The Thin Blue Line

It was a little over one month ago that GM Bryan Murray made some comments to ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun regarding his Ottawa Senators’ surprising ascent up the NHL’s standings that I think are worthy of revisiting.

Here’s what was written at the time:

“I’d be wrong if I didn’t think that some of these older guys on our team didn’t deserve a chance to be helped going into the playoffs, if that’s where we end up,” Murray said.

Murray likes his blue line and said if he adds anything before the deadline, it’ll be up front.

“We’d probably be looking for a forward,” Murray said.

Of course, it’s always important to apply some context.

At the time the comments were made, Ottawa was in the latter stages of a streak that had them hotter than Sam Gagner. Combined with their inflated point total – thanks in large part to the sheer volume of games that the team had played – the Senators had as many points as New Jersey – the Eastern Conference’s fourth place team.

Moreover, Murray’s first point shouldn’t be misinterpreted as some ill-fated attempt to win now. No, in fairness to Ottawa’s GM, he and The Euge have already gone to lengths indicating the organization’s stance that they are unwilling to mortgage the future for some short-sighted success. So for those of you who are fretting another Andy Sutton or Matt Cullen’esque deadline rental, your fears will hopefully never be realized.

Nevertheless, Murray’s faith in his defensive unit is something that’s curious. Suspicious even. Although Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen are two young assets that seem poised to fulfill their vast potential, the former is slated to hit RFA and a substantial pay raise at the end of the season and the latter’s recent struggles have coincided with the team’s slide.

Or maybe it isn’t such a coincidence…

With the rest of the defensive group rounded out with a number of plodding, past-their-prime, one-dimensional veterans, the Senators have such a small margin for error if head coach Paul MacLean has to rely on someone other than Cowen to log top four minutes.

Since the January 19th contest against San Jose in which he logged 23 minutes, Cowen’s seen his ice-time progressively dwindle down to 13 minutes and 52 seconds against the Edmonton Oilers – his third lowest total of the season. (His season low is 12 minutes and 27 seconds and his second lowest total was 13 minutes and 38 seconds. Both marks came against the New York Rangers in late October.)

Much like any rookie, Cowen’s game has experienced some ups and downs. Now that he has struggled mightily – he has been demoted to the third defensive pairing with Brian Lee — the Senators simply don’t have the personnel to overcome his shortcomings in the interim. As good as the Big Rig’s performance was against Nashville last Thursday, I don’t think there’s a Sens fan out there who wants to relive last season’s disastrous Gonchar-Phillips pairing for any prolonged period of time. Similarly, Brian Lee’s skillset will never allow him to profile as anything other than a bottom pairing guy. And much like Filip Kuba last season, unfortunately for Matt Carkner, he hasn’t come close to resembling the player that he was before his knee surgery.

Which leads us to the future…

Even with a 20 year old Cowen and a 21 year old Karlsson, there’s no one currently in the system that profiles as a top four guy in the reasonable future. Some prospect porn indulging Sens fans may be inclined to put Borowiecki and Wiercioch in this category but I’m a bit more reserved in my expectations for either player.  That’s not meant as a slight. I’m just not convinced that the former has the ceiling or that the latter’s status has changed much from being a project defenceman thanks to an inconsistent and injury plagued season in the AHL.

Considering the relative age of Ottawa’s other five defencemen – Gonchar (37); Kuba (35); Phillips (33); Carkner (31); and Lee (24) – there’s legitimate reason for concern. As some studies like the one in Hockey Prospectus’ 2011-12 Annual have shown (if you haven’t already, I highly recommend purchasing it), production and performance for a NHL player typically increase on a gradual basis from a player’s sophomore season through a peak age of around 25 or 26 years of age. From that point, you typically will see production gradually decline until the player approximately reaches 32 years of age. From this point, the decline in a player’s performance regresses at a considerably accelerated rate.

Conversely, with impending free agents like Kuba (UFA), Carkner (UFA), Lee (RFA) and even Gonchar with one year left on his current deal that carries a $5.5 million cap hit, none of these players fit in the with the team’s long-term plans. Hell, if the NHL adopts an amnesty clause as part of the next CBA, Gonchar seems like the most likely candidate to have his contract dumped. (As an aside, if you’re owner Eugene Melnyk and the other owners want to push for amnesty clauses as part of the new CBA, why would you vote in favor of it knowing that your organization has been fiscally responsible? Why would you essentially want to give your competitors a Get Out of Jail Free card.)

While it’s naïve to assume that some won’t use this opportunity to bemoan the loss of David Rundblad from the team’s system, I believe that his trade was as much of a philosophical choice as it was a reflection on the individual player. Like in most NHL trades, the adage ‘you have to give something to get something’ rang true. (Well, unless you’re trading with Bob Gainey.) Nevertheless, Rundblad became expendable for a few reasons: A) Even as a 21-year defenceman who had played three full seasons against men in the SEL, thanks to his difficulty adapting to the angles (smaller rink) and style that North American hockey created, his defensive inefficiencies were glaring. (See: a -19 +/- rating in 38 professional North American hockey games. The more games he played, the more chance other organizations’ scouts had a chance of noticing this and valuing him less. In holding onto him, his trade value could have gone south. B) With Erik Karlsson logging significant minutes and Cowen positioning himself to be Karlsson’s defensive partner as early as next year, Rundblad would never have been anything more than a second pairing guy in Ottawa. As such, it raises philosophical questions about the best way to construct a team that gives it the best chance to win the Stanley Cup. Could the Senators have won with two players that have some defensive shortcomings or play a style that may not conducive to postseason success? C) In case you haven’t noticed, Kyle Turris is pretty fucking awesome. (I may be biased here.)

Through the combination of Rundblad’s absence and the expected loss of a few veterans to free agency, it remains to be seen why Bryan Murray is so content with his defensive group. It stands to reason that Ottawa could help its blueline depth at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft or through free agency. If the latter is the case, it is more than a bit disconcerting that the organization would put its eggs in that basket.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some very attractive defensive options on the market, there are. With names like Ryan Suter, Jason Garrison and Nicklas Grossman slated to hit unrestricted free agency, any of these players would be fantastic additions to the Senators. As enticing as it would be for Ottawa to dangle the possibility of being partnered with Erik Karlsson for foreseeable future, the competition for these players’ services will be fierce. Unfortunately, with all dollars being equal, any rational fan should understand that the likelihood that any of these players would want to come to a rebuilding Canadian market team is small, especially when ownership has been so critical of the lengthy and expensive contracts that their competitors have been so eager to dole out.

If the Senators’ rebuilding philosophy is going to remain consistent, it appears likely that they are content to build around homegrown talent first and then supplement this core through trade with players from outside the organization. Since the organization is so wary of burning payroll flexibility and there are so many other teams willing to spend frivolously in free agency, it’s highly unrealistic to think the Senators are going to have a big name fall free agent into their lap at an appropriate cap hit that makes sense.

For a team like Ottawa, the best course of action is to continue to make transactions like the one involving Kyle Turris. By continuing to stockpile draft picks and prospects, Ottawa can continue to parlay this quantity for young, controllable players with upside while doing it at a fraction of the financial cost. Ultimately, what it gives them is freedom of the free market. It gives them the opportunity to acquire players who otherwise would be wary of playing in a cold weather climate under the microscope of a fervent Canadian fan base.

Bryan Murray may not be tipping his hand in regards to his offseason intentions but in consideration of Bob McKenzie’s announcement last night on TSN that Filip Kuba could be had for the right price, I’m certainly inclined to believe that Ottawa will continue moving forward in the right direction – building up a considerable pool of talent that affords Murray the luxury to acquire young NHL talent with a clearer understanding of what this acquired player can bring to the table.

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