NHL 15: Ottawa Senators Guide
Written By: JumpedAShark
Year in Review
The 2013-14 season was not a kind one to the Ottawa Senators. Despite it’s occasional moments of entertainment, it was filled with a lot of frustration, anger, and disappointment. Most Sens fans would say that the beginning of this period of anguish came on July 5th 2013, around noon EST. Early in the day of Free Agent Frenzy, Daniel Alfredsson signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings, and Sens fans everywhere were at a loss as to how this could have happened. Our captain and franchise player was suddenly gone, despite little indication that he would be signing anywhere but Ottawa. Just as fans were trying to collect themselves and figure out what had happened, Bryan Murray made probably the biggest trade of his career as GM as he moved two promising prospects and a first round pick to acquire Bobby Ryan. A heavy price to pay, but we were suddenly in the possession of a bona-fide first-line winger. Emotions ran high that day; moods swung up, down, and all around, but there was still 3 months before the season began. Apart from signing Clarke MacArthur and Joe Corvo, the rest of the offseason remained uneventful for Ottawa.
The preseason began with Jason Spezza being named team captain on September 14th, 2013. Expectations for him were high in the wake of the Alfie departure, and fans were eager to see how this team would fare with Spezza as the captain. During the preseason, rookies and prospects got some experience on the roster before going back to their respective teams, and fans got a look at how everyone was developing. We also got a first glimpse of Ryan in action, and he certainly came as advertised. Once the season began, things took a turn for the worse. We began with a 1-0 win over Buffalo as Craig Anderson and Ryan Miller, two potential American Olympians, put on a beautiful goaltending display. After a deflating shootout loss to Toronto, we then went on our annual losing streak we call the Pacific road trip, where the team’s main weaknesses were fully exploited and the team struggled mightily. Night after night we gave up an abhorrent amount of shots against, and our goalies could not keep up. The team as a whole faced an average of 37.5 shots per game in their first 10 games. In his first four games of the season, Robin Lehner faced 174 shots, an average of 43.5 shots per game. Keep in mind, he was the backup goalie. This wouldn’t have been such a huge issue if our goalies had performed as well as they had in the previous season, but this was far from the case. Anderson lost quite a step after that first game against Buffalo, and Lehner did what he could at first before eventually succumbing to the 45+ shots he faced every game. Suddenly all the faith in our goaltending had disappeared, both within the fanbase and seemingly within the players. Players became afraid of turning the puck over with a bad pass, leading to them keeping the puck too long and turning it over after being pressured. Our season became a twisted version of Groundhog Day, with the same issues plaguing us every which way: turnovers in the defensive zone and weak goals allowed by the goaltenders consistently buried any chance we had of winning games. The season was starting to look bleak, and it was only the end of October.
Before I move on, I have a question for you. Do you remember earlier when I mentioned how the team signed Clarke MacArthur in the offseason? Seemed kind of insignificant at the time, especially compared to everything else going on around it, didn’t it? This was exactly how most Sens fans felt about the MacArthur signing when it happened, as it paled in comparison to the Alfie departure and Ryan arrival. As it turned out, by the time November rolled around, he was one of the few bright spots on the team and remained as such until season’s end. Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur became the dynamic duo on our team, as the two played a solid two-way game on the second line and were in total sync with one another from the moment they were paired up in training camp. Meanwhile for Ryan, he was moved onto their line after initially being put on the top line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. The team needed a shake-up and the Spezza-Ryan duo had not performed as well as expected. After Ryan joined the second line with Turris and MacArthur, the trio became our absolute best line (by a pretty wide margin) and were often the only truly good part of our team. They became known as “Line 1B,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to their “official” status as the second line on the team’s depth chart despite unquestionably being our best line and often facing the toughest competition. During the month we also went on our first winning streak of the season, with Robin Lehner carrying us to 3 wins in a row while Anderson recovered from a minor injury. Many fans were perplexed by what came next however, as Paul Maclean chose to put Andy right back in after recovering, despite his abysmal stats and Lehner’s recent strong play. With that change back to Andy, the team resumed its previous style of play: high volume of shots against, poor defensive play, and sub-par goaltending. December 1st rolled around, and a seemingly insignificant date became a notable event in Ottawa, as Daniel Alfredsson made his first return to Ottawa in another team’s uniform. The fans paid their respects with a standing ovation during the obligatory video-tribute (which hilariously included his infamous hit on Darcy Tucker and the stick-throwing incident), then proceeded to boo him whenever he touched the puck. The game itself was fairly unremarkable, save for Alfie scoring the empty-netter to seal the win for the Wings. With that, another chapter in Sens history ended, and the season resumed as normal. Normal meaning more discouraging losses, obviously.
At the Christmas break, the team had a record of 14-17-7, 5 points and 4 spots behind Toronto (groan) for the final wildcard spot. At this point, hopes for the playoffs were quickly evaporating, as the team had only become marginally better since the start of the season and the same defensive issues continued to plague us. On the management side of things, Bryan Murray’s nephew and protege Tim Murray was hired by the Buffalo Sabres as their new GM in early January. Prior to this, Tim had been Bryan’s Assistant GM and was considered the inevitable successor as GM once Bryan retired (a day seemingly in the near future). With the poaching of Tim however, Bryan signed a two-year extension with the Sens while Pierre Dorion and Randy Lee were both promoted to Assistant GM. The season continued into the Olympic break, with a sense of slight optimism coming with it. The team was only sending two players (Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek) over to Sochi, which led to many fans hoping that a well-rested team would give us an advantage in pushing for a playoff spot once the season resumed.
At the Olympics, Karlsson was the only Senator to have a truly phenomenal tournament. With his help, Sweden reached the Gold-medal game before falling to Canada. Karlsson finished with 4 goals, 4 assists, a +5 rating, and was named the top defenseman of the tournament. However, once the Olympics finished and the players returned, it soon became evident that the team having two weeks of rest evidently meant very little. They lost 6-1 to Detroit in their first game back from the break, despite Detroit having played the night before. As the Trade Deadline neared, the Sens had a tough choice ahead: do they sell some current assets for future ones and give up on making the playoffs this year, or make a trade for a player in the hopes that they could take them on an improbable run to the postseason?
March (and April) to the Playoffs:
On March 2nd, the Sens played the Vancouver Canucks in the Tim Hortons Heritage ClassicTM . The game was unfortunately overshadowed by the Canucks’ goaltending controversy, as Roberto Luongo was left on the bench while Eddie Lack was chosen to start the game for Vancouver. While Ottawa did manage to win that game, questions about our status going into the trade deadline remained. Were we buyers, or should we be sellers? As it turned out, management believed we could make a push for the playoffs, and decided to try and acquire a top-6 forward at the deadline. At the deadline, Bryan Murray traded a 3rd and 5th round pick to acquire Ales Hemsky, the man who had scored two goals on us the previous night in a loss to the Oilers. At the same time, Cory Conacher was waived and then picked up by Buffalo while Joe Corvo was somehow “loaned” to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, essentially off-loading both players for free. While Hemsky played well in his first game against Calgary, the team suffered another loss at the hands of the Flames. After going “0-for-Alberta,” hopes for the playoffs were at the lowest point they’d been this season. In the days leading up to their inevitable elimination from playoff contention, the team did well to try and make a run of it. They went on a fairly hot streak, thanks in large part to the chemistry between Hemsky and Spezza, but the hole they had dug themselves throughout the year had proven too deep to crawl out of. On April 8th, 2014, the Sens were eliminated from playoff contention despite winning their game against the Islanders that night. The plug had finally been pulled, and the team and the fans knew the only thing left to play for was ruining the first round pick the Ducks acquired from us for Ryan.
The end of the season was a period of muted celebration for the team. They had gone on a ridiculous hot streak, winning 9 of their last 12 games and finishing the season on a 5-game winning streak. Despite this, every win was met with little fanfare, as many wondered why we couldn’t have performed like this when the pressure was still on and the playoffs were still a possibility. The final play of the season ended up being an appropriate precursor to our offseason, as Jason Spezza did what he does best to win our last game. No real celebration by Spezza, no players jumping off the bench in delight after the goal. Just a sombre walk back to the dressing room as the franchise entered one of its most pivotal offseasons in franchise history.
The time leading up to this year’s NHL Entry Draft in late June was tumultuous for the organization and its fans. The usual rumours about Spezza being traded began to crop up again, but something was different this time. Insiders all over the league discussed how Spezza was being shopped by Murray, how Spezza actually wanted a trade this time, and how serious the offers for Spezza were becoming. Many of this information was theorized to have been leaked by the organization itself to try and drive up Spezza’s price, and eventually Murray himself openly admitted to shopping Spezza. While the league waited to see who would trade for him and when, fans were left to struggle with another captain and potential franchise player wanting to leave the team just one year after Alfie’s departure. Why did this happen? Why does it keep happening with our star players? Does anyone actually want to play in Ottawa any more? Naturally, as had been the case the previous offseason, many fingers were pointed at our owner Eugene Melnyk and his penny-pinching methods of ownership. Could we be successful with him as an owner? Will we be able to sign our star players? If we can, can we also afford to surround them with the support they need to win a Cup? Frustration continued to mount within the fanbase, with little action taken by management to ease our tension.
As it turned out, Jason Spezza was traded to the Dallas Stars on July 1st, 2014, the first day of Free Agency. In return, Ottawa received a second round pick, Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, and Nick Paul. With that, the final piece of the CASH/PIZZA-line (Heatley-Spezza-Alfie) from the mid-late 2000s was gone, and the team as a whole barely resembled the one from the golden years of 2005-07. Ales Hemsky also left for Dallas via Free Agency, to the chagrin of many Sens fans. Apart from signing David Legwand to a two-year contract, Free Agency was again fairly unremarkable for the team. On the positive side of things, we did re-sign RFA Robin Lehner to a three-year deal, which should theoretically see him take up the mantle of #1 goalie for the team in the near future. As for our impending UFAs, Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, Marc Methot and Craig Anderson are all set to become free agents after next season. The team is reportedly looking to re-sign all of them to contracts of varying length, but little has been heard beyond initial talks having commenced.
As sombre as this review may have seemed, there were some definite positives from this season. Bobby Ryan was as good as anyone could have expected him to be, even with the injury he sustained and played through. The line of Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan was an absolute joy to watch in virtually every game. Despite having issues at times, Erik Karlsson nearly matched his offensive output from 2011-12 with 74 points this season, and continually showed why he is our most valuable player. The various rookies that played a significant portion of this season (Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Cody Ceci) all showed terrific promise as NHLers. Cody Ceci’s first career NHL goal gets special mention too, as the hometown kid who had played his midget and junior years in Ottawa scored the OT goal against St. Louis in Ottawa. With any luck, these bright spots will continue into next season, and the team only builds on the limited successes we saw this year.
With training camp still over a month away, the wait for this upcoming season has seemingly lasted forever. There are still many questions about this team, and it’s possible that more change is on the way between now and October. Here’s hoping that once the season starts, all the frustration and disappointment from last season is washed away in a sea of joy and entertainment. Even if we don’t succeed in making the playoffs, I will be content in watching this team play 82 games of fun, entertaining hockey, which was something I felt we sometimes lacked last season.
Highlights from the 2013-2014 Season:
Why the Ottawa Senators Will Win the Stanley Cup:
The Senators had enormous expectations heaped upon them before the 2013-14 season, and it was not without reason. The defense which appeared porous this whole season was praised not one year before for its ability to eliminate significant scoring chances by other teams. The goalies which struggled almost every game had nearly won the William M. Jennings trophy in 2012-13, and Craig Anderson was a shoe-in for the Vezina had he not missed a sizeable portion of that season. While we should not expect the team to reach that level of success again (especially from the goalies’ perspective), even just a slight improvement on everyone’s part can make a massive difference this upcoming season. If the defense tightens up as a whole, the goalies have an above-average season, and certain players have ridiculous career years (Karlsson, Ryan) or breakout seasons (Zibanejad, Wiercioch, Stone, Ceci), we’ve got a shot at the playoffs at least. From there though, we would need literally everything to go our way during the season and the playoffs to realistically have a good chance at winning the Cup in 2014-15. We would need Kyle Turris to produce 70+ points, Ryan to score 35+ goals, Karlsson to reach 80+ points, and Anderson/Lehner to have near-Vezina-worthy stats. The good news is that these needs are not entirely outside the realm of possibility. At the same time, a lot of our success hangs on the shoulders of Mika Zibanejad, as he will likely become our second-line center for the season. Our top line of MacArthur-Turris-Ryan is likely set, but the hypothetical second line of Michalek-Zibanejad-Stone has a lot to prove, and you need scoring depth at least into the second line in order to be a successful team. When Turris arrived from Phoenix, the scoring ability of the Spezza and Turris lines allowed us to spread out our offense and the team thrived. If the Turris-Zibanejad lines can do the same, the team will succeed, and Zibanejad seems primed to take on a larger offensive role this season. Young players like Zibanejad, Cody Ceci, Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman will likely determine how this team performs, as they are all below 25 years old and still have much to prove. That said, each of them has a lot of promise, and this could be the season they all have breakout years. If they do that while playing superbly on the defensive side of things, this team could surprise a lot of people. Who knows, maybe they’ll even win our first Cup in franchise history…
Why the Ottawa Senators Won’t Win the Stanley Cup:
This section is essentially going to be a representation of how most Sens fans have felt for the last 10 months. Reason #1 why the Sens will not win the Cup, and the root of many of the problems I will discuss soon, is Eugene Melnyk. Eugene Melnyk is the current owner of the Ottawa Senators, and has been since he bought the team in 2003 to save it from bankruptcy and potentially relocating. For that, we Sens fans are incredibly grateful, which makes it feel even worse to say that he seems to be doing his damnedest to keep this team from being successful. After making the playoffs the previous two seasons on a shoe-string budget during our years “rebuilding,” Melnyk was confident that we could continue to do so in 2013-14. When it became apparent that this team was far from being a Stanley Cup contender in the early part of the season, the refrain from management/ownership remained the same: we have a strict internal budget near the salary floor, and any transactions for players would have to be money-in, money-out. There would be no “additions” to the team without equal or greater subtractions, and for the whole season we watched as a team clearly lacking in defensive aptitude was left blowing in the wind while Bryan Murray desperately tried to find a solution that fit within the budget. The reasons for this internal budget are a topic of significant debate, and would take far too much text to fully dive into here. As expected, no real solution for the team’s problems could be found that fit within the budget. Our defensive roster, by far the weakest aspect of our team, remains unchanged from a year ago. Without any significant change to it, the defense will almost certainly continue to struggle, with Karlsson doing what he can to make up for everyone else’s struggles. On top of that, we have not had a positive penalty-differential in a season since 2007. It’s not hard to see why this is the case, as we are often left chasing the opposing team due to turnovers and poor defensive play. A team as defensively suspect as us cannot continue to take as many penalties as we do, yet we seem compelled to do so every year (it’s like the two are connected somehow…). Our powerplay A) will likely struggle without Jason Spezza, and B) relies way too heavily on Karlsson in order to succeed on a consistent basis. As for the goaltending, while I expect both Anderson and Lehner to have bounceback seasons, I doubt they’ll be able to adequately offset the poor defensive play we will likely exhibit during the season. On the offensive side of things, the departure of Jason Spezza (and to a lesser extent, Ales Hemsky) leaves a large hole in our goal-production, and the re-signing of Milan Michalek is far from being a sure-fire way of making up for it. Michalek has not been the same since he scored 35 goals in 2011-12 (mainly due to the fact that his production that year was primarily due to a red-hot Jason Spezza), and his recurring knee injuries have visibly left their mark on him. As a result, young players in their early 20s are being tasked with scoring the goals that Spezza and Hemsky no longer will. A lot of unproven players will be put in significant roles and asked to up their game offensively, even if they have not reached that level individually. A lot of responsibility is being put upon them, and it’s far from crazy to think that they will not live up to the heightened expectations that have been (perhaps unfairly) given to them. The “trial-by-fire” approach to our players has rarely worked out well for us, and it’s unlikely to happen this time. Karlsson will inevitably do well from the back-end, while Patrick Wiercioch and Cody Ceci should help support him. However, without more consistent forwards in front of them, their offense from the blueline could be limited. With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why this team has a ways to go before seriously contending for a Stanley Cup. It’s entirely possible that our young players exceed expectations, and the defensive play of the team becomes much stronger. Until that happens on the ice however, few people expect this team to make a serious run at capturing their first franchise Cup in 2014-15.