Martin Havlat may be returning to the Ottawa Senators, 10 years after a contract dispute led to the Senators trading him and Bryan Smolinski to Chicago for Tom Preissing, some guys who never panned out, and a 2nd round pick that became Patrick Wiercioch.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) August 20, 2015
As Ottawa fans of a certain age remember, Havlat went on to score at almost a point per game pace during his three season with Chicago before leaving as a UFA for the greener pastures of Minnesota. However, despite two decently productive seasons with the Wild, he was never the sure-fire scoring star the team so desperately needed and the Wild traded him the San Jose Sharks for Ottawa
Fan Favourite public enemy number one (at the time) Danny Heatley. It was in San Jose that Havlat’s career went off the rails, largely due to a number of injuries.
In three seasons in the Bay Area, he never played more than 48 games and never scored more than 27 points. However, last off-season, despite his declining production and tendency to spend large amounts of the season on the injured reserve list (IR), the New Jersey Devils signed Havlat to a one year contract, because New Jersey apparently can’t resist aging stars past their prime (and I don’t mean Jagr). But Havlat only managed to play 40 games for the Devils last year and only put up 14 points. It looked like his career was over but Bryan Murray seems willing to give him one last chance.
Why Give Havlat Another Chance?
Largely because he could create offense out of nothing when the puck was on his stick. As demonstrated below:
Havlat in his prime had tremendous speed and exceptionally soft hands. He was able to beat defenders to the puck with ease and then either find an open teammate or take on the goalie himself. However, what really set him apart from other skilled wingers was his strength on the puck. At 6’2” 210 lbs Havlat was big enough to win physical battles for the puck and then use his size to hold off opposition defenders, as seen in the video above.
Combined with excellent vision and play-making ability, when everything clicked for Havlat he was the complete package, able to beat opponents with speed, skill or strength. Thus, it is understandable that a GM like Bryan Murray, who has publicly stated multiple times that he is in the market for a top six winger, would be willing to take a chance on Havlat rediscovering his form to one degree or another, simply because his perceived upside is so huge. The fact that he has a history in Ottawa only makes him more appealing.
That Was Then, This Is Now
Unfortunately it is time to ruin everyone’s vision of a glorious return to Canadian Tire Place for Havlat. Simply put, he isn’t the player he used to be even five years ago, and there isn’t any indication that he will ever again be a productive NHLer.
In his last two seasons in the NHL he has played only 88 games and managed only 36 points. The last time Havlat played anywhere near a full season in the NHL was in 2010-2011 when he suited up for 78 games for the Wild. The likelihood that he is able to overcome his immediate injury history and play even 75% of the time for Ottawa is very small. Even if he signs a reasonable short-term contract, say one year at one million dollars, it is more than likely that Ottawa will be paying Havlat to watch games from the press box, and while a player on the IR list doesn’t count against the cap, the team still has to pay him. Paying players to not play is not a wise use of funds for a budget team like Ottawa.
The second problem is that even when he has been on the ice, Havlat has not been especially productive. His points per sixty minutes total last year was 1.42, which would have ranked him 13th out of Senators forwards, lower than even recently departed David Legwand. Havlat also doesn’t make up for lower offensive totals by driving the play. In fact, he was a negative possession player at 45 SAT% while his relative possession numbers were also negative (meaning his line-mates played better without him). These numbers mean he would have been the worst Ottawa forward last year in terms of possession, ranking below even Chris Neil and Zack Smith, two players wildly criticized by advanced stats junkies.
Placing Havlat in Ottawa’s Depth Chart
If Bryan Murray and the management team do sign Havlat, it will largely be for nostalgia value. But he will also have to play somewhere on Ottawa’s four lines. Putting him on one of the top two scoring lines seems like a poor idea. With MacArthur-Turris-Stone and Hoffman-Zibanejad-Ryan all producing offense at a much higher level than Havlat has done for the past four year, playing him in a top six role would actually downgrade Ottawa’s offense.
The best fit would seem to be the third line, where he could act as an offensively minded replacement for Erik Condra. However, David Cameron used the third line of Lazar-Pageau-Condra as an energy/defensive line last year and given only 40% of starts in the offensive zone. Given his inability to drive the play (meaning he needs offensive zone starts to create chances) and a lack of defensive awareness, playing Havlat on the 3rd line would mean David Cameron would have to radically change his line deployments. Plus, it isn’t clear that Havlat would actually be an offensive upgrade over Alex Chiasson, who would be well suited for that 3rd line role.
Finally, if he were to play on the 4th line the obvious question is, what is the point? Especially when that means depriving young players like Matt Puempel or Shane Prince of much-needed playing time. If Ottawa should have learnt anything from their log jam on defense over the past year, it is that having to many under-performing veterans on one-way deals isn’t a good asset management strategy.
Thankfully, it seems like Ottawa’s management is only interested is signing Havlat to a Professional Tryout Contract (PTO) so they can asses his performance in training camp. Lets hope at the end of camp the two parties shake hands and Havlat goes on to sign a big money deal in the KHL. While I love the idea of him recapturing some of the magic he had during his years with Ottawa, I simply don’t believe that will happen.
Sometimes it is best just not to get back together.
I am a Canadian historian studying at UBC and currently living in Ottawa ON. who grew up watching and playing hockey. I write about the Ottawa Senators, past and present, for The Hockey Writers. I think fancy stats are great. Also a huge soccer and Rugby fan.