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The Ottawa Senators managed to come within one goal of a Stanley Cup Finals berth this year. But are they really that good? And if they aren’t, what steps do you take now? Let’s take a look at the Senators roster and salary cap situation to try and get a better understanding of where this team is really at, so we can start to craft a practical approach to what should be an interesting offseason for a polarizing team.
Here’s a rough depth chart of the Senators through the lens of the catch-all statistic Game Score:
Up front, the team is surprisingly decent. Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are particularly excellent players, and Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, and Bobby Ryan are legitimate top-six players. Zack Smith and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are also good bottom-six players. So why did the team come 22nd in the league in goals for this year? For one, while players like Brassard and Ryan are good, they’re still sub-50 point players in an 82 game season, which is just okay. They were also missing Clarke MacArthur all season long, whose presence would’ve helped improve the team’s scoring more. And on defense, aside from Erik Karlsson and to a far lesser extent Dion Phaneuf, the team got virtually no offense.
Which is similar to how the Senators are on defense in general. Erik Karlsson is the best defenseman in the league, but after that they rely on mediocre players in Marc Methot, Phaneuf, and Cody Ceci. And the team has nobody after that whom Guy Boucher feels comfortable giving important minutes to.
The Senators’ biggest saving grace all season was their goaltending. 36-year-old Craig Anderson posted a .926 save percentage, and backup Mike Condon had a respectable .914 when Anderson was out.
On the whole then, this is a team with solid forwards, an underwhelming defense that’s covered up by one elite player, and strong goaltending.
Here’s a rough depth chart of the Senators heading into the summer and perhaps heading into next season. They should have about $12-16M in cap space to work with this offseason.
Up front the team has several bargain deals, particularly with Kyle Turris and Mark Stone. Bobby Ryan’s contract is bad, but at least he’s a useful player. Clarke MacArthur is also someone to keep an eye on, as he may or may not retire ahead of next season due to a myriad of concussion problems the last several years.
On defense the team does okay. Karlsson is on a bargain deal, though Phaneuf is about 2 million dollars overpaid.
In net have some things to sort out, as backup Mike Condon is a pending UFA that’s looking at a nice little payday. They also still have Andrew Hammond on the books for one more year at $1.350M, which is inconvenient, but he’s at least good expansion draft fodder.
All things considered then the team is looking fairly good. They have some unfortunate contracts, but nothing that can’t be worked around for the time being. And their roster is mostly complete, so they shouldn’t have too much of a problem filling out a lineup and fitting under the cap next season. Their real problems will come to the forefront in the next 1-2 season, with players like Turris, Stone, Karlsson, Methot, Anderson, and Brassard all on soon-to-expire deals.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
Let’s return to what we said about the Senators in the roster analysis section: they have solid forwards, an underwhelming defense led by one great player, and strong goaltending. Now let’s consider that they’re on the verge of having salary cap problems within two seasons. And now let’s consider that this isn’t a young team — Phaneuf is 32, MacArthur is 32, Ryan is 30, Brassard will be 30 in September, Anderson is 36. That means you have a team that’s good enough to go on a deep playoff run, but not a team that’s great — and it’s a team who is going to start running into some serious problems soon due to age and salary.
To me, that leaves you two choices. You can either go with option A, which means you be aggressive and try to get 1 or 2 more great players to try and push your team over the edge. Or you can go with option B, and start doing some retooling, take a tiny step back for a season or two, and take another run in the future.
If they go with option A, the #1 thing they’ll need to do is go after a highly-skilled defenseman that can contributes in all three zones. Think names like Sami Vatanen, Tyson Barrie, Jacob Trouba, or Kevin Shattenkirk. If they can get someone like that, maybe, just maybe, they can strike lightning in a bottle again and go all the way.
Option B is probably more practical, but seems unlikely given the team just came within 1 goal of a Stanley Cup Finals berth. Option B would mean trying to turn players like Brassard, Ryan, Phaneuf, and Anderson into younger versions of the same player. It would likely mean acquiring very young assets, and either pawning those off in future trades to add talented roster pieces, or waiting for those young assets themselves to develop into impact players. Both would require patience and would mean the team doesn’t likely make another strong playoff push for at least a couple of seasons.
I would go with option B, but let’s assume the Senators go with option A. What would that look like?
Firstly, in terms of the expansion draft, the Senators should do okay. Let’s say they protect Hoffman, Stone, Turris, Brassard, MacArthur, Ryan, Pageau, Karlsson, Phaneuf, Methot, and Anderson. That leaves Zack Smith and Cody Ceci as the likeliest targets for Vegas. Those losses would both be too bad, but manageable.
In the draft, the Senators could look at trading either or both of their first- and second-round picks to try and bring in another talented roster player. They would likely need to add pieces from the roster or prospect pool as well. Again, defense should be the main target. Center or even wing wouldn’t be bad either, though I’m less sure of who those targets might be. Perhaps players like Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog.
Then in free agency, the way I see it, you let anyone not named Mike Condon walk 100%. Because you know players like Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels are nothing more than fourth-liners. So why not target someone that you think could be more than that? Productive players get looked over every year and eventually sign bargain deals. Kris Versteeg this season is a good example of that. Signing a player equivalent to that could be a small but effective added boost to your scoring.
I would also try to target new defensemen in free agency, even though players like Mark Borowiecki and Chris Wideman are still under contract. But again, you know those players won’t do much for you, and their cap hits are small so you can just send them to the AHL. Try targeting players that you think could have even the smallest chances of playing well in your top four.
And if the Senators can do all that, maybe they can threaten to make another deep run next year. But they’ll need to be aggressive, and really supplement their depth, especially on defense. And you’ll also have to deal with the consequences of not turning more towards youth, as father time eventually gets the best of your good veterans. It’s risky, but it could work.
Or you can just go with option B.
Previously in this series…
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames, 14. Toronto Maple Leafs, 13. Boston Bruins