Friday, April 4, 2014

Who Stays... Who Goes? Opinions On Ottawa's Forwards

Usually I wait until the Senators are eliminated from the playoffs to do a “sign or trade” compendium, but much like this cruel, sadistic winter, this season has dragged on miserably for way too long and I don’t feel that any big surprises are waiting for us in the last 6 games of the regular season that would change my opinions on anybody.

Like anyone else watching this team or freezing our asses off out there, we’re all looking for closure.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on each individual Senators forward (we’ll do the defense and goalies next week). We’ll look at their performance this season and whether or not I think they should or will be back. As usual, there will be a lot of dissenting opinion, so if you disagree, let me know in the comments or on the Twitter machine.

When there’s a lack of success, there’s always a tidal wave of opinion. I’m no different. So here’s my rundown... (Contract values are approximate cap hits per Cap Geek)


Jason Spezza – 1 year left on deal at $7m: I love the way Spezza plays the game and would like nothing more than to see him sign an extension to stay in Ottawa, simply because I enjoy the entertainment. He’s a throwback to an 80’s style centre but that’s what gets him into trouble with a lot of the fanbase. Seeing Spezza come alive with the addition of Ales Hemsky has convinced me yet again that there’s a lot of great hockey left in that wonky back, but there has to be some concern from management. To resign Spezza will take a lot of capital and commitment and there’s a risk involved with his health. He’s still only 30 and should have about 3 or 4 strong offensive years left. Yet the Senators can’t risk losing him for nothing in 2015. They have to re-sign or trade him this summer. I’m not completely convinced that Kyle Turris or Mika Zibanejad are true number-one elite centres, either now or in the near future. Moving Spezza would hurt this team in more than just entertainment value. Here’s a more in-depth look at how I view Spezza from a few weeks ago.

Kyle Turris – 4 years left on deal at $3.5m: Right now he’s the perfect second-line centre on this team and has been, along with linemate Clarke MacArthur, the Senators most consistent player all season. There’s not much to criticize about his game except that he’s still a little scrawny. That may be the only thing holding him back from being able to go up against the other team’s top centres every night the way Spezza does (Spezza is 30 pounds heavier). Turris has a great contract as well. GM Bryan Murray absolutely stole him from Phoenix for David Rundblad, a trade I initially didn’t like. I was wrong. Big time.

Mika Zibanejad – 1 year left on deal at $900,000: Coach Paul MacLean has brought Zibanejad along very slowly which has infuriated some fans but in the end it’s probably the right thing to do. That’s the Detroit Red Wings style that MacLean brought over with him and at times it seemed Zibanejad was being held back, but I think we’re seeing that approach pay off. You can see glimpses of so much power in his game and if he eventually fills out to 220 pounds he’ll be even harder to take off the puck. If the Senators decide to deal Spezza, Zbad will get a lot more responsibility but right now he’s in a pretty good spot. If that old cliché about players breaking out in their fourth year holds true with Zibanejad, we should start to see some real offensive numbers in about two seasons.

Zack Smith – 3 years left on deal at $1.8m: Ottawa’s second best faceoff man behind Spezza, Smith has the most even-strength defensive zone starts of anyone on the team who’s played over 50 games. He kills penalties and is a welcome physical presence down the middle. He sometimes loses his temper and takes bad penalties, but according to Extra Skater, he also draws a lot of penalties on the other teams, leading the Senators in that category with 34. In the grand scheme of things, he comes out even and I’m sure MacLean can stomach a few penalties here and there if it means Smith is engaged physically and emotionally in the games. In his first few years, Smith had a tendency to disappear for stretches and look uninterested. That hasn’t been the case this year. There’s no doubt he’ll be back in the same role next season.

J.G. Pageau-1 year left on deal at $600,000: I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen with this guy. The Sens are deep at centre at the NHL level right now so it’s hard to see Pageau there full-time next year. I guess he could play the wing with that speed of his but there are a lot of skilled guys ahead of him there too. There’s something in his game that has big-time written all over it, but I don’t know if he’s going to get the opportunity he needs here. Do the Senators really want the smallest fourth-line in the NHL? I doubt it, and that hurts Pageau’s chances right now.

Stephane Da Costa-RFA: See Pageau above. Same deal, although as an RFA, Da Costa might have hit the end of the line in Ottawa if he expects to be a full-time NHL’er. Both teams might benefit from a trade here.


Bobby Ryan – 1 year left on deal at $5.1m: Ryan spoke to the media for the first time after his hernia surgery this week and said he “loves” playing in Ottawa and can see himself here for a long time. Hockey fans all over the city gently hugged one another and wouldn’t let go for a few awkward minutes. From day one there’s been a lingering suspicion that Ottawa was just a brief stop on his way to the Philadelphia Flyers when he becomes a free agent in 2015. It’s a bit of that small-town defeatist attitude that’s so abundant here at times, and I wasn’t immune to it myself. I just assumed that the disastrous season the Senators had would have soured Ryan’s outlook (not to mention enduring the worst winter since Big Joe Mufferaw Montferrand was prowling Bytown and fighting Irish gangs in 1829). If Ryan is genuine, and I have no reason to doubt he is, then Murray has to get this guy signed long-term come July 1st. When you have a true goal-scorer like that, just get it done. He’s going to be a big ticket but that’s the price of doing business. If for some reason they can’t negotiate a contract this summer, Ottawa has no choice but to deal him and get something back. Waiting until the deadline to move Ryan could backfire on a Thomas Vanek-like level.

Clarke MacArthur – 1 year left on deal at $3.2m: Another no-brainer for Sens management. MacArthur was the biggest surprise of the year and the most underrated UFA signing of last summer. He’s provided goals, leadership (with his blunt honesty to the media) and lots of speed. I’m not sure how much his next deal will be, but I can’t see Murray balking at a reasonable demand. MacArthur and Turris could play together for the next 4 years if the Sens play this right.

Milan Michalek-UFA: All season I’ve been convinced he was gone this summer but lately Michalek has at least given me a little reason to doubt that early verdict. Not even Spezza benefited as much from the addition of Ales Hemsky like Michalek has. Suddenly he’s scoring goals again and finding that speed we all thought he’d lost after multiple knee injuries. But a late-season surge shouldn’t cloud our judgement here. The Senators have a lot of prospects like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Matt Puempel, Shane Prince and Curtis Lazar who will need a full-time roster spot in the next few seasons. If the Senators plan to bring back both Ryan and Hemsky, it will be too expensive to save Michalek. It’s one thing to gamble on Spezza’s back when he provides you with a number one centre option, it’s another to gamble on Michalek’s knees for limited production in the future. I’d let Michalek go for all those reasons.

Ales Hemsky – UFA: I’m a big fan. Maybe it’s my imagination but I sometimes see glimpses of what Ottawa used to have with Marian Hossa on the wing when Hemsky dangles in the offensive zone. Hemsky doesn’t have the power that Hossa had but that dose of high-end skill has been refreshing to see here. Not signing Hemsky just means that the search for Spezza’s winger will start all over again and nobody wants to read any more stories about that. Yet the Sens have to be careful how much money they throw around to all their other pending UFA’s like Spezza, Ryan, MacArthur, Marc Methot and Craig Anderson. Not all of them are going to be back and signing Hemsky to a big ticket will ensure that even more. Still, I find it hard to believe Murray won’t go after Hemsky hard this summer.

Chris Neil – 2 years left on deal at $1.9m: If you read Twitter, Chris Neil is the worst player who ever lived. If you sit in the stands at the rink, he’s a fan favourite. Neither viewpoint really matters much. What matters is that Neil is trusted by the organization to go out and play the same way every single night and provide the physical element that this team needs. Too many nights he’s alone in that regard but when he’s going to the net and hitting the other team’s best players, he’s effective as a third-liner. A lot of his detractors point to poor possession numbers but they often miss the point of a player like Neil. Even the best teams in the league possess the puck at just around 55% (using proxies like shot attempts), which means you’re still playing without it for almost half the game no matter how skilled you are. You need physical players who can hit and cause havoc when you don’t have the puck. Neil is not here to score goals. He’s here to terrorize the opposition. That’s his role and he does it well. Like Spezza, he’ll seemingly never win over his detractors in this town, but I see him reaching 1000 games in a Senators uniform and probably finishing his career here.

Colin Greening-3 years left on deal at $2.6m: At this point, I’d be ready to cut bait with this guy. He got the big contract in the off-season but he hasn’t gone to the next level. Just six goals so far is a huge disappointment but to me the biggest complaint with Greening is that he isn’t mean relative to his size. When he gets mad, he can be a force but too often he’s a gentle giant. The Senators have a lot of guys up front who aren’t known for being strong, so you expect that a player like Greening would make a difference. He doesn’t. Greening will be tough to move with that contract now, but you never know. If the opportunity is there to deal him, the Sens should take it and move on.

Erik Condra-1 year left on deal at $1.2m: To me, he’s a great fourth-liner who can kill penalties and has a cheap ticket. Good enough. When he’s playing with Pageau or Da Costa, you sometimes think a fourth line should be a LOT bigger, but Condra always stays in the lineup, isn’t on for many goals-against at even-strength and has good puck possession numbers for a fourth liner. That tells you a lot about how he plays the game. When I look back, I can see a lineage of similar players in the Sens system, from Shaun Van Allen to Chris Kelly to Condra. I think he’ll get an extension before his deal runs out.

Matt Kassian-UFA: I don’t think he’s needed beyond this point with the way the NHL works nowadays, but you never know with Murray and MacLean. Both subscribe to the theory that you sometimes need a nuclear weapon, even if he’s just sitting on the bench smiling at opposing players when they act tough. His only role is to fight and has trouble getting into the lineup. The Sens will likely give his spot to someone who can skate and play that much talked about “200-foot game”. But it is kind of fun to watch when he gets to his top speed and takes a run at someone on the boards. He’s also the funniest guy on the Senators, so that’s something at least. It was entertaining when Andre Roy was around in the late-90’s and Kassian brings a similar act. But I wouldn’t put money on him being back next year.

Mark Stone-1 year left on deal at $600,000: It’s been a short audition but this guy looks like he’s ready. Love his size and his hands and he’s not nearly as bad a skater as some had made him out to be. Reminds me of Scott Hartnell with that hair too. He’s a natural to replace Michalek on the top line.

Mike Hoffman-RFA: Similar to Stone, it’s been a brief watch but I like what I see out of Hoffman, particularly his speed. His hands seem a bit clunky but who cares if he’s always beating guys to pucks. I was convinced he was going to be on this team going into training camp but things went sideways. Now he looks like he belongs. If Greening goes, Hoffman is also a natural to step into that vacancy. Not sure he’s a top-sixer but they can use that speed without the puck on the third and fourth lines right now.


Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. I agree with most of it.

I'd give Greening another year. The skating and size are a compelling package.

When the Hemsky deal went down, I didn't think it would work in Ottawa. I'm completely sold on the guy now. Great chemistry.

Look forward to your analysis of the rest of the players, but I don't think the problem with this team is the players.

The elephant in the room is the attitude and culture, and that is set by the upper brass, whether you want to point to Melnyk or Murray or Maclean.

There's a hockey exec that's stepping down today, that is known for keeping expectations high, and not settling for mediocrity.

The Sens should hire him and clean house. Keep the same players, and watch this team turn around next year.

Anonymous said...

Are you going to tell us what you think the problem with the team ? Let me share a list:

1 - EM the owner has no busines sense. Despite all the issues the team was close to Playoff appearance. The gate revenue from the playoffs would have been more than enough to compensate Alfie.

2 - Business sense #2: taking from your profitable and successful business to prop failing venture. Nothing wrong with the concept, but it has gone too far and put the successful business at risk.

3 - It is a big sign when you are not able to retain talent. Allowing Tim Murray to go to another team is a big mistake.

4 - Maclean is good coach, but needs a dose of humility so he himself "gets better". I say keep him, but is a coach who is a known quantity becomes available, go ahead and replaces him. Don't replace with a young coach.

5 - Money was too much of a factor: Cowen should have been sent down early in the season to Bingo, a dose of humility and also conditioning and coaching.

6 - Coaching 1 : The team has to play differently with the lead. Too often they have a lead and don't tighten up.

7 - Coaching 2 : Don't alienate the stars: Spezza being the last example.

8 - Coaching 3 : Overplaying Karlsson.

9 - Coaching 4 : Not playing Lehner when Andy was struggling.

10 - Coaching 5 : Given 4th liners too much icetime. (Greening Smith Niel)
I have other things. I think the dark clouds caused by the owner have caused poor to marginal hockey decisions to be taken. Short term thinking from an owner who is unable to think beyond the next minute or two.

Matt Kassian said...

You're dead meat