Senators in awkward, unenviable NHL position (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert

The Ottawa Senators head into the All-Star break comfortably in a playoff spot, primarily because the rest of their division is not very good.

Not that 58 points from 47 games and a plus-4 goal differential is necessarily a bad thing, of course. Given the weird way in which the Eastern Conference in particular has stratified itself this season they’re something of a rarity. The other top teams in the conference obviously have positive goal differentials (Philadelphia and Boston are the other playoff teams in the red) but unlike every other top club, Ottawa only has a single-digit differential. In fact, the Sens and their Ontario neighbors (plus-13) are the only ones without at least a plus-25 goal differential in the conference among the positive teams.

To be so average, and yet so safely ensconced in a postseason position, is a little strange, but especially so when you consider that basically everything the Senators do is underwhelming. Fifth from the bottom of the NHL in adjusted corsi, heading into Thursday night. Ninth-bottom in adjusted shots on goal. When it comes to shot quality (measured by expected goals) they’re 11th-worst. And yeah they’ve been lucky to sit 14th in actual goals percentage at 5-on-5, but not especially so: Their PDO is only 100.3. Their shooting percentage is 14th. Their save percentage is 11th.

Same story on special teams: 15th in power play, 13th on the PK.

Literally anyone can look at this team and determine with relative ease that this is a decidedly average club with a small handful of difference-makers. Erik Karlsson has a point on nearly 1 in every 3 goals the team scores despite a bad year shooting the puck personally. Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and Kyle Turris can all play as well. Mike Condon is punching well above his weight right now in net, but you can’t hold that against him too much, even as you expect him to take a step back.

But here’s the thing: People think Pierre Dorion is gonna go shopping as the deadline approaches. They already traded for Tommy Wingels just to flesh out the roster a bit since Clarke MacArthur is done for the year, but there are plenty of rumblings that they want to add to this group. Scott Burnside said on the other day that the Senators should target one of Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog. Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen says basically the same thing:

“Yet when you add [the Senators’ recent point streak and the loss of MacArthur] together — and let’s throw in captain Erik Karlsson’s long-term future, for good measure — it makes sense for general manager Pierre Dorion to take a hard look at trading for Duchene before the March 1 trade deadline.”

Like I know things feel extremely weird these days what with the whole surreality of the Trump presidency so far, but this is “also I have slowly gone insane” territory, right? Not that acquiring Duchene isn’t a good idea, of course. He’s a good player in a bad situation and apparently doesn’t really care if he stays in Colorado or goes literally anywhere else. Warren posits that Colorado would want a current Senators defenseman and a future like Colin White or Thomas Chabot.

Which, first of all, the Senators defense is really bad. After Karlsson you’re looking at Dion Phaneuf and Marc Methot (both 31 and pretty expensive), then Cody Ceci and Mark Borowiecki (both under 30 but not good), and a hodgepodge of lower-level guys Dorion couldn’t pick out of a lineup. It doesn’t behoove them to offload Chabot in such a deal since he actually looks like a good future NHL defenseman, and maybe you make the argument that you one day hope White turns into what Matt Duchene has been for years and probably will be for a few more. Fifty-plus points each of the last three seasons and on pace for almost 60 on a rotten team this year too. You take that.

But the Senators are short on futures to begin with. Corey Pronman ranked their prospect group 16th in the league before the season. They only have four picks in June’s draft (a first, third, fourth, and sixth), with no second in 2018 either.

With this in mind, and with the idea that any major trade likely involves the Senators giving up at least something of noteworthy future value, we have to recognize one salient fact:

If this Ottawa team is in Going For It mode, we are living in a world gone mad.

Again, it’s not that Duchene would be a bad addition, but didn’t they already try adding an above-average offensive player in his mid-20s a few years ago as a means of helping this team be competitive, and have that player turn out to be Bobby Ryan? Especially given this team’s penchant for not-spending money, acquiring Duchene or Landeskog — who are signed to hefty contracts for the next two and four seasons, respectively — probably means the budget has to be otherwise trimmed. That obviously creates its own problems.

It’s hard not to feel for Dorion. This isn’t what he needed in his first season as GM. It’s a confluence of unfortunate factors that might force him to do something deeply inadvisable. The Senators are getting passable goaltending, and their division has been underwhelming, and this group is universally acknowledged as being pretty underwhelming. This is one of those seasons where you would ideally either throw it into cruise control and let the rest of the season come to you, or even sell off a few semi-valuable pieces and see what happens anyway.

In either scenario there, if you make the playoffs, cool. If not, oh well, you weren’t supposed to anyway.

But because it’s easy to envision the Senators’ owner checking between his couch cushions before cutting another round of paychecks, the pressure to make the playoffs and wring an extra few million in gate receipts, concessions, and jersey sales has to be immense.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone thinks this team is meaningfully competitive either in the division or the conference. Few would say they’re even the second-best team in the Atlantic. At the absolute most, you’d have to say they’re a largely untalented but moderately well-coached team that is mediocre or a little worse.

The argument advanced, that a trade for Duchene or Landeskog would also be a boon for a team trying to stock up so Karlsson’s prime years aren’t a total waste of everyone’s time, is fair enough. Those players definitely help. But again, to what end, really? Even with Duchene, this isn’t the kind of team you could reasonably say, “Well if they get hot…” because if they get hot, they’re still losing to any half-decent team they play in Round 2. If they’re lucky to make it that far.

And yet, we have to sit here and say, “It’d probably help if they gave up some futures and took on a ton of money for one of the two most sought-after trade targets in the League?”

Man, I don’t envy Dorion that position at all.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.