Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Who Stays... Who Goes? Diagnosing The Senators Defence

Sure, going over the forwards in the last post was easy. Scoring hasn’t been the problem with the Ottawa Senators this season as they figure to settle in the Top 10 in league offense. In goals-against, the Sens are in a category with the Oilers, Panthers, Islanders, Sabres and horror of all horrors, the Leafs at the very threshold of hell.

At the beginning of the season, this team couldn't even get the puck out of their own end. Coach Paul MacLean held a practice where all they did was breakouts over and over again. Still, the pain continued.

It didn’t help that this team couldn't get any goaltending, but the defense core aggressively underachieved this season to the point of satire. Opposing teams would break over the blueline and the Senators most highly paid, veteran defensemen would start doing something that resembled the doggy-paddle. Almost every defenseman at one point ended up on blooper reels during the long season and nothing the coaching staff came up with ended up staunching the flow of errors.

Now we get to sit and watch other teams play in the post-season. Surely there’s going to be changes on defense... but maybe not as many as you’d think (or like). Here’s my rundown on each individual defenseman who played the majority of the year here and what awaits them next season. Pray with me. (Contract values are approximate cap hits per Cap Geek)


Erik Karlsson- 5 years left on deal at $6.5m: The most telling thing about Karlsson’s season is that he’s still not a hundred percent healed from his Achilles injury. Yet he’s comfortably in the team lead in scoring with 72 points and 3 games to go, he broke Steve Duchesne’s team record for goals by a defenseman in a season when he notched his 20th, and is only 6 points off his Norris Trophy season total. He’s also logged the most minutes of his career in 2013-14. What can this kid do with a full-summer of training and healing? It will lash your mind with fear if you think about it too deeply. I’m not one to nitpick some of his defensive lapses because that mostly comes from always having the puck and trying to create offense. I get the sense that if Alfie was still around he would have let Karlsson know it’s not always wise to chirp at refs and visibly show your frustration by banging your stick and shaking your head. Once Karlsson cleans that up – and he will with maturity – he could win a Hart Trophy. This guy is the franchise. And his contract is a major bargain compared to what he means to the team. And let’s always remember that the Leafs chose Luke Schenn 5th overall the same year the Sens grabbed Karlsson at 15th in the first round.

Jared Cowen – 3 years left on deal at $3.1m: Here we go. No defenseman took more blasting from fans this year than Cowen. Some of the things said on Twitter about the young defenseman would have made Don Rickles wince. It was a disaster from the start, with Cowen holding out through most of training camp waiting on a deal and then looking very much like a guy who missed the season before with a wonky hip. Cowen was burned savagely game after game this year by speedy forwards and most of his physical game seemed to disappear for long stretches. The coup-de-grâce was Cowen imploding against both the Bruins (-4) and Red Wings (-3) in games right before and after the Olympic break. You could see that coach MacLean was trying to get Cowen through the rough patches by playing him regularly despite the mistakes but even MacLean had to finally admit defeat and reduce Cowen’s ice-time significantly as the season wound down. Yet, I still like the guy. One bad year doesn’t mean you give up on a high-pedigree defenseman. He has the size and mobility to be a top-4 defenseman for years and the Senators paid him with that in mind. It’s tempting to imagine at least one of Karlsson, a confident Cowen and Cody Ceci on the ice at all times for the next 5 or 6 years. That’s the plan for GM Bryan Murray and he shouldn’t waver from it just because Cowen struggled. If he gets off to a terrible start next season, then it’s really time to worry, but until then I’ll keep the faith.

Marc Methot – 1 year left on deal at $3m: Like almost everybody on the team, Methot had a tough year and even seemed to clash with MacLean earlier in the season when he was made a healthy scratch. He had his partners changed and vaulted up and down the rotation, sometimes stuck on the 3rd pairing depending on MacLean’s mood. Yet this guy comes across as accountable and likely has something to prove next season (and a new contract to play for). To me, he’s the least controversial guy on the blueline for Ottawa, and possibly on the entire team. Right now he’s even on the season in plus/minus, he’s middle of the pack if you go for possession numbers like Corsi, he’s second on the team in ice-time and plays an honest, unflashy defensive game. Coaches love having reliable defenseman like this and Methot is very similar to what Chris Phillips was in his prime. I see it as a no-brainer for the Senators to re-sign this guy, especially when they’re trying to develop up a lot of young defensemen at the same time. Methot seems like the prototypical “team guy” and could even wear the “C” down the line, depending how things turn out. Hopefully the feeling is mutual among player and management.

Cody Ceci – 2 years left on deal at $900,000: If you’re wondering why Patrick Wiercioch was a healthy scratch for so long, it’s because Ceci came out of nowhere and flat out stole his job mid-season. It helped that Ceci was a right-handed shot which made Wiercioch look even more expendable playing his wrong side, but Ceci came into the lineup, immediately scored a huge overtime goal against St. Louis, and slowly the team began to win more regularly, at least for a while. You have to remember that when Ceci got called up from Bingo, the biggest panic on the team was about not getting the puck out of the defensive zone cleanly. Ceci seemed to provide another option other than Karlsson and the team’s play improved quickly. Ottawa won 9 of Ceci’s first 15 games and Wiercioch wasn’t able to get back into the lineup regularly until the end of March. The offense never really took off for the rookie (ironically Joe Corvo, also out of a job due to Ceci, had better numbers in limited play) but he moved the puck well and was rewarded with mostly steady ice-time from MacLean, occasionally hitting the 20 minute mark. Ceci looks like a guy who could get you 15-20 power-play points a year and be that offensive right-hander to slot in behind Karlsson. He may even have take a slight step-back next season as sophomores sometimes do, but he has a long future here in Ottawa.

Patrick Wiercioch – 2 years left on deal at $2m: I’ve been pretty positive so far but here we take a turn for the worse. I’m not a fan. I love that long-bomb pass Wiercioch is capable of at times and I like his reach with that lanky body, but watching this guy just leaves me cold. I was as impressed as everyone else with the training camp and exhibition schedule Wiercioch had and fully expected him to carry that over, but as soon as I saw Ceci play I suddenly realized everything I wasn’t seeing in Wiercioch. Ceci always seemed compact and in control. Wiercioch was all arms and legs dangling, zig-zagging through the neutral zone or throwing bombs across two-lines that sometimes connected, sometimes not. Wiercioch was still getting points but he just seemed more dangerous and prone to giveaways at the offensive blueline. Yet he’s still the 3rd highest scoring defenseman on the Senators and ranks about the same in unofficial possession numbers, which led me to wonder if it was just my individual bias about the way he “looks” out there not letting me see a good hockey player. I’m still wrestling with that dilemma because my gut tells me he’s not top-six but the raw numbers says he deserves to be. Yet with Ceci entrenched on the right side and Cowen still prized by management on the left, I can see a situation where Murray tries to move Wiercioch out simply because he doesn’t fit into the current d-man puzzle on this team. They also need to make room for Mark Borowiecki, another left-handed shot, who’s on a one-way contract next season. Many of you will scream that Wiercioch deserves to play over someone like Chris Phillips – I disagree and we’ll get to that next – but that argument was basically put to bed when Murray signed Phillips to a contract extension right before the trade-deadline. To me, that sealed Wiercioch’s fate right away. But there’s also the trouble with moving Wiercioch’s contract. I think some team would take a run at him but $2m is a lot for a guy who hasn’t been able to cement a role in the top-six.

Chris Phillips – 2 years left on deal at $2.5m: Phillips has taken a ton of heat for a tough season that neatly mirrored those of his teammates, but if you look at his career, Phillips has a history of bouncing back after sub-par years. In fact, you can look at Phillips as a barometer of how the team is doing in any given season. In 2010-11, the Senators imploded under Cory Clouston and had their worst campaign since 1995-96. Coincidentally, Phillips also had his worst full-season in 10-11, scoring only 9 points and going -35 in 82 games. When MacLean replaced Clouston, the team turned around and so did Phillips’ game, getting back to familiar territory with 19 points and a +12 rating. When the Senators were on their long streak of playoff appearances, Phillips was steady both on the ice and in the stats sheet and that continued under MacLean with a slight lessening of his ice-time the older he got. Now this season, the Senators are struggling again and Phillips is having a tough year defensively and offensively. As the team goes, so does Phillips. If they can get their defensive play sorted out next year, I think you’ll see Phillips rebound like he has throughout his career. As a 36 year old, Phillips hasn’t had two bad years in a row. To me that says something about his professionalism. He’s not a game changer and has never been a guy to dictate the play, but when he’s playing inside an organized system, he’s very solid, but when the overall structure isn’t there, he struggles. That’s what I mean by him being a barometer of overall fortunes of the team. One day he’ll fade but I don’t see that happening in the next two seasons. In fact, I see him turning it around along with the team.

Eric Gryba – RFA: Quietly, Gryba has had a solid year on a bad defensive team. He fits nicely on the bottom pair as the right-handed shot and it’s a testament to his play that MacLean was rarely tempted to play Wiercioch there on his off-side just to get more offense. He takes a lot of minor penalties but most of those come from battling in front of his own net and getting too aggressive. He’s a welcome presence back there physically and is kind of a menacing bastard with that lumberjack beard and a highlight in his back pocket from when he absolutely crushed the Habs Lars Eller in the 2013 playoffs. I’d actually like to see Gryba get meaner back there and really punish guys but it’s a tricky thing with the refs in the modern NHL. Even dropping the gloves a little more might give him a bit more of an intimidating presence but he doesn’t seem to look for that kind of trouble. I’m not entirely sure of his long-term future here with Mark Borowiecki ready to come in and provide a similar type of game. They may want to play Boro with more of an offensive-minded d-man to balance out the pairings and that could make Gryba expendable, especially now that he has to negotiate a new deal. My hunch is that MacLean likes what he brings most nights and would like to have him back (providing the coach is back himself) but Gryba could be moved to create some change back there and change the dynamic. Let’s just say I’m not 100% sure where Gryba fits when the dust settles on what should be a summer of change.


Anonymous said...

If Anderson will not be re-signed going forward, he can be trade this of season to bring in a defensman.

Anonymous said...

I hear what you are saying about all these Dmen but ultimately they were collectively an insult to dog sh$t this year. Brutal.

Something dramatic needs to happen on the D line next year, it was clear we missed Gonchars vet. presence this year. Perhaps bringing in another vet. to help their development?