One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2014-2015 season concerned the Ottawa Senators, and whether or not they would be able to rebound from a weirdly disappointing season one year ago. Last year’s team only missed the post-season by five points, but it never felt that close – a lot was made about the slide in goaltending being a big factor in Ottawa’s regression, but just as vital was Ottawa’s inability to translate possession into goals, or shots on goal, for that matter.

Paul MacLean’s had three decent-to-very-good possession teams during his tenure, but all of those teams have had a weird commonality – a sharp distinction between their Shot% (percentage of shots on goal taken by the team) and Corsi% (percentage of all shot attempts taken by the team). In Ottawa’s case, not so much.


Shots vs. Corsi

  Shot% Corsi%
2011-12 50.7%  52.3%
2012-13 52.2% 53.6%
2013-14 49.9% 52.4%

A popular theory as to why this disparity exists is that Ottawa struggles far more than their opposition at cleanly exiting the defensive zone. In Ottawa’s case, this makes sense for a variety of reasons. Tyler Dellow – to cite one example – noticed last season that Ottawa blocked an extremely small percentage of shot-attempts relative to the rest of the league. It’s quite possible that Ottawa’s not doing this by design, and that constant turnovers have created a situation where they just are infrequently in position to deter shots on goal against.

This season doesn’t look much different than last in that sense. Ottawa’s allowed a whopping 38.07 shots against per 60 at even-strength, better only than Buffalo as of Wednesday afternoon. Part of the massive total is again because Ottawa’s only blocked about 17% of total shot-attempts against; the league average is generally around 25.7%. The only saving grace is that Ottawa’s goaltenders stopped 96.5% of those shots on their three-game road-trip, which allowed them to pick up a pair of victories.

So, what you have here is a doubly-concerning problem. Ottawa already plays an extremely high-event game at both ends of the rink. In their end, some of those shot-attempts are materializing into shots, likely because defensive zone exits are an issue. And, a few of those shots – which may ordinarily be blocked in a normal five-on-five setting – are turning into goals against.

Getting back to the defensive zone exit issues a bit: I’ve long argued that Ottawa’s biggest problem is that they are way, way too reliant on Erik Karlsson to do just about everything. Hockey analysts have lauded him for years as the most dynamic offensive defenseman, but one of the best parts of his game that really isn’t captured in the publicly-available data is his ability to flee the defensive zone with control.

What I did was track zone exits through Ottawa’s first three games, and threw them into the table below. I’ll note that the data only includes performance from the first and second period of each game – I generally omit third periods because they are swamped in score effects and teams radically adjust their pace, structure, and systems late in games.

Here, DZ Fail Rate indicates the percentage of times the defender was directly responsible for a turnover in the defensive zone. NZ Fail Rate indicates the percentage of times the defender only succeeded in getting the puck out of the defensive zone. Success rate indicates the percentage of times the defender was responsible for a successful exit -- his team maintaining possession as they rush through the neutral zone. 


Senators Defensive Zone Exits

Defenceman DZ Fail Rate NZ Fail Rate Success Rate
 Jared Cowen 52.3% 23.8% 23.8%
Chris Phillips 23.5% 17.6% 58.8%
Cody Ceci 30.4% 34.7% 34.7%
Patrick Wiercioch  14.3% 57.1% 28.5%
Eric Gryba  35.0%  25.0% 40.0%
Erik Karlsson  15.1%  21.2% 63.6%
Mark Borowiecki  25.0%  25.0% 50.0%

Here are the raw totals:


Senators Defensive Zone Exit Totals

Defenceman DZ Failures NZ Failures Successful Exits
Jared Cowen 11 5 5
Chris Phillips 8 6 20
Cody Ceci 7 8 8
Patrick Wiercioch  4 2
Eric Gryba  5 8
Erik Karlsson  7 21
Mark Borowiecki  3 3 6


If you want to do the quick math here, Ottawa’s defensemen have turned the puck over in the defensive zone 42-times in six periods.  38 more times, they’ve only done enough to clear the zone. A lot of times, this sort of play only temporarily buys time – it’s obviously better than a clean defensive zone turnover, but there’s a good chance the opposition is going to collect the puck with structure and rush right back into the zone. So, that’s 80 dead plays of varying failure that can be directly attributed to the blue-line in just 137 five-on-five minutes. The group as a whole is again disappointing – most noticeably that of Jared Cowen, who has already become a regular fixture in the press box.

There’s a separately obvious issue that the team just places way too much burden on Erik Karlsson to get them out of the danger areas on the back-end. Let’s, as a third exercise, look at Ottawa defenders and Erik Karlsson separately here.  


Karlsson vs. Rest of Sens Defence

Defenceman DZ Fail Rate NZ Fail Rate Success Rate
 Ottawa defenders 31.6% 26.4% 42.0%
Erik Karlsson  15.1%  21.2% 63.6%

The turnover rates are astounding. And let’s remember here that the ‘Ottawa defenders’ group is being buoyed by an improbably sharp start from Chris Phillips. Phillips was fantastic at taking some of the pressure off of Karlsson on the team’s inaugural road trip, but it’s impossible to expect that to continue – there are simply too many miles on the Phillips vehicle, and he’s far better suited at this point in his career in a second or third-pairing role.

Phillips might turn in a decent season, but at some point, his numbers will inevitably turn downward. This is precisely why Ottawa needs significant (and rapid) improvement from young defenders Patrick Wiercioch and Cody Ceci – both of whom are expected to log decent minutes this season.

If that improvement doesn’t materialize, Ottawa could again be on the outside looking in come playoff time.