Examining Ottawa’s Depth At Center

One of the more popular topics of discussion amongst Senators’ fans this offseason has been the matter of the team’s depth at centre. Adnan and Travis have already done a nice job of examining this, but I’ve found myself taking issue with the general premise of their contributions.

That is, that the Ottawa Senators are deep at the centre position.

Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zack Smith and Jim O’Brien are six centremen who are under contract with the club for 2013-2014. Only O’Brien’s contract expires after 2014 while Spezza, Zibanejad and Pageau will require new contracts in 2015-2016.

At first blush, it certainly looks like too many, but O’Brien’s an easy candidate for a regular seat in the press box, so it’s really just a matter of fitting the other five into the lineup. A look at the Boston Bruins’ depth chart reveals that Ottawa’s division rival mixed in 7 centres amongst their top-12 forwards. Their counterpart in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Chicago Blackhawks, carried six centres throughout the regular season.

While it’s true that each individual player has a different ability to adapt to a new position, there’s certainly precedent for dressing more than 5 centres and playing one or more of them on the wing, I don’t think that Ottawa’s dealing with an unmanageable situation on their hands.

But what's more concerning is that there’s no one coming up behind them. For all the credit the organization has received for its depth (and it’s well deserved), the Senators lack a good prospect at centre. Derek Grant, who would be the next in line behind the current group, was awful in his stint with the club last season. Stephane Da Costa kept his head above water, but I imagine Ottawa was looking for more than a even-strength relative corsi figure of 0.8 out of a player who started nearly 75% of his shifts in the offensive zone against the opposition’s weakest competition.

The lack of depth in the minor leagues becomes a serious problem if Ottawa moves a centre and one of Spezza, Turris and/or Zibanejad (to a lesser extent) suffers an injury. Spezza, who turned 30 last week, missed all but 5 games this season and also missed 42 games between 2009 and 2011. Although fans are excited about the prospects of a full season of JS19, he’s only managed upwards of 70 games in four of his 9 NHL seasons (5 of 10 if we count his 2004-2005 lockout-imposed stint in Binghamton). This is all to say that the Club should count on Spezza missing some time this season.

With Spezza out of the lineup for most of last season, the inexperience of Ottawa’s corps of centremen was revealed in a number of ways. Individually, Turris’ possession and P/60 numbers dropped. As a group and as individuals, Ottawa’s centremen were all below average in terms of scoring. Turris, the team’s highest scoring centre, managed 29 points which ranked 38 out of 234 centres according to NHL.com. Zibanejad was 67th, Zack Smith 94th and Jim O’Brien 140th.

Effectively, Turris, Zibanejad and Smith scored at above average rates for 2nd, 3rd and 4th line players, respectively. Of course, they were playing 1st, 2nd and 3rd line minutes. Some of this is due to team’s terrible luck in the shooting department, but we can’t completely ignore the results.

This is all to say that the success of Ottawa’s group of centres seems to be highly dependent on the consistent presence of Spezza at the top of the depth chart, and that’s far from a sure thing. His health is absolutely critical if the Senators fancy themselves as contenders next season. That also means he’s virtually untradeable, given the current construction of the team.

Turris is also unlikely to be dealt, given that (a) he’s a good second line centre and (b) the team-friendly five-year extension that starts this year. The importance of cost certainty is hard to overstate for a team on a budget.

The problem I have with trading Zibanejad is this: Based on his track record and advancing age, Spezza is likely to spend significant time on the injured list before this contract with Ottawa expires. Minus Zibanejad, the Senators would boast a depth chart of Turris, Smith, Pageau and O’Brien. I think most would agree that’s a pretty weak group.

I think that if a centre is moved this offseason, it would be one of Smith, Pageau or O'Brien. Any could be moved without seriously damaging Ottawa’s scoring depth down the middle. I think I'd be OK with a trading Smith, but he brings the attributes of size and strength that the Murray’s profess to adore. He’s also played left-wing in the past, and positional flexibility is nice.

In conclusion, I think that Ottawa’s alleged depth at centre is over-hyped. Given the lack of organizational depth, the uncertainty surrounding Spezza’s health and the way that the current group produced in his absence last season, the risk of moving a centre is simply too great.

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