The Ottawa Senators followed up an impressive showing 2012-2013 -- a season in which they finished with their highest points percentage since 2008 -- with something of a collapse in 2013-2014, ultimately missing the playoffs by five points, but it wasn't really that close for most of the season.
Off-Season Game Plan examines a team facing some challenging times as GM Bryan Murray tries to put together a roster for next season.
Perhaps the first challenge facing Murray is that it's expected he will be moving out Jason Spezza, a premier point producer who is about to enter the final year of his contract. It's not as if the Senators shouldn't consider moving a player who, while immensely talented, also turns 31 this summer, but the return for such a deal is going to be crucial to determining just how soon the Senators are going to be competitive.
Maybe they won't miss a beat; they'll find some good value on the free agent market and prospects will step into bigger roles, but no team can operate on the assumption that everything will be just fine after subtracting a point-per-game centre.
The underlying concern for Murray, while building a roster, and the Senators franchise in general is that there have been increasing questions about owner Eugene Melnyk's finances. Questions started when Daniel Alfredsson departed last summer and in interviews following the season, Melnyk preached a prudent fiscal approach.
If this summer sees Spezza go, and unrestricted free agents Ales Hemsky and Milan Michalek also head out the door, that would leave the Sens with three over-30 players -- D Chris Phillips, RW Chris Neil and G Craig Anderson. Otherwise, the roster would largely be comprised of players either in or approaching their peak years, which could make for a relatively quick rebuilding effort, though that may be dependent on whether the budget allows the Senators to keep other veteran talent.
Following the 2014-2015 season, RW Bobby Ryan, D Marc Methot and goaltender Anderson are all heading towards unrestricted free agency. If the Senators aren't contending next season, and those three are still approaching UFA status, will there be an inclination to sign them to long-term deals or will they be trade chips at next year's trade deadline?
These are the types of questions that hover over any team in the NHL as they make roster decisions, but the decisions have less room for error on teams that are operating on an internal budget and that appears to be the world in which the Senators are now operating.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Bryan Murray/Paul MacLean
Free Agent Forwards
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Since 2005-2006 five players -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Joe Thornton and Pavel Datsyuk -- have scored more than Jason Spezza's 1.06 points per game (minimum 300 games played), so it's not surprising that he will be in demand on the trade market. He turns 31 this summer and will be going into the final year of his current contract, but it's just not easy to acquire a centre with Spezza's scoring pedigree.
But, as a trade chip, he's valuable and if the Senators are trying to save money, getting out from under that $7-million while receiving young talent in return, then that's going to change the Senators' window to win.
One reason that the Senators can afford to shop Spezza is that Kyle Turris took a big step forward last season, doubling his previous career-best, scoring 58 points and he did it while generating positive possession numbers and playing hard minutes. Turris also had a career-best on-ice shooting percentage, which is likely to regress, but the 24-year-old has established that he can play in all situations and, with Spezza likely moving on, Turris will have to carry a heavy load.
Playing a career-high 17:38 per game, Clarke MacArthur scored a career-high 24 goals and, as usual, delivered strong possession stats while skating on Turris' wing. A three-time 20-goal scorer, MacArthur is consistently an above-average finisher (in terms of shooting percentage).
Bobby Ryan was the Senators' marquee acquisition last summer and while his production was okay, and he was part of a strong line with Turris and MacArthur, he did so while battling a sports hernia injury for much of the year. A four-time 30-goal scorer who just turned 27, Ryan is a rare talent and one that could be a cornerstone piece for the Sens going forward, but he's also heading into the final year of his contract, which leaves open the possibility that he could be moved out. At the very least, expect teams to inquire about Ryan's availability until a decision is made on a new contract.
Absurdly demoted to the AHL at the start of last season, as though he wasn't good enough to stay with the NHL team, Mika Zibanejad was quickly recalled and played well. He's not yet entrusted with difficult minutes, but generates strong possession stats, so that could be the next step for a 21-year-old that plays both ends of the rink and offers a size/speed combination that is difficult to contain.
A big-bodied forward whose production was inflated by playing with Jason Spezza a couple of years ago, Colin Greening hasn't scored so much since and has a contract extension kicking in next season that doesn't quite fit with a depth forward. If he can handle a regular spot in the top nine, that would be fine, but there's some risk that he won't be at that level for the next three years.
Far and away the leader among active players in penalty minutes, Chris Neil saw his ice time drop by a couple minutes from the 2012-2013 season, yet he's still taking up too much ice time given his relative lack of production. He's turning 35 this summer, so it's not likely to get better either.
A puck possession beast who can't finish a lick, Erik Condra is reliable and safe, but offers very little upside due to a lack of offensive production. While not charged with the toughest assignments, Condra still provides strong defensive work.
Zack Smith is a gritty checking centre, who can chip in offensively, but he gets a lot of ice time for relatively minimal production. Smith takes some tough checking assignments, which undoubtedly increases his usage but if, for example, Zibanejad emerges in a bigger role, that might knock Smith's ice time down by a few minutes and that wouldn't be the worst scenario for this team.
This summer could provide some serious change in Ottawa. If Spezza is traded, and Milan Michalek and Ales Hemsky leave via free agency, that would remove three of their top scoring options. There will be prospects battling for some of those openings and the return on a Spezza trade would have to include some young talent, but it's safe to say that the Senators' forward group is going to look significantly different next year.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
One of the game's most electrifying players, Erik Karlsson generates offence like no other blueliner and, at a $6.5-million cap hit, is a relative bargain through 2019. He is criticized for not being a lockdown defender, in addition to being a brilliant skater and puckhandler, but Karlsson keeps the puck in the opponent's end so consistently, that's it is hard to get too worked up about what he's not doing.
Patrick Wiercioch entered last season with expectations that he might take over some of the minutes that left town with veteran Sergei Gonchar, and Wiercioch did play more early in the year, putting up 10 points in his first 20 games, but couldn't hold a spot in the lineup through the middle portion of the season. He played relatively soft minutes, but was effective in those minutes, so it's not unreasonable to think that the 23-year-old will be able to handle more responsibility next year.
Marc Methot spent most of the year paired with Karlsson, providing a defensive anchor to Karlsson's freewheeling ways. He finished with a career-high 23 points last season, including the first three power play points of his career, but Methot isn't going to make waves with his puck skills. He's big, strong and has logged nearly 22 minutes a night in two seasons for the Senators, often against quality opposition. He is also entering the final year of his contract.
A 23-year-old who already has a spotty history of injuries, Jared Cowen struggled in 2013-2014, but the Senators are operating with expectations that he can be better in the future, as he gets further removed from hip surgery. That may be the case, but it would be risky to go into next season expecting Cowen to handle a top-four role if it turns out that time itself doesn't make him better.
After making his presence felt as a rookie in 2012-2013, Eric Gryba's role was reduced last season. He dressed in 57 games and logged nearly three minutes less per game than the year before. He doesn't do anything special, particularly offensively, but he can do a reasonable job in a depth defensive role.
The first overall pick in 1996, Chris Phillips is still grinding for the Senators, and while he's still utilized in a defensive role, he's obviously declined from the days in which he was charged with shutting down the opposition's best lines on a nightly basis. He has a reasonable enough contract for the next couple seasons.
Pressed into action sooner than expected as a first-year pro, Cody Ceci started well, but went through some tough times as well; nothing unusual for a 20-year-old rookie defenceman. He was sheltered in his usage, but has good size and the 15th pick in the 2012 draft has offensive upside that he didn't have a chance to display as a rookie.
This unit might be okay if Cowen is as good as the Senators expect, but that is the risk going forward. If Cowen isn't up to handling top-four minutes, then that's a hole that is a situation that will need to be addressed. It's possible help could come via a Spezza trade, but the Senators could also look for value on the free agent market.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
After leading the league in goals against average and save percentage in 2012-2013, Craig Anderson found out how regression works, especially as it applies to goalies. Anderson's .941 save percentage crashed to .911 last season which isn't terrible, but is below average. Anderson also had to finish strong to get there. His struggles in October and November opened up the possibility that Robin Lehner could take over the starting job.
22-year-old Lehner had a .938 save percentage through the first couple months of the season, picking up where he left off the year before, and seemed like a capable replacement for a struggling Anderson, but Lehner couldn't handle it, posting an .891 save percentage in 21 games from December through March.
The Senators can bring this tandem back next season, hoping that they bounce back, and that Lehner will be better positioned to take over from Anderson, who will be a free agent next summer.
||41-35-76, +41, 58 GP
||15-26-41, +5, 37 GP
||30-18-48, -11, 74 GP
||20-24-44, +15, 46 GP
||4-7-11, +4, 19 GP
||30-37-67, +11, 51 GP
|Stephane Da Costa
||18-40-58, +19, 56 GP
||Ohio State (Big 10)
||22-24-46, +17, 37 GP
||2-6-8, +14, 50 GP GP
||21-27-48, +23, 69 GP
||2.64 GAA, .918 SV%, 50 GP
||3-26-29, +37, 75 GP
Drafted 17th overall last summer, Curtis Lazar isn't considered a gifted offensive player, even though he's scored 79 goals in 130 WHL games over the past two seasons. He is considered a gamer, though, who continues to get better and that makes him a safe prospect who might be able to challenge for a spot as soon as next year.
A sixth-round pick in 2010, Mark Stone has been knocking on the door for an NHL job and, after a productive showing in the AHL last season, he also picked up eight points and had strong possession stats, in 19 games with Ottawa. He's ready for a full-time chance next season.
There were seven 30-goal scorers in the AHL in 2013-2014 and only one was younger than Matt Puempel, the 24th pick in 2011, who has done decidedly more finishing than playmaking the past couple seasons.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau had some late-season and playoff success with Ottawa in 2013, but managed two goals and no assists in 28 games last season, resulting in more AHL time. To his credit, Pageau's AHL scoring rate improved dramatically, which is promising, but he'll be in a battle for a roster spot again next year.
A mobile defenceman picked in the seventh round in 2011, Mikael Wikstrand may be a few years away, but he's already been productive in limited time in the Swedish Hockey League. A couple of years down the road, could be a gem. Could be.
A late-bloomer who laid the AHL to waste last season, 24-year-old Mike Hoffman, played 25 games in Ottawa, contributing six points (3 G, 3 A) and didn't look out of place. Could be interesting if the speedster can carry some of that AHL production to the next level.
Stephane Da Costa has been up and down from the AHL over the past couple seasons, but may have finally hit his stride last year, scoring better than a point-per-game in the AHL as well as putting up strong possession stats in a dozen games with Ottawa. Will it be enough to land a spot next season?
Drafted in the seventh round in 2011, Ryan Dzingel had 84 points in 77 games over his last two seasons at Ohio State and made a smooth pro transition, scoring seven points in nine games with Binghamton at season's end.
A fifth-round pick in 2008, Mark Borowiecki is a tough, stay-at-home defenceman, and while he's made it into 21 NHL games over the past three seasons, he's effectively been passed by Gryba in that role.
Drafted in the second round in 2011, Shane Prince has some skill, though he's in a depth chart battle with a bunch of other forward prospects in the organization. If Prince had a big productive season in 2013-2014, then he might be closer, but he is still just 21.
Picked in the third round in 2012, Chris Driedger has been solid in two WHL seasons since, putting up a .916 save percentage in 104 games. Goaltenders are unpredictable and take time, so there's no urgency, but Driedger is worth keeping on the radar.
Defenceman Fredrik Claesson plays a steady game and showed improvement in his second season in North America. He was a fifth-round pick in 2011.
Senators advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
No first-round pick
According to www.capgeek.com, the Senators have approximately $37.1M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 13 players.
Check out my possible Senators lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Senators needed last year: One top six forward, one top four defenceman.
They added: Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur.
Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.