Making Sense of the Protection Lists, pt. 3: Forwards

We’ve now reviewed the odd choices made by the NHL’s general managers regarding their goalies and their defencemen. Today, we look at the forwards. By this morning, Golden Knights GM George McPhee will have finalized his list of picks since he needs to submit that list by 10am. But, since we don’t get to find out who those picks are until this evening, it gives us a chance to take this last look at what was made available.

Ryan Reaves?!
The question everyone has been asking since the protection lists were released is, “What was St. Louis thinking?” This kind of confusion blooms when a team chooses a career fourth liner with 13 points last season over significant members of their own top nine forwards. Reaves is the kind of player you might sign for a bargain deal to provide some of that proverbial “grit” and “sandpaper” NHL teams seem to be fascinated with. But, he’s not a guy you would group with your team’s core players. Yet, there is Ryan Reaves, essentially placed on the same level as Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo by the expansion draft process. I’ve talked about some bizarre choices in this series. Arguably, none is more strange than this one.

The players that St. Louis left available make this decision appear even more odd. First, there’s David Perron. His exclusion from the protection list is only a mild surprise due to his age and contract. Sure, he had a strong, 46-point season in 2016-17, but he was non-existent in the playoffs and he’s likely due for some regression this coming season. Second, the exclusion of Jori Lehtera is a little surprising only because of his role as the team’s second/third line centre the past few years. Still, he had a terrible 2016-17 season and is grossly overpayed for what he contributes. Nonetheless, it was expected that one of these two would be protected.

When the Blues decided not to protect either Perron or Lehtera, one would have expected the open protection slot to be used on a young forward with upside. One option might have been Dmitri Jaskin. While he’s not yet put it all together in the NHL, he is someone many expected the Golden Knights to select and probably would have been a more sensible protection option for St. Louis. Another name that can’t go without mentioning is Nail Yakupov, though it’s safe to say that Blues management may have been hoping, after yet another terrible season by the former first overall pick, that he would be the one headed for Las Vegas.

Jonathan Marchessault
From a career 51-point scorer to a player who exploded for 51 points in 2016-17, the idea that a team would expose a player who scored 30 goals this past season is absurd. And, yet, that’s exactly what the Florida Panthers did in failing to protect Jonathan Marchessault.

The 25-year-old centre was a bargain signing last off-season. After years of being unable to get a legitimate shot at an NHL job due to his small stature, Florida’s analytics-focused front office took a chance on him for the very low price of $750,000. Marchessault took advantage of that opportunity to the tune of 30 goals and 51 points. One has to think that the shuffling that occurred in the Panthers management last off-season drove the signing of Marchessault while the reshuffling was the cause of his exposure in the expansion draft. It’s odd to see a single management team be so mercurial about one of their players in such a short period of time.

Only Three Forwards
The bizarre choice by the New York Islanders to protect only three forwards could have been a topic in yesterday’s look at the available defencemen. In fact, the possibility exists that it will be a defender the Islanders lose, despite having protected five of them, as a result of the reported side deal they have in place with The Golden Knights. Though, the terms of that side deal, as reported by insiders, have seemingly changed every day since the protection lists were released, though the consistent element has always been the Islanders’ first round pick going to the Golden Knights.

Whatever he may have engineered in terms of side deals, though, whether New York GM Garth Snow intended it or not, he has essentially communicated to his team that almost everyone is expendable. Players like Ryan Strome, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson were still left exposed and, for three days, at least, belonged – for all intents and purposes – to the Vegas Golden Knights. It’s not a likely scenario due to the (almost overly) collegial relationship among NHL general managers, but by leaving these players unprotected, Snow left the choice up to McPhee to adhere to the deal. If a side deal was being made anyway, doesn’t it make more sense to protect the as many of your most valuable assets as you can? At worst, Snow would still be spending his first round pick, but with fewer players to tempt McPhee (and, more to the point, other NHL GMs who might have offered the Las Vegas manager a package worth enough to back out of the deal with New York) he might have also got away with paying less. It’s possible that the personal relationship between McPhee and Snow played a role in this scenario.

Eric Staal
Other decisions by the league’s general managers might not be seen universally as strange, but are still surprising on certain levels. I mentioned in a previous installment the use of Eric Staal as a distraction intended to steer McPhee away from the Wild’s excellent defencemen. Considering Minnesota’s lack of a first round draft pick, which appears to be the currency being used for all side deals in this round of expansion, finding a creative way to redirect McPhee’s focus was essential. Kudos go to Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher for his moxie. Eric Staal, after the strong season he had and with his cost-effective contract and the fact he’s still not completely over-the-hill in hockey terms, would bring to Las Vegas the kind of offensive punch that few expansion clubs get in their first years. A one-two combination at centre of Vadim Shipachyov and Staal would provide a depth that many established teams don’t have at the position. Still, Matt Dumba is just as attractive a prize on Minnesota’s list of exposed players, so it remains to be seen if Fletcher’s tactic pays off.

Many other teams have exposed quality forwards to the Golden Knights due to the fact that they could only protect a maximum of seven (technically eight, I guess, but that was never going to happen on any team) from their rosters. In fact, if there’s anything that’s made clear by the strange choices I’ve looked at, it’s that the expansion rules set by the NHL were very generous, to the point of putting the league’s general managers in very difficult circumstances. But, for $500 million dollars, I think it’s fair that Vegas owner Bill Foley expect to get a head start on building his franchise.

This concludes my look at the NHL expansion protection lists and the strange decisions made around them by various teams. Don’t forget to check out the previous installments, if you haven’t already.

Making Sense of the Protection Lists, pt. 2: Defence

Yesterday, we looked at some of the unusual choices made by NHL GMs regarding goalies they chose to leave unprotected and the options available to the Golden Knights that they present. Today, let’s do the same thing with defencemen.

If you thought there were some odd decisions made about goalies… well, the defencemen are even more head-scratching.

The Young and the Unprotected
There were an awful lot of good young defencemen — the kind of players that every team is said to covet — left unprotected by their teams. One doesn’t have to be particularly creative to imagine a scenario where Vegas picks up a number of them just to trade them off to other teams. In fact, that’s almost certainly what McPhee has planned.

After months of speculation as to how Anaheim would protect four good young defenders when they had veteran Kevin Bieksa taking up a protection slot due to his no movement clause, the Ducks opted for the NHL equivalent of “throwing money at it” and have reportedly promised some package of picks and/or players to the Golden Knights.

The question remains, though, as to what it was, exactly, that they’ve protected. Most reports indicate that it might be both Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson who are off limits, but I have a hard time imagining McPhee could be bought off cheaply, so protecting both would be an expensive proposition. Moreover, Anaheim has enough young talent in the pipeline that I’m sure Vegas wants to tap into. It would make more sense to me that Anaheim’s first rounder is used to protect Vatanen, while either Manson goes to Las Vegas or another young defenceman goes in his place. Others, however, have posited alternative viewpoints.

Similarly, Minnesota has five defencemen worth protecting and only three protection slots to do so. There aren’t the same reports of a side deal between the Wild and the Golden Knights as their are with the Ducks, because Minnesota has no first round pick.

Instead, it looks like Minnesota chose the slight of hand method of protection by putting something shiny among their unprotected forwards, if you can call Eric Staal “shiny”. I’ll talk more about Staal in the forwards edition of this series, but suffice it to say that his resurgence in Minneapolis this season could be distracting enough to Vegas to steer them away from a defenceman like Matt Dumba.

Then we have Boston, the source of so many head scratching moments over the past few off seasons that I question if it’s a strategy being used by GM Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely to get their names in the papers as often as possible. (“There is no bad press” and all that.) This time, they elected to leave unprotected 24-year-old right shot defenceman Colin Miller in favour of Kevan Miller (no relation), who is five years his senior. Kevan Miller is a perfectly fine defenceman, but not someone with any upside. He is what he is, while Colin Miller is still developing and could still become a solid top four puck moving defenceman. If the younger Miller is not part of the plan for next season in Las Vegas, there are no shortage of teams who will want his services. Just not the Bruins, apparently.

The Old Timers
Arguably the most talked about protection conundrum leading into the unveiling of the lists on Sunday was the situation on Ottawa’s blue line. With Dion Phaneuf automatically protected by his NMC and unwilling to waive it, plus Erik Karlsson being Erik Karlsson, there were no fewer than five defencemen left on the roster for whom Vegas would have a solid justification for taking in the draft. In the end, the Senators elected to protect just one of them: Cody Ceci.

That decision leaves Marc Methot, Karlsson’s long-time defence partner, exposed for Vegas to take. And, they probably will. After all, can McPhee turn down a top pairing defenceman with only two years left on a relatively affordable deal, especially when he could be a candidate to be the Golden Knights captain? It remains to be seen if Ottawa goes the route of Anaheim and coughs up something of value to protect Methot or if they just let him go and move on.

Buffalo also made the choice to expose a key member of their defence corps when the left Zach Bogosian off their protected list. Having traded for Nathan Beaulieu a day before the lists were due, someone among their defenders was going to be exposed and Bogosian with his $5+ million contract over three more years and 42 points in 141 games for the Sabres was the most reasonable candidate. Like Methot, Bogosian is a solid stay-at-home defenceman and he shoots right, which always increases a blueliner’s value. But, the contract is ugly in a way Methot’s isn’t and Bogosian hasn’t played a single playoff game in 10 years in the league. So, yeah… he’s probably safe.

The Kids Are Alright
While the league’s general managers have left Vegas many good and established defenders from which to choose, they’ve also, by necessity of the expansion draft rules, exposed many good blue line prospects, as well. Vegas, like any team, will need depth on their blue line for when injuries happen. They could (and probably will) sign a few veteran journeymen to provide that depth, but McPhee could also choose to stock his team’s cupboard with one or two young, yet to emerge, names.

Players like Brett Kulak or Tyler Wotherspoon in Calgary, Ludwig Bystrom in Dallas, Gustav Olofsson in Minnesota, Scott Mayfield with the Islanders, and Slater Koekkoek in Tampa all offer, at worst, middling upside and could provide depth now and solid play in the future. But, they also are all on teams that offer better options from which Vegas can choose.

But Edmonton really doesn’t offer better options. There’s little more than fringe NHLers at all positions on their list of exposed players when you exclude the UFAs and Benoit Pouliot’s ugly contract. Edmonton does, however, have three prospect defenders on their list that might provide the best risk-return ratio for George McPhee. Any of Griffin Reinhart, David Musil, or Dillon Simpson could develop into a solid NHL defender and might be worth spending a selection on rather than picking any of the scraps left for him at forward. While Reinhart has the pedigree, my money is on Dillon Simpson and he would be my choice.

As shown, the options among the defencemen available to the Golden Knights is even better than most expected it to be thanks to some odd decisions made by other teams’ general managers. McPhee should have no trouble selecting a collection of defenders that provide both attractive trade bait and a solid foundation for the team he ices in October.

Tomorrow, I’ll finish up this series with my look at the outright bizarre choices that teams made over their forwards.

Making Sense of the Protection Lists, pt. 1: Goalies

Yesterday’s release of expansion protection lists gives us a unique insight into what are each team’s priorities. For some, it’s protecting their core and little else. Others want to make sure they leave little-to-nothing of value for Las Vegas. Most fall between those two extremes.

Over the next three days, I’ll look at some of the stranger choices that were made and what options they present for the Golden Knights. To start, let’s look at some of the surprises available among the unprotected goalies.

Marc-Andre Fleury
Okay, this one isn’t a surprise at all since it was made clear Fleury waived his no movement clause months ago. What might be the surprise here is that I believe Fleury has been earmarked as the Golden Knights starting goalie since the moment he made that February decision to waive or shortly thereafter. If so, it’s a good call by the fledgling team as Fleury is a charismatic leader who can be their “face of the franchise” for the team’s first years. What’s more, with only two years left on his deal, it’s not a long term marriage for either party and they can choose to re-up at its end or go their separate ways. For a team that will probably have a lot of young players and will struggle to score goals, this might be the best move Golden Knights GM George McPhee makes for his team and I believe we’ll find out it was one that, for all intents and purposes, he made months before the draft.

Petr Mrazek
That Mrazek is available is one of the biggest surprises, but might only be the third least sensible decision made by any of the teams (behind, I’d argue, Florida’s leaving Jonathan Marchessault exposed and whatever the hell it was the Islanders were thinking). My guess is that, with Calgary trading for Mike Smith and the expectation that Fleury was already destined to be the Last Vegas starter, Detroit GM Ken Holland thought he could safely expose his younger, less humble goaltender after a disastrous season. Where I think he may have miscalculated is that there is now a team desperately in need of a new starter — Arizona. Smith is too far along in his career to be the goalie around whom the Coyotes’ young talent develops, which is why he was dealt. But, 25-year-old Mrazek is the perfect age to provide solid goaltending now and a veteran presence when the young team has bloomed into a contender. This move seems like an unusual misstep for the Detroit GM. Another way to look at it, though, is that, with more that $9 million in salary committed to goalies the next two seasons, a move needed to be made by Detroit to free up cap space. This might have been the easiest or even only way to make that happen, especially with a safety net in Jared Coreau seemingly ready to be the backup or even 1b to Jimmy Howard.

Antti Raanta and Calvin Pickard
The tricky bit about building an NHL team is that you have to plan for the now, the short term future, and for the long term. Fleury, as mentioned above, has two years remaining on his current contract, after which he will be an almost 35-year-old and likely no longer capable of being the workhorse starter for the team. In turn, it’s almost guaranteed that Las Vegas takes at least one goaltender in the upcoming entry draft to be their goalie of the future, which means, with the way goalies develop these days, about five or so years. But who’s going to be the stopper in between those two? That’s where Raanta can come in. I suspect the Rangers thought their backup might be made safe by their leaving goal scorer Michael Grabner exposed. Goals will be hard to come by for the Golden Knights and Grabner had a renaissance in that department last season. But, how clever would McPhee be if he not only took Raanta, but then also traded Pickard to the Rangers for Grabner himself. That would work out well for New York, too, since Pickard is a younger goalie who can be the team’s backstop for years to come once Henrik Lundqvist decides to call it a career.

As for Colorado leaving Pickard exposed… well, maybe Joe Sakic isn’t so good at this “being a GM” thing.

Philip Grubauer
Again, this one wasn’t so much a surprise that he’s exposed as much as it is that he might not be taken. Grubauer provides Las Vegas with another option if they can find a team that wants him to shore up their crease. Perhaps Calgary or Carolina might want some insurance in case their newly acquired keepers falter. Or, maybe Buffalo wants another option with a few more years of team salary control in case Robin Lehner proves not to be their answer in net. Another option would be to move Raanta, whose existing contract provides cost certainty, to such a team and sign Grubauer to be the heir apparent in Vegas. Or, if no one’s interested in playing, the Golden Knights can find someone else to take from Washington. Nate Schmidt would be a good choice.

Dallas and/or Carolina
The last surprise isn’t so much the goalies that the Stars and the Hurricanes have left unprotected. Instead, in the case of Dallas, it’s the other players that are on their exposed list. It would not surprise me at all if the Golden Knights have agreed to use their cap space to take one of Dallas’s extraneous and expensive goalies, with the intention of burying him and his exorbitant paycheque in the minors (or, at least, $1,025,000 of it, since the rest would still be applied to Vegas’ cap). I could see McPhee agreeing to such shenanigans for a package that includes the swapping of the #6 overall selection in the upcoming entry draft for Dallas’s #3 selection.

For the Hurricanes, GM Ron Francis did an effective job of all but scorching the earth that is his roster to make sure there is nothing of significant value to go to Las Vegas. Still, with a plethora of young talent, it might be worth parting with a prospect to entice the Golden Knights to take one of Ward or Lack, again with the intention of burying the contract.

In addition to the options above, the Golden Knights can also choose among several minor league goalies, some of whom are solid-or-better prospects. Any one of those could provide additional depth at the position for the Golden Knights. No matter how things play out, though, Las Vegas will have no shortage of goaltenders for the upcoming season and beyond.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the strange choices and ensuing options on defense available to the Golden Knights.

Trade Curtis Lazar? For what? To whom?

It seems everyone has Curtis Lazar traded by the Ottawa Senators sometime between now and the trade deadline. The latest such suggestion comes from Trevor Shackles of SilverSevenSens.com. In that article, he says he’d take a Lazar for 2nd round pick trade “every single time”. Problem is, who’s that pick going to come from?

One thing that gets me when I read articles like this (and, please don’t take this as me picking on Trevor, because he’s in esteemed company not just among bloggers, but mainstream media folks, as well) is an underlying assumption that Senators GM Pierre Dorion will have no problem finding a trade partner who is either stupid or naive.

Harsh, yes, but my reasoning is this: if both the team and the fan base no longer value this player’s contributions such that he is a frequent scratch and being bandied about in trade rumours and talks, then how can one expect that another team will feel so differently that they would be willing to give up something they undoubtedly value in return?

Put another way, if we think Lazar is the pig, do we really think selling him is a matter of the shade of lipstick we put on him?

The frequent comparable brought up in most arguments for trading Lazar is Jared Cowen. Many feel that holding onto Lazar beyond the deadline will result in whatever trade value the young forward has evaporating almost overnight. And, I’ll admit, that’s a possibility.

But, there are some substantial differences between Lazar and Cowen. First is their positions. It’s a lot easier to put a struggling forward on the ice night after night because he’s only one of twelve. A struggling defenseman, though, exposes your whole team whether you put him out for the minimum eight-to-ten minutes a night to screw up and cost you goals against or you bench him and play your other five defenders even more, causing them added fatigue and increasing their likelihood of mistakes.

Another difference is the two players’ injury histories. When Jared Cowen was traded at 24 years old, he’d had no less than three long stints on the injured reserve. Moreover, when he did play, it was obvious that he had lost a great deal of mobility (something that was not a strength of his to begin with) because of the injuries. The Senators moved him, not to play for his new team, but as a salary cap exploit. As a player, the injuries and his inability to recover from them had sapped all his trade value, not how long of a leash the Senators had given him.

Lazar has had no such injury issues and, in fact, he’s a legitimate–if unspectacular–NHL player. But, there’s also nothing special about him right now beyond his draft pedigree and every team has had more than one first rounder bomb out in the past, so that pedigree isn’t exactly worth much. Without at least that, how is Lazar worth more than the “mid-round draft pick” (see #19) apparently being offered for him? After all, there are lots of players in free agency even at this point in the season who could be signed for the same money or less and score just as few points as Lazar has while not costing the acquiring team a draft pick, as well.

Should the Senators move Lazar? Probably. It really doesn’t look like he’s going to pull it together in Ottawa. But, if they do move him, the team and the fan base need to be prepared to do so for a very insubstantial return. Because, right now, that’s all he’s worth to anyone.

Trip to St. John’s

Trip to St. John’s

33 new photos · Album by Nick Valentino

Original post

More to come?

I keep looking at the General Fanager page for the Sens, specifically the “43” at the top where the number of contracts is indicated. With only one more RFA to sign, Cody Ceci, that means that Ottawa’s entire complement of players will total 44, which seems remarkably low. And, that is before the likelihood of sending Thomas Chabot back to junior, which then removes his contract from the total number.

Do the Senators need more players? That depends on your perspective. Right now, Ottawa’s lineup, however it shakes out in terms of actual lines and defensive pairings, will include at least one rookie, likely Matt Puempel due to his waiver status. If you factor in backups, then the team could include Dzingel and Paul, two more rookies, or one or both of Tom Pyatt and Mike Blunden, two players best used primarily in the AHL. Moreover, the team’s seventh defenseman would be Mike Kostka, a serviceable rearguard also best used in the AHL or the above-mentioned Chabot, who’s development could be stalled if he’s forced to watch a lot of games from the press box. (Though, admittedly, that would require being outplayed on a daily basis by Mark Borowiecki, which should force most of us to ask why Chabot isn’t back in junior at that point.)

So, back to our question: does this team need more player depth? I’d argue “yes”. Without a doubt, the team needs at least one more defenseman and, considering that Dorion has said that’s the last thing on his wish list, there’s a good chance one will be signed. But, if the team is serious about winning now (as stated in reference to the trade from Derick Brassard), then at least one more NHL-calibre forward would be a good addition, as well.

But, this is the Ottawa Senators about which we are speaking. Short of whatever spare change can be collected under the cushions of the various sofas around the team’s offices, there is likely little to no money to spend on additional players. Consider the following numbers:

$64,139,166
$65,275,000

The first number, according to the same General Fanager page linked above, is Ottawa’s commitments against the salary cap. (Interestingly, CapFriendly.com has this number at $64,219,167. The difference is based on Buddy Robinson and his $750,000 contract making the NHL roster over Nick Paul and his $670,000 deal.) The second, which is by far the more useful one for our considerations, is the actual dollars committed to players for the 2016-17 season. Think about that number in light of Eugene Melnyk’s infamous comments from last year, specifically his mention of “throw(ing) $68 million dollars” at the team’s payroll. A number, he continued, that “puts us way over budget”. I’d argue that Melnyk is far more concerned with the actual dollars spent on players than on what the cap hit is and, at more that $65 million dollars *before* the team has signed Ceci, I think it’s safe to say that the team is going to be over budget again this year.

That leaves one option if the team is serious about adding even one more player and that’s to sign him at the lowest possible price.

Enter the PTO. Most years, one or two NHL players take a Player Try Out contract for training camp as a way to, hopefully, play themselves onto an NHL roster and avoid having to be a late signing in Europe, sign with an AHL team, or sit out the season until someone gets desperate for another warm body. But, if there’s any chance at all that the Senators will get a NHL-calibre player on a bargain-basement contract, it could be through a PTO.

Who are some candidates for this option? The chances of scoring Kris Russell this way are almost nil (and, with that, a giant sigh of relief is expelled across the Senators fanbase). Unfortunately, getting Brandon Pirri this way isn’t likely, either. Most of even the remaining higher-end UFAs will either sign real contracts with NHL teams just before training camp or will cut their losses and sign in another league. Looking at the bottom end of the free agent pool doesn’t help either as it means signing a player that likely isn’t even as good as the backup options outlined above.

That leaves the mushy middle–a group of NHL players who might be older and established in North America or who genuinely feel they’re better and worth more than what an AHL contract would compensate them.

I hear you. You want names. Here are four, in no particular order:

  • Matt Frattin
    Frattin offers a solid career positive possession having played for some pretty lousy teams. He also has been blessed by a little bit of puck luck (career PDO of 101.5) and all while starting in his own zone more often than not. As a right shot, he might be an option to spell Chris Neil after Neil passes the 1,000 game mark that seems to be the only reason he still has an NHL career.
  • Jordan Szwarz
    Szwarz is a Group VI free agent [http://www.nhlfreeagents.com/#!group-6-free-agents/c1nv7] which, by definition, means he hasn’t got a lot of NHL experience. But, he’s only 25 years old, has okay possession stats in a small sample size (especially in 2013-14 when he played in 26 games for the Coyotes) and started the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.
  • Dainius Zubrus/Domenic Moore/Barret Jackman/Dan Boyle
    Okay, so I cheated with this one, especially since I’ve mixed forwards and defensemen into this mess. But, this group is the aged veterans who might still have something left in the tank and I don’t see the team giving more than one of these guys a PTO. Zubrus looked kind of terrible in the Stanley Cup finals, but was serviceable before that. Moore and Jackman seem to be the best options as the most likely to offer bottom of the lineup help. Boyle probably can’t play in the NHL any longer, but he’s an Ottawa native and that seems to count for a lot with the Senators.
  • Adam Pardy
    I’m not the first person to suggest Pardy as a target for the Senators, but at this stage in his career, he’d make for a serviceable bottom pairing defenseman. Yes, he had a terrible season last year and he’s started most of his career shifts in the offensive zone, but he’s had decent possession numbers in his career. Plus, like Chabot, he’d really only need to play better than Borowiecki every day to improve Ottawa’s defence.

The Senators flirted with bringing in Martin Havlat as a PTO last season and could be considering using the tactic again this season. Whether it’s one (or more) of the above players or others in similar situations, the NHL free agent market is such this season that there could be some legitimate NHL talent in desperate circumstances come the eve of training camp. Because of this, using PTOs could be the best way for Ottawa to add depth that will allow their young players to get more AHL time and improve the bottom of their lineup.

Lazar… first line right wing?

Okay, hear me out on this one before you rip me a new one in the comments.

The Ottawa Senators have a bit of an enigma in Curtis Lazar. As Colin4000 points out in his excellent breakdown of the team’s bottom six forward options, Lazar’s preference is to play centre, but he’s likely destined for the wing. Colin also states that Lazar isn’t ready for the top six and he’s not wrong… in the traditional sense of the “top six”. But what if the idea of “top six” is changing?

In winning the Stanley Cup this year, the Pittsburg Penguins may have redefined the concepts of top six, top nine, and bottom six by playing Crosby, Malkin and Kessel on separate lines. No one would argue that Crosby is not that team’s top centre, but his linemates for most of the playoffs were Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist. Malkin, the team’s “second” centre (and first line centre on any other team), played with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust. On Kessel’s line were Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino and the trio was arguably the only line consisting of all “top six” calibre forwards.

Ottawa’s strength has been offence for a while now and finding ways to spread that offence around, while also improving team defence could be a real challenge if the team does things the same way as last year. So, what if the Senators learn something from Pittsburg’s example?

Consider this line-up for the Senators top nine:

Hoffman – Turris – Lazar
MacArthur – Brassard – Ryan
Smith – Pageau – Stone

There are some real wins with a line-up like this. For one, it ensures at least two forwards known for his “defensive responsibility” is on each of these lines (Turris-Lazar, MacArthur-Ryan, all three on line three). More importantly, each line has solid possession drivers who should be able to limit shots against. It also puts the team’s best two goal scorers, Hoffman and Ryan, with the centre most likely to succeed at feeding them the puck since Turris, a righty, can pass to Hoffman on his forehand, as can Brassard, a lefty, to Ryan. Finally, it keeps together the line (Smith-Pageau-Stone) that was a bit of a revelation for the team in the late going last season.

Oh… and if each line gets 16-18 minutes of ice time per night, that would only leave as little as six minutes of ice time for the fourth line each night. With two players in their mid-thirties and a rookie the most likely make up of that line, such limited time might not be the worst idea.

Is it the perfect line-up? Probably not. Plus, the way that coaches juggle lines, it likely wouldn’t last more than a week. Still, I think there are some real benefits, not the least of which is a real test of Lazar’s abilities. While he wouldn’t be expected to drive the offence of the first line, he’d certainly be expected to keep up and these would be the best linemates he’s played with since he joined the team. It might be a case of throwing the young player into the deep end, but after two full seasons with the team, even he admits he has a lot to prove. This opportunity would give him the chance to do just that.

Alright, I’ve said my piece. Let the ripping begin.

Ottawa Senators circa 2018/19

The more I look at the Ottawa Senators, specifically the choices they’ve made this off-season, the more I think the team’s management might actually be building for two to five years from now.

The last several years, the Senators have looked like they had no plan beyond doing just enough to get into the playoffs. Many moves seemed to be made with an eye to appeasing the fan base rather than adhering to a specific plan for the future. Trading for Bobby Ryan after losing Alfredsson to free agency, then signing him to his massive contract, were two such moves. Trading Spezza for a cluster of futures was another. Signings such as Borowiecki and Hammond, not to mention the trade of Lehner to make room for the latter, also appeared to be driven by knee-jerk response than by careful consideration. Most recently, the trade for Dion Phaneuf seemed, on the surface, another reactionary move.

Since Dorion took over, things have started to look a little bit more like a plan. I’d even argue that we can now start to see the beginnings of that plan starting as far back as the 2015 draft, since it’s been apparent for almost that long that Dorion was the successor-in-waiting to Bryan Murray.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at the most recently drafted players. Those taken in the past two drafts have included:

  • a potential (and overdue) replacement for Spezza (Brown)
  • a possible 200-foot 2nd-line centre (White)
  • a possible future partner for Erik Karlsson (Chabot)
  • at least two possible top-six wingers (Dahlen, Gagne)
  • several possible second and third pairing defenders (Jaros, Wolanin, Lavoie)
  • several possible depth forwards (Nurmi, Burgess, Chlapik, Ahl)
  • a shot-in-the-dark goalie who could actually turn into something (Daccord)

As such, here’s the possible lineup that could be in place for the 2018/19 season:

Forwards:
Clarke MacArthur – Mika Zibanejad – Mark Stone
Matt Puempel – Logan Brown – Bobby Ryan
Francis Perron – Colin White – Curtis Lazar
Nick Paul – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Ryan Dzingel
extras: Jonathan Dahlen, Gabriel Gagne, Max McCormick

Defence:
Thomas Chabot – Erik Karlsson
Dion Phaneuf – Cody Ceci
Andreas Englund – Marc Methot
extras: Patrick Sieloff, Fredrik Claesson, Christian Jaros

Goal:
Matt O’Connor
Marcus Hogberg

Anyone I’ve left off is because they won’t necessarily be under club control for 2018/19 (i.e. UFA, retirements, etc.) or don’t project to be more than marginal depth options (there may be at least a couple among the list above that will fit that category, as well). I, like many fans, hope that Mike Hoffman gets a long term contract and that Turris resigns with the team in a couple years when his contract expires. But, I see the draft and development strategy as planning for a future without them.

This team could be very strong or it could be extremely terrible or it could end up somewhere in between. In my mind, the weakest area is the goaltending. I still have high hopes for O’Connor and Hogberg looks capable, but projecting that position is akin to voodoo, so who knows whether either will turn out.

Obviously, Dorion is not immune to the same desires to appease the fanbase as appear to have plagued his predecessor. The signing of Chris Kelly is likely an indication of such. But, the way things look to me, I’m at least a little comforted by the idea that there might be well-considered plan in at least one area of hockey operations.

My suggestions for Ottawa’s free agent targets, Part 2

Yesterday’s signing of Steven Stamkos by the Tampa Bay Lightning dramatically changes the free agency landscape for those teams looking to acquire top-end talent in this way. As the readers of this site know, though, the Ottawa Senators are not a team that usually plays at the top of the free agency market. So, while imagining top free agents in Senators uniforms is an enjoyable fantasy, looking at potential signing target in a realistic way requires aiming a lot lower down on the list.

In my previous post, I suggested some Group VI free agents that Ottawa could explore signing as a way to improve depth and add some NHL experience to the minor league roster. Today, I’ll offer my suggestions for adding some bona fide NHL talent to the Senators without breaking Eugene Melnyk’s very small bank account.

The players below are all Group III free agents, meaning that they are at least 27 years of age, have accrued at least seven years of NHL experience, and have expired contracts. When anyone talks about free agency in reference to the NHL, it is this group of players to whom they usually refer.

As outlined above, the key to this list of players is taking into consideration both the team’s history in the free agent market and general manager Pierre Dorion’s own words from just before the draft. When asked about whether Ottawa would be “active” in free agency, his response made very clear that the team would be seeking to sign only depth players and not anyone that might be a top six forward/top four defenseman.

So, considering the realities of the Ottawa budget and the team’s general aversion to risk, I’ve made some suggestions below for free agency targets for the team. I’ve included handedness for defenders and position for forwards and, for all, 2015/16 cap hit and whether the contract included a two-way (2W) clause. I’ve also linked each player to his hockey-reference.com page. Statistics (courtesy of Puckalytics.com) provided in the embedded images are for the past three years to ensure a significant sample size:

Defence:

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators defenseman free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators defenseman free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com (Note: Dahlbeck was a late addition and not included in these statistics.)

The unfortunate reality is that Ottawa doesn’t value defensemen who lack size, current bottom pair defender Chris Wideman notwithstanding. The suggestions above are all above 6’ tall and are not exactly possession darlings. Each has strengths that mean they’d be an upgrade over the existing pairing, but weaknesses that exclude them from climbing higher up the depth chart. McBain seems to be the most offensively gifted with 110 points in 345 games, but also has played very sheltered minutes in his career. Dahlbeck (a victim among the unusually high calibre of unqualified restricted free agents this year) is by far the youngest of the group with comparable possession numbers to the others. None of these players will radically transform the Senators blue line, but each would make for a quality depth signing at a low price.

Forwards:

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators forward free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators forward free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com

Again, little separates these forwards, though I was surprised to find that both Sceviour and Santorelli have exceed Tlusty in individual points per 60 minutes over the past three years. Nonetheless, all four have decent possession numbers for fourth line players who generally start their shifts in the defensive zone. Upshall’s numbers are particularly interesting as he seems to have maintained a very good 51+% Corsi despite his offensive zone starts dropping well below 40%. Tlusty could also be useful due to his abilities to play all three forward positions and, as recently as 2014/15, to score 30+ points in a season.

Beyond these players are many others that Ottawa could consider, many of which would not cost much more than what these players will likely sign for. A player like Matt Martin fits the makeup of a player that Ottawa’s hockey operations staff have loved in the past (e.g. a big, tough forward who’s got “intangibles”) and, considering last year’s cap hit, I suspect he might sign for something like Chris Neil’s $1.5 million salary. But, that would mean the team is spending $3 million on fourth line wingers and I just don’t see that happening.

Also, as mentioned above, a third pool of free agents has emerged this year that could be ripe for exploit. Many teams left surprising restricted free agent names out in the cold by not offering them a qualifying offer. These players, cast somewhat unexpectedly into unrestricted free agency, likely would command extremely low salaries. A quick glance at some of the bigger names (Joe Colborne, Brandon Pirri, Dahlbeck) show players with less than appealing analytics. Still, taking some time to find a diamond in the rough could yield a quality player for a rock-bottom price. Unfortunately, I suspect the one that glitters most would turn out to be the one Ottawa threw away, Patrick Wiercioch.

Assuming Ottawa wants to give its younger players more time to develop in the minor leagues, signing a few unrestricted free agents will be necessary to fill out the roster. As we see, there are players to be had at very low prices that can provide the kind of depth Ottawa will need to perhaps push for the playoffs while also shielding players who are not quite ready for prime time.

My suggestions for Ottawa’s free agent targets, Part 1

The Ottawa Senators aren’t exactly the team one thinks of when one hears the phrase “active in free agency”. In the past three years, Clarke MacArthur remains the biggest name free agent that Ottawa has signed away from another team. And, as long as Ottawa’s financial situation remains the same (a.k.a. while Eugene Melnyk owns the team), that isn’t going to change.

But, that’s not to say that Ottawa can’t exploit the free agency system to acquire some truly talented depth. There are a lot more NHL calibre players than there are NHL jobs right now (I’d argue that’s the reason for expansion, but we all know that’s just about the $500 million) and lots of players who will sign for less than $1 million and likely accept two-way contracts.

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