Thoughts on the Sens Off-Season

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One of these days I’ll update my full look at Pierre Dorion’s trade history, but that’s not my focus here. I’m interested in exploring what’s occurred in the off-season. I’ve always preferred a chronological approach in my explorations, so we’ll start there (the regular season ended April 6th):

[Max Veronneau, Joey Daccord, Johnny Gruden, Chris Clappterton (AHL), and Miles Gendron (AHL) all signed ELC’s prior to this period]
May 7 – Nicolas Ruszkowski steps down as COO of the team
May 10 – Sign Swedish free agent Olle Alsing to a 2-year ELC
May 23 – Toronto assistant coach D. J. Smith is hired as the new head coach (responsible for the worst parts of Toronto’s system–defense and PK)–he reminds me a little of Cory Clouston
May 27 – Sign Josh Norris (late first-rounder acquired in the Erik Karlsson deal) to an ELC
May 29 – Re-sign Anders Nilsson to a 2-year deal
June 6 – Former Islander head coach Jack Capuano is brought in as an assistant coach
June 10 – Sign free agent defenseman (and former failed LA pick) Nick Ebert out of the SHL (1 year, 2-way deal)
June 13 – Re-sign Morgan Klimchuk (acquired in the Gabriel Gagne deal) to a 1-year, 2-way deal
June 17 – Re-sign Anthony Duclair (acquired in the Matt Duchene trade) to a 1-year deal
June 18 – Re-sign Andreas Englund to a 1-year, 2-way contract
June 19 – Re-sign Marcus Hogberg to a 2-year deal (the first year is 2-way)
June 21/22 – A subpar draft performance
June 25 – Re-sign Cody Goloubef (acquired in the Paul Carey deal) to a 1-year, 2-way contract
June 27 – Re-sign Jack Rodewald to a 1-year, 2-way deal; re-sign Joseph LaBate to a 1-year, AHL-deal
June 29 – Re-sign Jordan Murray to a 1-year, AHL-deal
June 30 – David Payne is brought in as an assistant coach
July 1 – Sign free agent forward (and former Phoenix pick) Jordan Szwarz to a 1-year, 2-way deal
July 1 – Trade Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk, and the 3rd-round pick they received from Columbus in the Duchene trade to Toronto for Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and Michael Carcone; signed free agents Ron Hainsey (!) and Tyler Ennis
July 2 – Re-sign Nick Paul to a 1-year, 2-way contract
July 4 – Re-sign Christian Wolanin to a 2-year deal (the first 2-way)

Despite removing the loathed Ceci/Harpur (along with yet another failed CHL signee in Luchuk–the org continues to bat .000 with FA CHLers, cf), the response to the deal was massively negative. Even Varada, who just a few months ago was happily defending the org, attacked their decision. The reason for the backlash? Pretty simple: Zaitsev is one of the few players as bad as Ceci and he’s on a bad deal, but the response is less about Zaitsev himself and more what he represents: that the org isn’t learning. For the most part I agree with the backlash–finally dumping the player you thought was better than Taylor Hall (!) for someone poorly regarded isn’t a win–it suggests the theory that trading Ceci was mostly about staying within the Melnykian budget is true. The org’s unwillingness to progressively evolve is apparent in its frequent sneers at analytics and incessant talk about the ‘good-in-the-corners’ guys who last mattered in the clutch-and-grab era. With that said, there have been changes in their approach that I’ve noticed.

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Within an org where the leader (Dorion) believes he’s a genius and both rejects and resents being questioned (with excuses for all his various disasters–it’s never his fault), what could possibly change?
1. Moving away from skilled players in later rounds of the draft (the focus being on defense and intangibles); not only did Dorion mention this back in September, but it’s readily apparent in their last two drafts (2019 and 2018)–this change is the one most in line with Pierre’s philosophy, so it’s not surprising (just disappointing)
2. A willingness to roll the dice on smaller, skilled players in free agency and trades (Aaron Luchuk, Andrew Sturtz, Erik Brannstrom, Vitali Abramov, etc); this despite an absolute refusal to pick smaller players in the draft–it’s not easy to parse this approach, but the commonality is by doing this they are committed to fewer years of development, so they can assess and move on more quickly than if they’d drafted the player themselves (the problem with this approach is that you can never get the best small players without a cost in assets)
3. More conservatism in their contracts with unproven low to mid-tier prospects; this is a bit less absolute in its application, but the deal given by the org to favourite Jack Rodewald is reasonable, nor did they immediately assume Nick Paul‘s AHL-numbers meant he was NHL-ready; some of this can be attributed to the almighty Melnykian budget, but it’s certainly a change from even last year when Randy Lee was handing out two-year contracts to dundering pylon Patrick Sieloff (or the previous deal with fumbling mighty mouse Erik Burgdoerfer)
4. Greater willingness to cut bait with players who aren’t working out; while Dorion might not admit mistakes publicly, he has dumped favourites when it became painfully apparent they didn’t make the grade (this doesn’t absolve his belief in them in the first place)–getting rid of spare tire Max McCormick, lumbering Ben Harpur, highly touted Gabriel Gagne (who they gave up two second rounders to pick), the aforementioned Sieloff (who helped end Clarke MacArthur’s career), OHL-star Luchuk, etc

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There’s not much I can add to Nichols’ breakdown of Zaitsev, so let me pick a key quote:

It is incredible how eerily similar the on-ice results [of Ceci and Zaitsev] are

Albeit Zaitsev is 27, won’t get better, and is signed long term. This signing, as many others have pointed out, may be a sop to the new head coach. Dorion has shown a tendency to placate his coaches with roster moves (eg Tom Pyatt) and this certainly fits that pattern.

As for Connor Brown:

a decent forward in his prime years who should be able to play up in Ottawa’s lineup and hopefully benefit and pad his offensive numbers with more ice time and power play opportunities. … There is some decent value there, but as an impending restricted free agent next summer, it’s hard to envision Brown as the kind of long-term fit for the rebuilding effort. He could be an ideal pump-and-dump candidate that sees the organization flip him for future assets down the road.

With the NHL-side out of the way, what about the minor league acquisitions? I’ll echo what scouts said about Olle Alsing when he was draft-eligible:

decent puck skills, a good passer, solid defensively, but concerns about his board/body play

He’s not a blueliner whose numbers stand out (they actually fell considerably this season over last); on paper he looks like a depth-project, although he may be useful at the AHL-level.

What about Michael Carcone? He’s an undrafted QMJHLer (a Dorion specialty) who was signed as a free agent by Vancouver and then acquired by the Leafs for Josh Leivo. An offensive player, here’s his ELC arc (keeping in mind I have no idea how coaching staffs used him): 0.29, 0.39, 0.70. That’s a good trend, although we have no assurance what his ceiling is. Much like Alsing above, the only scouting report I have for him when he was draft-eligible (2016) comes from Hockey Prospect (who didn’t rank him, but said this):

good skater with a good burst of speed and great agility, making him tough to contain for opposing defenders with his ability to make quick turns to avoid opponents. He’s a shooter first and has a good wrist shot that is very accurate, and he knows how to pick his corners. There’s a good, quick release on his shot and he can score from different locations in the offensive zone. On the power play, he can score in front or at the side of the net, even from the half-wall. His vision is underrated, as you always think goal scorer with Carcone but he sees the ice well enough to make quick decisions with the puck. He has good puck skills and is good in one-on-one confrontations; his quick agile hands handle the puck well. He’s not big and his size could be a problem at the next level, as he will need to add some strength. He struggled at the end of the season and lost his goal scoring title following a scoring drought in the last stretch of the year. He’s a bit of one-dimensional player, as he will need to score at the next level to achieve success.

This fits the above idea of another org taking the risk on a smaller player before the Sens grab him; I like picking him up–I like skill–so if (when?) the team re-signs him, it will be interesting to watch his progress in Belleville.

I have no idea why the team signed Hainsey–cap floor? Regardless, it’s a one-year deal in a season where the team isn’t going to win, so the complaint would be ice-time for a younger player (assuming that D. J. Smith would play kids extensively–something Sens coaches are generally reluctant to do). The signing might be another sop to the new coach.

As for Tyler Ennis, he’s cheap, but has been a shadow of himself since the 2015-16 season and I have no idea what to expect from him. Both he and Hainsey above are meant to provide the “veteran savvy” the org thinks is so much of–a bit like a rabbit’s foot ensuring good luck….

As for the two veteran AHL acquisitions, Nick Ebert‘s AHL-numbers aren’t that great, although he was decent in the SHL (something that makes sense given his limitations–scouts had issues with his decision-making and hockey sense and there’s more time to make decisions on the larger ice surface). I’ve long bemoaned the org’s decisions with veteran blueliners, favouring talentless pluggers (cf Sieloff above), but at least the idea is for Ebert to move the puck.

As for Jordan Szwarz, at 28 there’s nothing new to learn about him with over 400 AHL games under his belt. He seems to just be starting to decline (his last three seasons 0.83, 0.92, 0.67), but even so he’ll add some stability to a young Belleville squad; what he’s not is a top-tier add like Paul Carey was last off-season.

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What can we make of those re-signed? I suspect the three-headed rotation in the NHL is related to a lack of confidence that either Condon or Anderson can stay healthy (why they didn’t buyout Condon is a mystery to us all, unless they plan to trade him or want Hogberg to spend most of his time in the AHL); Joey Daccord looks destined for the ECHL, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Nilsson seems like a good bridge for when Anderson departs and adds some insurance if Hogberg isn’t ready for prime time next season.

Anthony Duclair is the kind of risk you can take in a rebuild. Is he likely to change from his years in Columbus? No, but winning isn’t what’s important this season, so giving him that opportunity is an acceptable risk.

Both the Hogberg and Wolanin deals are conservative–they seem designed to protect against risk (the Sens are risk-averse). These deals mean both players can play in Belleville this season and develop (my preference for both), but it also means the team will pay much more next contract if they develop as expected.

Unlike much of the fanbase, I’m quite conservative in my feelings about the big seasons from Rodewald and Paul, particularly with both fading down the stretch (the latter completely while the former regressed to the mean). That said, if you aren’t going to trade them while their value is high, re-signing them to these kinds of contracts makes sense.

I have concerns about AHL-vet Goloubef, whose production immediately regressed to the mean with Belleville and he’s never been an outstanding AHL-player. He’s still seems better than most veteran d-men the org has signed historically, however.

I’m fine with them rolling the dice on Klimchuk–his AHL numbers aren’t outstanding (0.65, 0.64, 0.39), but he has produced and isn’t taking up a veteran contract.

Then we have a signing that has the org’s stubborn fingerprints all over it: Andreas Englund. I’ve watched him bumble around most of his AHL career and he does nothing well, he’s just big. He’s supposed to be a good defender, but he’s not, and his decision-making and hands are terrible. The only positive you can squeeze out of this is that it’s just a one-year (two-way) deal–but really, there’s no reason to keep him.

Bringing back Jordan Murray on an AHL-deal is fine (I thought he’d crash and burn this past season, but he didn’t, even though he remains a defensive nightmare), but I wasn’t happy with re-signing LaBate–he’s not usefully gritty (as in, he doesn’t protect his teammates, nor does his mucking result in offence), but he is a good PKer (or, at least, he was this season). So, unlike Englund, he does at least something well.

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Generally speaking, debating strangers on social media is a waste of time–it’s a poor platform for discussion and most people aren’t interested in good faith arguments (it’s either about “winning” the debate or its an argument based on emotion and neither gets you anywhere). I got drawn into one of these via my review of Ottawa’s 2019 draft because I wasn’t aware (at first) that’s what I was in for. My article couldn’t be more innocuous (it summarizes the views of scouts, the org’s trends, with some opinion from me), so how did this result in an argument?

The initial argument:
1. Claimed a THN (The Hockey News) article said the Sens are the second best in the league at finding NHL players after the second round (he didn’t link it and I can’t find it, but let’s accept it exists); when asked for context he said the article was based on the Sens draft history from 2000-18. In the absence of the article I had no idea what criteria they were using to define “NHL player”–just playing games (Ben Harpur?), impactful players, or what (I’ve tackled draft success previously)? I pointed out to him that the timeframe used goes through multiple changes of GMs and scouts, as well as ownership, and he admitted this mattered without changing his argument. I pointed out that Pierre Dorion’s comments in September echoed my conclusion about the draft (less skill, more character), but this (to him) was Dorion engaging in some kind of 48-D, underwater backgammon strategy to fool other NHL teams by doing… exactly what he said? The argument then became:
2. The Sens have a successful scouting track record, therefore they should not be questioned. He never justified the former with comparative analysis, or specified why (even if true) they shouldn’t be questioned, but he then said that the opinions of anonymous scouts and media personalities aren’t as good as the team’s (no justification for that idea either). I pointed out to him that the scouts aren’t anonymous, nor had I used media personalities (he’s referring to the Bob McKenzie draft article, but as I explained to him, Bob’s list comes from a group of NHL scouts). He then said scouts not employed by an NHL team don’t have opinions as worthy as those who are–putting aside the terrible logic, he’s actually refuting his own argument since Bob’s information is from current NHL scouts. At this point I stopped talking to him, because it was clear he was simply going to reject anything I said that didn’t fit his narrative.

I’ve gone through all of this thoroughly because this kind of thinking comes up all the time. I can’t figure out if people arrive at this place mentally through absorbing team propaganda or if they think liking a team means uncritical enthusiasm. Maybe it’s like politics where, for many, there’s not a choice, just a tradition to follow. Regardless, I’m not sure what one can do to elucidate ones views to someone like this, but I hate to think it’s impossible to get through to some intransigent fans.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

4 Comments

  1. Another very informative article, thank you. All I can add is my own 2 cents worth as to why your draft evaluation drew flak. Fandom, for a large section of the population, is an emotional far more than a rational exercise. But even the most emotionally driven fan can hardly fail to be almost constantly battered by rational observations and conclusions deriving from the actions of management. So while the left side of their brain says ‘don’t worry, be happy’, the right side keeps reminding them ‘Melnyk, Dorion…endless loop, endless loop.’
    The draft and the untested (thus untainted) prospects it provides becomes this sort of fan’s drug of choice…the dreaded H…Hope.
    There are times when hope is the only reason to have any faith in the team at all, and certainly the only reason to have any faith in the current management regime.
    Dorion has been peddling H for most of the last year and a bit and pointing to the upcoming series of drafts as the cornucopia of talent that will right the ship. To then go off the board to the degree he did was a huge dose of cold turkey.
    So what choice does the emotion-driven fan have? Accept that their beloved org. are making choices based on questionable criteria, OR, immediately decide that the PROFESSIONAL scouts employed by Dorion have some inside knowledge that others don’t?
    It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it won’t make any more sense a few years from now when Arthur Kaliyev is lighting it up, but it is understandable.
    I’m sure none of this is news to you.
    Thanks for a great article, looking forward to more.

    • That’s a great point. When I was younger–up to 10-15 years ago–I leaned much more heavily towards the optimistic side. Much of that was simply ignorance–I didn’t look into prospects and listened to the mainstream narrative & what the org said and largely took it ‘as is.’ Most people just don’t have the time or energy to put the research in (sports is entertainment after all). It’s easy to put on the rose-coloured glasses–I’ve gone to bat for various prospects over the years based on either limited viewings or limited research–something about a player speaks to me. I try to be much more careful about that now (comparative analysis is a great help), but as I said, you make a great point.

  2. […] Thoughts on the Sens Off-Season […]

  3. […] Thoughts on the Sens Off-Season […]


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