Shot Suppression Problems Continue to Haunt the Senators
Earlier this week, I asked my followers on Twitter what the last year was that they considered the Senators as having a good blue line. The majority of the respondents believed that the last good defence had was in 2007.
At that time, the defensive corps was comprised of Wade Redden, Andrej Meszaros, Anton Volchenkov, Chris Phillips, Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo. That group was on the downswing, however. It was hard enough to lose endure the loss of Zdeno Chara through unrestricted free agency in 2006, but Redden and Phillips were approaching the diminished return part of their respective careers. Meszaros and Volchenkov would eventually move on after cashing in on the value created during their time in Ottawa on some pretty good teams.
Since 2007, Ottawa has drafted two excellent defencemen in Erik Karlsson and Thomas Chabot. Everyone is counting on adding Jake Sanderson’s name to the list of great blueliners and there is hope that Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson can become good NHLers. By and large however, with the exception of a few, it has been a struggle to add competent defenders to the NHL roster.
The drafting and player development record for defencemen within this organization has not been particularly strong, but it has also been compounded by a glaring deficiency in evaluating and acquiring good professional players.
This is surprising because in an era of accessible video and publicly available and proprietary third-party data that teams can pay for, identifying good professional players should be easier than the Senators have made it seem.
Blame a small scouting staff, blame limited resources, blame an unwillingness to invest in analytics, blame a valuation system that misidentifies the traits that constitute good defensive players, blame management for repeatedly listening to its coaching staff regarding personnel moves because of some previous connections.
The list goes on, but the decisions have created a roster that struggles to defend and hemorrhages shots against in the defensive zone. Whenever the Senators have had modest success in recent years, they have gotten by through their willingness to trade chances with the opposition and play high event hockey.
According to Evolving-Hockey’s data, the 2021-22 Ottawa Senators are allowing 64.47 five-on-five shots per 60. If that rate holds up over the course of the season, that would be the fifth-highest recorded shots allowed rate since websites started tracking statistics at the beginning of the 2007-08 season.
Think about how many historically bad teams there have been over the last 15 seasons and this season’s iteration of the Senators is giving up the fifth-highest rate. That number is staggering.
D.J. Smith was quick to point out in a media availability this week that there is a tendency to overemphasize the blue line whenever it comes down to analyzing defence. And, he’s right. Defence is a function of how well all five players integrate and work as a unit to create turnovers and diminish the likelihood of dangerous chances.
The Senators have not only been allowing a high volume of shots, they have been allowing shots from dangerous areas on the ice per HockeyViz.com.
The head coach is never going to come out and explicitly dump on a player (or in this case, players) through the media. It would undermine his credibility with not only the players but with the management team that put them in place.
The interesting dynamic is that Ottawa’s forward group is essentially set. Shane Pinto should be returning soon from his injury, but with the exception of Colin White, the Senators do not have any long-term injuries. Prospects like Yegor Sokolov and Tyler Boucher should eventually reach the NHL level in the next few seasons, but the bulk of the young forward core that is expected to take the Senators to the next level is already in place.
They are young and there should be more growth and development as the players become more confident and comfortable, but if D.J. is sincere and believes the problem isn’t a function of the blue line alone, it raises some questions. Are the Senators playing the right system for their talent? Is it a coaching or personnel problem for why the structure and puck support isn’t there more consistently?
Steve Warne’s right, the Senators need to show some progress with their defensive issues, but they haven’t.
Or, maybe this is simply a situation in which the defensive issues are magnified simply because the blue line’s true talent level just isn’t high enough.
Here are how the Senators’ defensive pairings have fared (data via Evolving-Hockey):
If the rebuild is over and the Senators want to prioritize results, they simply have to put the best players on the ice in the right situations.
Nikita Zaitsev has been a recurring problem for shot suppression. His name is prominently featured in four of the five pairings that give up the highest volume of shots. Small sample size be damned, the effects are present regardless of the talent level of his partner.
The interesting wrinkle is the performance of Holden and Brown as a pairing. My suspicion as to why they have had success relates to Smith’s willingness to use Zaitsev and Zub on the right side ahead of Brown. With Holden being an all-around upgrade on Michael Del Zotto and Victor Mete, my assumption is that they are taking advantage of insulated minutes and responsibilities.
Regardless, maybe that Holden-Brown pairing deserves an opportunity to play up the lineup. If they and the Chabot-Zub pairing are the two most successful pairings, ride it out.
It’s better than the alternative that resulted in Ottawa shaking up its blue line and separating its two best defenders.
In a breaking piece of news, the Senators have demoted Filip Gustavsson to Belleville this afternoon.
The Senators have four games on the schedule this week. They will play Tuesday night in Boston before a three-game homestand that features Los Angeles on Thursday, Pittsburgh on Saturday and Calgary on Sunday.
The Belleville Senators have one road game in Laval on Wednesday before a two-game homestand on the weekend, so it is possible that Gustavsson would play Wednesday night before the Senators recall him for one of their back-to-back games on the weekend. By sending him to Belleville now, the Senators would simply save money until he is recalled.
All Gustavsson has done since his arrival in Ottawa is provide the best goaltending that the Senators have received.
Over the last two seasons, he is the only Senators goaltender to have posted positive ‘goals saved above average’ (GSAA) and ‘goals saved above expected’ rates (GSAx). Statistically, he was the team’s best goaltender in the preseason and that has carried through the regular season.
Make no mistake, being demoted for a game or two is not the biggest deal in the world in the bigger picture. However, if the mandate is to put the best team on the ice and roster the most competitive lineup, Filip Gustavsson needs to be on the roster. His play and performance warrants it.
Unless the demotion was made to create roster space for another player, sending him down because of his two-way contract and the opportunity to save the team some money sends the wrong kind of message.