DeBrincat gives Senators a legit top six
Someone recently asked me how I differentiate playoff-calibre teams from genuine contenders.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but in the construct of the league since the 2004-05 lockout, it would go something like this: talent gets teams into the playoffs, depth pushes teams deeper into the postseason.
It’s a two-fold reality. Half of the teams in the NHL qualify for the postseason every year, so the bar to reach meaningful hockey come April isn’t extraordinarily high. But as we have seen time and again in the playoffs, top-heavy teams eventually get pushed aside against the league’s elite.
What separates teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning, to borrow two examples, is they have star power backed by an abundance of skill across the rest of the roster. So, even when their big guns aren’t clicking, defeating the Avs and Lightning remains an arduous task because they’re winning most of the minutes of every shift, irrespective of who is on the ice.
That brings me to the Ottawa Senators. General manager Pierre Dorion has been engineering a lengthy, burn-it-down rebuild since their roster teardown five years ago. There have been some wins over the past five seasons, many of those stemming from what they have done at the draft, building a deep and impressive prospect pool over time.
There have been some losses, too, many of those stemming from player personnel decisions at the NHL level. That’s no better captured than what the team has been doing (or intending to do) over the past week – bringing in star winger Alex DeBrincat in a lopsided trade, making a serious bid for star forward Claude Giroux, and trying to fix a series of contractual miscues (see: goaltender Matt Murray and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, for starters).
Simply put, this is still a flawed lineup. But it’s an improving one. The acquisition of a 40-goal scorer in DeBrincat cannot be overstated. In a division with several also-rans, there is real opportunity here.
One of the reasons why I bring up the talent factor in Ottawa is this is a materially different team than the rebuilding one of a few years ago. Back then, it was impossible to find any sort of strength within the roster. Now? They boast one of the more impressive top-six units in the league. That gives them a leg up against plenty of other teams around the league.
Consider what Ottawa’s top six may look like, and for the sake of argument, we will assume DeBrincat slots in on the left wing with Tim Stützle.
It’s possible Alex Formenton and Connor Brown – depending on whether the team moves on from Brown in his final year under contract – see time in the top six. But this is as good a stab as any. It’s a talented group, one with speed and aggression on the wings, plus playmaking down the middle of the ice.
It’s also a broadly very young group, and it’s reasonable to infer there is production improvement within some of these players heading into next season. (We will use Goals Above Replacement as a proxy for player production, but even using raw point totals or expected goal differentials show similar results):
Teams are only guaranteed a playoff berth if they finish inside of the top three within their division, though the fourth and five spots offer up wild-card opportunities under the NHL’s current postseason format.
Nevertheless, I think there is a clear takeaway here. In a recently top-heavy Atlantic Division that was well differentiated between the haves and the have-nots, Ottawa’s top six is trying to punch above its weight class for the first time. We expect them to be perhaps the fourth most productive group in the division, but more notably, ninth across the entire NHL.
We will have to see what personnel changes happen around the rest of the league once free agency opens. For Ottawa, it’s starting to look like a critical off-season. Landing a player the calibre of Giroux would buttress the organization’s playoff expectations but considering what they already have at the top of the lineup (especially if you are bullish on the likes of Mathieu Joseph or Formenton), you have to wonder if the team’s cap space and resources would be better served elsewhere.
Addressing a very weak blueline would seem to be the better point of attack. And goaltending is still a gigantic question mark – if not because of the inevitable Matt Murray move, then because Ottawa is staking a lot of this season on a fringe starter like Anton Forsberg.
But the Senators are on the precipice. And in a division where the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Buffalo Sabres are in deeper rebuilding holes, there is a real shot of ending a playoff drought this season.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference