Ottawa’s offensive woes, explained

Ottawa’s offensive woes, explained
By Nick Valentino
*Editor’s note: All stats are pre November 22, 2016*

They say it has to get better. But, does it?

Ottawa’s game against Florida on Saturday was the team’s twelfth straight having scored two goals or fewer in regulation time. The Senators now sit at 28th in the league in goals for and are scoring at a rate of 2.06 goals per game. Some contributing factors include the team’s dismal 9.4% power play success rate, which ranks just above Calgary’s terrible 8.9% rate for 29th overall.

Since the Senators’ first few games, when goal scoring seemed to come with minimal effort, all but a small number of players – Karlsson, Turris, and Dzingel – have struggled to score points:

  • Mike Hoffman, who led the team in goal scoring the last two seasons, has three goals on the season after suffering a seven-game scoring drought to start the campaign.
  • Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, and Zack Smith also have scored only three goals each so far this season.
  • All these forwards are on pace for 12-goal seasons after all surpassed 20 goals last season.
  • Derrick Brassard scored just his second goal as a Senator on Thursday against Nashville after going goalless since Ottawa’s first game.
  • Five team regulars have yet to score a goal, including Matt Puempel who was put on waivers Sunday.

All the players above, excluding Puempel, have histories of scoring at the NHL level, so one would expect that they will, eventually, pick up the pace and return to their career scoring rates.

Moreover, coach Guy Boucher has frequently praised his team for sticking to their defence-first philosophy and for generating scoring chances at a much higher rate than their scoring results have indicated. There, too, we expect improvement in the offensive zone so long as the team keeps up the pressure.

Yet, if one takes a closer look at the way the team is executing and, by extension, failing to score, one sees something far more alarming in the team’s struggles.

Take Saturday’s game as an example. The team was praised throughout the game by the broadcast team and afterwards by Boucher (among others) for controlling play and generating shots on goal. The message was that the team played well enough to win, but ran up against a hot goalie. The same has been said this season following losses to BuffaloMinnesota, and even after wins against Carolina, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. These games fell within the current twelve-game scoring drought, but one might question why so many goalies, including ones who’ve struggled to stop pucks like Cam Ward and Steve Mason, look good against the Senators.

Three plays from Saturday’s game the highlight some reasons for Ottawa’s inability to score. They indicate that the players on whom the team is relying for offence might be second-guessing themselves or might not be processing the game at a high speed. Moreover, while these plays all come from Saturday’s loss, these are issues that the team has exhibited throughout this low-scoring period, if not the entire season.

The first play occurred midway through the first period. In truth, the team runs this play several times a game. It’s a zone entry that the Senators insist on using despite its almost laughably low success rate. What’s more, once one sees the team try it, it’s hard not to wonder why they think it could work at all.

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We see here a broken play in that Phaneuf tries to pass the puck to Pageau in the neutral zone despite the latter being surrounded by coverage. Pageau passes back to Ceci who seems to have an open path to the net, but the two defenders back are in position to close that gap, as is the defender on Phaneuf who is already peeling off to intercept. Ceci is smart to recognize all of this.

But, he doesn’t react fast enough. With Dzingel streaking in on the right wing, the play to make at this moment is to pass to the speedy winger immediately and allow him to use his quickness and momentum to get behind the defenseman and in on Luongo. Instead, Ceci holds onto the puck until he’s past the blue line, only then passing to a now-stopped Dzingel, whose only play is to wait for the rest of his teammates to gain the zone and hope there’s a pass to be made. Spoiler alert: there won’t be. Almost every time Ottawa runs this play, the opposing team closes on the puckhandler at the line and forces a turnover or, at least, the puck out of the zone.

While it’s tempting to see the problematic first pass to Pageau as the reason why this entry didn’t work (though it isn’t a particularly smart play, either), even when attempted cleanly by the team, the results are similar. That includes a variant run by Turris later that period in which he, like Ceci, gains the zone rather than passing to a teammate only to stop just beyond the blue line and, inevitably, lose the puck. Or, in a moderately more successful attempt during the second period, when a late pass by Tom Pyatt to Pageau forces the latter to slow just inside the blue line and move to Chris Kelly who redirects it weakly to the net. The problem in these examples is slow decision making and failure to properly read the play forming at the edges of the zone.

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The second play is more of a demonstration of poor decision making by the team in the offensive zone. In it, the team’s best scorers, Karlsson and Turris, turn up perfectly good shooting opportunities in favour of a pass to another teammate. The result is a low percentage play that ends in a blocked shot.

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Karlsson turning up shots is not entirely unusual considering his exceptional playmaking abilities. But, his shot rate is down this year and while that could be a result of reduced power play time, it’s disconcerting to see him pull up from a shot in the high slot. That there was no Senator screening Luongo is likely the reason for the pass, which is itself an issue considering Boucher’s insistence on players getting in front of the opposing netminder as a key method for breaking this scoring slump.

Turris’ failure to shoot is somewhat less excusable. By the time he has the puck, an Ottawa winger has moved into a screen position. It’s not a very good screen as Luongo still has a clear line of sight to Turris, but the Florida goalie is already down, giving Turris plenty of net at which to shoot. Instead, Turris passes to Brassard on the far wing. Had Brassard one-timed the shot, it could have given the Senators a scoring chance, mitigating the two questionable decisions leading to the shot. Brassard instead holds the puck a moment before shooting, allowing the Panthers’ defender to move into position and block the shot.

While one might argue that this poor judgement on the part of the team’s best players is a consequence of the current struggles to put pucks past goalies, Boucher has lamented his team’s “natural nature” to make plays rather than settle for ugly goals. It’s possible that the team’s best offensive players are too pass-oriented. Brassard, called out specifically by Boucher, has dramatically increased his shots per game, taking seven in the loss to Nashville on Thursday.

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The next play again features Cody Ceci and further emphasises the team’s tendency to look for the pass at the expense of good shooting opportunities. In this play, Ceci receives a pass at the blue line during a power play. Upon receiving the pass, his entire side of the ice is clear as all four Florida penalty killers have been drawn to Luongo’s right. Moreover, as Ceci collects the puck, Zack Smith, who was providing the screen before the pass, lifts his stick as if to alert Ceci to his presence and indicate his intention to support Ceci’s shot.

Ceci begins to float toward the net, but in doing so keeps his eyes and his body pointed firmly to his left, telegraphing his intention to send the puck back there, where three of his teammates continue to be occupied by the Florida players. In the meantime, Smith moves across the crease to provide a screen for Ceci, expecting a shot from the Senators defenseman.

As Ceci continues to look for the pass, Smith and the Florida defender covering him effectively screen Luongo’s vision of a possible shot that never comes. Because Ceci has still not decided against the pass, this screen is wasted as it slides across the goalie’s field of view. Finally, Ceci, having taken too long to recognize the opportunity available, fires a shot at Luongo, his sight lines now completely clear, who makes the easy save.

This play is a microcosm of the Senators’ offensive struggles–not to mention of Ceci’s disappointing development, though that’s a subject for another time. The team’s best scorers are failing to read opportunities like this one properly, turning what could be game-changing scoring chances into easy saves that make opposing goalies look good.

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As mentioned above, these players know how to score, so one should expect that they will, in time, act on these opportunities with greater success. What’s more, there have been moments in the past several games in which we see the team making truly creative moves in the offensive zone. Erik Karlsson’s play during the first power play on Saturday, in which he occupied the slot in front of Luongo for several seconds, put one of the team’s best shooters in the most likely spot on the entire ice surface from which to score. Actions like this show that these players have strong offensive instincts, even if so many other examples demonstrate otherwise right now.

Erik Karlsson’s play during the first power play on Saturday, in which he occupied the slot in front of Luongo for several seconds, put one of the team’s best shooters in the most likely spot on the entire ice surface from which to score. Actions like this show that these players have strong offensive instincts, even if so many other examples demonstrate otherwise right now.

Besides, despite the two-game losing streak, the team remains in a playoff position and has maintained a winning record since the beginning of the season. So, perhaps Bobby Ryan has it right when he recently sad that detractors such as myself can “take a walk.”

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