What’s the Rush?

In light of Craig Anderson channelling his inner Colorado Avalanche yesterday and completely defecating the mattress in his 22 minutes and 10 seconds of play against the Buffalo Sabres, the Senators three game winning streak is over. Mind you, it was only a matter of time before he looked like any other incapable goaltender that we have grown accustomed to seeing man the pipes over the past few seasons. It’s about time too. Like some fans, I was beginning to get a little worried and treated each win like it was a bad birthday gift from a family member. “Wow, what a surprise! No, really, this is great. It’s just what I needed…” (Just keep smiling.)

I couldn’t help it, the fear that Ottawa’s improved play and each victory would carry the team further away from the league basement and the worsening lottery odds that accompany it. For the many fans that have had trouble enduring a losing season of this magnitude, the one saving grace was the possibility that team could wind up with the number one overall selection. Finally for the first time since Jason Spezza was drafted second overall in 2001, the Senators looked like they had a real opportunity to get a potential high ceiling player this early in the draft. And the organization capitalized on this new marketing angle — once the season was forlorn and veteran assets were peddled, the organization naturally made efforts to sell the fans on hope and re-emphasize that the wave of talented young prospects and Jim O’Brien’s hair were just around the corner. So when comments were made by management that publicly acknowledged that the team’s first round selection will play in the NHL next season, it only added to the fervor.

Maybe you might have noticed by the amount of press that Gabriel Landeskog received last week but too many fans — myself included — are getting caught up in the romance of seeing a lottery pick play next season. Oh, he’s Swedish. He’s physically ready. He has drawn comparisons to Mike Richards. He oozes intangibles. He played in the Bell Canada Cup and has a Senators jersey signed by Alfredsson. He’s the ideal heir apparent! At the rate that the Senators organization is accumulating Swedish prospects, maybe next season’s third jersey reveal will feature the tre kronor symbol within the Senators ‘O’. Sverige eller byst!

With such little clarity as to how things could shake out, rather than stopping to ask ourselves why the organization would make some definitive statement like that and raise fan expectations without even knowing where or who they’ll draft, we’re losing our heads and ignoring the possibility that the team may continue its ascent up the standings or not have the ping pong balls drop their way. Whether or not it was lip service designed to generate some season ticket sales or renewals, I’m loathe to the notion that the front office would even consider making some decision based in its desire to appease the clamouring of the fans who desperately crave some kind of validation for enduring this shitty 2010-11 season.

I yearn to see more of the cold and calculated “hockey decisions” like the ones involving Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher – players that were under team control. Unfortunately the decision to lock Phillips up to a three year extension and unnecessary comments about this year’s lottery pick being in uniform next season are already making me skeptical. It’s not my fault for being a bit cynical here. These two aforementioned acts just remind me of those impulsive decisions that have earmarked the rest of the Murray era.

Whether the organization drafts Landeskog or an undersized player like Nugent-Hopkins, it shouldn’t be considered as a slight to have that player be returned to junior. Ticket sales aside, there’s simply shouldn’t be any onus on the organization to waste one year of a player’s entry-level contract to have them play on a bad team. Sure, that player could miss out on playing against stiffer competition or missing out on what could be Alfie’s last season, but preferably, I’d rather see this said player retain a year on his ELC when the team has a higher probability of being competitive. And when you consider that Jared Cowen and David Rundblad are already being counted upon to play on a team that is expected to fare poorly, how many shiny new toys does one team need to distract its fans?

Ultimately what this comes down to is what is in the best interests of player development and while I realize that there’s no foolproof method, there are just so many important questions to answer…

If he struggles at the NHL level, he assuredly will have to face the inherent scrutiny and pressures of playing in a Canadian city with a moderately sized media contingent that would analyze his every move. Could he handle it? Like Brayden Schenn or Tyler Seguin faced the possibility of a return this year, would the possibility of a return to junior loom over him? Would it better for the organization from an asset management standpoint to give a veteran player (ie. Peter Regin) — whose trade value is directly correlated to playing time — the spot and hopefully boost their worth and make themselves more marketable?

It makes for interesting discussion and Landeskog or not, I wouldn’t rush whomever the club selects with the first pick. Given the low expectations attached to next season, there’s just no sense in it except to warm the hearts of an impatient fan base.

* I briefly got into this in a blog last week about how I didn’t understand the Phillips signing. Here’s what I wrote:

One of the subplots of the 2009-10 season were the contract negotiations with Anton Volchenkov. As an impending unrestricted free agent, the A-Train played a large role in helping the Senators draw back into the playoff fold. Looking back at the negotiations, Murray could have signed Anton – a younger player than Phillips – to a deal similar to the one that Jersey offered but ultimately the hockey operations brain-trust balked at the term citing Volchenkov’s mileage and style of play as deterring factors that could contribute to injury.

I find it bizarre that we haven’t heard the same concerns about Phillips’ new extension, especially when you consider that Anton signed a 6-year deal with the Devils that will expire when he’s 34 – exactly one year younger than the age Phillips will be when his extension ends. (Albeit, Phillips deal will end earlier than Anton’s.)

But please don’t mistake this for some revisionist bullshit. If you’re familiar with this website’s history or have listened to the podcasts, you’ll know that that we understood and agreed with the logic for letting Volchenkov go. And granted, I realize that the organization’s plans deviated slightly because of the team’s poor performance this season, but it’s worth wondering how a playoff team that was willing to bite the bullet and let go of Volchenkov, would feel so compelled to re-up an older and less effective player one season later because of his “intangibles”.

Now I’m not saying that this should have be a Volchenkov versus Phillips discussion. Under the circumstances and dollars that both defencemen were looking for, I probably would have walked away from both. What I do however have a problem with is an organization that acted as though they had painted themselves into a corner with Phillips. One year earlier, when they were negotiating with Volchenkov, they knew that Phillips’ deal expired the following season.

On a subjective level and observational point of view, Volchenkov and Phillips were somewhat similar players that were defensive partners. But on a deeper level, you have to wonder how it’s possible to distinguish which player made the other one better. Well, using some particular statistics, you can differentiate the two. Looking at last year’s numbers, if you were to exclude penalty shots, shorthanded tallies against and goals that were scored into an empty net, here is how their even strength numbers broke down:

– Chris Phillips was on the ice for 61 goals for and 60 goals against.
– Anton Volchenkov was on the ice for 44 goals for and 48 goals against.

A differential of +1 to -4 isn’t that big of a discrepancy.

Now looking at these same statistics through February 21st of this season, Ottawa and New Jersey had similar records. Both teams were equally bad, were hampered by injuries and featured many underachieving players. Hell, you’d be hardpressed not to argue that anyone on either team was playing exceptionally good hockey. Now despite these problems, take a look at how these players performed in absence of each other:

– Chris Phillips was on the ice for 29 goals for and 61 against.
– Anton Volchenkov was on the ice for 27 goals for and 26 against.

Knowing these numbers, it’s completely reasonable to assume that Phillips was more adversely affected than Volchenkov was and by looking at Behindthenet.ca’s Goals Versus Threshold rating, it reinforces this argument. It’s no secret that Phillips has owned the blueline’s worst rating over the duration of the season. 

By allowing Volchenkov to walk, the team lacked an NHL-ready defensive defenceman who could replace Phillips’ minutes. And instead of pursuing a cheap replacement type in free agency, they opted to ink Sergei Gonchar to a long term deal even though three of the team’s four young assets — Wiercioch, Karlsson and Rundblad — project as offensive defenceman. I can’t help but wonder where the foresight is or how much the plan has deviated over the course of the past two seasons and as I sit and ponder Chris’ contract, the more I’m left to question the three year commitment that he received. And when you take into account some of the sabermetric hockey statistics that I mentioned above, you really have to question whether or not the Senators organization is taking full advantage of the statistical resources and measures that are available to them. (Note: Given Bryan Murray’s age, I’m guessing that he’s not one for a Bill James-like statistical renaissance in hockey.)

Let’s face it, three seasons is a lengthy term to give any 32-year old player that has left the prime of his career… let alone for a defensive defenceman who has come off of such a pitiful statistical season like Phillips. If he was sincere in his comments that he wanted to remain an Ottawa Senator, there was no benefit (on the part of the organization) to give Chris anything more than a one year deal to prove that this season was just a bad one for the player.

Listening to Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein discuss the Derek Jeter contract negotiations on the Jim Rome Show last Friday, he made a valid point regarding contract discussions with a player who has a long history with a team. You should always be delicate when commenting on these situations because you don’t want to insult a player publicly and put them in a bad light. The landscape in professional sports these days is so fine — whether it’s through revenue sharing, a salary cap, etc. — that most teams can ill afford to overpay a player based on what he has done for an organization in the past. As I listened to Epstein talk, I found myself nodding my head in agreement and drawing parallels to the Phillips situation. I think if you look at it objectively, you’ll see an unnecessary risk that Ottawa inherited by giving him this term. While the contract may be palatable in the interim, Craig Anderson’s play has given us reason to believe that might not take that long for this team to be competitive again. So yes, while it’s true that the contract won’t cripple the team financially, Phillips is only good for the kids until he’s blocking one of their spots. And without knowing where this team will be three seasons from now, the Phillips contract will likely be more of a hindrance in the long-term than it’d be of benefit in the short-term. 




Alexei Kovalev makes his return to the nation’s capital tonight and it’s no surprise to see that media is playing up the angle of “how will the fans respond?”


Other News and Notes:

– Derek Smith and Grant Potulny were optioned back to Binghamton and Andre Benoit and Jim O’Brien have been called up as replacements. Like former interim goaltending coach John Stevenson, O’Brien’s hair has been sorely missed.

– Craig Anderson will get the start tonight and it will be interesting to see how he responds after his first poor performance in a Senators uniform.

– Former Ottawa 67 and NHLer Peter Ambroziak has been appointed the head of hockey development at the Bell Sensplex. Now if only we could find out who oversees the Sensplex’s iPlay gaming lounge and is responsible for the World of Warcraft character development? 

– Today on the Fan 590 in Toronto, Eugene Melnyk called for the NHL to take radical action on deliberate headshots. As @erinnicks noted on Twitter, this is the latest instance when Melnyk has something to say, he uses Toronto radio as an outlet. Is it just me or does it seem weird for him to be calling for radical change less than two weeks after his organization re-signed Phillips?