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Post Mortem: The 2013 Ottawa Senators Season

Grasping for positives has become somewhat of a visceral reaction for Senators fans this season.

In a year filled with swerves, an adjustment of expectations was necessary and with it, we had to look for positives wherever we could find them.

Jared Cowen injures his hip playing in Binghamton?

It could be worse, the lockout may afford him enough time to get healthy and back on the ice by the end of the season.

After playing in five games, Jason Spezza comes to the decision that he can no longer attempt to play through his back discomfort and undergoes his second career back surgery?

Fine. It just gave the organization a chance to evaluate what they have in Kyle Turris and furthermore, just like the injury to Craig Anderson gave Robin Lehner a chance to make his mark (and helping facilitate the Ben Bishop trade), the Spezza injury opened the door for Mika Zibanejad to become a NHL-regular.

Matt Cooke slicing seventy-percent of Erik Karlsson’s Achilles?

It simply gave other NHL defencemen the rare opportunity to win the Norris (and like every other year, Shea Weber fell short), while also providing Eugene Melnyk with time to work on his comedy routine. And honestly, who isn’t looking forward to seeing the release of Melnyk’s ‘forensic doctor’s’ report which will be delivered to Gary Bettman and Brendan Shanahan at the conclusion of the season? Mind you, much like the Heatley grievance case that has yet to be heard, part of me believes that it may be some time before we ever learn what was within the report, if at all.

Throw in another knee surgery to Milan Michalek for good measure and the fact that management willingly parlayed an asset to acquire Matt Kassian, the realization that this was a bit of a lost season dawned on many of us. You simply could not expect the Sens to advance deep into the postseason without Karlsson, Spezza, Cowen and Michalek at their healthiest.

But with expectations within this city being so low, the Senators won a playoff round for the first time since 2007 and considering the circumstances, it felt like they were playing with house money. We were just along for the ride.  

Looking at the Positives

To the organization’s credit, they found a way to persevere and through some shrewd drafting, excellent player development and a coaching staff that put players in a position to succeed, the organization found a way to tread water while seamlessly working fourteen rookies into its lineup at various points during the season.

Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad were Ottawa’s best freshmen during the regular season. Over the course of a full 82-game campaign, both players were producing at close to a 40-point pace. In each player’s case, there is still room for a substantial amount of growth.

At the beginning of the season, Silfverberg's offensive game was essentially limited to flying down the wing and letting a wrister go from top of the circle. As the season wore on, you could see he was beginning to figure out different ways to get his shot off – coming out of the corner in particular. By the end of the season, Silfverberg 2.79 shots per game were the second best mark by a Senators rookie ever – trailing only Alexei Yashin 2.80.

The biggest issue for Silfverberg is that his skating and first step often does not afford him the opportunity to create enough separation from opposing defenders, with any improvement to this area or any improvement/luck in his shooting percentage, he could be downright filthy.

In Zibanejad, the Senators have a physical up-and-down center who exhibits all of the tools that you could possibly ask. Down the stretch through the last 20 games his faceoff rate was over 50%, no small feat at his age. He was also the only NHL rookie to finish the season with more than 20 points and 80 hits. His playoffs were rather forgettable, but taken as a whole his season was hugely positive from a development standpoint.

Kyle Turris went from matching up against the opposition’s best offensive forwards last season to having coaches game plan against his line because of the injury to Spezza. Since his line became the de facto ‘first line’, opposing coaches game planned against his line by matching their team’s top defence pairing against him.

Of the forwards on Ottawa who played in more than 30 games, Turris finished second on the team in facing the toughest on-ice matchups behind Jakob Silfverberg. Despite this increased competition, Turris’ production did not skip a beat. He finished the season with the same number of points (29) that he put up in 49 games with Ottawa last season and both his faceoff and shooting percentages improved. In the postseason, he led the Senators with 6 goals and finished second on the team in scoring with 9 points in 10 games played. Assuming that a healthy Spezza returns next season and insulates Turris, and assuming Turris continues to make significant offseason gains in strength and conditioning, there’s reason to think his offensive production can go to a higher level.

The emergence of Jean-Gabriel Pageau is one of my favorite stories from the 2013 postseason. Currently, he still leads NHL rookies in playoff scoring with 6 points and thanks to his heroic hat-trick in the third game of the Montreal series, he instantly became a fan favorite and the source material for the mocking “Pa-geau, Pa-geau, Pa-geau” chants.

Pageau’s makeup — a cerebral, sparkplug who wins faceoffs and drives possession – gives the Senators an element that they have probably lacked since Antoine Vermette was dealt to Columbus. We’ve joked on this site his playoff arrival is Peter Regin-esque, but there’s enough there to think his success will continue. Of course it helps that he has two completely functional shoulders.

Truth is, I’ve highlighted a few rookie standouts and haven’t even touched upon names like Patrick Wiercioch, Cory Conacher, Robin ‘freakin’ Lehner, and others who have proven that they can step in and play like Eric Gryba, Mark Stone and Mark Borowiecki.

Nor have I discussed the contributions and impacts that the Jack Adams nominated Paul MacLean and the rest of the coaching staff and player development personnel have had this year.  I think Michel Therrien is still reeling from the lesson in gamesmanship that MacLean provided during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Moreover, not enough digital ink has been spent describing just how good of a fit Marc Methot has been for this organization since coming over last summer in a deal for Nick Foligno.

Throw in the return to health of players like Spezza, Karlsson and Cowen and there’s enough reason to believe that Ottawa’s trending in the right direction. Throw in the expected loss of placeholder players like Guillaume Latendresse ($2M), Peter Regin ($800k), Mike Lundin ($1.15M) and even a Sergei Gonchar ($5.5M) and the Senators — assuming that Melnyk wants to spend money on something that doesn’t substantiate Matt Cooke’s douchebaggery – will have the financial flexibility to do some creative things.

Regression Can Be Such a Dirty Word…

If you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment, you have to wonder whether the Senators’ goaltending may have masked the deficiencies this team had.

The trio of Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner were brilliant. Together they combined to post a 25-17-6 record, a 2.02 GAA, four shutouts and a total save percentage of .935.

They were exceptional and to some extent lucky. Looking at the underlying save percentage numbers, Lehner and Anderson were great at even strength, posting even strength save percentages of .935 and .943 respectively. But when examining their save percentages while their team was shorthanded, the two goaltenders were unconsciously good – posting ridiculously unsustainable rates of .950 and .925.

To put these rates into perspective, the NHL’s average save percentage for a goaltender whose team was on the penalty kill was .865. What these two did was incredible and helps explain how the Senators managed to produce the league’s highest ranked penalty killing unit that posted an 88.0-percent success rate.

Anderson’s play helped carry Ottawa through its first round matchup with Montreal but it was not enough to overcome the fact that the Senators were overwhelmed by a vastly superior Penguins team.

Although the result was to be expected, if there’s a positive takeaway from this series, it is knowing the Senators cannot possibly fool themselves into thinking they're an elite team yet.

Or, so I thought…

From today’s media availabilities, Bryan Murray indicated that he thought the Senators were a “serious contender” now.

From a roster construction standpoint, I’m not wholly convinced. There is still a lot of work to be done.

The Senators are short on elite talent and problematically, each of its best offensive forwards are entering the final years of their respective deals, with obvious age issues (Alfredsson) and less clear health issues (Michalek, Spezza) muddying the waters.

From a cost/benefit analysis perspective, Milo has one year left on his contract. The 28 year old is coming off a season in which he had another surgical procedure performed on his knee – the same knee that has been described as having chronic condition that necessitates having visit to a specialist in Germany this offseason to get it checked out. (Note: Hopefully there is something in the water over in Germany, because if it can turn Erik Condra into an offensive dynamo, just think of what it can do for Michalek.)

The Senators do have a little more flexibility when it comes to number one center Jason Spezza. Unlike Michalek, Spezza is Ottawa’s best offensive forward and he plays a critical role in this team’s success. He’s under contract for the next two seasons, although having undergone a second back operation, it’s never too early to look that far ahead and wonder what the hell the organization is going to do with him as he approaches free agency.

If or when he hits free agency, he’ll be 32 years of age and his prime years will be behind him. The question of whether Ottawa can afford to take on the inherent risk created by giving Spezza the security — both term and dollars — that he would likely command on the open market is unclear. Ottawa’s not exactly the New York Rangers, with their internal budget, I’m not sure they can afford to have Brad Richards-like albatross of a contract hanging over this team. At the same time, who knows whether the organization will believe that they’re better off with him than without.

Ultimately, the difficulty that Ottawa is faced with right now is that the enriched development of its best young players – who, might I add, will have benefitted greatly from the experience of beating the Canadiens and having competed against the Penguins in the second round – does not necessarily blend that well with where there the team’s veterans are in their respective careers.

Compounding the problem is that there is no one internally who can replace an Alfie, a Spezza or even a Michalek. Hell, they probably will have a difficult time replacing Gonchar’s minutes should the veteran defenceman find a better fit (read: one who gives him the money and term he’s looking for) on the free agent market.

The dilemma for the organization is how it goes about acquiring elite talent while also weighing the ability to compete now and in the future.

With a dreadfully weak free agent class and past history showing us that lavishly expensive free agent acquisitions rarely pay off, the only way to acquire elite talent in the NHL is to draft or trade for it.

In consideration of the possibility this team’s veterans move on within the next season or two, there needs to be some kind of contingency plan in place to replace or provide some insurance.

Should the organization choose to move young assets for said elite talent, it runs the risk of parlaying too many young assets and potentially exposing themselves to the risk that its older veterans could move on; thereby creating a situation in which the organization does not have the ability replace them easily.

What to do? What to do?

Bryan Murray has some difficult decisions ahead that will ultimately define his legacy in Ottawa – whether it is this offseason or next, eventually Murray is going to have to move some of the team’s young assets.

Gone are most of the remnants from the John Muckler era teams, and in their place are assets that Murray and his scouting staff have cultivated, stockpiled and probably grown attached to.

Unfortunately because of the situation that he is in, Murray cannot afford to strike out in such a deal. Ottawa’s a small to mid-market team, their financial resources are finite. The Senators desperately need that one or possibly two extra pieces that could help set them up for years to come.

In a nutshell, the Senators are left with two options: 1) they can move assets for an already established NHL player who can conceivably help this team for years to come; or 2) they can move a number of pieces in an effort to move up in the draft.

Patrick Roy created quite the maelstrom this afternoon when it was reported that he told Joe Sakic, Colorado’s Vice-President of Hockey Operations, the team needs to explore the possibility of trading this year’s first overall pick. This news will have fans from each of the other 29 fan bases concocting Hfboards-like trade proposals that see their favorite organization fleecing the Avs in a deal, but the likelihood of Ottawa having or being willing to part with what it will take to net that pick is incredibly small.

Looking past Colorado, Florida and Tampa Bay possess the second and third overall selections, but neither of these teams seems likely to trade such a valuable asset to a new divisional rival in Ottawa. Yes, for those of you who have forgotten, Detroit, Florida and Tampa Bay will be joining Ottawa in Division C next season.

This increased number of teams within Ottawa’s division alone will make it more difficult for the Senators to make the playoffs. But with the exception of the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres, the bulk of the teams that Ottawa will be competing with for a playoff spot, are trending in the right direction. The margin for error has gotten smaller and with the Senators likely having to best two of Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto in the standings, making the playoffs could prove to be more difficult than some imagine.

So with it being unlikely that Ottawa will make a deal to move up at the draft, the second and more likely alternative entails the Senators talking trade with a retooling franchise.

At one time, I thought Dallas could be an intriguing option – names like Jamie Benn and Louie Eriksson immediately spring to mind – but that was before Jim Nill inherited the GM role after Joe Nieuwendyk was canned. Now, I honestly have no idea which teams could be swayed to move an established star talent who has years of control left on his current deal.

Fortunately for Bryan, he’s under no pressure to make any deals right now. He could conceivably wait until next season when Michalek and Alfredsson potentially come off the books. Waiting could also afford him more time to evaluate his younger players and get a better idea of what kind of production he can expect out of them.

The latter option may not be the sexiest alternative, but it may be the one we are forced to endure.

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