Ottawa Senators: Why The Season Went Bad

Season lost as Senators implode defensively.
“Andy” unable to rescue Senators from disappointing season. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Making Sense of the Sens

Time is ticking down on the 2013-14 season and it seems this year’s version of the Ottawa Senators will be on the outside looking in when the Stanley Cup tournament begins. It turned out there would be many obstacles for the Sens once games got underway in October but a self imposed player budget put the team behind the 8-ball from the start.

The Sens – ible Budget

Reasoning for the self imposed cap is simple. Owner Eugene Melnyk has suggested he has lost $10 million per season on the Senators. They can’t keep spending to the cap while losing money so the internal cap is $50 million. There has been speculation as to if it is a limit to the team ‘cap hit’ or a limit of actual salaries. For example, Jason Spezza’s cap hit this season is $7 million however he is making $5 million cash. Since the team is currently sitting above the suggested internal cap as far as NHL salary cap numbers go, thinking is that the limit is on real dollars spent.

Why the cap carried forward into this season when the Senators made a second round appearance in last years playoffs is unknown. Would that revenue not cover at least some losses? Even deeper in the closet is the thought that maybe, just maybe, the spending limitations are one reason former captain (and heart and sole of the red and black) Daniel Alfredsson chose to take his sticks to Detroit. 

The plus side is, I’m sure if Melnyk felt the team was on the cusp of another cup run, he would have no issue opening his wallet to put them over the top. Reality is, they aren’t even close at this point.

The Senators are currently $7.8 million below the actual NHL salary cap with a payroll of $56.4 million. One third of the teams allotted funds ($18.6 million) is tied up between three players, Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan and Norris-Trophy-winning defenseman, Erik Karlsson. Figure in a contract offer for Ales Hemsky, Kyle Turris’ $3.5 million, Clarke MacArthur’s $3.25 million, just over $9 million to round out the top four defensemen and you’re left with very little for the other 14 roster spots.

This is without mentioning Milan Michalek who currently collects $4.3 million per season and is an unrestricted free agent in July. I thought Bryan Murray would have moved him at the trade deadline and perhaps he tried but it is hard to believe the Ottawa General Manager will let the only asset recovered in the Danny Heatley fiasco just walk away. Cue another hefty contract renewal or more likely, a draft day trade.

Scoring Like Senators

There has been plenty of speculation that the Senators haven’t scored enough. Bryan Murray was very public about his search for a winger to compliment his big center (Captain) Jason Spezza. While the addition of Ales Hemsky (two goals and eight points in seven games as of this writing) has been huge, it may be misleading to point to the offensive production as a reason for the first post-season absence in three years and only the third miss since the cancelled season of 2004.

Maybe Spezza isn’t scoring points like he was beside BFF Danny Heatley but he doesn’t have to. The team was a one-line-wonder in those days and with the additions of Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris and of course Ales Hemsky, they have rounded into a much more balanced force.

Since the 2004-05 lock-out season, teams have needed to accumulate in the range of 92 points in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs. (The shortened 2012-13 season was averaged based on points per game) To obtain the 92 point minimum the eighth seed has averaged 237 goals and a plus-4. The lowest goal total was 212 scored by the Boston Bruins in 2007-08 (94 points).

The previous two times the Senators sat on the outside when the dust settled, they finished with 83 and 74 points. This season Ottawa is on pace for 83 points once again, however they are trending towards scoring 234 goals. It would seem offensive production may not be the issue after all. 

In order for the Senators to make the playoffs this year they would have had to score closer to the 314 put up in 2005-06 or the 288 netted during their cup run season because they are a dismal minus-42 this year.

The one acception to the 92 point rule was the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens who grabbed the final post season slot with 88 points. However, the Habs were sporting a goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price and managed to sneak in on 217 goals and a minus-6.

Sens From the Net Out

There is no question that Craig Anderson had a career year last season, although in a shortened 24 game sample size. His .941 save percentage was tops in the NHL and his 1.69 goals against average helped push the Senators into not only a playoff spot but into the second round of Lord Stanley’s Cup challenge. There is also no question that his .908 save percentage and 3.10 goals against in 47 games this year are neither commendable nor good enough for an NHL starting goaltender.

For his part, backup Robin Lehner’s numbers are no better through 28 games. The Senators brass need to ask themselves if unproven Lehner is the future of the crease. If not, it’s time to start actively looking for that guy. Anderson has one year left on his contract and at 33 years old (in May) his best years are likely behind him. The Senators going past the summer with Anderson as their starting tender wouldn’t surprise me but I would start to worry a little. If they coast through the 2015 trade deadline and still have “Andy” holding the ball, I’ll be downright floored. Murray really needs to get some value out of him while there is some left.

Make no mistake, I’m not saying acquiring an top net-minder is easy to achieve. The competition for the best puck stoppers is fierce but the attempt has to be made. There is a prime candidate just down the road in rival blue. James Reimer is young enough at 26 that he could grow with a young Senators team and could provide a formidable tandem with Lehner. He has had some success at the NHL level, most notably last season where he helped push the big bad Bruins to seven games in the first round of the Playoffs. It was also a very successful first full regular season in the bigs.

Reimer possesses the type of character you want to go to war with. He is the scapegoat far too often for the blue and white but he could evolve into a star given the proper support. He regularly gets a boatload of shots as well, which is something that will come in handy while the Senators continue to wade their way towards a respectable defensive system. “Optimus Reim” as they call him, is a restricted free agent in July and the Leafs have no apparent plan to bring him back so Murray could likely get him fairly cheap.

Defensive Overhaul

There has been a bit of a revolving door over the years when it comes to the Ottawa defense and it doesn’t look like it will change soon. The blueline has been trending down since Anderson arrived and until there is some stability back there it may be tough to right the ship. In 2011-12 in 494 man-games the Senators defense was a combined plus-32. Last season they projected to 493 man-games with a combined plus-21 over a full 82 game schedule. That is a plus-21 with your goaltender turning in a career year posting numbers like .941-pct and 1.69-gaa. This year, complete implosion.

The 2013-14 rear-guards are currently a combined minus-39 and are projecting towards an atrocious minus-48 with 493 man-games played. Clearly it would be difficult for a goaltender to have a good year with a shabby defense in front of him and in turn the same can be said for a defense with a spaghetti strainer in net. Unfortunately in the case of the Senators, figuring in a possible age induced decline and a bad case of the injury-bug, “Andy” hasn’t been there to bail them out.

The one true bright spot for the Senators backend is their young stud, Erik Karlsson. When you look around the league you are hard pressed to find another defender who can skate, move the puck or put up points like Karlsson. He is so effective on the offensive side of the puck you can forgive his career minus-29.

When you get past the young rear-guard it gets a little thin. Skating beside Karlsson is 28-year-old Marc Methot. He is actually a good compliment to the Swedish phenom and is mindful in his own end but it is questionable if he is a true top-two kind of player. I see him more as a bottom pairing guy who has the ability to jump up to second pair minutes.

Then there is the mystery called Chris Phillips. It can be argued that Phillips’ golden days are long behind him. With guys like Patrick Wiercioch and Cody Ceci ready to take more demanding roles, Phillips’ $2.5 million two year deal could be taxing, especially if Murray plans on upgrading any of the defensemen. (internal budget remember)

I guess it could be said that having Phillips around to mentor the young guys is value enough to extend the money and term but on most nights the young guys aren’t getting ice time. With the rather abrupt exit of Daniel Alfredsson I can understand wanting to keep the leadership around but I’m not sure the pros outweigh the cons in this case.

It would be a benefit to all involved if the young defenders were given larger roles heading down the stretch. Ottawa now has less than a one percent chance of making the playoffs, why not use the time to get these kids into some pressure situations. It is working wonders for the Islanders. A taste now could help ease into a full schedule next season.

Senators Quick Hits

Positive – Clarke MacArthur having a career year and meshing well with Kyle Turris.

Positive – Erik Karlsson showing no ill effects from severed tendon.

Positive – The team is as balanced as it has ever been and depth is starting to show.

Negative – No elite option in goal going forward.

Negative – Internal salary cap may prevent improving club from outside.

Negative (right now) – Jason Spezza clearly struggles at times under the weight of the C. He needs time to grow into it.


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