Many predicted the Senators would be elite this season — these numbers show why it didn’t work out that way

Many predicted the Senators would be elite this season — these numbers show why it didn’t work out that way
Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators reacts after the second goal by the Phoenix Coyotes during second period of NHL action at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, December 21, 2013. (Photo by Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen)

As the Ottawa Senators approach the halfway mark of their season, it is difficult to fathom that this team, one that many analysts and prognosticators projected to be a dark horse candidate to contend for a Stanley Cup, currently resides four points out of the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.

With the team’s playoff prospects fading, frustrations are intensifying, and with that comes some ornery finger-pointing.

Under normal circumstances, the Senators’ misfortunes could be counterbalanced by the improved value of its 2014 first-round draft pick, but that pick was included in the trade package to Anaheim that brought Bobby Ryan to Ottawa.

How could last season’s injury-riddled club play at a 95.6-point pace, return a number of key players from injury and play only at a 77.8-point pace this season?

Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman was one analyst who used an advanced hockey analytics model to project Ottawa as having the best odds of winning the President’s Trophy this season.

“Their offence has remained about the same, but they really took a step back defensively,” Vollman explained when asked what has gone wrong. “Their goaltending is a lot worse, but that was expected, and factored into our projections.”

Thanks to the lockout and a shortened schedule comprised completely of Eastern Conference opponents, these circumstances could have been viewed as red flags or signs of overachievement. Instead, the team developed a reputation as a young, resilient team that could never be counted out of a game.

“Pesky Sens” made for a popular narrative and moniker, but it was one that ascribed very little success to Ottawa’s league-leading .934 even-strength save percentage.

Goaltending regression was inevitable; it was just a question of how much.

Although his .922 even-strength save percentage is not far removed from this season’s league average of .923, Craig Anderson’s save percentage while on the penalty kill has dropped from last season’s unsustainable .925 to .792 this season.

The adage that your goaltender must be your best penalty killer has not held up and, in turn, it exacerbates the fact that the Senators have taken the highest number of minor penalties in the NHL this season.

Compounding matters is that the Senators currently have the league’s sixth-worst save percentage (.915) in five-on-five situations when the score is close — a goal differential of one goal or less in the first two periods and a zero goal differential in the third period and overtime.

Of course, this goaltending regression could be offset by personnel decisions, improvements in puck possession and the improved play of players coming off major injuries.

Playing the statistically superior Robin Lehner more often would have been the easiest change while the team struggled and returning players like Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek and Jared Cowen acclimatized.

While the acquisitions of Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan have looked great in the interim, it is worth mentioning the forwards they replaced — Daniel Alfredsson and Jakob Silfverberg — were very good two-way players.

Similarly, the absence of Sergei Gonchar has been felt too.

His pairing with Patrick Wiercioch last season was a principal reason for the team’s success. When that duo was on the ice last season at five-on-five, the Senators owned the puck — directing 60.4 per cent of the shots at the opposition’s goal.

Considering the $10-million, two-year contract that Gonchar signed with Dallas, coupled with Ottawa’s strict internal budget, Bryan Murray’s decision was defensible. However, it was to be expected that this team would take some lumps in the short-term as Jared Cowen adjusted to top-four minutes.

Unquestionably, the most concerning issue for this franchise is the play of its captain. With the exception of Michalek, no Senators forward has played in more than 75 per cent of the team’s games and been on for a more disproportionate amount of goals against than Jason Spezza.

According to ExtraSkater.com, Spezza had been on the ice for 21 five-on-five goals for and 32 five-on-five goals against prior to Monday’s win over Pittsburgh. In other words, when Spezza is on the ice at five-on-five, the opposition has scored 60.4 per cent of the goals.

There is evidence suggesting most of Spezza’s even-strength defensive difficulties have occurred while playing with Michalek at five-on-five. In fact, when these two have been separated this season, Spezza not only becomes a more productive player, the number of goals that he is on the ice for gets reduced by half.

Not all hope is lost.

Mika Zibanejad, Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan have continued to impress and while Cowen and Wiercioch have taken their lumps, both are young. It is plausible that they will continue to develop and improve.

Although the presence of a 19-year old Cody Ceci on the parent roster speaks to the blue line’s struggles, his poise and development at such a young age is exciting for the team. The fact it already has a hard-to-acquire, 23-year-old piece in Erik Karlsson locked up to a long-term, cost-efficient contract is reassuring.

Bad luck and variance have helped contribute to Craig Anderson’s poor numbers. History shows that he is not as bad as he is currently playing, but should he continue to struggle, Robin Lehner has shown that he is deserving of more minutes.

The team’s core of young players looks promising, and the proxies used to measure puck possession continue to indicate that, although the results do not necessarily reflect it, the Senators have been a much-improved team of late.

The difficulty that management will have is navigating through the statistical noise and context to determine how good this team actually is.

Despite the squad’s poor play, the Senators have been the recipient of some good fortune as well. Their 16 man-games lost due to injury is the lowest amount in the NHL, and although the organization has complained about the difficulty of the team’s lengthy road trip to start the season, according to data compiled by USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin, the Senators have enjoyed one of the easiest schedules in the league.

Paul MacLean has reiterated that the Senators are a long way from being considered an elite team. With two-thirds of the team’s top six forwards being eligible for unrestricted free agency over the next year and a half, management simply cannot afford to lose players like Bobby Ryan and Jason Spezza for nothing.

Management has a real opportunity to decide how it wants to shape this franchise moving forward.

Twitter.com/GraemeNichols

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