Despite being such an efficient and workmanlike group on the ice last season, the Ottawa Senators executive has had a tough time nailing down its story on why Daniel Alfredsson skipped town for division rival Detroit. While general manager Bryan Murray told the media assembled in Ottawa on July 5 that he pitched Alfredsson on the idea that Bobby Ryan was going to be a Senator.
In the same presser, Murray also in a roundabout way told the world that Daniel Alfredsson was “Plan A” and Bobby Ryan was “Plan B”. A couple of days ago in an interview with James Gordon, team owner Eugene Melnyk admitted that “the team wouldn’t have been able to afford a player of the calibre of Bobby Ryan … and met the numbers put forward by Alfredsson’s camp.”
But that circles back to the central question in Moneyball. The Ottawa Senators have made the playoffs in two straight seasons. According to Capgeek, they had the fifth lowest payroll in the league in 2011-2012, and the sixth lowest in 2012-2013. Only the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues (both last season) have made the playoffs paying less than their roster for the Senators. They’re going into this season, if nothing changes, with the third lowest payroll in the National Hockey League ahead of just the Islanders and the Florida Panthers, and were projected by Rob Vollman to be the best team in the NHL.
The term “Moneyball” has often been incorrectly associated with using statistics to find talent, but Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis offered up the best definition speaking on a Vancouver radio station last summer: “what happens when a team is forced to look at something differently?”
Canada’s two traditional hockey hotbeds are Ontario and Quebec, and the City of Ottawa sits on the provincial border of those provinces. Despite playing in Canada, the Senators face a bevy of challenges the other six Canadian teams don’t, the first being that they played their first season and won just 10 games the year that the Montreal Canadiens won a Stanley Cup and the Toronto Maple Leafs made their first deep playoff run since 1978.
The Senators often play home games against Canadian teams with half the building on TV looking like they’re in the opponents’ jerseys. I think you can quibble with how much of Ottawa’s population primarily supports the Senators and for what reason, but I think we can all agree that they aren’t a traditional money-making franchise you’d expect every Canadian fan to be. They have an ugly sweater that’s impossible to wear at a shinny game and play their games not downtown like most other NHL teams, but in a suburb that’s 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa.
(A full-time shift to the fauxback “O” barberpole jersey worn by Rihanna may make the Sens a more attractive option to the jersey-collecting shinny player. The basic home red and road white jerseys are just so plain.)
So we can agree that different challenges affect the Senators and they are forced to look at things differently. For the most part, they’ve handled their situation admirably the past two seasons. They had one “tank” year when rebuilding between their older core and their newer one, acquiring undervalued guys like Kyle Turris, Craig Anderson and less successfully, Nikita Filatov. They had an organizational shift in the summer of 2010 when the Sens ditched Anton Volchenkov and instead signed the more offensive Sergei Gonchar to a three-year deal, with the general manager suggesting that “it’s great to block shots, but I’d like the other team to block shots and you do that by having the puck”.
Perhaps Murray was onto something when he began looking at building his team more offensively. Gonchar became redundant in Ottawa because the team wound up with Erik Karlsson playing primary minutes. He traded for Marc Methot, Ottawa’s leading man in minutes and one who had experience playing top-pairing minutes in Columbus, for Nick Foligno, a winger that spent most of his time on the Senators’ third line.
They aren’t a team that’s easy to like in the rest of Canada and their continued efforts to “ban Leaf fans” from their home rink becomes a source of ridicule approximately once a season. Losing the face of the franchise to a division rival has overshadowed the fact that the Sens were able to add both Ryan and Clarke MacArthur, an overlooked, underpaid versatile winger that was inexplicably unsigned by the Maple Leafs. Despite having 12 forwards last season that were above replacement GVT according to Hockey Prospectus, the team looked to improve in its Top Six, creating depth by shuttling second and third liners down the depth chart rather than by pigeon-holing potential signees into certain roster spots. At one point last season, their fourth line included 5’9″ skilled rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau and the perennially French Guillaume Latendresse.
I’m not sure if I’m as bullish about the Senators as Vollman’s projections because I think that Boston are still the best team in the Atlantic Division, despite losing out on the title to Montreal. The Sens have a good-enough minor league system as insurance for injuries to their stars, as we saw last year, and it’s not like they made the postseason all with luck. The team had a 53.6% Corsi rate and a .994 PDO last season, with poor shooting (by design or otherwise) covering for the career-year had by Craig Anderson & Co. between the pipes.
Off-ice, the Senators have some serious questions. They’ve carted out several different explanations for why Alfredsson is no longer with the team, and I’m interested to see where they’re ranked in pre-season predictions by the hockey community. I hope they’re good enough to have fans be able to question the logic of keeping around old stars on expensive deals for nostalgic reasons. The salary cap is one thing, but Melnyk’s bizarre financial situation is forcing the Senators to make decisions other teams don’t necessarily have to make, and Bryan Murray’s done a hell of a job making sure the team is cost-effective. It’s difficult to sell that as a reason for not giving Alfredsson exactly what he wanted, but the team has been so deep and efficient for the last two seasons that they probably won’t surprise anybody by a third consecutive playoff berth. On their budget, it’s impressive.