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Stunning one-year rise and fall of Ottawa Senators

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The Ottawa Senators were one goal away.

One goal. One shot. One bounce. One lucky break. Any of those would have worked.

That was it. That was all they needed to have a chance to pull off what seemed to be, at the time, the impossible. After being a mostly middle-of-the-road team for the previous decade, the Senators came out of nowhere during the 2016-17 postseason with first-year head coach Guy Boucher and trapped their way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Given where the team was coming from, it was a stunning, shocking run and it would have been impossible for them to get any closer to the Stanley Cup Final without actually getting there, losing a double overtime Game 7, on the road, to the defending — and eventual — champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

For two months, Senators fans were able to experience something incredible, unexpected, and wonderful.

Unfortunately for them, it also may have been the worst possible thing that could have happened for the long-term outlook of the team.

That playoff run and everything that has happened since should be yet another cautionary tale for every team in the league to not overreact to the success or failures of a single playoff run.

Just one year later, the management team has decided to kick off a massive rebuilding project that was officially accelerated on Thursday with trade of franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson for a return that could only be described as — in the official words of the Senators’ own PR arm — “six assets.”

[Related: Erik Karlsson traded to Sharks as roster teardown continues]

It seems outrageous to say because it is literally the primary objective of every team in sports, but sometimes winning can be costly. Because half of the league ends up making the playoffs every season, the success or failure of those teams — and the players within them — is mostly measured strictly by what they do once they get to the playoffs. This mindset can have devastating results for teams that don’t really know what they have — or what they are doing — because they get fooled by something that happened over one or two months and may not be an accurate representation of their team.

Sometimes playoff success, or failure, is a big stupid mirage.

On the same day the Senators traded the best player they have ever had for pennies on the dollar, the Dallas Stars were signing Tyler Seguin to a massive eight-year contract extension, giving him a significant raise from his current contract that has been one of the biggest steals in the league. The Stars only have him on their roster today because Seguin’s previous team — the Boston Bruins — decided they had to trade him when he was still a 21-year-old with superstar potential because they weren’t sure he fit their team culture following a postseason run where he did not totally dominate. The Bruins could have had Patrice Bergeron and Seguin down the middle of their lineup for the past five years at a combined salary cap hit of around $12 million. It would have been the envy of every team in the league. But they just had to trade him for … reasons. It was a foolish, knee-jerk reaction decision that may have cost them a legitimate shot at another Stanley Cup.

The Senators had the exact opposite situation play out.

Instead of thinking a bad playoff run made them worse than they actually were, a surprising playoff run had them thinking they were better than they actually were.

The results are, today, potentially crippling.

Looking at things objectively, the 2016-17 Senators were every bit as average as every recent Senators teams that preceded it. They were a bottom-10 team in shot attempt differential. Their overall record was only 12th best in the league. They were actually outscored during the regular season, the only playoff team in the league that year to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential (and one of only five over the previous six years). But because Craig Anderson played great in the first two rounds, and because Bobby Ryan went on a hot streak at the right time, and because Karlsson put the team on his back and literally carried it so much that he actually received a Conn Smythe vote despite not even playing in the Cup Final, the Senators were able to pull off a couple of upsets and go further than anyone anticipated.

Their response was to not only go all in on that group of players, but to try and add to it.

After trading a top prospect for Alex Burrows at the 2017 deadline and immediately signing him to a two-year contract extension (a contract that has since been bought out), the Senators opened the 2017-18 season by paying what could end up being a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene: giving up Kyle Turris (a really good center that is pretty comparable to Duchene) and a draft pick that will almost certainly be top-five selection.

At the time, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was ecstatic with the move and called it a no-brainer that could help the team reach the next level.

“Sunday was a great day for the Senators franchise,” said Dorion in his first meeting with the media following the trade. “After a great playoff run last year, we feel we’ve added an elite forward to our group … someone we feel that can help us take to the next level. We’ve acquired a player that we’re really excited about acquiring. We felt this deal for us was a no-brainer in what we had to give up.”

The Senators were 7-3-5 at that point in the season. Good enough to keep games close and get to overtime and collect some points, but still decidedly average in every possible way. They were the fourth-worst possession team and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings. It still looked like a house of cards. Then the bottom quickly fell out afterwards on the ice, while the organization descended into turmoil off of it.

Now, not even one year after adding a significant piece to its roster in the hopes of “reaching the next level,” the NHL roster is in the process of being gutted in a scorched earth rebuild. It is not just who has been traded that makes it all so — for lack of a better word — embarrassing for the Senators. It is how it has all happened.

After trading Mike Hoffman to the San Jose Sharks for what amounts to a bad contract in Mikkel Boedker, a fringe prospect, and a late-round draft pick, the Sharks turned around and almost immediately flipped Hoffman to the Florida Panthers — a team in Ottawa’s own division — for what was probably a better return (a collection of better draft picks — including a second-rounder in 2019 — and no bad contract).

Obviously the circumstances around Hoffman’s trade out of Ottawa are not as simple as “rebuilding team trades good player.” It was clear the Senators had to move him, and had to move him quickly. So they didn’t have a ton of leverage there. But they still ended up getting the worst of the two returns in the trades involving their own player! All it did was enable San Jose to dump a contract it didn’t want to help clear some additional salary cap space for another big addition before the start of the season.

The big addition turned out to be Karlsson.

That’s right: After basically helping the Sharks clear salary cap space to put themselves in a position to acquire Karlsson, and after being embarrassed in the series of transactions, the Senators went right back to that same team and traded their franchise player to them for “six assets.” And you know the Senators know they got taken in the previous trade because they attached this condition to the next trade:

If Karlsson is on an Eastern Conference roster (reserve list) during the 2018-19 season, the Senators will receive an additional first round pick from the Sharks no later than 2022.

The only possible reason that condition could exist in such a trade is because the Senators know San Jose embarrassed them in the previous trade.

Now the Senators are in a brutal position.

Given the plan recently outlined by owner Eugene Melnyk and the recent trade of Karlsson, it is simply a matter of when, and not if, Duchene and Mark Stone get traded.

They are going to enter year one of this rebuild as the early favorites to be the worst team in the league this season and they have no true cornerstone player coming through the pipeline to center a successful rebuild around. Typically teams in this position plan on starting that rebuild around a top draft pick, but the Senators won’t even have that luxury this year because their 2019 first-round pick is in the hands of the Colorado Avalanche as a result of the Duchene trade.

The condition on that trade is that Ottawa had the option of sending its first-round pick in either 2018 (which turned out to be No. 4 overall) or 2019 to Colorado. The Senators chose to keep the No. 4 in 2018 and send the 2019 one to Colorado.

Given everything what has been said by the people in command of this now three-ring circus it is a very curious decision.

On one hand, it is awfully difficult to give up the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, and it might be a tough sell to your locker room to essentially tell the players returning, “you guys stunk last year and we think we’re going to be worse this year.”

But if your goal is to rebuild the team through prospects, and youth, you have to put yourself in a position to get a superstar. The Senators had to know their best hope would be the top of the 2019 draft and Jack Hughes. Why do I say that? Because Dorion said on Thursday that this has been the Senators’ plan since February, and that they pretty much knew Karlsson was going to be traded because he would bring the best return in their rebuild.

[Related: Highlights from Eugene Melnyk’s bizarre Senators video]

If you know Erik Karlsson is going to be traded, and if you know you’re going to put a team on the ice in 2018-19 that is going to be made up primarily of rookies and new players (at least according to Melnyk’s plan), then you have to realistically look at that team and say “this team is probably going to be worse.”

Does it really matter what the players in that locker room think about that strategy when, by your owners own admission, almost none of them are going to be in there within the next year anyway?

Now, given the NHL’s new lottery process having the worst record in the league doesn’t guarantee you the top pick or even a top-two pick. But it still gives you the best chance. Once the Senators ended up with the fourth pick in 2018 and didn’t win the Rasmus Dahlin lottery, they should have sent that pick to Colorado (and this is not hindsight on my part; I already made this argument before the draft this year and before the Karlsson trade). If this team is as bad as we are anticipating it could be and probably will be, the Senators probably wouldn’t end up any worse off than fourth or fifth overall anyway and would at least still have the hope of getting a franchise-changing player in which to give their fans some amount of hope.

It sure beats the nothing they have to look forward to now.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Erik Karlsson dealt to Sharks as Senators continue roster teardown

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The long-awaited Erik Karlsson traded has finally been completed and the talented defenseman and prospect Francis Perron are heading to the San Jose Sharks. In return, the Ottawa Senators will receive Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers, plus two conditional picks.

Here are the details on those picks:

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson went hard after John Tavares in free agency, but struck out and moved on to extending key pieces in Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane. He wanted a “difference-maker” and certainly achieved that goal in acquiring the 28-year-old Karlsson.

San Jose’s blue line will now feature Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a very solid trio, while their top power play unit will be something to watch with the newly-added Swede.

“It’s extremely rare that players of this caliber become available,” said Wilson. “The word ‘elite’ is often thrown around casually but Erik’s skillset and abilities fit that description like few other players in today’s game.”

Karlsson, who was the No. 15 overall selection in the 2008 NHL draft, spent nine years with the Senators, suiting up for 627 games, scoring 126 goals and recording 518 points. He quickly developed into an all-around blue liner, capable of hitting double digits in goals and being strong defensively. His play would help earn him two Norris Trophies and second-place finishes in 2016 and 2017.

Since 2013, Karlsson is one of only three defensemen — Burns and P.K. Subban being the others — to record at least 300 points. Karlsson is third in goals (89) over that stretch with Burns leading the way (116) comfortably.

The key now for Wilson and the Sharks is to sign Karlsson to an extension. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and will command a max deal, whether he reaches UFA status or not. The Sharks are perennial contenders out west and this move certainly keeps them in the conversation for 2018-19 in a crowded field of Western Conference field favorites.

[Karlsson trade gives Sharks NHL’s most explosive defense]

For the Senators, the trade is one of the final parts of the complete teardown of a roster that was a goal away from reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. After moving Karlsson and dealing Mike Hoffman, the big pieces that remain are Bobby Ryan, who still has four years left carrying a $7.25M cap hit; Mark Stone, who signed a one-year, $7.35M deal over the summer; and Matt Duchene, who was acquired last October and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Goaltender Craig Anderson probably could be had if the right offer came along.

It’s all about stockpiling assets to go with a prospect cupboard that features Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Logan Brown, Colin White and Alex Formenton. (And let’s not forget Ottawa’s 2019 first-rounder belongs to the Colorado Avalanche.)

How deep are the Senators entrenched in this rebuild? The headline for the trade press release reads: “Ottawa Senators complete most important trade in rebuild” and the messaging inside keeps on the theme that the future is bright — they just need to keep dealing away their best players.

“This is the right moment for us to rebuild our team, and shape our future with a faster, younger and more competitive team on the ice,” says Senators GM Pierre Dorion in a statement. “We are going to build a culture of consistency which will allow this team to sustain better performance over the long term.”

If you’re wondering, the Sharks visit Ottawa on Saturday, Dec. 1.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Golden Knights can still land Erik Karlsson after Pacioretty trade

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By trading for Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights management declared that this team is for real. So why stop there?

The Golden Knights have prominently factored into Erik Karlsson trade rumors stretching back to last season’s deadline, and while extensions to Pacioretty and Marc-Andre Fleury could make it tougher to continue adding pieces, they could make things work with Karlsson. Especially for next season, but not just exclusively so.

Cap Friendly estimates the Golden Knights’ cap space at $9.438 million, and the situation is actually cozier than that, as David Clarkson‘s $5.25M is almost certain to go to LTIR … assuming his contract remains on the books. That brings us to a point: Golden Knights GM George McPhee (or VGKGMGM) has a lot of tools to make a Karlsson trade happen, even after giving up Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki, and a second-round pick to land Patches.

[Read about the Pacioretty trade, plus his extension]

Let’s examine the factors that could serve as catalysts for a trade:

A different timeframe

Credit the Golden Knights for displaying the agility to zig and zag with their contrasting opportunities. It’s a message to rebuilding teams: if you can pile up an absolute treasure trove of draft assets, you can set yourself up handsomely in two very different ways: 1) by keeping the picks, thus giving you a ton of “dart throws” to land gems or 2) you can package those picks for the Pacioretties (plural for Pacioretty, obviously) and Karlssons of the world, if the opportunity strikes and makes sense.

A stunning trip to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is one reason why it makes sense – OK, the best reason, let’s be honest – but not the only one.

The Golden Knights managed to lock up significant prime-age players to term, as 27-year-old wingers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith will see their contracts (both at a team-friendly $5M cap hit) extend into their thirties. Pacioretty will turn 30 shortly after his reasonable-enough four-year extension kicks in to start 2019-20. Paul Stastny is 32 and set to begin a three-year deal, while MAF’s already 33 and under contract through 2021-22 (for better or worse).

We can spend days debating the merits of going all-in after a hot streak, as Vegas is risking doing just that, even after showing some restraint in letting James Neal and David Perron walk.

The bottom line is that Vegas’ outlook is different now, so they might as well go big with this shorter window.

Still plenty of picks/futures to move

Despite only being in existence for two offseasons (and lacking a first-round pick for 2018), the Golden Knights have managed to accrue some nice assets. Before the Suzuki trade, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked Vegas’ farm system eighth overall [sub required], with Suzuki ranking as their fourth-best prospect.

So, if Vegas deemed it worthwhile, they could still trade a prospect, with Cody Glass ranking as the headliner.

The notion that they still have some gems in their system must be comforting for McPhee, who apparently worried about Filip Forsberg parallels after moving Suzuki (another mid-first-rounder moved not very long after that player was drafted by McPhee).

Plenty of people were quick to lampoon the Golden Knights for all the draft picks they’ve traded away lately, as the Tatar trade cost them a first, second, and third, while Pacioretty cost them a second and Suzuki.

That’s fair, yet it’s crucial to remember that Vegas absolutely hoarded picks heading into the expansion draft.

Via Cap Friendly’s listings, the Golden Knights have:

2019: their original picks aside from a seventh-rounder, two additional third-round picks, and one additional fifth-rounder. (Nine picks overall.)

2020: Their seven original picks, plus two more second-rounders. (Nine overall.)

2021: Six of their seven own picks, only missing a third-rounder. (Six picks overall.)

Vegas could send Ottawa a package of merely its excess picks (two thirds, a fifth in 2019, two seconds in 2020) and do well enough for Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to reference it as a win in another deeply strange video. The Golden Knights could also make a mix of players, prospects, and picks that could conceivably land Karlsson without totally mortgaging their future.

[Highlights from Melnyk’s odd video.]

Contracts that could move, and possibly cancel out some of Ryan’s cost

The Senators’ cash troubles are painfully apparent, to the point that Melnyk’s outdated jersey almost feels symbolic.

With that in mind, it could be crucial for Vegas to find a way to absorb one of Ottawa’s roughest contracts in Bobby Ryan ($7.25M cap hit through 2021-22) or Marian Gaborik ($4.875M through 2020-21). The Golden Knights likely realize that, from a sheer salary standpoint, they’d be doing Ottawa the biggest favor if they took on Ryan, and Clarkson’s salary structure would be highly appealing to penny pinchers.

Consider the year-by-year breakdown (cap hits in parentheses):

Ryan (7.25) Gaborik ($4.875) Clarkson ($5.25) Ryan – DC Gaborik – DC
2018-19 $7.5 $4.575 $4.75 $2.75 -$0.1750
2019-20 $7.5 $3.175 $3.25 $4.25 -$0.0750
2020-21 $7.5 $3.075 n/a $7.5 $3.0750
2021-22 $7.5 n/a n/a $7.5
Savings: Ryan—> $22
Savings: Gabby-> $2.8250

So, overall, the Golden Knights would save Melnyk $22M in total salary (ignoring the potential 2020-21 lockout) over four years if Clarkson’s deal was exchanged for Ryan’s contract, including $2.75M this season. Gaborik’s salary is actually a bit higher than Clarkson’s during the next two seasons, yet Gabby’s deal is more expensive because it lasts for one additional season. (If Melnyk is penciling in a lockout of any kind, it would negate some of the advantage of a Clarkson – Gaborik swap. It would also negate happy thoughts.)

If the Senators truly demand moving salary in a Karlsson deal, then a Clarkson – Ryan swap would be a huge selling point, and one would assume Vegas pointed this out before.

Managing the Ryan cap hit would be a considerable challenge, assuming his wrist/hand issues wouldn’t also plop him on the LTIR at some point during his career. Ottawa is only retaining Dion Phaneuf‘s salary, so perhaps Vegas could convince Ottawa to eat a bit of that egregious Ryan money?

The Golden Knights could also mix in a smaller, mid-level contract or two to make things work.

Cody Eakin makes a $3.85M cap hit and salary for two more seasons, and he’s a solid player at 27. Erik Haula‘s also 27, and a fantastic value at $2.75M per year through 2019-20 (fantastic enough that Vegas would probably not want to give him up). Ryan Reaves is making slightly more than Haula during the same two seasons, and Ottawa might be so bad that fights become the main attraction some nights, which would make Reaves that much more valuable.

There are also some depth defensemen who could conceivably be part of a deal, such as Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland, and Jon Merrill.

***

All things considered, the Golden Knights have a lot of ammo – and incentive – to get an Erik Karlsson trade done.

The sheer array of variables likely explains why this process is taking so long, and not just when Vegas has been involved.

How much value does Vegas place on Karlsson agreeing to an extension? Will Ottawa drastically reduce its asking price if the Golden Knights take on Ryan’s enormous contract? These are questions that loom over the process.

The bottom line is that Karlsson is absolutely world-class, particularly right now, and the Golden Knights boast the sort of cap space, prospects, and picks to make something happen. After adding Pacioretty, it might be a flat-out disappointment if they don’t trade for the Senators’ star.

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.

BriseBois faces plenty of questions in replacing Yzerman as Lightning GM

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Bombshell news dropped on Tuesday, as word surfaced that Steve Yzerman is transitioning to advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Julien BriseBois gets a promotion to GM.

It’s all a lot to take in, and the hockey world is scrambling to find out what happens next with Stevie Y, and why Stevie Y is stepping down in the first place. Could Yzerman be coming back home to the Detroit Red Wings, or perhaps setting the stage to be build a potential Seattle expansion team?

Those questions – along with a simple “Wait, what?” – come to mind immediately following such news.

What about the Lightning’s side of the equation, though?

BriseBois (pictured to the right of Jacques Martin in this post’s main image) has been the subject of GM rumors for some time, so the 41-year-old carries some hype into his promotion. He’s undoubtedly ranked as a big part of the picture in Tampa Bay, including running an outstanding operation for their AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.

Now it’s his chance to justify that hype, and while Yzerman’s done great work in locking up stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to team-friendly extensions, BriseBois faces challenges in molding all of that promise into postseason glories.

Consider some of the key decisions BriseBois must make over the next couple of years:

The bill’s coming for Vasi

Andrei Vasilevskiy has two years remaining on a bargain $3.5 million cap hit. Soak that outstanding value in for a moment, as while his Vezina campaign fizzled as his energy waned in 2017-18, he was still a worthy finalist at a remarkably cheap rate.

Those savings won’t last forever, although note that the 24-year-old would once again be slated for RFA status. (Seriously, this team is a well-oiled machine for cap management.)

Can BriseBois leverage that last RFA year into savings, or the sort of term that would benefit Tampa Bay? Of all the decisions ahead, Vasilevskiy’s future is the most pivotal single scenario.

Court Karlsson?

Could he make a big splash by getting Erik Karlsson?

This would be tricky, yet it’s worth exploring, particularly if the Golden Knights relent in their pursuit of the star defenseman after landing Max Pacioretty.

Cap Friendly lists Tampa Bay’s cap space at just $2.646M, so a Karlsson trade might be easier around the trade deadline. And, really, such a move seems tough to imagine if the Senators truly require Bobby Ryan or Marian Gaborik to be a part of any package. Maybe the ship sailed once Tampa Bay committed to Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, along with Kucherov, anyway.

Still, it’s worth asking: would BriseBois pursue Karlsson – or perhaps some other splashy upgrade – with even more vigor than Yzerman did?

Young guns

Moving back to situations with brilliant young players, Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point are entering contract years.

Gourde (26, $1M cap hit in 2018-19) is slated to become a UFA, while Point (22, dirt-cheap rookie deal) would become an RFA. BriseBois must gauge how much additional leverage each forward might gain – or lose – by playing out their deals, and react accordingly. Would it save money to sign them soon, or would it be better to see where the cap comes in for 2019-20?

(For whatever it’s worth, Point mostly developed in the WHL before flourishing with the Lightning, while Gourde began his Crunch days in 2013-14.)

In defense

Whether he makes the unlikely move to land Karlsson or not, there are some decisions looming regarding the Lightning’s defense.

Granted, Stevie Y and BriseBois already did the heaviest lifting, as most NHL teams would practice dark arts to put together a trio like Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, especially considering that the veterans are locked up long-term and Sergachev is still covered for two more seasons.

Still, this is a team with lofty ambitions, so surrounding that trio with other capable defensemen could be the difference between hoisting the Stanley Cup or looking back wistfully at near-misses.

Anton Stralman might be the odd man out among capable defenders, as his $4.5M cap hit expires after this season, and he’s arguably already showing signs of decline at 32. It’s likely a relief that Braydon Coburn (33, $3.7M) and Dan Girardi (34, $3M) will see their deals expire, too, but Tampa Bay could see a lot of experience evaporate in the near future.

A shrewd GM would use those expiring contracts to possibly get out of trouble, or grab some rentals. Getting rid of Ryan Callahan‘s contract would be huge, and it’s plausible that BriseBois would be far more interested in doing so than Yzerman, who seemed to love collecting former Rangers.

Beyond those older defensemen, BriseBois will need to ascertain the value of younger expiring contracts in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.

The coach?

Jon Cooper’s a great quote. He’s also enjoyed success just about everywhere he’s gone, hustling through some obscure coaching gigs to make his way to Tampa Bay. You could do a lot worse than sticking with him.

While BriseBois must respect Cooper – he briefly coached the Crunch – it’s possible that Cooper might not be “his guy.” Even if he is, if there’s a belief that Cooper is nearing his expiration date – as many believe just about every coach reaches at some point – then it’s a situation to watch.

The Lightning don’t operate in a pressure cooker of a hockey market, which might explain why they didn’t absorb too much criticism after falling short in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, not to mention missing the postseason altogether in 2016-17. Considering context, it’s totally reasonable for them not to draw much heat.

The heat could really rise if the Lightning don’t meet expectations this time around, particularly if it seems like Cooper commits Typical NHL Coach Sins like not trusting young players enough. You could argue that he should have given Sergachev a longer leash last season, among other situations, so it’s not totally out of the question.

***

If you were to poll NHL executives about “dream” GM jobs, the Lightning would almost certainly land in the top five. In plenty of cases, they’d probably rank first overall.

So, there are a lot of blessings that come with this, although the curse is that critics will be harsh if BriseBois stumbles now that he’s landed the top gig.

Fair or not, many will view him as a failure if this outstanding Lightning core fails to nab the franchise’s second Stanley Cup (and possible more). There are worse situations to be in, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily an easy job.

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.

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.