The future looks bright in Ottawa. After an on-again, off-again retooling process, the Senators appear to be on the cusp of being a perennial playoff team.
As of today, Ottawa only has six players age 30 or over. If we analyze based on production instead of popularity, it’s arguable that only one of those six would be considered a core player at this point in their career, which is Craig Anderson. The others are Chris Neil, Clarke MacArthur, Milan Michalek, Chris Phillips, and Mark Methot.
While Neil is a fan favourite and team leader, he isn’t integral to the team’s success. We saw that as the Senators marched down the stretch to the playoffs and Neil couldn’t draw into the lineup even once healthy.
MacArthur and Michalek are decent forwards, but not the impact core pieces they once were.
On the back end, Phillips has had a solid career in Ottawa, but he’s a second pairing player. Methot is a great shut down defenseman, and while his twenties have technically gone in the rear view mirror, he has only been 30 for two weeks.
Going into this season, considering age and contracts, the Senators are in reasonably good shape in the three position categories that make up every hockey team.
This is the one area where the Senators are showing some aging. After trading Robin Lehner at the draft, the Senators have given their confidence to Anderson and Andrew Hammond. Anderson is 34 years old, and the Senators will need to find someone to replace him by the time his contract expires after the 2017-18 season.
If the end of the season is any indication, it could be 27-year-old Hammond, who went on a fairytale run, but he’ll need to prove that the clock hasn’t struck midnight and turned him into a pumpkin. The Senators also have highly sought after college standout Matt O’Connor waiting in the wings, and if he progresses he may end up as the successor to Anderson’s throne.
The real prize of the blue line is undoubtedly Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson. It’s easy to forget he is only 25 considering how much he has accomplished, but Karlsson is just entering his prime years. Karlsson’s salary is a bargain at 6.5 million over the next four years, and the Senators need to capitalize on having an elite player on the books at such a low salary.
Phillips is an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Senators re-sign him to a short term, reasonably priced contract.
Methot is a good match to play with Karlsson as he is known for being more of a stay at home player who will be aware defensively when Karlsson joins the rush.
The blue line will be filled out by rugged 26-year-old Mark Borowiecki, Patrick Wiercioch (24), Jared Cowen (24), and Cody Ceci (21), who looked quite impressive for a 21-year-old in the playoffs.
Wiercioch and Ceci are restricted free agents after the upcoming season, but the Senators will still have control over their rights.
The forwards are also a young group. Kyle Turris (25) and Mark Stone (23) are locked up for the next three seasons at 3.5M each. Considering their age, they should be on the upswing of their careers, but even if they maintain the impact they had last season, the 3.5 number will be a bargain.
The Senators have a number of young players that are still reaching their potential. Mika Zibanejad, Curtis Lazar, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are all 22 or under and signed for two more years before becoming RFAs.
In most cases, having players locked in for multiple years is a good thing for the Senators. Their core is signed for the next few years at below-value contracts. The Senators also have two players locked in that may hinder the team going forward. For the next seven years, Ottawa will have Bobby Ryan eating up 7.25M of their cap space and internal budget. While he has the potential to live up to that contract, the Sens need him to be better. A power forward in Ryan alongside Turris and Stone could create a deadly line, and management is optimistic Ryan can return to his All-Star form.
MacArthur is also under contract for the long haul, and if all goes according to plan for Ottawa, he will barely be in the top six. Turris, Stone, Zibanejad, Ryan, and Hoffman have either surpassed MacArthur, or are expected to surpass MacArthur this season. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Senators aren’t regretting the term on his contract, but it won’t be a crippling move going forward.
The obvious downside with the Sens is that their young players are still unproven. Yes, they have loads of potential, but with every team, some players don’t fulfill their promise. While players like Turris and Karlsson have reached star status, the others such as Zibanejad, Ceci, Cowen and even Stone need to either take a step forward or prove their seasons weren’t a fluke.
It’s not a bad problem to have, as teams around the league covet young, relatively cheap talent, but it does mean that Senators fans may have to endure some inconsistent play as the 2016 season plays out.