live on the margins. They will probably rely upon Derick Brassard to the net a little more than he did this season. The coaching staff could certainly do Jean-Gabriel Pageau a plus-one by keeping Tom Pyatt and his ability to sap the even strength production and possession numbers away from Pageau and the rest of top-nine forwards. Hell, maybe even Bobby Ryan shows his success in the postseason can be carried over into the regular season. Inevitably, the Senators are going to experience injuries or perform below expectations, so any improvement in this group’s production could help mitigate whatever shortfalls are experienced elsewhere.
There are some things to really like about this group.
Even though this postseason and the series against Pittsburgh in particular reminded me of how important it is to have an elite centre, the Senators work around this by arguably boasting the best depth that they have ever had at the centre position.
The lack an elite centre does not preclude the team from being competitive, but it does put a ton of pressure on their wingers and defence to pick up the support. And by protecting seven forwards and three defencemen in the expansion draft, the Senators ensured that their depth at the forward position went untouched.
It didn’t come without a cost however.
For an organization that spent years searching for a top-four defenceman and they’ve now lost one in Marc Methot without gaining an asset in return.
Given some of the internal options already in the system, I believe Methot’s absence can be overcome. Erik Karlsson is a generational player who has demonstrated an ability to play well irrespective of who’s lined up beside him. The hope is that Fredrik Claesson can prove that his performance last season was not a fluke and that he’s capable of performing in regular top-four minutes. If he can’t, the opportunity may fall to Dion Phaneuf. Imagine getting this opportunity simply because his refusal to waive his his no-movement clause for the purpose of expansion single-handedly led to Methot’s departure.
It’s crazy to think about.
That is, until you read the reports that the Senators are listening to offers on Dion Phaneuf.
I mean, on one hand, I get it.
The Senators’ blue line beyond Erik Karlsson has been the team’s Achilles heel for the past few years and barring some external solutions, the position looks to be a weakness again heading into 2017-18 – which says something when you have the best defenceman in the world on your roster.
Just look at how caved in the Senators became whenever Erik Karlsson was not on the ice.
Here are the team’s numbers at five-on-five this season:
|W/ Karlsson On||1483:43||49.72||50.45||51.12||52.63||49.93|
|W/ Karlsson Off||2410:42||47.82||47.70||49.39||46.58||47.05|
In the postseason it was even more noticeable how territorially-disadvantaged the Senators became whenever the second pairing of Phaneuf and Ceci were on the ice. (Note: the following numbers are via Puckalytics.com)
The Senators needed to address their top-four, but I don’t think this is the way anyone envisioned them going about it.
It would be one thing if the Senators exposed Methot for the purpose of trading Ceci after the expansion draft. Rather than lose the defenceman who was the pedigree, handedness, youth and physical tools for nothing, it would make sense for the Senators to capitalize on his trade value while other teams still believe that they’re smart enough to be the organization that unlocks Ceci’s potential.
As it turns out however, the Senators appear poised to retain Ceci.
From an on-ice performance perspective, Ceci was the worst of the lot, but he’s also the least expensive player in the top-four. He’s also insulated by the fact that there aren’t a slew of right-handed options and it never felt like Chris Wideman was trusted enough by the coaching staff to eat into Ceci’s minutes.
In assessing management’s decision to dump Methot for nothing and tell the media that the organization would like to keep Phaneuf, but other teams keep calling to express interest in him, it sounds like money is the motivating factor driving these decisions.
As a small market team that is facing a budget crunch, I get it.
Management was probably never expecting Clarke MacArthur to return, but now that he has, the Senators now have to account for his salary and it’s safe to say that this probably threw a wrench into the team’s short-term plans. And from a cost-efficiency perspective, the Senators can definitely replace these defenders internally at a lesser cost.
It’s just from an asset management perspective, it is difficult watching a top-four defenceman get dropped without netting anything of value in return. In retrospect, it probably would have been smarter for the Senators to elect to protect eight skaters and a goaltender, so that they could have protected four defencemen – Ceci, Karlsson, Methot an Phaneuf – so that the organization could have control over Methot and cash in with futures to replenish a system that desperately needs an infusion of skill and talent.
It probably would have been in the team’s best interests to work out a side deal with Vegas to ensure that they draft Zack Smith, a player whose role and production will be diminished because of MacArthur’s return to the top-six.
Although the Senators have a surplus of left-shooting defencemen to replace players like Methot and Phaneuf, it’s a lot to ask of these younger players to replace these minutes. That doesn’t mean that they can’t do it, it just means that management is putting itself out there and risking criticisms if this group falls short.
There’s some hope that Thomas Chabot can step into top-four minutes quickly, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on such a young player and inevitably, he’s going to make mistakes and experience some growing pains. Fredrik Claesson showed in his half-season that he could be effective and play well with Erik Karlsson, but if he can’t step into minutes alongside Karlsson, the assumption I had was that Phaneuf would serve as a buffer until someone else is ready. Hockey gods help us if the organization considers Mark Borowiecki for increased responsibilities.
For an organization that reportedly wanted to keep its top-four together, the Senators are going about it in an odd way.
I just hope that moving these veterans does not preclude the Senators from shying away from trading Ceci.
For the reasons that I listed above, the combination of Ceci’s age, ice time and pedigree as a first round pick, may allow the Senators to get more value out of him as a trade asset than what he contributes on the ice.
Although Phaneuf was brought in to bring stability and help Ceci’s development path, his presence has not brought the best out of Ceci.
For all of Ceci’s physical talents, his hockey IQ and ability to make good decisions under duress leave something to be desired.
Keep in mind that Ceci will earn $3.35-million in the last year of his contract and his next contract has the potential to be one that fails to live up to. This summer may represent the last good opportunity to sell high and bring in a useful asset or two.
If there’s an added benefit to the Senators’ playoff run, it’s that recency bias and team success can help inflate and prop up an individual player’s worth.
This just doesn’t extend to Ceci however, the Senators have the flexibility to go out and be creative in the trade market.
They’ll have to be creative if this team is going to be better not just now, but two or three years down the road.
Although the Senators seem miles away from threatening the East’s elite when those teams are healthy, but the disadvantage of simply having to play in the same Conference as the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals is mitigated by the fact that the gap between the remaining teams in the Eastern Conference is significantly smaller. As we saw this postseason, the right combination of injuries to the power house teams could afford the Senators the opportunity to be right there.
Of course there’s a cynical part of me that loathes the kind of plan that relies exclusively on short-term opportunism.
Professional sports is a cyclical entity though and just because the Eastern Conference was weak in 2016-17 doesn’t mean that it will continue to stay that way for long. The continued growth of younger teams could either push a bubble team like Ottawa into more difficult playoff matchups or out of the playoff picture altogether.
The Senators’ playoff run, for me, was right there with the team’s unexpected Hamburglar run in 2015 in the sense that it was one of the most organically fun stretches of hockey in quite some time.
That said, the run did nothing to alleviate concerns I have for the Senators’ process or the confidence I have in ownership’s ability to deliver a winner.
Everything starts with ownership.
Philosophy guides behaviour and the Eugene Melnyk era can be characterized as impulsive, short-sighted, greedy, and clumsy.
Ownership dictates the organizational philosophy and budget. While the latter certainly garners much of this fan base’s attention, the Senators’ internal budget is definitely something that can be overcome through shrewd drafting, player development, free agency and trades.
The problems stem from the fact that the Senators boast the smallest hockey operations department in the league and their amateur and professional scouting staffs are proportionately small.
Internal promotions have been used to fill job vacancies whenever a position has opened up. Over the past year, we’ve seen Dorion ascend to the general manager’s position without an assistant general manager being named and when the organization’s chief amateur scout, Bob Lowes, left to become Las Vegas’ director of player personnel, the Senators promoted Trent Mann from within.
Even when the Senators have gone about creating new positions to add to their front office, they kept Bryan Murray in the fold as a senior advisor and had Daniel Alfredsson joined the front office in August of 2015.
The Senators’ front office hasn’t brought in an outside voice since Eugene Melnyk bought the team in 2003 and in the 14 years since, so the worry is that organization is particular in how it has to operate. Hell, when Pierre Dorion hired Guy Boucher last summer, he explained to Boucher that the organization has a certain way of doing things.
The fear is that this hiring from within cycle simply promotes a culture of yes-men and like-minded individuals who are afraid to voice a different perspective.
In fairness, maybe that’s brushing this group with a broad stroke.
The Senators do have an analytics department to help augment the analysis that the scouts and eye tests provide, but from some of the quotes of management this season, it seems like the numbers are designed to track the information that management and coaching staff want to hear.
The fear of confirmation bias negatively affecting decisions can be problematic and in one specific example, it seems like management has a tendency to overvalue players whose worth isn’t really reflected through the use of analytics.
“I want to punch our analytics people on a daily basis because they come to me with stuff that when they tell me that (Mark Borowiecki)’s no good, I say, ‘Why don’t you go on the ice with Boro and tell me how much fun it is to get hit ten times in a row?’ Guys go the other way sometimes, but analytics can’t tell you that.”
Analytics aren’t everything, but they should be used in concert with scouting reports and video analysis to provide the most complete picture possible. And if they’re providing different analysis and information that offers a different perspective, that’s fantastic. You want people in the hockey operations department to have as much information as they can get so that they can make the most informed decisions that they possibly can to avoid and mitigate mistakes.
In a few instances this season, it seems like confirmation bias could be a problem or that the organization takes more pride in using their analytics department to push the statistics that they only have a vested interest in.
And if they’re not taking advantage of listening to the full picture that their analytics department can present, you have to wonder how much the Senators are relying on their eyes alone and whether that’s enough to keep them competitive given what other organizations are doing to give themselves every competitive advantage that they can afford.
Not surprisingly, whenever things have gone south for the organization the ones who pay the ultimate price are the outsiders that the organization brings into the fold: its coaches. (As an aside, I’m really interested to see what increased expectations will do to this organization. There will be more pressure to have greater success in the regular season and the Senators have always had a tendency to struggle after the first season of a new coach. Whether it was Cory Clouston, Paul MacLean or Dave Cameron, each of them wound up paying the price with their job for this team’s struggles.)
In a sports landscape where the Senators have less money to work with their competitors, one would imagine they would be more compelled to turn over every rock and look for whatever inefficiency they can exploit, but it feels like the hockey operations department isn’t inclined to do this.
It’s a microcosm of the problem, but this is a front office that hasn’t drafted a Russian-born player since 2007 and as Dorion explained in one interview this season, “It’s easier (scouting) with Russians in North America because you know more about them than the Russians who play in Russia.”
I wrote at the time:
“It’s hard to ignore how few players they’ve taken from Europe. Dorion mentions how the organization feels more comfortable taking Russians who play in North America because it’s easier to have more viewings, but given recent history, the same philosophy is being applied to other European nations. Players like Filip Chlapik and Jakub Culek, for example, are being drafted out of North American clubs.
Maybe the Senators’ amateur scouting staff isn’t as robust as that of their peers, but in a perfect world, you’d like to think the Senators would be willing to look everywhere for hidden gems instead of having players fall through the cracks because of where they play.”
Eugene Melnyk has talked in the past about it being easier to beef up his scouting staffs and other components of his hockey operations department because relative to adding a player, it’s significantly cheaper to do so. To this end, he hasn’t really put his money where his mouth is – mind you, every time this has come up in an interview, he deflects and says the general manager hasn’t expressed a need to hire more front office personnel or scouts, so there’s that.
The trouble for the Senators is that most of their problems stem from ownership’s pursuit of short-term interests.
In 2011, the organization sold fans on a long-term rebuild, but thanks to the Erik Karlsson’s ascent to hockey god status and the subsequent lockout shortened campaign in 2012-13 whose small sample size helped keep the Senators in the playoff picture, the Senators abandoned their large-scale rebuild in favour of a retooling on the fly plan.
For a time, tanking your way to top draft picks has been viewed as the easiest path to the Stanley Cup. Eight of the past 10 Stanley Cups have essentially been won by three teams who followed that model and in looking at how a generational talent like Connor McDavid can carry a relatively hapless Oilers team, it can be a pretty enticing path to follow.
Changes to the NHL’s draft lottery system however has made this path more difficult to navigate. In the past, the only real luck you needed was to be bad in a season where the draft class wasn’t weak. Now you not only have to be bad and have a great draft year, the range of possibilities for teams to win the draft lottery is significantly greater.
Instead the Senators have elected for a rebuild on the fly strategy that has flown in the face of a long-term plan.
From an ownership standpoint, it made sense. Despite being a traditional marketplace that sought a long-term rebuild, ownership shied away from a strategy that required the team to be bad before it could be good again. Considering Melnyk’s murky financial situation, it probably made sense for him to avoid a strategy that risked dull hockey putting fewer bums in the seats and a likely significant dip in revenues.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a rebuild on the fly. Attaining competitiveness and trying to be good is fine. There’s honour in trying to put the best product on the ice that you can, even if you’re still miles away from being able to knock off the best teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s just that when you struggle to live on the margins, there’s a real risk that you fail to move the franchise past being mediocre.
So what should Dorion and the Senators do?
Obviously re-signing Tom Pyatt to a two-year extension should be the first order of business. Wait, what? That just happened? Weird.
If Dorion’s actually reading this blog, I’d encourage him to work the margins and continue to explore market inefficiencies that go beyond players whom Guy Boucher has seen play in Europe.
Tell Randy Lee to refrain from signing the next Zack Stortini or whatever six-figure veteran shitbag that he wants to bring into the fold in Binghamton. Hire a European scout or two or hire some more analytics minds who have the time and the flexibility to track and chronicle data that simply goes above and beyond the numbers that the organization cares about.
Learn from the very important lessons that you can take from this past season.
Much can be made of the Senators’ ill-advised decision to give up a significant opportunity cost before committing significant dollars and term to bring Alex Burrows into the fold at the trade deadline (read: the Senators could have acquired a replacement level player at a significantly reduced cost), but his acquisition, the addition of other depth pieces and some timely injuries relegated a number of ineffective veterans to the press box.
Who knows whether unrestricted free agents like Viktor Stalberg or Tommy Wingels will be brought back, but it might be in the Senators’ interests to walk away like they did for Chris Neil and Chris Kelly and explore the market looking for higher efficiency players. Names like Jordan Weal, Derek Ryan (note: just re-signed with Carolina today) or even a Teddy Purcell aren’t sexy, but they could be cheap stopgap options until some of the other prospects are ready to make the jump and contribute.
Better yet, don’t get complacent.
This offseason represents an exciting time because there are very few players on the parent roster who will hold more value than they do right now. If you’re going to get aggressive and shake up the core, now’s the time.
It remains to be seen what Dorion will do in his sophomore season at the helm, but he has a real opportunity to put his stamp on this group and make some changes. And if history has demonstrated anything, it’s that he’s not shy about making trades. Since inheriting his role as the general manager, he’s been one of the most active managers in the league.
The makeover began at the expansion draft and the potentials are endless.
This is a pivotal offseason and there needs to be emphasis on improving the process.
I hate emphasizing the fact that the Senators are faced with a money crunch or playing to the anxiety over the fact that the Senators only have two guaranteed seasons left remaining on Karlsson’s contract, but they need to prove to their captain and to their fans that they’re serious about being more than just a competitive team that is content to make the postseason.
I’m fearful that in a hockey realm where anything can happen, this organization’s lax attitude towards improving the process means that this year’s run is as good as it gets.
Senators fans are too smart to keep tolerating the status quo.
It should be better and Sens fans deserve better. All it takes is a better approach.