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So, About That Blue Line... & Thoughts on Mathieu Joseph's Contract Extension
After the Senators acquired Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux to bolster their forward corps, no one could have blamed Senators fans for waiting for the shoe to drop.
When are the Senators going to address their blue line?
Maybe I’m being greedy here, but the longer this summer drags on, the easier it is to wonder whether the organization is comfortable taking what they have into training camp.
On paper, the forward corps looks impressive.
Building a top-six around a combination of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stützle, Drake Batherson, Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat looks pretty damn impressive. Mix in some depth options like Shane Pinto, Mathieu Joseph and Alex Formenton, the third line looks like it should offer a nice blend of speed and aggressive two-way play.
That blue line though. When are the Senators going to address that blue line?
It cannot happen soon enough.
Thomas Chabot and Artyom Zub will anchor that top pairing competently, but after that, the other two potential pairings are an uninspiring mess. (And as an aside, Zub’s impending unrestricted free agent status elicits some concern of its own.)
That is not meant to discredit Jake Sanderson’s upside or potential. Looking at the Senators’ franchise history, defensive prospects of his pedigree are limited to a handful of names like Wade Redden, Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson.
The talent is there, but it can take time for a player to get comfortable and play to the best of their abilities. In Redden’s case, it was his fourth NHL season as a 22-year-old (81 GP, 10 G, 36 Pts) that really demonstrated how effective he could be. For Chris Phillips, he took regular turns during his rookie campaign bouncing between forward and defence to remain in the lineup. It was not until his third season in which he really solidified his role. And by his fourth, he was logging big minutes in Ottawa’s top-four (21:28 AVG TOI/GM). Erik Karlsson had the generational offensive upside that scouts drool over, but his production only began to spike during his sophomore season in which he contributed a 13-goal and 45-point campaign. It was his follow-up third season where the offence exploded and earned him the first of his two Norris Trophies.
Expecting Sanderson to arrive at camp under normal circumstances and be impactful right away is probably unfair to the player, but for him to do it when he’s coming off surgery to fix a nagging hand injury, it may be even more unreasonable.
After being limited to just 24 games across the NCAA and Olympics last season, it may take Sanderson some time to adjust and get acclimated to the skill and speed of the NHL game.
One of the ways the Senators could assist Sanderson was if they had a right-shot defenceman who could capably insulate the rookie and help ensure that he does not have to shoulder the weight of the second pairing all by himself, but to this point, that player is not on the Senators roster.
Expecting any of Nikita Zaitsev, Travis Hamonic, Jacob Bernard-Docker or Lassi Thomson to be that guy is foolish. In the latter two prospects’ cases, maybe there is a chance that they get there eventually, but after the organization went out and acquired Travis Hamonic near the trade deadline last season, that transaction offered some insight into the organization’s confidence that either player could get there shortly.
The two veterans are in the diminishing return stages of their respective careers and neither player has been renowned for their ability to carry a pairing or tilt the ice in their team’s favour. Although both players developed reputations for being staunch defenders in their own zone, Hamonic has not had a positive defensive impact at five-on-five since the 2018-19 season per Hockeyviz.com.
Nikita Zaitsev has often been praised by the Senators for his defensive acumen, but his positive defensive traits have been marginalized by his inability to recover pucks and transition them efficiently to his teammates. Poor passing and decision-making with the puck are shortcomings of his that have led to sustained offensive zone pressure by the opposition. And it has made Zaitsev one of the more maligned defencemen of the modern analytic era.
Pierre Dorion made it clear that one of his priorities was to address the top-four, but it is almost August now and with it, the market has almost dried up.
The unrestricted market bears veterans like John Klingberg, P.K. Subban and Anton Stralman.
Klingberg was in the news yesterday for firing his agent Peter Wallen and signing on with Newport Sports. The 29-year-old offensive defenceman has obviously been looking to cash in on his first crack at unrestricted free agency and thus far, the offers have not been to his liking.
A problem for Klingberg is that he is going to have to be a very specific fit for a club. His calling card has always been his offence, but last season he was one of the worst defensive defencemen in hockey.
Using Evolving-Hockey’s ‘DEF’ metric that combines a player’s defensive contributions at five-on-five and the penalty kill to create a total defensive value, Klingberg’s rating (-5.1) was the seventh-lowest mark in the league amongst defencemen last season.
HockeyViz.com’s isolated impact visual shows just how bad he was.
Klingberg’s never been a staunch defender, but for a player about to enter his 30’s, overpaying for offensive production without recognizing how much Klingberg’s defensive coverage has suffered could be problematic — especially for a team like the Senators.
If Klingberg was looking for a short-term, prove me kind of deal, maybe it would make sense for the Senators to roll the dice and hope they get a better version than what Klingberg displayed last season. And if there is a knock to Thomas Chabot’s game, it is that his impact on the power play is significantly lower than one would expect given his skill set.
Under those circumstances, maybe the Senators could talk themselves into Klingberg being a fit. With the Senators’ offensive players up front, Klingberg could represent a good pump-and-dump opportunity if the right trade scenario opens up during the season.
Unfortunately, no one has really disclosed what kind of money or term Klingberg is looking for. It is safe to assume that after he changed his representation, the Senators may simply not have the room in their internal budget to bring him into the fold. Conversely, Klingberg may not even want to entertain the idea of playing in Ottawa either.
P.K. Subban is another offensive defenceman who has significant defensive warts. Four years older than Klingberg, Subban’s offence has declined significantly from his days in Montreal and Nashville. Last season in New Jersey was the first time in Subban’s career that he averaged fewer than 20 minutes of ice-time per game.
If the Senators a puck-moving defenceman for the third-pairing who could also play on the second power-play unit, I could probably be talked into an inexpensive flier on Subban. As it stands however, I have a hard time believing that Klingberg or Subban is a great fit for Ottawa.
In my mind, the team needs a reliable defender who can also capably move the puck and take a lot of the pressure off Jake Sanderson’s development. For me, MacKenzie Weegar would have been an ideal fit, but unfortunately, he was involved in the blockbuster trade between Florida and Calgary.
John Marino was another right defenceman that the Senators were linked to, but he was dealt earlier in the summer to the New Jersey Devils.
The only other name that has appeared in the news cycle has been Jake Chychrun’s. Between being a natural left-shot defenceman who would be asked to exclusively play his off-side and the prohibitively expensive trade return that the Coyotes are rumoured to be asking for, the fit may not be ideal. Although, Chychrun being just 24 years of age and under team control for the next three seasons at a relatively affordable cap hit of $4.6 million is incredibly enticing.
If not Chychrun, then who?
After Connor Brown was dealt for a second-round pick, the expectation was that it was the domino to fall that would allow the Senators to add another high draft pick to their coffers. With another pick, the assumption was that the team had a back pocket deal for a defenceman in place. That trade was two weeks ago however and since that time, everything in Ottawa has been relatively quiet.
It is almost to the point where it is easy to wonder whether there was ever any back pocket deal at all or whether the Brown move was necessitated simply because the organization needed to clear salary out to account for the DeBrincat and Giroux contracts that they have already added.
Using CapFriendly’s archive, the Senators had a projected cap hit of $70.881 million at the end of the 2021-22 season with an estimated salary expenditure of $66 million. After signing Mathieu Joseph last night to a four-year contract extension, Ottawa’s projected cap hit currently stands at $74.56 million with approximately $70.4 million in estimated salary expenditure.
The Senators only have Alex Formenton and Erik Brannstrom remaining as outstanding RFAs in need of a contract. It is likely that Brannstrom either signs an inexpensive bridge deal or is dealt as a piece of a trade package. In Formenton’s case, I would not be surprised to see him sit in limbo until there is some clarity in the 2018 World Junior scandal investigation.
The Senators could clear some payroll space by dumping Zaitsev and the two years and $7 million left on his contract ($4.5 million AAV).
For the team to add a top-four defenceman (and potentially sign Formenton to an extension), it is going to require a significant bump in salary from last season.
The Senators should go all-in.
Obviously, I don’t know what their budget will come in at or what else will be available on the trade market, but the Senators are essentially in a position where they absolutely need to add another top-four defenceman to their ranks. For all the emphasis on budgets, the question is whether the Senators can afford to waste a year of this young core’s prime and a year off the deals belonging to DeBrincat and Giroux.
The Senators have a year before DeBrincat hits free agency and they need to put their best foot forward.
Mathieu Joseph Signs an Extension…
Fitting that on the night that I’m working on a piece detailing how quiet the Senators have been of late, they ink Mathieu Joseph to a four-year extension worth $11.8 million ($2.95 million AAV).
After the Senators traded Connor Brown it created an opening at right wing on the third line. Joseph will likely inherit Connor Brown’s role and responsibilities and will do so commanding less money than the almost 700,000 fewer dollars.
In just his short time in Ottawa, Joseph demonstrated that he could be an exceptional penalty killer. He may even offer a greater two-way impact while also being three years younger than Brown.
In 11 games for the Senators, Joseph scored four goals and had eight assists. He likely benefited from his career-high 21.1 shooting percentage, so there may be some regression there. In the past, there were some concerns that Joseph was more of a slasher in terms of how he generated offence. He would use his speed and defensive acumen to create individual rush chances that would never really result in sustained offensive pressure when the chances did not result in goals. What is encouraging about Joseph’s performance in Ottawa is that his 7.01 shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time represented a career-high.
In looking at how the Senators performed with Joseph on the ice at five-on-five is that the team’s stats mirrored his own. When Joseph was on the ice per NaturalStatTrick, the Senators generated 55.89 shots per 60 (CF/60), 34.29 shots on goal per 60 (SF/60), 3.90 goals for per 60 (GF/60) and 34.68 scoring chances per 60. All of these stats represented career highs for Joseph and hopefully, if these are indicative of future performance, there is a better chance that Joseph can recreate the offensive touch that showcased down the stretch.
Defensively, the Senators are going to be relying on him heavily. After dealing Nick Paul last season and in moving Connor Brown this summer, Joseph will be a key component of Ottawa’s penalty-killing unit.
With the salary cap ceiling expected to rise significantly in two years, this is the kind of deal that should look good for the Senators down the road. For the team to lock up a nice defensive forward who offers some secondary scoring depth, that is a win. And, the fact that the Senators got the deal done at a cheaper cost than what alternatives like Nick Paul and Connor Brown, the team can or has reallocated the savings to other pressing areas of need.
That may sound simple, but it’s an often overlooked aspect of management. For the Senators, it’s a tidy piece of business.