NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Ottawa Senators
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the Ottawa Senators. After coming one overtime goal from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, the Senators fell finished the season second to last. The Senators got off to a blazing start this season even with star Erik Karlsson, easing into the season after his offseason surgery. Then the team traded Kyle Turris in the trade to land them Matt Duchene. The team won their first two games after the trade but then fell off a cliff. As the free fall took place, serious questions arose as to whether the team would move superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson as it became more and more likely that Karlsson would test the free agent market next offseason.
Season Bright Spots
Erik Karlsson was still really, really good despite having what had to have been the toughest season of his career. Karlsson started off still recovering from surgery, faced continued scrutiny regarding his contract, and decided to end his season early when his wife tragically lost the couples’ unborn child. Karlsson still managed to play in 71 games and lead the team in relative Corsi For Percentage (5.67) among the team’s regular skaters. For those unfamiliar with this statistic, the basic premise is that when Karlsson was on the ice, the Senators had a 5.67% better shot share.
Senator fans have been salivating to see what Thomas Chabot could do as his potential seemed sky high. I don’t see how anyone Senator fan cannot be excited about the future of Chabot. Chabot is another smooth skating, puck-moving defenseman that I would love to have on my team any day. He finished fourth among regular players in relative Corsi For Percentage (3.25%). He’s likely to only get better as he gains NHL experience. Having Chabot and Karlsson on the blueline is something most teams would kill to have. It’s unfortunate Ottawa owner Eugene Melynk does not run one of the teams as he seems more concerned with maintaining an internal salary cap.
Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone both performed well once again relative to what they get paid. Hoffman’s production dropped slightly from last but that would be expected on a team that regressed so severely. He still produced 20 goals, 56 points, and was a positive possession player on the second to worst team while only counting against the cap for just over $5,187,500.
I might be biased when it comes to Mark Stone as he led my fantasy team to a championship but he was another valuable player for the Ottawa Senators. Stone finished tied for the team lead in points with none other than Erik Karlsson and was also third on the team in Relative Corsi For Percentage (4.67%). Stone did all that while being paid $3.5M due to his status as a restricted free agent. Mark Stone is arbitration eligible and likely looking at a fairly significant raise this offseason. His numbers indicate he definitely should be paid much more than this season’s $3.5M. I’m not going to do Stone’s agent’s job for him and make his arbitration argument, at least not in public.
I think all of Senator fans’ disappointments have to start with a discussion of their ownership group. Let’s not sugarcoat this, I think a good portion of the Senators’ problems could be solved if their ownership’s top priority was spending whatever it takes to put the best product on the ice every year. The fact that many people thought Erik Karlsson was going to be traded at the deadline and now it seems a near certainty that he will be moved this summer because he wants to be paid his worth is pure lunacy. Under no circumstances should a team be looking to trade arguably the best defenseman in the entire NHL simply because they don’t want to pay him his market value. I might write this differently if the Senators have multiple superstars causing them to push up against the salary cap but that is far from the reality.
The next place to discuss that also reflects on ownership is the fact that Guy Boucher is still employed. Yes, Ottawa structured and bored their way to within an overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Finals last season but they were awful this year. Boucher’s system is outdated. The Senators aren’t a fun team to watch and his lineup decisions left a lot to be desired. I’m not saying every team moves on from their coach under the same circumstances but many likely do. However, there is no way Melynk would pay another coach to not coach his team.
I am sure there will be people that disagree with my inclusion of the Matt Duchene trade here but I am going to do it anyways. I am not the biggest Matt Duchene fan. I’m not going to say he isn’t a good player, but I will say I wouldn’t have given up what Ottawa. I do not know much about Shane Bowers, the prospect Ottawa traded but I think Ottawa is really going to come to regret the draft picks they gave up plus Kyle Turris. I would rather pay Kyle Turris the same $6M and retain my prospect and draft pick. A correlation between Ottawa’s free fall and their trade of Turris does not necessarily mean there is causation, I wonder how much of an impact the trade had on team chemistry.
This offseason is franchise defining for the Ottawa Senators. The Senators have two first-round picks and have to make a decision on Erik Karlsson. The only way Ottawa should go into the season with Erik Karlsson on the roster is if he has signed a long-term extension. If Karlsson doesn’t sign an extension with the team this offseason, I doubt his position is going to change over the course of the season. At this point, Ottawa’s leverage in a potential trade will be highest this summer. There will be the most potential suitors and they still in theory would have another opportunity to trade him. However, if they wait until the trade deadline, that option disappears. I think the toughest regard for the Karlsson trade is if Ottawa attempts to execute it prior to the draft to add a third first-round pick. Regardless, Ottawa will also likely be able to recoup a 2019 first round pick, that they have decided to give to Colorado to complete the Matt Duchene trade.
Speaking of giving up the 2019 first-round pick, I think Ottawa should think long and hard about it. The chances of Ottawa picking higher than fourth next year is approximately 50-50 if next season sees Ottawa finishing last. Though the concern for Ottawa certainly has to be they finish last or potentially win the lottery next year and miss out on the next highly touted forward prospect, Jack Hughes.
I don’t think Ottawa has this type of thinking because you don’t want to believe it as a GM but Ottawa is coming off a 30th place finish and will likely be trading their superstar player. I have a tough time believing Ottawa will improve next season. Even though this year’s fourth overall pick is incredibly valuable, it is known. Unbridled optimism is a very common downfall that many GMs fall victim to. If I was Ottawa, I would think long and hard about giving their pick to Colorado this year. If they are going to go into this offseason not planning to add, as tough of a decision as it is, I would give up fourth overall, with the mindset of recouping a first round pick in the Erik Karlsson trade.
Speaking of an Erik Karlsson trade, we will now move to Bobby Ryan, who it was rumored the Senators would like to include in any potential Karlsson trade to get out from under his contract. I am going to scream to Ottawa: DON’T DO IT! Bobby Ryan is still a decent player, though overpaid for his production, but what you are essentially doing is dramatically diminishing your return. First, no team is going to give up anything close to what they would if they were to trade for just Karlsson. Second, you are dramatically cutting down the number of teams that could potentially trade for Karlsson. For a team already lacking top talent, I don’t know if subtracting Ryan and adding another hole is a smart decision.
The Senators are clearly a team lacking top end talent and two of definite top guys, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, have questions surrounding their future. Mark Stone is up for arbitration and will likely will an award higher than the Senators would like to pay him (if it gets that far). It seems unlikely the Senators would walk away from a Mark Stone arbitration decision but with a stingy owner, I would never say never. I would look to give Stone a long-term contract and make him part of the future solution. Another short-term deal, signals to me that Stone will be gone in the near future and leave the team devoid of even more top talent.
Mike Hoffman is another player whose name inexplicitly surfaced in trade rumors last offseason. With any other team and any other owner, this is not the case. But Melynk is not any other owner and high paid players who underachieve at all will have their names surface in trade talks. If I am Ottawa and trying to turn things around quickly, Hoffman and Stone and players I look to build around. However, I wonder if the smarter decision for Ottawa is to tear it down and bottom out (it certainly would be cheaper!). In that case, those are players you can move to really speed up the rebuilding process.
Besides Karlsson, the Senators face two other decisions on their blueline with two more arbitration eligible players in Cody Ceci and Fredrik Claesson. If Ceci still has value across the league, I would look to move him for assets. He could be a player that would make sense to include in a “hockey trade,” where both teams move a player who isn’t living up to what their perceived potential is.
The numbers like Fredrik Claesson and he is a player who would probably be a great partner for a Erik Karlsson (if he is still there) or Thomas Chabot. Claesson’s Relative Corsi For Percentage is basically even, meaning the Senators perform no better or worse when Claesson is on the ice. Claesson’s Relative Corsi For % is where it is because the team struggles to generate shots when he is on the ice. Claesson was the top regular player on Ottawa in Relative Corsi Against, basically meaning he excels in a shot suppressing, shut-down role. Pairing Claesson with a shot-generating defenseman like Karlsson or Chabot would probably be an ideal match. This past season saw Claesson play the most with Karlsson out of any partner and he exceled in that role, posting a 3.5% Relative Corsi For Percentage. I would look to keep Claesson while moving Karlsson.
Overall, Ottawa will be one of the most interesting teams to watch this season as the hockey world will be tuned in to see what happens with Erik Karlsson, who might become the biggest star in hockey to be traded in the salary cap era. The decision on Karlsson should define the rest of the offseason plan for Ottawa as moving the star should probably move Ottawa into rebuilding mode. If they are going to rebuild, they should go all in and move the likes of Stone and Hoffman. Ottawa came really close with their core and they have already started to dismantle it with the trade this year of Brassard. If Karlsson is also traded, it makes little sense to keep the same core around as it is likely the achieved the best they possibly could.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look (maybe not quite as deep) at the Arizona Coyotes. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.