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Mendes: Trading for Hemsky earlier wouldn't make difference

Ian Mendes

3/11/2014 2:04:24 PM

There is no doubting Ales Hemsky has been a nice addition to the Senators lineup.

Over the past two games, Hemsky has assisted on six goals and found instant chemistry with Jason Spezza. For most of the season, Sens fans bemoaned the fact that Spezza was not playing with quality wingers. These last two games with Hemsky have only served to tease everyone, wondering what could have been if Hemsky was riding shotgun with Spezza all season long.

But would the Senators be sitting in a playoff spot if they had acquired Hemsky a few months ago?

Since I'm officially banned from using the phrase "probably not" in this town, I will instead answer by saying I think it's highly doubtful the Senators would be sitting in a playoff spot if Hemsky had been here since October.

Ottawa's big issue this season has been in their own end. And to be brutally honest, that has been their biggest problem since Paul MacLean took over as head coach a couple of years ago.

To MacLean's credit, he has drastically improved the offense on this team. When they missed the playoffs in Cory Clouston's last season at the helm, Ottawa scored just 193 goals and was one of only three NHL teams who failed to crack the 200-goal barrier in 2010-11.

So heading into MacLean's first season, the big question was: Who is going to score goals for the Senators? But MacLean worked his offensive magic and had terrific seasons from the likes of Spezza, Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson and the team ended up scoring 249 goals and ranking in the top five in the NHL in that category.

That's a remarkable transformation; bottom five in the league in goals one year to top five the next.

But Ottawa's defensive game showed no real improvement in that first season under MacLean. They ranked 24th in goals against under Clouston (giving up 250 goals) and they also ranked 24th in goals against under MacLean (giving up 240 goals). In fact, no team that made the playoffs in 2012 allowed more regular season goals than the Senators. And when you give up as many goals as the Senators do, you either make the playoffs by the skin of your teeth - or miss them altogether.

This trend appears to be rearing its ugly head again this season, as the Senators have no real problems scoring goals. They currently rank in the top half of the Eastern Conference in goals scored with 185 - more than playoff-bound teams like Montreal, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers.

But the Senators have surrendered an astounding 213 goals this season - the second-worst total in the entire NHL.  And no matter how many goals Hemsky would have added to the offensive side of the ledger, it's hard to imagine how he would have helped with the defensive breakdowns that have been problematic with this team for months.

A lot of people will point to the lockout-shortened season a year ago, where the Senators were the stingiest team in the Eastern Conference, sporting a 2.08 GAA.

But last year needs to be taken with a grain of salt because it was only a 48-game schedule and the Senators were still giving up a ton of quality chances.
 
Take a look at Ottawa's NHL ranking in shots allowed/game since MacLean took over and you will see they didn't actually have a great defensive improvement in that department last season:

Shots Allowed/Game (NHL Rank)

2011-12: 32.0/game (29th in NHL)
2012-13: 31.3/game (23rd in NHL)
2013-14: 34.4/game (28th in NHL)

Even though the Senators were near the top of the league in GAA in 2012-13, they were still giving up too many shots and chances each night. They weren't necessarily playing a tough, defensive style. Instead, they were bailed out by unbelievable goaltending that was producing numbers that were never going to be sustainable for the long-term.  Craig Anderson, for example, had a .933 save percentage while short-handed last season - a number that has tumbled by more than 100 points this year.

In short, the Senators brilliant goaltending masked the issues for this team last season. Now that the goaltending has been average this season, it highlights the defensive issues that have been around for the better part of three seasons.

The best teams in the NHL over the past three years - like Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles - have all ranked in the top 10 in fewest shots allowed. Even a team like the Blackhawks, who have the reputation of being offensive-oriented, have allowed the fourth-fewest shots against this season.

Again, MacLean deserves a ton of credit for turning this team into an offensive juggernaut. And if Hemsky re-signs next season, there is every reason to believe he can flourish in this system.

But now is the time that MacLean and his staff need to fix the defensive flaws with this team.  He is trying to implement a similar system he used in Detroit when they won the Stanley Cup in 2007-08. That season, the Red Wings had no trouble scoring goals, ranking third in the NHL in that department. But they also allowed the fewest shots per game at 23.5 - the best number in the entire league. The offensive comparisons to Detroit are accurate, but it's the defensive game for Ottawa that still has miles to go.

Bryan Murray didn't make any trades involving defensemen at the deadline because the organization believes they have the right personnel on the back end. If that's the case, it's the system that needs to be adjusted moving forward.

So when it comes to the re-build that started a couple of years ago, it's fair to say the Senators are only halfway there.