Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Closer Look At The "Moulson To Sens" Rumours

Jason Spezza needs a winger. This is not breaking news.

If you’ve been watching the Ottawa Senators for the past 3 months, you know it as well as anybody. Coach Paul MacLean has put Spezza on an island, and that’s no place for your team captain and arguably most skilled player to be.

There’s no denying Spezza is having a tough year. Not a terrible year, but he’s not the same guy we’ve seen in the past. The reasons for that are numerous, and a lot of the blame rests with his own play, but he hasn’t exactly been put in the best position to maximize his particular talents. That’s on both MacLean and GM Bryan Murray, although Murray gets an "A" for effort by bringing in Bobby Ryan to play with Spezza, only to have MacLean keep them apart out of what seems like stubbornness at times.

Spezza is a glaring -17, second worst on the team, but that’s not necessarily an indication of a big drop-off in his defensive play. Spezza has always been a risk-taker and a bit iffy on the defensive side, but the difference this year is that his line is not scoring 5-on-5 like it has in the past. If anything, Spezza has improved his commitment to backchecking and playing down low in his own end (as a team captain has to do), but he’s been struck with the double plague of skating in front of bad goaltending early in the season and having a rotisserie of wingers on either side, none of whom are a natural fit.

And you can see it out there almost every night. When Spezza makes something happen, it’s usually because he’s forced the issue on his own, making a brilliant solo play while his wingers just try to go to the net and pull some defenseman along with them. Last night in Washington was a good example. You could tell Spezza was “on”, but he couldn’t really get any offense going 5-on-5. It took a power-play and an awkward looking game of tag with defenseman Patrick Wiercioch (who refused to shoot) for Spezza to just say, “screw this” and power one from the sideboards through Caps goalie Braden Holtby for the insurance goal in the third period.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Spezza is still a 90-point player in this league, but he’s not going to get there playing with 30-point wingers. He needs to play with a sniper to utilize his biggest strength – which is playmaking – but unless MacLean decides to loan either Ryan or Clarke MacArthur to Spezza’s line, this team seems to be wasting the franchise centre’s second-last contract year.

Cue the Matt Moulson rumours.

It makes sense at first glance. Moulson’s a natural goal scorer, a left-handed shooter like Dany Heatley was with a very manageable pro-rated $3.9 million salary (3.1 cap hit) the rest of this season until he becomes a UFA. Basically, it’s a rental player scenario that’s easy on the payroll and doesn’t carry a burden past this season, unless both sides want it to.

The other reason this makes sense is that Bryan Murray will be dealing with his nephew and ex-employee Tim Murray in Buffalo if this deal were to go down, and that’s surely what’s given this rumour some legs. TSN mentioned it, as did the Ottawa Sun, so this isn’t just one of those HF Boards doozies that occasionally seeps into the mainstream, causing seasoned reporters to panic thinking they missed a major lead. It all sounds fairly reasonable, even inevitable.

But so did Mike Sillinger, Peter Bondra, Martin Lapointe, and Mike Comrie. These things don’t always work out like they should.

If you’re wondering about Moulson’s credentials as a goal-scorer, Tim Wharnsby had a piece back in late-December  pointing out that Moulson has scored the 12th most goals in the NHL since the 2009-10 season, putting him just behind the likes of Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Bobby Ryan.

Some say that Moulson put up inflated numbers playing shotgun with Tavares, but why is that a criticism? Behind almost every goal-scoring winger is a number one centre. It just shows that Moulson can work with good players and be effective. If he’s coming to Ottawa, he’s coming to play with Spezza. The concerns seem overstated.

But this isn’t a slam-dunk, even though it looked like I was trying to lead you there.

Firstly, Tim Murray is a cagey bastard and knows the Senators prospect pool better than anyone in the league. He’s got a few chips he can play at the deadline, Moulson being one of them along with Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. Murray has to make an impact with his first moves as GM in Buffalo. If he’s going to make a deal with Ottawa, he’s going to go after his previous pet prospects in the Senators system and it’s going to be an attempted raid we haven’t seen the likes of since Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what Buffalo would want out of Ottawa, but you can probably take a pretty good guess. We know Tim Murray loves Mark Stone, because we’ve heard him gush about Stone on local radio for a few years. Moulson would be an upgrade on Stone this year and probably next, but in the long run, that could be a move that backfires badly on Ottawa.

Moulson also isn’t exactly a “physical” player. Both Bryan and Tim Murray like big, strong teams and in that respect, Moulson may not be a fit for either GM. For the chance at a goal-scorer, sometimes you overlook their size or aggressiveness, as in the case of Kyle Turris (who’s proven to be tougher and feistier than his look suggests), but how many of those players can you take on board before it changes the style of your team?

Moulson isn’t small at six feet, but he doesn’t strike me as a Bryan Murray type player. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not sure Bryan would give up a potential power-forward for a rental like Moulson.

Another way you can look at it is Moulson being a salary replacement for Milan Michalek next season.

Ottawa doesn’t want to add a ton of salary but they can’t go backwards either. The cap and floor are going to go up next season (allegedly) and it doesn’t look to me like Michalek will be re-signed, at least not at his current $6 million salary (4.3 cap hit). I like Michalek as a player, but he’s not scoring anymore. It’s hard to justify that money for his reduced role on the third line this season.

Yet the Senators can’t just have rookies fill that spot. Rookies don’t make enough money. To hit the floor, you have to have certain guys making over $3 million, even if they don’t seem completely worth it. That’s just the reality. That’s why Colin Greening got such a sweet deal and that’s why Jared Cowen did as well.

Moulson will definitely be getting a raise on his $3.9 million salary. Someone will give him $4-4.5 in the NHL. Why not the Senators? Maybe they can float above the cap floor and get a real scoring winger with a trade-and-sign deal for Moulson.

Maybe they go in another direction entirely.

You have to remember the Free Agent pool seems to get slimmer every summer. Spezza still has one more year on his contract. The Senators don’t want him trying out new wingers every week for the duration of that. Someone has to be brought in. Do they want to bring Heatley back this summer? That’s outright laughable considering the bad blood between him and Eugene Melnyk. Do you ante up for Thomas Vanek or Mike Cammalleri? Ales Hemsky?

Suddenly Matt Moulson looks a little more reasonable if they can get it done.

Then again, it all depends on Tim Murray being reasonable.

We know he won’t be cheery and charitable. So don’t go ordering that Moulson nameplate to paste over your #26 Ryan Shannon jersey.

All 3 of you.


Anonymous said...

Saw this entry from senschirp site. Good article! I like your writing style.

Carson B said...

Great read, well done.. Im curious to see some trade proposals for moulson, don't you think a Michalek, gryba and a 3rd or something similar could get this done.. anyone else have some suggestions plese?

Anonymous said...

Another great post. You keep hitting the sweet spot of what needs to be said.

For all the accolades that MacLean has garnered, and they're all well deserved, the fact is that, he's not getting the most out of this group this year.

You look at the roster, top to bottom, and there are some really good players. This team should be better than a group that's struggling to get the eighth seed.

That's all on MacLean, no matter how he spins it.

Spezza's one of the best set up guys in the league. He's showed that for the better part of a decade. If you aren't going to pair him with someone who can take advantage of that skill set, that's a huge problem.

Let's see here: Toews plays with Sharp and Hossa, Getzlaf plays with Perry, Crosby plays with Kunitz, Tavares plays with Vanek ... you can go on and on.

The pattern is pretty obvious in that the top guys tend to play with guys who complement their talents.

If the MacLean's strategy was working, and we were in the top half of the conference, that would silence everyone. But, that's not the case.

If nothing else is going to change, maybe adding Moulson is the answer.

Anonymous said...

I think the Murrays are willing to take a chance on small(er), skilled players. I mean, they traded for Conacher and Filatov, and drafted Karlsson. I think for them the determining factor seems to be if the player provides good value for their contract - which Moulson clearly does.

Matt Moulson said...

You're dead meat.