For the fourth game in a row Mark Borowiecki starts at forward, playing on the fourth line, while Shane Prince sits watching from the press box. Despite the fact that Prince has strong underlying possession numbers and demonstrated offensive potential, Borowiecki, who has never played forward during his entire professional career, is Dave Cameron’s preferred left-winger for the time being. Similarly, and only slightly more understandable, long time Binghamton player David Dziurzynski has been playing left-wing on the third line beside J.G. Pageau and Alex Chiasson. While Dziurzynski brings grit and physicality to the Sens’ lineup, his offensive upside is essentially non-existent, having never eclipsed 28 points in an AHL season.
As a result of preferring physical play over skill, Ottawa’s third and fourth lines, which were a strength during last year’s playoff run. have become a puck possession liability, forcing Cameron to rely on his top six to a much greater extent. While currently Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and company seem capable of dealing with a heavier workload, if key players are either injured or their production dries up, currently the bottom six doesn’t have the ability to pick up the offensive slack.
Blame Chris Wideman
Chris Wideman has managed to make a strong case for himself as a starting defenseman for the Ottawa Senators. In 18 games this year he has posted the second best possession numbers among Ottawa defenders – behind only Erik Karlsson – all while starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone and demonstrating strong puck moving skills. Similar to Patrick Wiercioche last year, Wideman has made himself indispensable to the Senators and a better option than one of either Jared Cowen or Mark Borowiecki. Yet despite both Cowen and Borowiecki’s relatively poor play, the coaching staff continue to have faith in both players and want them on the ice, rather than watching the game from the press box. So what is their solution to seven defensemen? Move one of them to forward! That means that one of Ottawa’s depth forwards gets scratched to make room for Borowiecki.
Why Shane Prince Is Scratched (But Shouldn’t Be)
Shane Prince suffers from the Ottawa Senators’ professed desire for physical play over skill. Borowiecki and Dziurzynski are one and two overall in hits per game on the Senators, while Prince is tied for second last on the team. Bryan Murray, in a recent interview, provided some insight on how management sees Prince’s role on the team:
“Well again, I think you’re in your role on a team. We know that Shane Prince, offensively, brings something to our club. I think the coaching staff and all are trying to figure out, ‘Can you do enough without the puck to be a regular player on our team?’ I think Shane’s going to be in and out a little bit here. I see he’s out (of the lineup) again tonight, but he’ll get his chance. He’s a talented young forward. He’s an offensive type of player. At some point in the year, he’ll get put back in on a regular basis, I believe, and be an important player. Again, the coaches are adamant that we’ve got to play better defensively. We’ve got to stop giving up as many chances and I can’t disagree with them.”
Cameron and company equate physical play with defensive responsibility and while it is probably true that Borowiecki and Dziurzynski are both better at the defensive side of the game than Prince, this view is a rather simplistic view of how hockey works. Rather than focusing on simply suppressing opponents shots, the best way to limit scoring chances against is to have control of the puck, preferably in the other team’s zone. Hence why possession stats are such a valuable statistic and over the past two seasons, no other Ottawa forward has better numbers than Prince. This season he is one of only three Ottawa forwards to have posted a positive SAT% at 51.3. Furthermore, his relative possession stats (from Scott Cullen) are exceptionally good, or in other words, Prince makes his teammates better when he is on the ice. As we have seen from the best defensive teams in the league, such as the LA Kings, the best way to keep pucks out of your own net, is to have control of the puck the majority of the time. Hence, starting possession black holes like Borowiecki will not help limit scoring chances. Starting a player like Prince will.
Shane Prince’s Offensive Upside
Beyond strong possession numbers, Prince has also demonstrated his ability to produce offensively. As discussed in an earlier post about applying Moneyball ideas to hockey, Prince was a scoring phenom in Major Junior, scoring 88 points in 59 games during his draft year. Last season in the AHL, he led the Binghamton Senators in scoring with 65 points, good for sixth overall in the AHL. Additionally, while he has only played 20 NHL games over the past two years, Prince’s 2.12 points per 60 minutes of ice time ranks him 5th on the Senators, ahead of top six stalwarts Mika Zibanejad and Clarke MacArthur. Yet for some reason, Zack Smith, whose 0.9 points per sixty ranks him second last among Ottawa forwards over the past two years, is skating on the second line with Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman, while Prince sits. And, when given a chance to play on the second line, Prince played exceptionally well, as demonstrated below:
The obvious answer is that Shane Prince should be playing on the second line with Zibanejad and one of Bobby Ryan or Mike Hoffman. Such a lineup would move Smith down to the third line and Dziurzynski to the fourth. Then Borowiecki (or preferably Cowen) would be scratched, leaving Ottawa with the strongest possible line-up given the number of injuries Ottawa currently has. Another alternative is sending Curtis Lazar down to the minors to work on his offensive game. Lazar is currently playing fourth line centre, a role that either Smith or Dziurzynski could fill. That would open up a spot on the wing for either Matt Puempel or Cole Schnieder to come up from Binghamton. Either of these options would create space for Prince while helping to improve Ottawa’s puck possession numbers and scoring. However, as it stands right now, Dave Cameron is sticking with Borowiecki on wing. So far, Ottawa has managed to produce wins with the current line up but their poor performance against Tampa indicates that the current line-up might not be able to produce against elite teams. Given tough games against the Canadiens, Kings and Capitals this week, Cameron may well be forced to make line up changes sooner rather than later.