By Nick Valentino
’Tis the season for wishful thinking and the Ottawa Senators have a lot to wish for this holiday season.
Chances are, were one to ask general manager Pierre Dorion and head coach Guy Boucher, the two would say they’re wishing for a Stanley Cup or, at least, to make the playoffs. But, that’s cheating. For one thing, both of those outcomes can’t be delivered until spring. For another, there are likely 29 other GMs and head coaches making the same wishes.
Instead, the Senators have a few other presents they should want to find under the tree.
This might seem like one of those big, altruistic wishes until you remember that this is the Ottawa Senators of which we speak, for whom good health is an ongoing issue. Specifically, there are two health issues at the top of the wish list.
The first wish is for Nicolle Anderson’s cancer to go into remission. The team has
The team has rallied behind the wife of their top goaltender and his principal backup, Mike Condon, has provided more than adequate relief while Craig Anderson has been away from the team to support her. Still, I don’t think there’s a single person who wouldn’t want to see anyone’s cancer just disappear overnight and considering how involved she is in the Senators’ community and charitable causes, that only emphasises how worthwhile a wish this is. The news has been good regarding her treatment, but we’re asking for miracles here, so this goes to the top of the list.
Further impacting the team would be a return to health of Clarke MacArthur. MacArthur has been sidelined with post-concussion syndrome since October, 2015. Aside from the one day at the opening of this season’s training camp that he was cleared to play, on which he was hit by Sens’ prospect Patrick Sieloff and sent back to the long-term injured reserve list, he’s spent almost 15 months rehabilitating. That’s probably not a good sign for his future, though the team has stated MacArthur has a timetable for return this January. If that truly is the case, he would be a welcome addition to the team.
The reason why MacArthur’s return is so important has at least as much to do with his role on the bench and in the dressing room as that on the ice. MacArthur is unique on the team in being both a top-line player and a “heart-and-soul” leader.
Before his concussion woes, he was a leading scorer on the team, but also was a veteran presence on a team with a very young core. That core has developed into a solid NHL team, but they still lack the kind of leadership that MacArthur can provide. Unlike the team’s other veteran forwards, MacArthur commands the presence and respect to stand up to and influence both his fellow players and the coaching staff. He might not wear a letter on his chest, but his leadership has been sorely missed.
The return of Clarke MacArthur would certainly help with the team’s depth issues, but there’s more that needs to be done in this regard. The injuries that the Senators have dealt with during this season have allowed them to audition almost all the depth options available to them in Binghamton. The team has played all of Fredrick Claesson, Andreas Englund, Ben Harpur, Max McCormick, Phil Varone (twice), Buddy Robinson, and Casey Bailey at some point this season and none have stuck with the team. In only the case of Englund and, perhaps, Harpur, can this be chalked up to a need for more development
The team has played all of Fredrick Claesson, Andreas Englund, Ben Harpur, Max McCormick, Phil Varone (twice), Buddy Robinson, and Casey Bailey at some point this season and none have stuck with the team. In only the case of Englund and, perhaps, Harpur, can this be chalked up to a need for more development time. All the other players named are well into their 20s and should be NHL ready by now, if they ever will be. It appears that, perhaps, they never will.
This means that the team desperately needs to supplement its depth through the acquisition of other players. The likelihood is that the team lacks the flexibility needed in its budget to make these acquisitions. But, the nature of holiday wish lists is that such mundane considerations can be forgotten. So, let’s figure out what this team does need to succeed for the rest of the season.
Primarily, what this team needs is a solid seventh defenceman. So far, three of the team’s top six defencemen have missed games due to injury or suspension and none of Claesson, Englund, or Harpur proved adequate to replace them. The team still has Mike Kostka in the minors, but that doesn’t sound like a recipe for long-term success, either.
Securing a veteran NHL defenceman would go a long way toward providing some stability to the team’s blueline. And, it’s not like there aren’t options available. For example, the Arizona Coyotes are one of the few teams that are effectively out of playoff contention. They also happen to employ the older brother of one of Ottawa’s top forwards on a pricey but reasonable one-year contract. One thinks a
For example, the Arizona Coyotes are one of the few teams that are effectively out of playoff contention. They also happen to employ the older brother of one of Ottawa’s top forwards on a pricey but reasonable one-year contract. One thinks a deal could be made for Michael Stone to put him in a Senator sweater for the rest of the season. His 5v5 possession metrics aren’t necessarily glowing (-2.8 CF%rel this season, 48.2% CF% for his career) and his game has never been about his offensive numbers. But, he’s a right-handed defenceman and he seems to have recovered well from an early-season knee injury. Plus, one wonders what magic might come of uniting the brothers Stone.
Secondarily, the team is asking too much of two of its bottom-six forwards on most nights. Although there’s no doubt that Tom Pyatt nor Chris Kelly were acquired for their scoring touch, the fact that both are performing poorly defensively means that they likely should not be everyday NHL players. MacArthur’s return bumps one of them from the lineup and that might be enough, assuming they platoon to fill the remaining position. But, the team is then one injury away from being in the same boat and playing both on a nightly basis.
The key stat that highlights Kelly’s struggles is his faceoff win percentage while shorthanded, which is well below 50% (NHL.com stats; link not available). If there’s one thing that Kelly was meant to provide this season, it was a solid option on the penalty kill. Yet, we see him deployed as a winger at least as often as a centre and the penalty kill seems to be thriving in spite of his contributions rather than because of them.
In the case of Pyatt, his deployment by Boucher has included extended stints in the top six and, now, on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s wing on the third line. Yet, all of his stats, including his atrocious 40.4 CF% (still better than Kelly’s 39.56, though), his 4.91 5v5 shooting percentage, and even his lowly 8 points in 32 games played point to Pyatt being, at best, a fourth-line player.
Better to acquire another forward and give Boucher some more flexibility to fill out his lineup each night. In this case, the Colorado Avalanche might be the team to speak to, specifically about a particularly versatile forward named Joe Colborne. Despite a career high 44 points last season, Colborne isn’t going to light the lamp in any dramatic fashion – those 44 points represented almost half of his career output thus far. Moreover, his career 46.0 CF% isn’t particularly exciting. But, last season, on a Calgary team that was a possession black hole, he managed 48.2 CF% and a 0.1 CF%rel despite 55% of his shifts starting in the defensive zone. If he can capture some of that possession magic again, he would be a valuable addition to any playoff team. Of course, acquiring him means picking up his two-year contract, but as far as bottom six forwards go, there are much worse options to commit to than Colborne.
If he can capture some of that possession magic again, he would be a valuable addition to any playoff team. Of course, acquiring him means picking up his two-year contract, but as far as bottom six forwards go, there are much worse options to commit to than Colborne.
So far, the Senators’ holiday wishlist includes some pretty big asks: miraculous cures and new players are the hockey equivalent of that new video game system and a new bike. So, for the final item on the list, we’ll go with something more reasonable: consistency.
For example, the team was given an early gift in Mark Borowiecki’s play this season. For much of the first two months of the season, this defenceman known more for his hits and fists proved he could skate and pinch and move the puck out of his zone effectively. Sure, his minutes have been sheltered with 55% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone and he still hasn’t been providing particularly strong possession. But, it was still a huge improvement over his previous two seasons. In the last couple of weeks, his play has regressed, culminating in his two-game suspension for boarding on Tyler Toffoli, but he’s otherwise thrived in Boucher’s system and more of that is welcome.
In general, though, the team could show a bit more consistency in all areas of play. The penalty kill has been lights out many nights this season, but then collapsed on the team’s recent road trip. The power play has looked scary in both good and bad ways this season, but the team can’t find it’s finish on a consistent basis with the man advantage. Even 5v5 play has oscillated between dominant, like in the second period of last week’s loss to LA, and utterly overmatched, as was seen the very next night against Anaheim.
If all the team received off this holiday wish list is a more consistent effort every night, that might be all that’s needed to make those big dreams of Dorion and Boucher, mentioned at the top of this article, a more possible reality.