The Ottawa Senators will miss the playoffs for the first time under head coach Paul Maclean. @draglikepull, a contributor on the Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets, sparked an interesting discussion today on why the Senators failed to live up to the expectations of so many. Early predictions were overwhelmingly optimistic in favour of Ottawa, who suffered a swift second-round exit at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous year. In all fairness, the Sens’ 2013-2014 season was not an easy one to forecast; the lockout trimmed a significant portion of last year’s sample and injuries clouded the team’s true potential. In the end, the addition of Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and others to the lineup was not enough to seal a repeat post-season appearance for the Ottawa Senators.
I’ll confess the high hopes I had for this team right off the bat. Like so many others, I had the Senators penciled in as a playoff team. In my mind, a healthy roster coupled with the development of some of the team’s younger key players would catalyze an improvement in possession play large enough to counteract the decrease we’d certainly see in goaltending. It didn’t happen.
HockeyBuzz’s Travis Yost has already done the legwork to show exactly what happened to Ottawa’s goaltending:
Shooting percentages are very fickle. They’re both powerful and unpredictable. This variance makes goaltending the most difficult position to explain, analytically speaking. That a goaltender is never truly as good as his peaks and never truly as poor as his valleys is an important rule. Regression hits goalies hard, and their teams by extension. Ottawa was blessed with record-setting goaltending in 2012-2013 and it piggybacked them to the second round of the playoffs. There was no “defensive system”. There was no doubt a regression would occur, the question was: can Ottawa compensate by increasing their shot margins?
In the lockout-shortened season, the Senators led the league with a 93.3% save percentage in all situations. They’re currently 23rd with a 90.6% rating through 78 games. That massive decrease amounts to a difference of 73 goals over the quantity of shots the team has allowed, or almost a goal per game. Again, I don’t think Ottawa’s goaltenders are as good as last season’s numbers would indicate, nor are they as bad as this season’s do. Over Anderson and Lehner’s careers, they combine for a respectable 91.4% save rate. With those numbers, one would expect a 50.9% FenClose team such as Ottawa to have a more than decent shot at the post-season.
Unfortunately for the Senators and their fans, the team’s problems go beyond goaltending and even-strength possession. When I wrote about approximating scoring chances, I found Ottawa’s chance differential below what you’d expect for a team with their possession numbers. Here’s that table again:
Ottawa’s possession numbers don’t look nearly as encouraging if you eliminate blocked shots and even worse once you narrow things down to pure shots on goal. Shot attempts go unblocked against the Senators more often than any other team, and the same is true for shots hitting the net. League-wide, this may not be wholly repeatable but in Ottawa’s case, I believe players are instructed not to block shots. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Maclean had his team adopt the “If he sees it, he’ll stop it” mentality following Anderson’s historic 12-13 season. This only further increases the goalies’ workload and adds emphasis on save percentages.
As far as special teams are concerned, Ottawa’s been neither good nor awful. They’re middle-of-the-pack on the man advantage, but 24th in the league on the penalty kill. While their success rates killing penalties isn’t great, it wouldn’t exactly be crippling if not for one fact: Ottawa spends more time killing penalties than any other team not named Philadelphia. As a team, the Senators have spent nearly 82 more minutes on the PK than they have on the powerplay; that’s the largest differential in the NHL. Because the team experiences so many short-handed situations, their poor kill success rate is magnified greatly.
One topic that’s been brought under the microscope of late is player usage. Player ice-time must be properly allocated in order to optimize a lineup. The following charts show each Senator’s 5v5 TOI share and how it has changed since last season:
This distribution is especially concerning among defencemen. Cowen and Phillips have gotten a huge portion of the even-strength ice time and it’s no secret that they’ve struggled mightily in those minutes. I don’t think Patrick Wiercioch is being fairly treated. The mistakes and defensive miscues he’s frequently blamed for are of the same variety every other Ottawa defenceman, even the “shutdown” types, are guilty of. The difference is that Wiercioch can make a pass out of the zone, something that’s missing on the Senators’ blueline aside from Erik Karlsson. The addition of Cowen, Karlsson and Spezza this season has brought down the TOI totals for the players responsible for shouldering the load in 2012-2013. The problem is that neither Cowen nor Spezza have been particularly good possession-wise. Erik Condra, one of the team’s best in that regard, saw the largest drop in ice time from last season. Kyle Turris, who’s undoubtedly taken a huge developmental step forward this year, is also playing less than he did last season. Even more disturbing is that his linemate and perhaps the team’s best performer this season, MacArthur, is playing less than both Michalek and Spezza. With MacArthur on the ice at 5v5, Ottawa’s scored 58% of the goals. With Spezza and Michalek, they’re getting 42.3% and 41.6% respectively against easier competition.
In a couple weeks, sixteen teams will be gearing up for the playoffs and the Ottawa Senators won’t be one of them. After the outbreak of contagious optimism that spread among the fanbase in preseason, this outcome will certainly leave a sour taste in the mouths of many. So, what happened? Why not the Senators? There are still questions that need answers, but ultimately it was a combination of problems that led to the team’s disappointing season. Some are more easily remedied than others but they must be remedied if the Senators hope to bounce back.
Thanks for reading!