The 6th Sens Guide To 2013/14 Sens Storylines

Thanks to an offseason riddled with more distractions than customary Dustin Byfuglien weight jokes, Senators fans have been begging for the real games to begin.

And really, who could blame them?

From the organization’s stalled contract negotiations that eventually led to Daniel Alfredsson’s unforeseen departure, to Eugene Melnyk’s public relations battle with the City of Ottawa over their (ridiculous) decision to look at the Rideau Carleton Raceway as the only site for a prospective casino, to Alfie’s press conference to describe the intrinsic details that caused him to bolt for Detroit, to the organization’s immediate rebuttal in the minutes that followed Alfie’s presser, to the bizarre hacking of a Sens blogger’s web content and Twitter account, to Melnyk’s comments on the Fan 590 designed to embarrass City of Ottawa councillors on a national scale (but only embarrassing himself in the process), to the dragged out negotiations with Jared Cowen, to Erik Karlsson ripping Bell as an internet service provider, this offseason has been an exercise in developing the patience necessary to ignore these unfortunate distractions.

I don’t want to pretend that Ottawa is unique from any other Canadian hockey market in the sense that other teams don’t have distractions. They do. Vancouver had its ‘diva’ problem. Edmonton perennially wrings its hands fretting over whether the assembled young talent will gel and lead the organization to the postseason. Calgary had its flood. Toronto had to worry about new MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke’s aloofness and how to fit new contracts for Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson under the cap. Winnipeg dealt with unpaid Evander Kane traffic violation tickets (who knew a money phone constituted a handheld device) and the loss of Alex Burmistrov to AK Bars Kazan of the KHL. In Montreal, the organization is looking for any way to get Carey Price’s career back on track – from bringing in a new goaltending coach to considering bringing back the triple low-five on the one-year anniversary of its banishment.

It does however seem like a disproportionate number of things happened in or to Ottawa, and we still can look forward to the fallout from Melnyk’s ‘forensic’ report on the Cooke/Karlsson incident and Alfie’s return to the nation’s capital on December 1st.

Thankfully, we’re almost there. When Ottawa takes the ice tonight for their first regular game in Buffalo, the start of the NHL season will finally allow us to make like Alfie and move on.

Here are the storylines to watch play out during the Ottawa Senators’ 2013/14 season:

Chris Phillips’ Contract Year

If we’re talking about things playing out, what better place to start than Chris Phillips entering the final year of his contract with the Sens?

Earning $3.083 million, Phillips will be looking to earn himself an extension. Thanks to the presence of internal options like Mark Borowiecki and Eric Gryba or even a Cody Ceci within the system (albeit, Ceci seems to be the most likely candidate to replace Corvo’s role next season), means that the organization’s depth has afforded management the flexibility to decide whether it’s in their best interests to retain the Big Rig.

Although Phillips claims that he took a team friendly contract to avoid the open market in his last go-around, one has to wonder how much of a paycut the team’s fifth or sixth defenceman will be willing to take so he can remain with the only NHL franchise he has known.

This makes the play of Joe Corvo all the more important to Phillips. Known for his skating, shot and willingness to jump into the play, as well as his penchant for bonehead gaffes, Corvo’s effectiveness or lack thereof is going to have on impact on Phillips and the pairing’s ability to get out of the defensive zone.

Should Phillips be able to cover up Corvo’s mistakes, he could prove worthy of a new contract. But, throw in the precedent set by ownership’s decision to balk at Alfie’s contract demands and Phillips’ camp will have to realize that it will take more than being a legacy player to write a blank cheque. There will have to be some give-and-take on his part to agree to a salary that’s proportionate to his role.

Of course, much of this is predicated on the level of success that the second defensive has, which brings me to…

The Patrick Wiercioch/Jared Cowen Tandem (aka WierCowen)

The departure of veteran power play/puck-moving specialist Sergei Gonchar has interestingly led to the pairing of his most frequent defensive partner during the 2011/12 season (Cowen) and in 2013 (Wiercioch).

This young duo – Cowen is 22 years old and Wiercioch 23 – will not only have to adjust to a new partners, but for Wiercioch, he will also have to adjust to playing the right-side. As a left-handed shot, he has mentioned that it will take him some time to adjust and grow accustomed to handling pucks on his offhand along the wall.

Having both inked new contracts this offseason (Wiercioch signed a three-year deal worth an average annual value of $2 million and Cowen inked a four-year pact worth $3.1 million per season), the pressure on each to live up to their billing is integral to the Sens taking the next step in the franchise’s ascent towards Cup contention. Thanks to injuries, last season’s lockout and a slower professional development curve in the case of Wiercioch, neither player has much of a NHL track record to speak of. Fortunately for the cost-conscience Sens, should one or both players fulfill their potential, the organization will be reaping the benefits in the final years of their respective deals.

Inheriting Gonchar’s first power play unit minutes should do wonders for Wiercioch’s production levels but no longer having to defer to the veteran at even-strength to move the puck. If Wiercioch can lead the breakout and allow Cowen to play the big-bodied stay-at-home role, this duo has the potential to thrive.

Health Of The Stars

Having finished fifth in the NHL for fewest man-games lost to injury during the 2011/12 season, it was only natural to expect the Sens to regress towards the league norm.

Natural however was no way to describe the volume and types of injuries that put many of Ottawa’s star players on the shelf. Erik Karlsson? Devastating Achilles injury whose long-term effects, we’re still not sure of. Jason Spezza? Underwent his second back operation before he turned 30. Milan Michalek? Chronic knee trouble that necessitated a trip to Germany to receive some special treatment. Craig Anderson? Ankle sprain. Jared Cowen? Torn labrum in his hip that shelved him for the entire 2013 season.

It’s this tough luck that the Sens persevered through that has lent itself to the line of thought – If some or all of these players can stay in the lineup, what is Ottawa capable of doing if they stay relatively or their best players avoid injury?

The Euge thinks that if the Sens can ‘stay healthy or marginally healthy, we’re going to go deep,’ so who am I to disagree?

Even if they can’t, Ottawa’s depth affords them some comfort.

Having signed Colin Greening to a three-year extension worth an average of $2.65 million per season, the Sens ensured that their contingency plan for a Michalek injury and eventual departure as an UFA. The embarrassment of riches at the center position, something I’ll come back to later, gives the Sens some flexibility should Spezza miss more time this season. (And should the Sens re-sign Michalek, well, it should make Greening one relatively expensive bottom six winger.)

May the Hockey Gods help us if we have to replace Erik Karlsson on the top pairing with Eric Gryba again.

Marc Methot (who probably spent most of 2013 sending get well soon cards to his would be partner) should immediately benefit from getting the hell away from the puck possession draining entity otherwise known as Gryba. When paired with King Karlsson last season at even strength, the duo was on for 59.9-percent of Corsi events for (shots, shots blocked, missed shots). In other words, they essentially carried 59.9-percent of the play while they were on the ice together. With Gryba, Methot’s percentage of Corsi events for dropped to 47.0-percent.

We’ve seen what Karlsson can do with a significantly inferior partner like Filip Kuba, so seeing this duo consistently in 2013/14 is something I’m most looking forward to.

Jason Spezza Dons The ‘C’

In their thorough assessment of who should follow in the footsteps of Alfie and be the next captain of the Sens, the coaches and management echoed the same sentiment – that when it comes to the captaincy, they wanted to give the responsibility to a player who they believed would be able to use it as a mechanism to take their game to another level.

Not to take anything away from Chris Phillips or his leadership capabilities, but at 35 years of age, it’s not like his game has another level to go to. And coupled with him being in the last year of his contract, the possibility of Phillips being a transitional captain wasn’t the route that the organization wanted to go in.

In giving the ‘C’ to Spez, they’re handing it to their best offensive forward. Spezza’s an offensive catalyst who makes things easier for his linemates and the other centers on the roster – a point I’ll come back to later on. Not only that though, he’s a respected and approachable player within the dressing room and he’s someone who very much wanted the captaincy.

Spezza’s a pretty elite player who’s approaching that age where you would typically start to see his offensive numbers slowly start to fade, so I’m pretty reserved in believing that Spezza’s game has much more room for growth. But hey, if the distinction of being recognized on the ice as the official leader of the Ottawa Senators makes him a better player, Sens fans will gladly take it.

Of course the downside to all of this is that you’d hate to see the captaincy be a burden on the player. I mean, this is Spezza we’re talking about – a player who has been scourged by a particular sect of this fan base for his turnovers and tendency to force passes and plays when the rest of the offence isn’t clicking.

Will he be able to handle the added pressure of returning to his offensive norms and turning Bobby Ryan into the goal scoring winger that the Senators haven’t had since Dany Heatley’s prime and do so while carrying the torch left behind by Alfie?

How Much Will Craig Anderson Regress?

Craig Anderson’s 2013 numbers are a thing of legend – a GAA of 1.69, 3 shutouts, an even-strength save percentage of .943, a save percentage of .925 when Ottawa was playing shorthanded and a total save percentage of .941. Throw in three shutouts for good measure and you have arguably, the greatest stretch of goaltending that we’ve ever seen from a player who has pulled on a Sens jersey.

Sure, Patrick Lalime rung up some impressive wins totals during his tenure in Ottawa, but relying on his win/loss records ignores the fact that he benefited from playing on some of best Senators teams that have ever existed. He didn’t make the Sens better, his teammates and Jacques Martin’s defensive system made him to be something better than he was. (As an aside, it’s depressing how meh Ottawa’s goaltending has been. According to Hockey-Reference, the Sens have only had five goaltenders who have played in 15 or more games and registered save percentages greater than or equal to .915.)

What Anderson did trumps what Hasek did during the infamous 2005/06 season and not just because he didn’t blow out an adductor during the middle of the season and cost the Sens a chance at the Cup. Hasek’s .939 even-strength save percentage, his shorthanded save percentage of .877 and his total save percentage of .925 simply don’t measure up. Not to mention that Hasek’s 2.09 GAA was higher too, albeit, he did have two more shutouts but played in 19 more games.

And therein lies the rub – what Anderson accomplished last season was done in just 24 games thanks to a severely sprained ankle.

Oddly enough, the only person to come close to replicating what Craig Anderson did for the Senators last season was Anderson himself. In the 18 games that he played following his trade from Colorado, Anderson threw up a 2.05 GAA, a .969 (!!!?!?!?!?!) save percentage while his team was shorthanded, a .939 total save percentage, two shutouts, and an immeasurable decibel level that destroyed the Ottawa Senators crowd meter once Sens fans figured out how badly Bryan Murray fleeced Greg Sherman in the Anderson deal.

Although there are some distinct similarities in the peripherals, we’re still talking some relatively small sample sizes of games played here.

Truth of the matter is that it’s difficult to believe that Anderson (or even Lehner who posted a .935 shorthanded save percentage) can sustain his shorthanded save percentage. As I wrote in Ottawa’s 2013 post mortem: 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.

In other words, expect Anderson to regress and because of it, Ottawa’s penalty killing unit should be less efficient as well. Throw in some new goaltending equipment restrictions, some of which will affect Lehner as well, and it will be interesting to see how loyal MacLean will be to Anderson and how he splits the games between the two should the veteran’s game slip like it did in last year’s playoffs.

Center Depth

Google the words ‘depth down the middle’ and it will return 97,900,000 results. The first page is dominated by hockey blogs or sites talking about why having a healthy number of good centers is such a recipe for success, but I’m assuming if you Google image searched that same phrase, you’d fetch 97,900,000 images of tearful Oilers fans nodding their heads.

I’ve already written about what Spezza’s health means for the team’s first line but it also has an impact on the other centers in the lineup.

Having led the Senators in points last season with 29, Kyle Turris stands to benefit the most. In Spezza’s absence last season, Turris became the de facto number one center who teams game planned for – matching their top defensive pair against Turris’ line whenever possible.

Despite the tougher test, Turris maintained the same level of production that he exhibited in 2011/12 – giving us hope that he’s developing and progressing as a pro.

Of course, having Alfie as a winger certainly helped Turris along the way, but now that Spezza has returned, this season should be a great opportunity for the organization to figure out what it has in Turris. Can he continue to develop his two-way game and offensive production so that we can include him in the conversation discussing who the best second line centers in the league are? Or will Turris struggle in Alfie’s absence and fail to put up more points than was expected of him?

Further down the depth chart, you have your third line center. Speaking of which…

Pageau, Pageau, Pageau, Pageau, Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaageaaaaaau, Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaageau

With Mika Zibanejad earmarked in Binghamton, Zack Smith relegated to a fourth line role and Stephane ‘No Waiver Exemption is a Beatiful Thing’ Da Costa lingering around the club as a fourth liner/extra forward, the mite-sized Jean-Gabriel Pageau has been a revelation.

His emergence and carried over play from the playoffs last season has completely congested Ottawa’s depth chart at the pivot position.

Provided that expectations are mildly conservative, Pageau’s puck possession skills (along with playing alongside another possession guru in Erik Condra) will provide MacLean with a line that he can use to neutralize opponents more skilled forwards. (Note: I crowd sourced on Twitter and most people seemed to be of the opinion that 10 to 15 goals and 20 to 30 points were reasonable benchmarks. A few people suggested 20 goals and 40-plus points were a possibility, but like a cookie jar placed atop a fridge, those numbers may be out of reach for Pageau.)

The logjam at the center position isn’t a bad thing, but I can’t imagine a scenario in which Paul MacLean is able to keep everyone happy. Like moving Ben Bishop at last year’s deadline, eventually the team is going to have to move to move one or more of these bodies.

Considering management made an effort to retain Zibanejad in the trade for Bobby Ryan – preferring instead to move Silfverberg and bump up their offer to include a first round pick – and they, as well as the coaching staff, have been consistent with their message that they want to develop Mika as a center, you have to wonder how Ottawa’s center situation shakes out.

Spezza is injury-plagued and only has two seasons left on his deal. The Sens obviously catered to their number one center by giving him the captaincy and acquiring Ryan, so it appears that they’re greasing the wheel when it comes time to negotiate an extension – even though I’m not entirely sure it’s the smartest thing to do given his age and back troubles. (Mind you, by developing Zibanejad as a center, the Sens will be protecting themselves in the event Spez moves on down the road.) Turris is signed long-term at a cost-efficient rate. The org keeps insisting that they see Mika as a center. Pageau’s emergence makes Zack Smith expensive as a fourth line center or winger.

Obviously Da Costa will be one odd man out, but unless Zibanejad converts to the wing, the Sens will have to make a larger move to move one of their better guys.

Small Forwards Over A Full NHL Schedule

Having played a full season in the American Hockey League, Pageau’s promotion at the end of the 2013 season helped light a fire underneath the Sens. He was a sparkplug player who gave the team a lift, so I’m less worried about him breaking down over the course of a full schedule than I am Cory Conacher.

Conacher’s story isn’t anything new. Acquired by the Sens for Ben Bishop at the NHL trade deadline, Conacher was expected to provide some secondary scoring to a beleaguered offence. Although there were some moments, those moments never really happened frequently enough.

Conacher had a torrid start to the lockout shortened campaign. Having played in the AHL to start the season, he had somewhat of a head start on his peers in terms of his conditioning and in-game timing. Oh, and he also played on a line with Steven Stamkos and had a few other important things going for him that probably inflated his production levels.

And to start this 2013/14 season, Conacher lit it up during the preseason and assured himself a spot on Ottawa’s second line with Clarke MacArthur and Turris. As an organization that does not really get that many goals from its third and fourth line wingers, the Sens desperately need Conacher to produce. If he can’t, we may see Mika Zibanejad recalled in short order.

Mika Come Back

Scott (@wham_city) just posted an incredible graphic on Senators scoring chance differentials from last season:

The decision to send Zibanejad down to the minors may not resonate too well with the prospect porn indulging Sens fans at the moment, but the organization’s decision is defendable. If the intent is to make the organization better by developing him as a center and again, protecting themselves against the possibility of Spezza’s departure, then him playing the wing on one of Ottawa’s bottom two lines isn’t going to make him better.

Judging by the line combinations in Binghamton, Luke Richardson is going to afford Mika every opportunity to get the ice-time and linemates to be a productive player and get on the fast track back to being an NHL player.

Eventually, something is going to have to give though. Injuries or struggling vets may lead to a Zibanejad promotion, but what’s going to keep him as a center on Ottawa’s roster is the departure of one of Spezza, Turris or Pageau. And if management decides it isn’t worthwhile to go down that road, they may have to bite the bullet and convert Zibanejad to the wing or worse, trade him for other assets.

Return Of The King

I wrote earlier about the return of a few of Ottawa’s best players returning from injury, but no player is more important to this team’s offence than Erik Karlsson.

From the breakouts to the transition offence to the power play quarterbacking, Karlsson is the best offensive defenceman in the league and it’s not even really close.

At least that’s the way we’ll remember him if his Achilles injury doesn’t heal properly and allow his explosive skating to return to pre-injury levels.

We’re Only in Year Three Of Our Rebuild!

For the past two seasons, we’ve grown accustomed as fans to hearing management or ownership refer to where the franchise is in its development curve whenever a probing journalist or radio host would ask about the Senators’ unexpected success.

And to reemphasize how unexpected their lack of success of success was, we’d hear things like, “Well, really, we’re only in the first year of rebuilding this thing’ or ‘We’re only in year two of our three year rebuild’.

It’s now the third year of rebuilding this thing and no one is overlooking the Senators anymore. Thanks to the level of on-ice success the Sens had without a number of their top players last season, a number of prognosticators and publications are throwing a lot accolades Ottawa’s way. To name a few: Hockey Abstract picked the Sens to win the President’s Trophy and its author, Rob Vollman, predicted them to win beat the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Finals; The Sports Forecaster believes Spezza will shake Gary Bettman’s hand and hoist the Cup while Alfie looks on from his Detroit-area home wallowing in self-pity; The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau predicted a San Jose Sharks Cup win over the Sens; and ESPN the magazine used some arbitrary methodology to ranked the Sens as its ninth-best (best of what, we’re still not really sure) out of all the organizations from the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL. It seems like the only entity not giving the Sens much of a chance is Vegas.

So what happens now that the stakes have been raised internally and externally?

Will the Sens continue to progress in a linear fashion and improve for a third consecutive season or will they struggle under the weight of expectations?

Either way, you can rest assured we’ll get a steady dose of “We’re only in year three of our rebuild,” being used as to brag about their play or as a ready-made defensive mechanisms should they take a step back.

The Media And Fans’ Relationship With The Organization

For the past few seasons, everything in Ottawa concerning the Senators has been for the most part, pretty positive.

Of course, as fans, it’s easy to rally behind a young and exciting team led by a personable coach who was voted as the Jack Adams Trophy winner in 2013.

When Ottawa elected to rebuild during the 2010/11 season after being mired in mediocrity since 2007, the fans readily embraced it. We weren’t stupid. We saw an older, complacent team of vets who had overstayed their welcome. We were willing to be patient if it meant that we’d be rebuilding and reloading for what hopefully would be a large window of contention. Provided that management drafted and developed players, made trades that benefitted the team in the short and long-term, we would be happy and to their credit, the organization seemingly hasn’t done much wrong.

Suffice it to say, things have been pretty cushy for the organization, but it’s starting to feel that we’re on the cusp (if we’re not there already) of seeing fans and the media raise their respective levels of scrutiny. We’re already seeing it in response to Alfie’s departure and to anything Eugene Melnyk says publicly, but it probably won’t be long until we start seeing it pervade the thoughts on what management can do next with its current personnel.

Admittedly, and I touched upon this earlier, difficult decisions are going to have to be made in regards to the Bobby Ryan and Jason Spezza extensions. A lot can unfold over two seasons time, but Ottawa essentially has to balance the demands of the players (term, dollars) with the strict internally imposed cap and the risk involved. Does the possibility of diminished returns or the likelihood that the Sens would be overpaying both players on long-term deals affect their rationale to keep them now to get hopefully two to four more good seasons out of them? Or does the organization think its best window of contention is now and as such, trades a number of young assets to augment the current roster, potentially mortgaging their long-term future in the process?

I’m not sure myself, but it should be fun to watch unfold. Whatever the case, I’ll try not to worry about it because we’re only in year three of the rebuild.

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