Is Duchene right in saying Senators could be better than expected?

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Ah, September. The month of the year when training camps begin, the season is about to start but hasn’t begun yet, and thus just about everyone is optimistic (or at least saying optimistic things when reporters are around). Inevitably, about close to half of the teams will end up being wrong about making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and only one will be correct in dreaming of winning it all.

So, yes, it’s fun to giggle at the tropes about players being in “the best shape of their lives,” especially since injuries are just as likely to follow such proclamations as any sort of fitness-related career year.

Still, it can be instructive to break down such chances. If nothing else, we can illuminate the past and attempt to bring a sober analysis to the future.

Matt Duchene, in particular, knows that things can change drastically from one season to the other.

His 2016-17 season with the Colorado Avalanche was a disaster, both for the player and team. Some of that had to do with the turmoil that came from Patrick Roy’s bizarre exit; some came from individual struggles for Duchene. Either way, things were rough, and there were plenty of memes that revolved around Duchene being “freed” of a bad situation in Colorado.

If you follow the NHL even tangentially, you probably know what happened next: Duchene was traded to Ottawa, yet the Senators’ and Avs’ fates essentially flip-flopped.

Avs from 2017 offseason to now: Awful 2016-17 season with a seemingly rudderless outlook, tumultuous dealings that ended with Duchene trade, stunning run to 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and now a promising future, in part thanks to the Duchene trade.

Senators from 2017 offseason to now: While their run was flukey, it can’t be forgotten that Ottawa was an overtime goal from an appearance in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps partially motivated by money, they moved Kyle Turris in the Matt Duchene trade with the (unspoken) belief that the draft picks they sent to Colorado wouldn’t be a big deal. Oops, that pick could be a premium one in 2019. This summer has seen off-the-ice upheaval to such a jarring degree that Roy’s departure looks like a couple breaking up but remaining good friends (and not just saying they’d stay friends).

Yeesh.

So, here’s what Duchene said about Ottawa’s chances to be better than most of us expect, via the Canadian Press:

“We should have a chip on our shoulder after last year,” Duchene said. “We’re a lot better hockey team than we showed and we can be a lot better hockey team than people are giving us credit for.”

Duchene points to the Senators having speed and “a lot of talent” that is being overlooked. Is it possible that the swift-skating center could be onto something?

Low expectations, yet less incentive to ‘tank’

In all honesty, my answer is “probably not,” unless the goal is to merely save face instead of being an absolute disaster. Making a strong bid for a playoff spot feels far-fetched, at least if they’re wise and try to get something for Erik Karlsson. (A full season with Karlsson, as ill-advised as that would be, could change things a bit. He’s that talented.)

Plenty of people expect little from the Senators, and many analytics models forecast doom and gloom. For example, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn discusses the grim possibilities in a season preview (sub required), and they’re far from unthinkable:

Without him, the Senators are easily the worst team in the league and it’s difficult to see how they make it out of the bottom five. They currently have a 63 percent chance of landing there. Without Karlsson that jumps up to 89 (!) per cent, with a 45 per cent chance at being dead last.

The agonizing thing is that the Senators can’t dream of Jack Hughes being the light at the end of that tunnel, unless a Karlsson trade somehow netted them a lottery pick. That’s because the Avalanche own their 2019 first-rounder, something that makes the Duchene trade look even worse before you realize that Duchene’s far from guaranteed to stay after his contract expires. (He’s saying the right things about staying with the Sens, but what if Ottawa is abysmal again? The guy must want to compete sometime during his prime.)

Bad stuff, but this context makes Ottawa tougher to predict in some ways, as there’s limited incentive to “tank.” Management might put resources into competing more than maybe they should in 2018-19, in part to save face.

Does that mean hanging onto Karlsson until close to the trade deadline, as dreadful as that might sound? Well, at least he could lean on Duchene to learn about how it feels to play for a team in such a lame duck (and just plain lame) situation.

A more comfortable Duchene

Much was made of how well Turris performed early in Nashville, while the numbers weren’t coming for Duchene to begin his run with Ottawa.

Things evened out in the end, though. In fact, Duchene scored more points (49 points in 68 games) in Ottawa in 2017-18 than he did during his full 2016-17 season with Colorado (41 points in 77 games).

Duchene could make Ottawa more spry – and really make a difference at the bank – if he plays all of 2018-19 like he did to close out last season. He quietly averaged almost a point-per-game after the All-Star Break (34 points in 35 games) and was generally the center Pierre Dorion pined for once the calendar hit 2018.

Motivation

If nothing else, this bunch should be hungry … even if that hunger isn’t just to get paid, but maybe to audition for a different team.

Duchene’s in a contract year, as is Mark Stone, who will surely want a long-term deal after tabling the issue with a $7.35M deal for 2018-19. Karlsson might feel awkward if he ends up playing for Ottawa, yet he has a lot of money on the line, so that tension could turn coal to diamonds.

Rebounds

Even beyond the human nature element of wanting to secure futures, there are also players who could conceivably bounce back from tough times.

Craig Anderson‘s developed a downright bizarre tradition of rotating seasons: one mediocre or flat-out bad, then one where he’s basically an All-Star. If that strange pattern continues, he could see an enormous improvement. It’s tough to imagine him being near-Vezina-quality, yet it’s not that hard to picture the aging goalie at least improving noticeably on last year’s odious .898 save percentage. He’s only a season removed from a .926 mark, not to mention stellar postseason work.

Bobby Ryan‘s health situation inspires obvious questions, but it’s easy to forget that he’s just 31. The once-lethal sniper isn’t worth $7.25M, yet he’s been hearing about that over and over again, so maybe his wrist can hold up enough that he can remind people – at least to some extent – of the player he once was?

I mean, he did this during that 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, and that was when he was pretty deep in the doghouse:

Also, Guy Boucher’s shown signs of being a shrewd NHL coach before. For all we know, he might not get another chance to prove he can be more than assistant, so he’ll have motivation, too.

A few boosts from youth

For a team in a fairly dire scenario, the Senators’ farm system is perceived to be close-to-middle of the pack in some rankings lists. That said, they have some players who could conceivably help out a bit in 2018-19.

Thomas Chabot is the type of talented defenseman that Ottawa’s rarely found to support Karlsson, and we might see more of that after getting some sneak peaks next season.

It remains to be seen if Brady Tkachuk can follow in the footsteps of his brother Matthew Tkachuk and jump right from the draft to full NHL duty (and, in Matthew’s case, he flourished and frustrated right away).

Those two names stand out the most, but there could be at least a modest infusion of talent soon. Maybe not enough to stop fans from being sad about the Senators lacking a first-rounder heading into what (still) looks like a grim season, but still.

The good brand of regression

PDO is a stupidly simple stat (but a handy one, in my opinion) that can gauge luck – to some extent – by adding a team’s save and shooting percentages. If it’s way over 100, that team’s probably a little lucky, although skill skews it. The opposite can be true for teams that are under 100.

Via Corsica Hockey, Ottawa’s 98.53 PDO ranked fourth-worst in the NHL in 2017-18. Poor goaltending was the biggest factor there (they had the worst save percentage as a team), but their shooting luck wasn’t top of the pack, either.

Now, poor shooting can at least have something to do with a lack of scoring talent, which is an obvious concern for an already-bad Senators team that lost a key sniper in Mike Hoffman.

That said, if you’re the glass-half-full type, you could imagine things swinging in the other direction.

***

To reiterate, if I were to bet, I’d say that Ottawa’s season is going to be bad. Really bad.

Even so, there are areas where things could go better than 2017-18. If nothing else, there’s something to be said for being underdogs, rather than following a magical run – even a Cinderella run – like the one Ottawa enjoyed the year before.

You also can’t blame Duchene for trying to project confidence, whether he truly believes what he’s saying or not.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.