Thoughts in Bold: Staios' Midseason Media Address
In a midseason address to discuss the latest happenings with his hockey club, general manager Steve Staios met with the local media yesterday.
The timing was impeccable. With the approaching trade deadline and his team’s inspired play of late, there were plenty of meaty items of substance for Staios to provide insight.
The entirety of the press conference was carried on TSN 1200, which you can listen to here.
If you are unfamiliar with the format of this post, it is pretty straightforward. I have transcribed all of Staios’ reflections below. Following each of his answers, I have provided my own thoughts which are highlighted in bold.
On where he believes the team is at...
"Well, I've seen over the last stretch... it's just been, really, a shorter period of time... but, over the last five games, I think this is exactly where I expected this group to get to from a level of compete, discipline and details in our game. It's been pretty evident with our play and contributions with everybody in the lineup. It's starting to really come together. The things I talked about when we brought Jacques (Martin) onboard were just that. I'm encouraged with our last stretch of games and where we're at. I think that they've done a tremendous job. I mean, Alfie, (Capuano) and Ben Sexton... I think the entire coaching staff has done a really great job hammering in all the details that is going to take for us to win games consistently. And, our team is still learning how to do that."
It took some time, but the Senators finally resemble a competent defensive team.
Admittedly, it was painful to watch the growing pains that occurred during the first 10-12 games of the second Jacques Martin era. Thanks to the condensed schedule that had the team playing every second night, it was difficult to curb the poor habits that were born out of systemic losing and a country club atmosphere.
Developing accountability when there was previously none requires patience, but it would have been hard to blame anyone for cynically wondering whether it was more than just the coaches or the system. This idea that this core may not simply be as devoted or as good as we were previously led to believe started to permeate this fan base.
Thankfully, as Steve Staios mentioned, things have taken a positive turn. Including last night’s overtime loss to Boston, this group hardly resembles the middling one from the team’s first 44 games.
A quick glance at the team’s underlying numbers under the D.J. Smith and Jacques Martin splits highlights how much of a change we are seeing in this team’s recent performance.
Although the Senators have seen improvements in certain shot and goal metrics like the percentage of total shots (CF%) and shots on goal (SF%), the rate at which the Senators were giving up shot (CA/60, SA/60) and expected goals (xGA/60) have actually gone up under Martin. And, if we are looking at the body of work under Martin as a whole, the Senators have still rank in the mediocre middle to lower third of the league in a number of key statistical categories.
Of course, if we just focus on the entirety of the work and these numbers, it does not seem that impressive. For anyone who has watched the games, however, they will instantly recognize the fact that the Senators were dreadful during the first dozen games of the Martin era. During this stretch, they were statistically one of the worst clubs in the league and their play harkened back to the days of the Sparky Allison coached Senators.
These past seven games, however, the Senators have been incredible at five-on-five and the numbers reflect it. This isn’t just some small sample size blip in which the team has feasted on weak competition either. Yes, they have played teams like the Sharks and Canadiens, but this team has more than held its own against teams like the Avalanche, Bruins, Jets and Flyers.
This group has cleaned up its neutral zone play and with their aggressive pursuit and puck support, they are finally defending the neutral zone effectively in layers which has frustrated their opponents and created more turnovers. More turnovers, in turn, has allowed the Senators to establish more offensive zone time and with more offensive zone time, the opposition simply spends less time with the puck. Almost as importantly, when their opponents establish offensive zone time of their own, there are fewer instances when the Senators look less scrambly in their own end.
The difference is striking.
What took the previous regime five years to instill has taken Jacques Martin 12 games.
On whether the Senators are open for business on the trade front and what he may try to add...
"Am I open for business? I've had some good discussions with lots of teams. I wouldn't be doing my job if I wasn't looking for all opportunities to make this team successful (in the) short term and long term. I think the long-term vision is extremely important to keep an eye on here with our group. I think that you can't have enough leadership and experience. I think that's certainly an area that I'd like to look at. Also, the fact that we're looking at complete players as well -- 200-foot players. I think those are the types of things we're looking at. Now, if there's an opportunity, the market will dictate (that). There may be an opportunity here at the (trade) deadline, but if not, we'll continue to work on it. Maybe there will be an opportunity in the offseason."
It is a shame that the coaching change did not happen sooner, but it is difficult to lay blame on new management and ownership when the sale process dragged out past the offseason and put them in a difficult position. They patiently assessed the situation and staff and have made changes where they felt it was necessary. To their credit, the decisions that they have made thus far are encouraging.
Had a move been made earlier, maybe there would be a chance for the Senators to make a push for the postseason. As much as I would love to see this core get an opportunity to learn some lessons in their development, at this stage of the season and the probabilities that the gap in the standings is too large, I appreciate management keeping an eye on its long-term vision.
The best work for this group is already being done.
As much as a playoff appearance would be nice for this franchise and long suffering fans, the biggest steps for these players lies in their continued development. If I was left with the choice between the version of this team that plays run and gun hockey and reaches the postseason or one that continues to improve upon their two-way game and defensive responsibilities away from the puck, I would take the latter. I believe it will have dramatically larger implications on this team’s future success and sustainability.
It sounds like Staios has a strong understanding of this team’s weaknesses. Whether it is Dave Poulin or the general manager, they have recurringly expressed a desire to add more veterans to the mix.
This team’s greatest weaknesses are the need for a right defenceman and the two-way play of its wingers. Dominik Kubalik and Vladimir Tarasenko are impending free agents, so they likely represent two spots where the team can shed salary and target two-way alternatives. It sounds like Staios will let the market dictate what he can do, but it would not be a surprise if he patiently waits for the offseason to address his team’s needs.
On whether he has identified an area or position of need...
"I think it's overall. I've looked at all areas to improve. I think that, again, you have these ideas. You go into these situations and deadlines where you're looking to execute on something. Sometimes the market dictates if that's an option for you or not, but certainly, I've been exploring all options."
I have a hard time believing the Senators will be willing to meet the prices of other teams who are outside the playoff picture. The Senators simply are not in a position where they can comfortably move a ton of draft pick and prospect capital to meet the demands of teams in a limited supply market. Perhaps some team surprises them and piques their interest by moving an established veteran for a project like Tyler Boucher, but it is probably in Ottawa’s best interests to wait for the offseason.
On his first impressions of Shane Pinto...
"Yeah, it's only been a couple of games for Shane, but first of all, he brings an enthusiasm to the group as well. I think he's got a great personality and passion for the game. When you talk about 200-foot players, I think Shane has a lot of that in his game along with other attributes for us as well. When you bring a player like Shane back into the lineup, it balances things a little bit and he's been a welcome addition."
Watching the players on the Senators’ bench celebrate Shane Pinto’s first goal showed everyone how much he means to this group. His energy and positive vibes are noticeable to outsiders and on the ice, it is easy to see how well he fits with this group. Even after missing half a season of hockey, he has stepped in and been noticeable.
On whether he has had conversations with Vladimir Tarasenko about his future with the team...
"I have not had a conversation with Vladi. Obviously, with where we are in the standings and (him) becoming an unrestricted free agent, it's certainly something that we'll continue to take a look at. I've been extremely impressed with Vlad. I didn't know him before I got in here. He's a Stanley Cup champion. He plays on both sides of the puck. I think, probably, you just see the offence in his game, but he's much more well-rounded than I expected. In watching him on a day-to-day basis, I've been really impressed."
I am a little surprised that Tarasenko’s camp has not been approached about the possibility of a trade. As one of the few players on the roster who has an expiring contract, a recognizable name and some contributions, he should be an easy commodity to sell on the market. Despite Staios’ comments, Tarasenko’s defensive impact metrics have been underwhelming. If the organization is serious about bringing in more two-way talent, it stands to reason that Tarasenko’s spot in the lineup is one of the areas where the organization can address this need.
He is protected by a full no-movement clause, so Tarasenko does have full control of the process and it may suppress his market.
In saying all of this, Tarasenko’s been impressive off the ice. Considering how he is new to the organization and city and his first language is not English, it has been incredible to see how involved he has become in this city. For him to visit CHEO on his own at Halloween to meet and engage with the kids there is incredible. I also loved his interaction with Parker McDonald ahead of the Hockey Fights Cancer night.
He is a professional who gets it.
If the Senators do wind up moving him, maybe there is some scenario that sees the team try and bring him back in the offseason.
On Alex Formenton and whether the organization has had any conversations with the player or agent...
"Well, I haven't spoken to the player and I think all questions with regards to the situation have to go through the National Hockey League. Anything that I would say would probably be a speculation on it and everything that we've all read or heard. Yeah, all those questions will have to go through the league."
Having qualified Formenton as a restricted free agent, the Senators still maintain ownership of his rights. The Senators have waited for this 2018 World Junior scandal to unfold further before making a decision on Formenton’s future with the organization. This process has led Formenton to play overseas with Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss League, but the club announced Wednesday that he was taking a leave of absence and returning to Canada.
Formenton and four other members of that 2018 Canadian World Junior team have taken leaves of absence from their respective organizations, which has fueled beliefs that these are the undisclosed players that the London Police have asked to surrender themselves to face sexual assault charges.
Drake Batherson was also on that 2018 team, but he played last night and has remained with the team. One can only assume that there is a high level of confidence that he played no part in the alleged events that occurred in June of 2018.
On where the search for a new coach is at...
"It's in process. We've put names together where it might fit. We'll go through that. I think the offseason is going to be a great opportunity for us to take a look at that. Again, I'm extremely encouraged with the work that Jacques, Alfie, (Capuano), Ben Sexton and now Justin Peters have done with this group. I'm looking for and hoping that this last five-game stretch is something that we can continue to build off of. This team is still in the growth phase. They really are and they are learning how to win. We continue to get better in a lot of areas and I think, most importantly, in the areas that are going to help us win games more consistently."
It is encouraging to hear that the group has already begun its list of prospective candidates. I do wonder what will happen if Jacques Martin continues to have success and expresses a desire to return to the bench for the 2024-25 season. Being a senior advisor to the coaching staff does offer much more job security, but would he willingly return to that role if he does want to continue as a head coach?
On Michael Andlauer doing an interview yesterday and reflecting on Patrick Roy and whether the next coach will have a specific type of background to take this team to another level after Jacques Martin and Alfredsson lay down the foundation...
"I feel like Jacques and Alfie and this staff are really laying down the foundation for the next level to come in. Are there certain criteria that I'd like to see with our next head coach? There's a wishlist. I won't get into those details, but there's certainly a picture of a type of coach that I'd like to see. The other thing is, it's more than just a head coach. The balance of the coaching staff, the experience, the personalities and their background in each area is going to be important. It's no different than putting a roster together. I think that you have to keep in mind that with coaches, it's the same thing."
Many of the names linked to the Senators have been coaches who have ties to both Michael Andlauer and Steve Staios. The Toronto Marlies’ John Gruden and the Brantford Bulldogs’ Jay McKee have both been mentioned as prospective candidates. In the Andlauer era, there is an obvious pattern that has seen ownership and management hire people they trust and have pre-existing relationships with. As much as this group has emphasized the best in class mantra, they obviously place a huge value on comfort and it would not be a shock to see this be extended to their next head coach.
On why the Senators never signed Formenton as a restricted free agent...
"I can elaborate on them for sure. I wasn't here prior to all that happening. So, I really don't have much information on why he's not signed."
It is nothing groundbreaking, but he was suspected of being involved in sexual assault investigation. Rather than signing Formenton to a contract and risk the optics and fallout of potentially losing the player down the road, the organization did its own research and preferred to let the process play out.
On Michael Andlauer somewhat regretting the fact that Patrick Roy joined the Islanders and whether he feels the same way...
"I think timing has a lot to do with why we have Jacques Martin and Daniel Alfredsson in. I think the timing of the group, I think it was really well put... it's my job to identify where this group is at and then what the right fit might be. Timing certainly has a lot to do with any of these decisions."
The benefit of having Martin come in now without any future job security is that he does not have to worry about coddling or offending this group by demanding accountability and players being responsible on the ice. With the group finally buying in to the importance of committing to their play away from the puck, any incoming head coach does not have to worry about bristling the ranks. The hard work is already being done.
On whether a candidate like Benoit Groulx could be considered...
"He is a very good name that is out there, yes. Along with others, but yes, of course (we'd consider him)."
Groulx, of course, is a local hockey product and the former head coach of the Gatineau Olympiques. He was the QMJHL ‘Coach of the Year’ for the 2003-04 season and won the World Junior Championship as Canada’s head coach in 2015. Groulx has spent the last seven seasons coaching the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. The Lightning announced last summer that Joel Bouchard would be replacing Groulx as the head coach of the Crunch.
On whether the plan is for Jacques Martin to finish the season...
"That's the plan. I mean, Jacques and I have a great relationship. He's done a phenomenal job with this group, so I don't see that there's a situation where that would change. But, again, we're looking at opportunities to make this group better in all areas... I mean, we make a change at the goaltending coach because the opportunity was right and the timing was right. I'm not suggesting that that's going to happen with a head coaching opportunity, but I couldn't be more encouraged with the messaging, the execution and where this team is going under Jacques Martin."
It makes a lot of sense for the Senators to wait until the offseason to make a decision on their coaching staff. Martin could express an interest in continuing in the role, but more importantly, the offseason represents the best opportunity to have the biggest field of candidates. Many intriguing candidates are already working for other organizations, so getting permission to talk to them when they already have commitments is unlikely. There is also the chance that some unexpected candidates could be made available should their teams fall short of expectations during the postseason.
On having no loyalty or ties to this group and recognizing when the time might be right to make a move involving the core...
"Well, I don't think that it was fair for me to give a full evaluation on this team until they started to have some stability in their play. I don't want to rush to judgment on any of these players. Now we're getting a sense of what this team is all about and again, I've been very encouraged by the last four games."
Due diligence and patience seems to be a hallmark of this front office. Having endured the Pierre Dorion era, it is a welcomed change. Allow this front office to collect as much information as it can to allow for more informed (and hopefully better) decisions that render positive results.
On whether he could have envisioned this team's record being what it is at this stage of the season...
"No. I thought the roster would show that we'd have a better record than that. Now, I can go back to Norris being injured to start the season, Chabot (being hurt) for stretches in the first half where we missed him, Shane Pinto not in the lineup, coaching changes... There's been a lot that has happened. You don't want to use them as excuses, but certainly, they are factors in why we are where we are right now. Can we turn it around? I'm encouraged. I think that you see the commitment from the group, I think you see the discipline and the details starting to come into our game and that's really what I've been waiting for for this group."
Again, if this team continues to learn how to play efficiently away from the puck, it is going to have massive effects on this team’s ability to win in the future.
On finding a balance and a maturity to help this core...
"Yeah, I think there's a lot of ways to help this group along in those areas. One is Jacques Martin and Daniel Alfredsson. Another is to see if there's some veteran leadership who have been through some of those battles and be able to look them in the eye during those times to be able to help them out with that."
Elite Prospects lists the Senators’ roster as having the third-youngest average age in the NHL. Adding veteran voices to the mix would be welcomed, but it is not enough to simply be a well-tenured player. At this stage of the franchise’s development, it needs quality veterans who can play.
On rumours that Jakob Chychrun's name has come up in the rumour mill and whether he would like to balance the defence...
"I guess, first of all, I'm disappointed that his name is out there. I think when you have these conversations with other teams... I mean, if I'm on the other side looking at our team, I'm asking about Jakob Chychrun as well. So, I'm disappointed for him. I guess it's part of the game. He's a great player for us. He's a great young man and he loves Ottawa. So, he's going to have to deal with those types of things being out there. As far as your question about balancing the defence, I mean, we've got three guys on the left side, but Jakob does play on the right and can balance it out. He seems to be handling the right side really well. I guess we'll see how this comes to fruition. There's good and bad on playing your off-side, if you ask any defenceman. There are some areas of the ice where there are more opportunities and there are other areas where it can get you into some situations."
Rumours surfaced recently placing some uncertainty on Chychrun’s desire to remain in Ottawa. Perhaps the rumours are or were true, but there is also the possibility that they were time sensitive. Being subjected to systemic losing, whether in Arizona or Ottawa, sucks. If he expressed some hesitancy to a source about his willingness to remain in Ottawa, I get it. The Senators simply have not won a ton of games since he’s been here.
It certainly does feel like the team has turned a corner recently, however, so maybe a strong second half could influence Chychrun or others.
Slated to hit unrestricted free agency in 2025, it is easy to understand why teams would call and inquire on Chychrun’s availability. The Senators are poised to miss the postseason again and Chychrun is one of the few players who is performing well and could potentially be available. At a cap hit of $4.6 million, he also represents a relatively inexpensive option who could be with a team for two playoff runs.
Senators management certainly recognizes that Chychrun is due for a substantial raise on his next contract. Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson are already in the fold on the left side, so it would make sense for the organization to ask itself some roster construction questions. It would not be a stretch to believe that management could assert that it would be in the team’s best long-term interests to move Chychrun for a substantial deadline price. The defenceman does have a history of injury and the organization would be selling high. Philosophically, they may believe it is better to have a balanced defence rather than rely on playing a left defenceman on their off-side. The team could then reallocate his salary this summer to address other positional needs. The Senators could also use a combination of draft capital and prospects to replenish a farm system that is widely ranked in the bottom-third of the league — and is poised to lose a future first-round pick for the organization’s handling of the Evgenii Dadonov trade.
On whether there is a scenario where the organization keeps Chychrun and has him, Chabot and Sanderson...
"Jake's an elite defenceman and he's a year and a half away from being a(n unrestricted) free agent. Certainly, is there a way for us to fit (an extension) in? Sure. I think there are always ways to be able to manage the cap to make sure that you're compliant. So, we'll continue to look at that. Right now, watching the defence play and play the way that they are with Jake on the right and (Chabot) on the left, there are some interchangeable parts. Time will tell."
Unlike his predecessor, Staios is pretty tight-lipped when it comes to revealing much of anything. There is an emphasis on due diligence and leaving the door open to a number of possibilities.
On who is running the point on the amateur scouting side...
"Don Boyd is the head of amateur for us. We had great amateur meetings a couple of weeks ago and we're well prepared for the second half of the season."
Don Boyd will run the show after Trent Mann left the organization last summer. One of the things I would love to hear Staios expand on is the size of the front office and the efforts to expand its departmental ranks. Aside from hiring Sean Tierney as the director of analytics and Dave Poulin, little information has surfaced about new management’s desire to expand the scouting and analytical sides of the hockey operations department.
On his perspective of the second half of the season and whether he'd like to see a successful run or an emphasis on the long-term future...
"I mean, a little bit of both. I'm encouraged by the way that we've played that we'd be able to go on a run with this group to play with those details. I don't think looking at the final result is the way to do it. I think you have to take it day by day and this group is doing a good job of it right now."
Getting this core to play effectively on both sides of the puck is the biggest thing. Mind you, in saying that, any improvements to the power play would be welcomed too. It is insane how wildly ineffective the top-end talent on this roster has been with the man advantage.
On whether a successful run could influence what he does at the trade deadline...
"I think the market will dictate (what I do)."
It is encouraging to hear that Staios will not try to force anything for the sake of it. I would not expect a ton of change, simply because the organization does not have a ton of expendable quality talent that should return a lot of value. Beyond Chychrun, who may not even be moved, or a Tarasenko, there just is not a lot of pieces who will return much of anything.