The Ottawa Senators were within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, which created expectations for the team heading into last season, and they fell flat.
Off-Season Game Plan examines a team that looks like it is headed for a crossroads this summer, facing the possibility that they may need to trade their franchise player.
The storyline that has dominated the Senators news since December is that defenceman Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, expects to get fair market price when he’s a free agent following the 2018-19 season.
That’s not an unreasonable expectation, by any stretch, but the Senators don’t seem to be a team in the business of handing out long-term contracts that have cap hits north of $10 million per season. That puts the Sens in a tough spot, because if they aren’t prepared to sign Karlsson long-term, then they really ought to move him this summer, before the final year on his current contract.
There were reports that the Senators nearly traded Karlsson before the trade deadline, so it’s not as though this idea hasn’t been explored, and the off-season will present another opportunity to make that trade.
If the Senators trade Karlsson, there is the idea that Ottawa will include Bobby Ryan, and the last four years of his big-money contract, in the deal. That would provide some financial relief, but that comes at a cost because it means that Ottawa would receive a lesser package of players and picks in return.
Nevertheless, any kind of Karlsson trade will likely be hard to sell to the Senators fan base because, generally, NHL teams don’t trade their best players away.
It doesn’t mean that the Senators can’t move in the right direction, but they will need to get good value for Karlsson and figure out how they are going to build a core going forward. Does that include Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene? Who else?
The challenge that the Senators face is that there is a perception that ownership isn’t willing to spend what’s necessary to be a competitive team. They did spend more than $72 million against the $75-million salary cap last season, but if Karlsson is shed for financial reasons and Ryan’s salary comes off the books, will the new plan involve spending significant money elsewhere, or will it be a cash savings for the Senators?
The off-season tends to be a time for optimism, because teams have a chance to get more talent, but the Senators seem to be a team in turmoil, or they will be until the Karlsson situation is resolved.
Pierre Dorion/Guy Boucher
Mark Stone – Even though he missed 24 games due to a leg injury, the star winger produced better than a point-per-game and, as usual, the puck was moving in the right direction when he was on the ice.
Erik Karlsson – Although last season was not quite up to his usual standards, as best in the league, the Senators star blueliner was still driving play and topped 60 points for the fifth straight season.
Mike Hoffman – The 28-year-old winger recorded his fourth straight 20-goal season, even thoug he shot just 8.6%. Good things can happen when you generate more than three shots on goal per game.
Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci – Before Phaneuf was traded to Los Angeles, this was one of the worst defence pairings in the league, compiling a 39.7 CF% and 36.9 xGF% in 53 games.
Craig Anderson – One year after posting one of the best seasons of his career, under trying circumstances, the 36-year-old stumbled to quite possibly his worst season in 2017-18, with his .898 save percentage a career-low.
Zack Smith – After scoring a combined 41 goals in the previous two seasons, the 30-year-old managed just five in 68 games last season, and the Senators were outscored 56-25 with Smith on the ice at even strength.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
The Senators paid a steep price to acquire Matt Duchene and, after some early struggles (he had two points in his first 12 games for Ottawa), he showed the kind of game-breaking offensive talent that was expected. Now, it happened as the team was sinking, but Duchene ought to be a core piece for the Senators, and that could mean a contract extension as soon as this summer.
A great skater who can fire the puck, Mike Hoffman’s even-strength scoring has dropped from its peak a few years ago, but he’s scored 104 goals in the past four seasons, and that’s good enough to rank 24th in the league over that time. He’s also found his way into trade rumours lately, and it’s possible that he would get moved this summer, but if the Senators are intending to be competitive in 2018-2019, the lineup probably needs to include Hoffman.
Ryan Dzingel has developed into a solid contributor for the Senators, putting up 23 goals in his second full season. He’s probably not going to keep shooting 17%, so he needs to keep generating more shots to maintain his production but, on this roster, he should be looking at a significant role.
Early in his career, Bobby Ryan was a premier goal-scorer, scoring at least 30-plus in each of his first four full seasons, but he’s staggered to 24 goals in 124 games over the past two seasons. With four years at a $7.25-million cap hit remaining on his contract, Ryan isn’t likely to provide much value for the Senators and reports have indicated that he’s being attached in any potential Erik Karlsson trade, just to get that unseemly contract off the books.
A speedy checking centre who can chip in some offensively, Jean-Gabriel Pageau may need to handle more responsibility next season as the Senators potentially work some new centres into the lineup.
A favourite of head coach Guy Boucher, Tom Pyatt has 45 points in two seasons with the Senators, but he’s also been crushed in terms of possession (43.5 CF%, -5.7 CFRel%) since returning from the Swiss League. Given those results, he probably doesn’t have to keep playing 14-15 minutes per game.
Acquired as part of the Dion Phaneuf deal, 36-year-old winger Marian Gaborik has 407 career goals, is a shell of his former self and seems headed for a buyout, although he’s had back surgery and that could potentially get in the way of those plans.
Veteran forward Zack Smith can play centre of wing, and has contributed some secondary offence in past seasons, but he struggled mightily in 2017-2018, and yet he played 16:43 per game, which was a lot given his contributions.
It was remarkably easy to see that signing Alex Burrows to a contract upon acquiring him in 2017 was ill-advised and he just wrapped up a season in which he had six goals and 14 points. The 37-year-old is under contract for one more year.
Max McCormick is a gritty 26-year-old winger who is on the roster bubble. He’s managed nine points in 57 NHL games over the past three seasons, which doesn’t exactly break down the walls preventing him from being a regular in the lineup.
A superb all-around player, Mark Stone is a tenacious forechecker who has good hands and offensive instincts. Over the past four seasons, he’s established that he’s a high-end performer and the 25-year-old is a restricted free agent this summer. That would, at least theoretically, make him a risk to receive an offer sheet, but if the Senators do end up trading Erik Karlsson, they can’t afford to let Stone leave too.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
It sure appears that the Senators superstar blueliner, Erik Karlsson, is going to find his way to a new team this summer because the team isn’t prepared to pay the market price, which could run towards $12-million, when Karlsson is scheduled to hit free agency in the summer of 2019. Since 2013-2014, Karlsson has compiled 355 points to rank first among defencemen. Brent Burns, who ranks second (and spent the first of those seasons at right wing), has 278 points.
If Karlsson is moved, that may add to the pressure on 2015 first-rounder Thomas Chabot, a promising puck-moving defenceman who scored nine even-strength goals in 63 games as a rookie, ranking right near the leaders in goals/60 among blueliners last season. It may be a little soon to thrust Chabot into big minutes but, given the alternatives, what choice would the Senators have?
Mark Borowiecki is a thumper on the blueline, who hits far more than any other defenceman (he averaged 19.1 hits/60 at 5-on-5 last season; Luke Schenn ranked second with 13.5 hits/60) and while he struggled in his early years in the league, he’s held his own with slightly positive relative possession numbers over the past couple of seasons. He has limitations with the puck, but seems to have found his niche.
A fourth-round pick in 2015, Christian Wolanin joined the Senators following his junior year at the University of North Dakota, where he put up 35 points in 40 games. He got a 10-game look with the Senators late in the season and was impressive, which should give the 23-year-old a leg up on competition for a job next season.
Twenty-three-year-old Ben Harpur is a towering presence, at 6-foot-6, but he has struggled to keep up in the 52 NHL games that he’s played. Without further improvement, he can’t be counted on for anything more than organizational depth.
The direction of the Senators defence could very well be determined by how they handle Cody Ceci, a 24-year-old who has played more than 23 minutes per game in the past two seasons. Thrust into that big responsibility, Ceci has been crushed in terms of puck possession (-4.6 CFRel%). He fared a bit better once Dion Phaneuf was traded to Los Angeles, but it requires a leap of faith to think that everything is cool with Ceci handling a shutdown defensive role.
He’s also a restricted free agent this summer, and it appears that the Senators are inclined to get him signed to a new long-term contract. If the results don’t get better, a long-term deal could pose a major problem.
Twenty-five-year-old Fredrik Claesson has gradually been working his way into the Senators lineup, and his results have been okay, though he’s spent quite a bit of time paired with Karlsson, and that tilts the ice in a more favourable direction. He’s steady without a lot of upside.
A torn hamstring ruined Chris Wideman’s 2017-18 season, limiting him to just 16 games, and he’s an unrestricted free agent, but it might be a wise move for the Senators to keep him in the fold. He plays bigger than his size and can handle the puck, which could prove valuable if indeed Karlsson is moved.
Really, any needs on the blueline are going to be most dependent on what happens with Karlsson. If he’s around, they can probably put forth a decent group, but it will get more challenging if Karlsson gets traded.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2018-19 CAP|
Veteran goaltender Craig Anderson has been an above-average starter since joining the Senators in 2011, but he went through a tough season in 2017-18, posting the worst save percentage of his career. He has two years left on a new contract, so the Senators have to hope that Anderson will bounce back. It’s not unreasonable to hope for a goaltender to bounce back from a down season, but it’s a little riskier as the player gets older and Anderson will be 37-years-old next season.
Mike Condon wasn’t as good last season as he was in 2016-17, but he too has two more years left on his contract, so the Senators have to hope that the goaltending answer lies in-house.
|Logan Brown||C||32||22||26||48||+4||Kitchener (OHL)|
|Colin White||C||47||11||16||27||-17||Belleville (AHL)|
|Drake Batherson||RW||51||29||48||77||+12||Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL)|
|Alex Formenton||LW||48||29||19||48||+6||London (OHL)|
|Filip Gustavsson||G||22||.918||Lulea (SHL)|
|Filip Chlapik||C||52||11||21||32||-16||Belleville (AHL)|
|Christian Wolanin||D||40||12||23||35||+12||North Dakota (NCHC)|
|Christian Jaros||D||44||3||13||16||-10||Belleville (AHL)|
|Gabriel Gagne||RW||68||20||5||25||-11||Belleville (AHL)|
|Nick Paul||LW||54||14||13||27||-17||Belleville (AHL)|
|Ville Pokka||D||69||7||26||33||+5||Belleville (AHL)|
|Francis Perron||LW||44||4||11||15||-8||Belleville (AHL)|
|Marcus Hogberg||G||18||.899||Belleville (AHL)|
|Andreas Englund||D||69||1||9||10||-4||Belleville (AHL)|
|Max Lajoie||D||56||1||14||15||-9||Belleville (AHL)|
4th – Brady Tkachuk, Evan Bouchard, Quinton Hughes, Adam Boqvist
22nd – Ryan McLeod, Vitali Kravtsov, Nils Lundkvist, Martin Kaut
The Senators have approximately $59.5 M committed to the 2018-19 salary cap for 17 players.
Three top-nine forwards, two defencemen
WHAT I SAID THE SENATORS NEEDED LAST YEAR
Two forwards, one defenceman, backup goaltender
Nate Thompson, Johnny Oduya
Mike Hoffman, Bobby Ryan, Zack Smith, Erik Karlsson
PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Ryan Dzingel||Matt Duchene||Mike Hoffman|
|Zack Smith||Jean-Gabriel Pageau||Mark Stone|
|Thomas Vanek*||Logan Brown||Jannik Hansen*|
|Alex Burrows||Dominic Moore*||Tom Pyatt|
|Max McCormick||Filip Chlapik||Gabriel Gagne|
|Nick Paul||Colin White||Andy Sturtz|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Thomas Chabot||Fredrik Claesson||Craig Anderson|
|Mark Borowiecki||Cody Ceci||Mike Condon|
|Jon Merrill*||Chris Wideman||Filip Gustavsson|
|Christian Wolanin||Christian Jaros|
|Ben Harpur||Ville Pokka|
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org