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Randy Lee Speaks: Borowiecki Extension, 2015 Impending UFAs, Hockey Analytics

Following the organization’s unanticipated decision to award Mark Borowiecki with a new three-year extension worth an average annual cap hit of $1.1 million, Ottawa Senators assistant general manager Randy Lee joined Ian Mendes and Shawn Simpson yesterday on TSN 1200‘s ‘The Drive’ to break down the deal and talk about a few other noteworthy items.

To listen to the full interview, you can click on this link or use the embedded audio at the bottom of this post.

As always, my thoughts are in bold.

On why the Senators locked up Mark Borowiecki now…

“I think he’s one of those guys that we’ve invested a lot time in. We believe in Mark as a player. We like what he brings to the table. It’s a gesture of our support for him and our commitment to him and I think people down the road are going to think it was a great signing.”

Rather than pen a completely separate post breaking down the consequences of the Borowiecki extension, I’ll just do it here. 

Basically, there are three camps when it comes to evaluating this deal:

1. There are those who struggle to understand this deal since there is little evidence to nothing to suggest that this 25-year old left defenceman, who has all of 21 games of NHL experience under his belt, will project to be anything more than a bottom pairing or depth defenceman in the NHL. With four other left defencemen (namely Chris Phillips, Marc Methot, Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch) on the roster who deservedly should be slotted ahead of Borowiecki, it’s easy to cynically question the timing of the deal when you have to imagine that it would or will be difficult for Borowiecki to get into lineup consistently and play anything more than a limited role.

It probably doesn’t help that fans are already antsy over the fact that the Senators have not been able to come to terms yet on new contract extensions with the likes of Marc Methot, Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur. It’s the equivalent of coming home and wanting to enjoy that nice tenderloin steak that you bought the day before, only to find out that dinner’s already been made and your spouse has made quinoa instead. “Oh, sweet. Thanks…” 

There a few notable reasons to be cynical of the Borowiecki contract however.

The analytics aren’t kind to Borowiecki. 

The player also has a tendency to rack up the PIMs – Randy Lee alludes to as a problem of his in Binghamton that he tried to remedy – and in consideration of the fact that the Senators took the most minor penalties in the league last season, you would hate to see this significant problem worsen. 

Another critique of the deal is that a financially strapped organization like the Senators could allocate their payroll in a more efficient way. 

It’s also completely possible that if he fails to perform at the NHL level, his contract could potentially block out a more deserving player or prospect down the road.

2. When it comes to ballyhooed players within Ottawa’s pipeline of prospects, Curtis Lazar is hockey Jesus while Mark Borowiecki is locker room Jesus. His intangibles and character traits have been lauded by the organization for years. They even bent their own development camp rules so Borowiecki could capture the team’s hardest working player award in consecutive seasons.

Even though Borowiecki has failed to take hold of a roster spot and run with it, he’s always felt a part of the bigger picture because of the adulation thrown his way by Senators brass who view him as the perfect example of hardwork and effort trumping talent. Borowiecki’s the Senators version of Rudy or Vince Papali and the fact that he’s a local Kanata product just adds to the allure.

Proponents of the deal like that Borowiecki offers some stylistic differences to the rest of Ottawa’s blue line and argue that whatever savings the team could get by rolling with an inexpensive prospect or a veteran are pretty marginal – especially compared to some of the other contracts they have handed out to other players.

Take Joe Corvo, for example. Last season the veteran defenceman signed a $900,000 one-year contract or what amounts to $200,000 in savings if we’re comparing a similar contract for a seventh defenceman to what Borowiecki will earn starting next season. Put in that context, squabbling over an extra $200,000 seem silly – unless that money is re-allocated towards something else, like buffing up the team’s hockey analytics department or adding another scout or two.

Furthermore, there’s probably some sense of optimism in that there may even be a remote possibility that the organization’s days of being thrifty could end sometime during the course of Borowiecki’s extension. 

3. There are those who are ambivalent to the deal. Knowing that Borowiecki’s ceiling projects him to be a bottom pairing or depth defenceman, these fans simply don’t want to get too worked up about a player whose role carries incredibly low expectations.

While cognizant of the pros and cons of the deal, I probably identify with this group the most. The term of the deal is probably excessive for a depth defenceman like Borowiecki, but maybe he can prove himself to be a NHL regular. In a vacuum, the cost involved isn’t that offensive and it’s not Borowiecki’s fault that the organization has stockpiled bottom pairing defencemen. 

Until the organization does something ridiculously stupid – like clear a spot for him by trading a younger, better defenceman in Patrick Wiercioch who also just happens to have a higher ceiling — I’ll just wait to see how the situation plays out before tearing the organization a new one. (As an aside, while researching their respective ages, I was reminded that Wiercioch is two years younger than the Borocop.) 

On how excited he is for the player who worked so hard to become an NHL player…

“Exactly. We talk (to other prospects) of learning what it takes to be a pro and he’s the perfect example of it. He’s a very competitive guy. Luke Richardson made him the captain in Binghamton last year. He leads by example. You know just like by how he plays in games, but he practices like that too. He’s a hard guy to practice against. He’s a competitive guy in the weight room. He pushes his teammates to be better and he brings something really special to the table for us.”

It’s pretty clear that the Senators have wanted to change the culture of their dressing room and their on-ice play. Whether this less skilled but harder working team can be more successful than its been previous seasons remains to be seen, but casual fans seem to gravitate towards blue collar sorts who fight, hit, block shots and do less subtle things on the ice that they can appreciate. 

On whether the organization may have been better served to see what he could do this season before signing him to an extension…

“I think we’re well served by doing this because we know the player. If you don’t know the guy and you don’t know his makeup, maybe there’s more of a risk. But, there are no red flags with this guy. He’s just a real competitive guy that’s going to do whatever it takes to win. He wants to be here and he wants to be part of it. There’s nothing negative about this at all and I’m not sure why people would even (think the signing is a negative thing). Once you get to know Mark Borowiecki as a player and what type of presence he has in the dressing room and what he brings every night, he’s going to be a fan favorite and he’s going to be one of those guys that you really like. And I think he’s also one of those guys that we’ve always challenged our players to elevate their games in critical situations and he’s that type of player. He’s that type of guy that wants to compete and wants to be in big situations.”

One of the things I’ve noticed lately in management’s messages is the use of “he wants to be here and be part of it.” It’s probably a by-product of the departures of Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, but it’s like the organization is trying hard to convey the message that players actually want to stay here. Keeping that in mind, it will be interesting to see how the negotiations with their impending 2015 UFAs end. 

On the similarities between Borowiecki and Anton Volchenkov…

“Yeah and he wants to be known as a hard player to play against. Some guys, it’s different to do that and he does it every single night. The thing in Binghamton, I think what Luke (Richardson) and Steve Stirling worked with him is to make sure that he picked his spots – that he didn’t let lesser players take him out of the game. He was playing big minutes in Binghamton and important minutes and we couldn’t afford to lose him certain times. He was getting himself drawn into some situations where he was getting taken off the ice by lesser players, and I think he learned that – how important he is to the Binghamton team – so that’s a big part of his adjustment and his transition to make himself a better player.”

Great. As a fan of one of the league’s most penalized teams, I don’t want to hear about this shortcoming of Borowiecki’s – especially since he won’t be counted upon in a similar capacity and will most likely be trying to prove himself at the game’s highest level.

On feeling pretty good about the vibe in the locker room…

“Oh for sure and our players know him, so that’s great. And our other guys are starting to learn about Curtis Lazar and what he brings to the table. The same type of guy: really ultra-competitive, very professional, come to work every day and do their business. And it does send a good message. And another guy you mentioned was Mark Stone too. He’s been working really, really hard this summer and guys who understand Mark Stone realize he’s very close to being an everyday NHL player. He’s going to push for a spot this year, but if you see the way he’s competed this summer, you’re going to be really impressed, I think, at training camp.”

Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are two guys whose stories and success I’m most interested in following during training camp. I can understand Lee downplaying Stone’s chance of having a spot locked down because ultimately, you don’t want your players to take anything for granted. It’s a competition and hopefully, it will bring the best of out players like Stone and Hoffman. 

On the organization projecting Borowiecki as an inexpensive defencemen who will be one of their top six defencemen…

“Yeah, definitely. You have to manage your budget for sure, but what you want to do is figure out the player. Get to know him and then you have to hedge and whether you think you can make a really good deal for your team. I think we did the same thing with Kyle Turris. I think we did the same thing with Zack Smith. Sometimes people look back and say, ‘Well, are you sure you want to do that?’ But, once you know the player, his competitiveness and how good a person he is and that he wants to be a part of the program, then I think you’ve got to make that commitment to them. And I think it’s our job to project that. We have to learn these players and get to know them and get to know what makes them tick.”

They also thought that they did this with Colin Greening’s last contract, but considering how that’s played out, I’m not surprised to see that example be conspicuously absent from Lee’s list of comparables. 

On the importance of projecting out prospects correctly…

“Yeah and the advantage that we have is that we try to get to know these guys. It’s tough when you’re acquiring another guy from another team because a lot of times, there are guys available because there are certain reasons. Guys get to see their warts and there’s something some other teams doesn’t like about them and they’re willing to make them available. When they’re homegrown guys that you’ve worked with for a long time and you get to know them, it’s a lot easier for us to do that projection like you said.”

On the flip side, the fear is that when you’ve developed and invested a lot of time and money into a prospect like Borowiecki as the Senators have, the worry is that the Senators are so anchored in their focalism on Borowiecki’s intangibles that they downplay or overlook his shortcomings as a player. I mean, the Senators have had problems on their blue line for years and despite this weakness, Borowiecki’s been unable to push for a spot – even though he’s much older than many of Ottawa’s other defensive prospects. 

On how he envisions the blue line sorting itself out at training camp…

“We just tell our players that coaches play the players who give them the best chance to win. It’s going to be a competitive camp and that’s what you want for training camp. You want to see some guys fighting for spots and you want to see some guys really pushing to make their mark and I think Mark Borowiecki’s going to be one of those guys. It’s going to push our other guys to be better and it can only lead to good things amongst the team.”

If the Senators carry eight defencemen on the roster this season, who does Borowiecki leapfrog in the lineup?

On the status of the negotiations with MacArthur, Ryan and Methot…

“Oh, I think we’re pretty optimistic in a lot of ways, but I know that we don’t want to comment on it just because Pierre (Dorion)’s working on it and it’s a lot of work. We had a big discussion today with Bryan (Murray) bringing him up to speed on where we’re at. But, it’s a process and you’ve got to make sure that you work the process and you can’t just give in. You’ve got to make sure that you get a deal that works for both sides and that’s what we’re going to strive for. The good thing is that those players want to be here and they want to be part of it, so it’s just a matter of figuring out how do you make it work?”

If the Senators have to move a defenceman, here’s hoping they wait until Methot is signed before jettisoning one of their younger players. As shitty as it is to think that the organization re-signed a redundant Chris Phillips to put themselves in a position in which they may have to move young player who is under team control (and hopefully has more upside) in a Wiercioch or even a Cowen, I would hate to think that the organization would move one of these guys before ensuring that they won’t lose Methot for nothing if they can’t come to terms with him on an extension.

On it just being a matter of finding the right term and right dollars?

“Exactly, yeah. What works for you and like you said before, we’ve also got to project other players . Who’s coming? Who’s coming down the path and then, where do we project them to be? When are they going to be ready? And then, how’s the roster going to look two, three, four or five years down the road?”

On where he sees Mike Hoffman fits in…

“Where Mike Hoffman puts himself and I’m not trying to skip around the question. I’m a big Mike Hoffman fan. I love his speed. I love his compete. I love the fact that he wants to be the guy to be in a scoring situation. When we evaluated a lot of his games, some of them were really strong and a lot of them were not as strong. He has to work on that consistency. But in the games when he was strong, there were some games that even if he wasn’t getting points, he was getting three, four or five scoring chances a game and good scoring chances. He just didn’t bury them, so the upside is really good. Now, we’re still going to be pretty competitive, so I believe that Mike could be a really good NHL player. A lot depends on how he can manage the consistency in his game, his compete level and he’s going to have to produce on the score sheet.”

I’ve already detailed how Mike Hoffman’s underlying numbers suggest that he has upside and that he suffered from bad luck last season. 

Here’s what I wrote:

The problem is that Hoffman’s goals and points totals simply don’t do justice to how effective of a player he was. Case in point, ExtraSkater’s database indicates that of the players who played in more than 21 games last season, Hoffman had the NHL’s 15th-best shots per 60 minute of ice time rates – averaging 11.1 shots. And if you want to look at shot attempts, Hoffman had the NHL’s ninth-best rate at 21.5 per 60 minutes of ice time.

Suffice it to say, when Hoffman is on the ice, good things happen for the Ottawa Senators, but the problem for Hoffman was that that Senators only shot 4.6-percent with Hoffman on the ice at five-on-five.

It’s a ridiculously low shooting percentage considering the fact that the Senators generated 55.8-percent of the shot attempts while Hoffman was on the ice. Such a low on ice shooting percentage reflects some pretty abysmal luck on the offensive side of the puck.

Here’s hoping the organization puts him with other skilled forwards and gives him every opportunity to be successful and productive. If he winds up buried on a checking line with less skill and defensive responsibilities, I fear that his production will suffer and the Sens will use that as a reason to send him packing. 

On Ottawa’s philosophy on hockey analytics…

“We’ve talked about it the other day with Bryan (Murray). We do have people on staff that have background on this and they’ve presented ideas to us. I think we try to get a mesh of what the management team think and the coaching staff think of where it fits. It’s not just a matter of forcing it down the pipe. We want to make sure that it’s something that can really complement what we’re doing. We do a lot of analytics-type stuff in different ways and we’ve been doing it for years. It’s not brand new, but it’s sort of taking on a new optic where teams are doing this and designating a certain person. I don’t think Bryan (Murray) believes in designating a certain person to this, but I think as an organization, we believe that if there are components of it that we think will help us and complement the job we do, we’ll try and incorporate it into our day-to-day work.”

I can certainly understand the position that management does not want a numbers crunching know it all to shove stuff metrics down their throats and tell a bunch of veteran hockey people the ways things are. Ideally, you want a cohesive unit with people in place who can support the decision-making process and bring new ideas to the table and use them in a productive manner that encourages healthy dialogue and conversation. Analytics are not the “be all and end all” when it comes to evaluating a player or team, but they are a very useful tool when applied correctly.

With that being said, learning that Bryan Murray does not want a designated person to explicitly crunch numbers is disappointing. It’s not surprising given that Murray’s an old school sort, but one can hope that his attitude (or the organization’s) will change at the risk that the Senators can quickly fall behind the curve as other organizations buy in wholeheartedly.

It’s impossible to criticize Ottawa’s stance on analytics without knowing what they do and don’t track exactly, but if I infer from listening to Lee talk, it sounds like most of what they do focuses primarily on tracking scoring chances.

Looking at Ottawa’s track record, they’ve made some moves that were risky from an analytics point of view, but I wonder how much the organization listens to these numbers and falls prey to confirmation bias because the organization “knows its players”.

http://proxy.autopod.ca/podcasts/chum/186/24316/aug18drivehr2-3RandyLee.mp3

 

Other News and Notes: 

- The Senators and TSN released the specifics of their regional broadcast agreement deal yesterday. TSN and RDS will deliver more than 54 of the Senators’ games this season and as part of its live coverage, “the network’s broadcast teams feature award-winning play-by-play announcers Gord Miller and Chris Cuthbert and game analysts Ray Ferraro and Jamie McLennan.”

- Erik Karlsson spoke with the media yesterday and although confidence, maturity and optimism are abound as players prepare to enter training camp, I’m excited about the possibility of seeing a completely healthy and motivated Karlsson in 2014/15.

- Eugene Melnyk has a scheduled press conference at 11:45 am today and members from all three levels of government are expected to join him at this event. Expect some kind of announcement related to 2017 – like confirmation and details for an outdoor heritage game to be played at TD Place at Lansdowne.

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