For the casual NHL fan, naming one member of Ottawa’s defence corps is easy. Erik Karlsson is a Norris Trophy winning defender who scored another nomination this year. The challenge to name a second defender is a little more difficult. Maybe if you follow Hockey Canada, you know that Marc Methot was at Team Canada’s Sochi training camp in the summer of 2013 or that Patrick Wiercioch is playing for Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Hockey Championships. Or if you are a Habs fan, you just hate Erik Gryba for this:
Either way, not an easy challenge; this clearly isn’t a top five defense corps.
Quantity Over Quality
Despite not having a particularly notable collection of defense men, Ottawa does have a lot of them, with seven of them on one-way deals. Furthermore, only Cody Ceci is waiver exempt and on a two-way contract, but he is simply too good to send down to Binghamton. With Chris Phillips seemingly returning for another year, Ottawa will have eight d-men for the 2015-2016 season.
The problem for the Senators is that despite having a number of options available to David Cameron and the coaching staff, Ottawa only has three quality defenders and one promising prospect in Ceci. Only Karlsson, Methot and Wiercioch managed to post positive possession numbers this season, with Ceci at 49 SAT% sitting slightly below even. The other four (Cowen, Phillips, Gryba and Borowiecki) were all below 45 SAT%. In fairness to the bottom four, they all started over 55% of their shifts in their end, however, while clearly being deployed in a defensive role by Cameron – and Paul Maclean before him – Gryba, Borowiecki and co. got dominated in this role. The failing of Ottawa’s third pairing is clearly demonstrated when compared to the rest of the league. This past season there were 667 skaters (forwards and defense) who played more than 200 minutes. Out of Cowen, Gryba, Borowiecki and Phillips, none rank higher than 450th.
Off-Season Game Plan
What should Bryan Murray do this summer then? Short answer? Acquire a top 4 defense man. Ideally, it would be a Marc Methot clone; someone who could play with Patrick Wiercioch and has skating ability and lateral mobility to make up for a sometimes flat-footed Wiercioch.
Such an acquisition would allow Ceci to play on the bottom pairing and power play while providing greater offence from the back-end for the third pairing. Part of the problem for Gryba and Borowiecki has been that neither of them can skate the puck out of trouble, a skill Ceci has in spades. His first pass is also much better than any of Cowen, Boro, Gryba or Phillips. The added mobility would hopefully prevent Ottawa’s third pairing from getting trapped in their zone and hammered in possession stats. Cameron would also be in a position to give Ceci protected minutes and allow him time to further develop without consistently having to face team’s top lines. Finally, Ottawa would also have another option on the penalty kill, which would help out a lot for those times when Methot has to sit for 2 minutes.
Bringing in another defense man would necessitate moving out at least one of Ottawa’s bottom four defenders. Ideally, that would be Jared Cowen for two reasons. First, Cowen has the largest cap hit and actual salary of the four. A budget team like Ottawa simply can’t afford to pay $3.5 million for a #6 defense man. Comparatively, Boro and Gryba have reasonable salaries while Phillips is cheaper and only has one year left. Plus he is popular with fans and does provide veteran leadership and mentoring to some of Ottawa’s younger players.
Second, Cowen might actually fetch a return. He is still young and has the pedigree of being a first round pick. He also had a very strong rookie season playing with Serge Gonchar, suggesting that if he was paired with a veteran puck mover, he could regain that form. Or at least that is the pitch Bryan Murray can make. The return for Cowen is probably only a second or third round pick but the money such a deal frees up is a more important asset. Combined with Chris Phillips and Erik Gryba being UFAs in 2016, such moves will allow Ottawa to take on the salary of a second pairing defense man.
Who to Target?
Then who should Ottawa attempt to sign? I am not going to speculate about possible trades but rather focus on d-men who are free agents on July 1st. Here is who I would try to sign in order of preference and with an estimate of the salary and term required to land each of them:
1) Christian Ehrhoff
Ehrhoff is coming off of a $4 million, one year deal with the Penguins after being bought out by Buffalo in the summer of 2014. The view of Ehrhoff as an offensive defenseman has led many to believe that his 14 points and 49 games this year were a massive disappointment. However, he fits a need for Ottawa and the perception of a disappointing season should drive down his price. He is a positive possession player (51.5 %SAT) whose smooth skating and good first pass drives the play, demonstrated by the fact that he ended a higher percentage of shifts in the offensive zone than he started. He also plays on the penalty kill, averaging almost 2:00 per game this year for Pittsburgh. Finally and arguably most importantly, it looks like he will be available come July 1st:
I would estimate that Ottawa could get Ehrhoff on a similar deal as the one he just finished, one year at a slightly reduce $3.5 million a year. The assumption being that Ehrhoff will want one more year to prove his worth as a top four defense man before signing one, final long-term deal to see out his career. A one year deal works for Ottawa because it allows them to asses the progress of Ceci as well as promising AHL prospects Chris Wideman and Fredrik Claesson to see if any of them will be ready to step into Ottawa’s second pairing come 2016.
2) Johnny Oduya
Oduya’s three-year, $2.825 million contract expires this July 1st. With the Blackhawks tight up against the cap, it is doubtful that they are going to have room to resign him. While not putting up impressive offensive numbers, Oduya averages twenty plus minutes a night, is a positive possession player (51.2 %SAT) and averages 1:42 on the penalty kill. Plus, he has been fairly durable, playing over 75 games a year in four of his past five seasons. He won’t provide much offense, but that is Patrick Wiercioch’s role on that pairing. Oduya does also bring a physical edge to his game as demonstrated playing against the Blues.
Given his consistently solid performance in Chicago, Oduya is probably in line for a raise and given his age -33 – is probably looking for one last long-term deal. While the ideal term for Ottawa is two years, in order to land their prize they will probably have to offer three years at $3.5 million a year. Essentially, if Murray managed to trade Cowen its a straight swap in terms of salary AND an upgrade to the second pairing. Plus, Oduya can provide veteran leadership on the blue line after Phillips retires without being a possession black hole.