Whatever Happens, Happens

The knock on Ottawa coming into this season was the familiar refrain, “Where are the goals going to come from?”

Fourty-three games into the regular season, the answer is improbably simple: from the third period. After another come-from-behind victory in yesterday afternoon’s game, the Senators not only lead the league with six wins when trailing after two periods, they’re also the highest scoring third period team. It has helped to vault them into sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

To head coach Paul MacLean’s credit, he’s pulling all of the right strings and this goes beyond simply electing to keep Alex Auld sitting at the end of his bench.

During one of the Hockey Central panel’s discussions last week, upon the announcement that Jason Spezza was named to the All-Star Game, one of the experts (I can’t remember which one) mentioned that Jason was having a bit of a bounce back season from last year. Admittedly, this was less of a baiting comment than TSN talking head Darren Dutchyntntntsn saying at the time that, “Jason Spezza is having a fine season so long as you don’t look at his plus/minus” or the Fan 590’s Greg Brady not listing Erik Karlsson amongst his top 10 picks if the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was redone today.  (As an aside, at the time of Dutchy’s comment, Spezza was the benefactor of Ottawa’s goaltenders combining for a save percentage of .899 when he was on the ice. I guess some baiting Toronto media types just can’t help themselves when it was announced that four Ottawa Senators will comprise one-third of the 2012 All-Star Game’s starting lineup.)

 

Last year under Cory Clouston, Spezza — the team’s best faceoff guy and most dynamic offensive forward — had the lowest offensive zone start percentage of anyone on the team at 47.5% when the team was playing at even strength. (Note: This metric is calculated by: # of offensive zone faceoffs / # o-zone faceoffs + # d-zone faceoffs. Neutral zone faceoffs aren’t accounted for because they’re ‘neutral’.)

This season, with the addition of another faceoff specialist like Konopka, MacLean does not have to rely as heavily upon Spezza to win defensive zone draws. As such, Spezza’s o-zone start percentage is now one of the four highest rates on the team at 58.4%. Looking at the raw data, he’s been on the ice for more even strength offensive zone faceoffs this season (270) than he was in the 60 games played last season (240).

Is this the only causal factor in why Spezza is producing more this season? Hardly, however, it’s just another instance of MacLean managing his personnel differently than his predecessor.

To his credit, the rookie head coach has deftly juggled his lineups and ice-time to reward deserving players, irrespective of their tenure. Take Chris Phillips for example: last season under Clouston, the veteran blueliner averaged 21:31 per game of ice-time. Rather than break Jared Cowen in slowly, allowing the rookie to develop on the team’s third pairing, MacLean has slotted him alongside Sergei Gonchar on the second pairing. In consequence, Phillips’ average ice-time is down by more than two minutes this season to 19:28 per game. (For those wondering whether Big Rig’s shorthanded ice-time per game is down, it’s not. It is five seconds below what it was last year.)

After missing the playoffs last season, it’s been a remarkable transition from the stale and complacent group to the young and dynamic core that plays hard for its coach every night. Certainly faster than many could have honestly expected. Thanks to some savvy draft picks and an aggressive move to bring Kyle Turris into the fold, what originally looked to be a two or three year rebuild no longer looks as onerous as it once did. In fact, with the Senators mired in the middle of the Eastern conference playoff seeding, it has many fans and media-types alike wondering how this unexpected success will affect management’s plan.

In an article for Sportsnet, the affable Ian Mendes examined Filip Kuba’s impending unrestricted free agent status, writing:

Kuba has bounced back with his best season in Ottawa since 2008-09. While scoring the game-winner against Philadelphia on Sunday, Kuba was also a plus-four – and now leads the team with a plus-13 for the season. When the Senators win this season, Kuba is often logging more than 23 minutes a night and is quietly their best defenseman.

So now that Kuba is having a renaissance season, you would think that Bryan Murray would have an easy time trying to trade him. This is the scenario all those booing fans wanted at the start of the season: Kuba has a great first-half and then is traded by the deadline.

But not so fast.

Suddenly, the Sens are in the thick of a playoff race in the Eastern Conference and Kuba is a big reason for their success. What kind of message does that send to your fans – and more importantly the players inside the room – when you trade a veteran defenseman in a playoff race?

Granted, there’s still a lot of time between now and the NHL trade deadline, however, if Ottawa still manages to stick in the playoff race, conversation will turn to what the course of action should be.

Naturally, there are plenty of angles to examine…

1) What kind of message does this send to the guys in the room if Kuba is traded?

As Mendes correctly points out, we have to worry about the optics of such a deal for the fans and players alike. After years of watching players like Redden and Chara leave for nothing, one of the first things that Murray mentioned when he inherited the GM duties was that he would do his best to prevent his players from leaving without any compensation in return. Having already lost Anton Volchenkov to unrestricted free agency with nothing to show for it, it will be interesting to see whether Murray sticks to the long-term plan or becomes seduced by the team’s unexpected success and a relatively wide open Eastern Conference. I’ll come back to this later.

By trading Kuba now, you may worry that the players will resent management’s decision to move a veteran who theoretically might ‘give them a better opportunity to win now’. The players however, aren’t stupid. Having allowed the second most number of goals and having the seventh worst penalty kill, the players know that a 35-year old impending UFA simply isn’t going to be part of the team’s long-term plans. On Twitter, I asked Mendes a simple question, is the decision not to trade Kuba any different than not trading future assets at the deadline to give this team the best opportunity to win now?

2) How important is Kuba to Karlsson’s success through the first half of the season?

 

Sens contributor Scott (@Wham_City) corrected Mendes and showed that the Senators actually played nine games in his absence, going 3-4-2 (and 4-4-2 if you count the Winnipeg game in which Kuba was hurt after six minutes of ice-time). With this larger sample size of games, Karlsson actually had seven points playing without his regular partner (or eight in ten games if you’re counting the Winnipeg game).

Some fans may raise the argument that Karlsson looks more comfortable playing with Kuba, but count me amongst those fans that attribute this to familiarity with Kuba and not to Kuba himself. Given enough time, I see no reason why Karlsson can’t find a similar level of comfort with Jared Cowen.

3) How important is team chemistry?

Very important. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have extensive knowledge of the Senators dressing room dynamics. For whatever baseless reason, I have to say that I would be absolutely shocked to learn that Kuba is a key cog within that room.

At the same time, working under the assumption that the Senators would promote Mark Borowiecki to replace Kuba in the event of a trade, it wouldn’t be difficult for the prospect to integrate with the parent club. Having already played with and won a Calder Cup in Binghamton with guys like Zack Smith, Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Kaspars Daugavins, one would think that he’d be a natural fit. When Rundblad was traded Murray hinted Boro was close to playing the NHL, hopefully they give him a few games between now and the deadline.  

4) The state of the Eastern Conference

Admittedly, with the exception of the Boston Bruins, are there any teams in the Eastern Conference that should scare Ottawa in a playoff series? With Chris Pronger out for the remainder of the season with a concussion and Ilya Bryzgalov proving to be nuttier than squirrel excrement, barring some ridiculous deadline acquisition, the Flyers can be beat. Although the New York Rangers have a resilient group and one of the league’s elite goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, they’re a team that the Senators have played tough of late. Washington? With Mike Green’s groin held together by a wish and a prayer, I’m unconvinced that their high-octane style of play is conducive to success in the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s roster is so decimated by injuries right now that it looks like their current group was assembled by Scott Howson. Admittedly, they’re another resilient and well-coached group that has found ways to win without Sidney Crosby but one has to wonder when this constant attention to their LTIR list will draw their focus away from their on-ice play. In consideration of NHL parity and the state of flux that many of these teams are presently in, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Senators stood pat or added at the deadline. (I mean, after the Chris Campoli trade with the Islanders, how could Murray top that from a shock value perspective?) With Scotiabank and Bell having helped finance Ottawa’s new scoreboard, would Eugene Melnyk push for Bryan Murray to add to the current team, hopefully win a playoff round or two and generate some significant revenue for the club?

5) Does Ottawa need to give itself the best chance at a playoff berth?

Looking at Ottawa’s current roster, there are six players who don’t have any postseason experience: Jared Cowen; Kaspars Daugavins; Colin Greening; Bobby Butler; Zenon Konopka; and Erik Condra. While there’s something to be said about the importance of having young players playing together and gaining invaluable playoff experience, it shouldn’t necessitate the organization mortgaging any part of the future to ensure that it happens this season. If it happens on its own, that’s great but the fact remains that younger players like Lehner, Silfverberg, Zibanejad and the previously mentioned Borowiecki will be regulars looking for NHL playoff experience of their own next year.

6) What kind of return is Kuba likely to command?

Last season there were no takers for Kuba when we can be sure the price was next to zero. Today this is an asset who is 35, UFA to-be with a grand total of 24 games of playoff experience. With nearly all teams “in it” come the deadline (thank you charity point!), sellers have become few and far between. Even still a mid to late 2nd round pick would seem a solid return for a player of his ilk at this stage in their career.

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