The Ottawa Senators... a good hockey team?

The marquee game on tonight’s Canadian NHL schedule is Montreal’s visit to the Air Canada Centre to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the latter team already had their big game of the week when they played Ottawa on Tuesday.

The Senators dispatched Toronto 3-2 on the road in a game stolen by Craig Anderson and overshadowed by a clip by Nick Foligno on Dion Phaneuf. The game didn’t necessarily secure a place in the playoffs for Ottawa, but it was an important two points into getting there.

Heading into Saturday’s games, Ottawa (27-16-6), who play Anaheim this afternoon on the road, sit fourth place in the Eastern Conference, after possibly having been written off this offseason as a rebuilding team. They have played a couple more games than their nearest rivals, so the fourth spot overall in the conference looks a bit generous, but the team is also fourth in the East in points per 82 pace.

Their powerplay rate is firing towards the mid-range of the league. Their penalty kill is bottom-third, and their goaltending is some of the worst in the entire league. So how has a team with a just under 50% score-tied possession rate managed this kind of success?

Because General Manager Bryan Murray, when other teams were loading up on established talent, managed to find a lot of young forwards who could score. The Sens have the 7th best offense in the league, led in scoring by Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.

Karlsson, who could draw some Norris buzz this season, shows us how to properly stretch a hamstring.

The latter two were with the team back during the high-scoring days of 2006 and 2007 which culminated with a Stanley Cup appearance for the team, but any resemblance between this team and the one that had the dominant “CASH” line or “pizza” line is entirely coincidental. This is a team that is benefitting more from depth than any one dominant three-player combination, and also a bit of offense from the blue line.

Erik Karlsson is the centre-piece of the quick re-build. With 45 points, he’s 11 clear of Brian Campbell for the league lead among defense. Heading to his second all-star game in his second year in the NHL, it’s not like the young Swedish phenom is doing it through offense alone like last season—he’s also leading the team in Corsi, a shot-differential metric that evaluates puck possession. In minutes of similar difficulty to last season, Karlsson has improved by about 10 shot attempts per 60 minutes for and against while on the ice.

I discussed above about the Sens acquiring young guys who could score. Bobby Butler and Zack Smith, two key pieces in AHL affiliate Binghamton’s Calder Cup victory last season, have combined for 17 apiece, with Smith has also been filling in as a checking centreman. Colin Greening, a man with 24 games of NHL experience coming into this season, has already scored 11. Scroll down the lineup and you’ll find more names you vaguely recognize: Erik Condra and Chris Neil each have 7 and Nick Foligno has 12.

The Sens shot and goal graphs, courtesy of Behind The Net. The team saw some horrible luck in the first month and a half of the season.

Only Foligno and Michalek have been doing it with an outrageous shooting percentage (15% and 19.2%) and the Sens as a whole, aren’t a team that we could predict to collapse based on high percentages. While the team’s score-tied Corsi this season is slightly below par at 49.7% (their score-tied Fenwick is 6th in the East), their tied PDO is 100%, meaning that their results have generally matched their play. Where the Sens may see a small bit of regression is their record in close games, at 14-5-6, Ottawa have done better than expected in that regard. At the end of a season, most team’s records closely match their goal differentials, and the Senators are minus-2 going into this afternoon’s game as a team.

In another year, with a tonne of competition, the Sens might be a team ought to be chewing their fingernails at the quality of the teams chasing them, but their playoff fortunes appear secure, in one of the quickest re-builds ever. They didn’t need to do it with three first overall picks, but they’ve thoroughly used the resources they had in the system and didn’t need too many new pieces to be able to compete.

Combine a modest accumulation of minor-league talent making the jump to the NHL with a pretty competent coach in Paul MacLean, and the team’s players have been outperforming expectations, creating lots of shots up and down the lineup. The team is probably still a goaltender and a strong defensive defenseman away from competing for a Cup, but given the lengthy re-builds in other cities, it’s good for Ottawa that their young pieces have proved they can play.

Which is all good, because now that good teams take place in the games, the Battle of Ontario is back up and running. It was a good game earlier this week, full of passion, for the first time since maybe pre-lockout.