Which Ottawa Senators are Under the Most Pressure This Season?

by Chet Sellers

I’m still getting my head around all of these “fancy stats” you kids use – growing up, the only stat we kept was wins, which happen to correlate pretty well with winning, thank you very much. So I’ll get out my TI-55 at some point and program circles around all of you, but for now, I feel I’m on pretty safe ground making the following assertion:

“In hockey, scoring more goals than your opponent is a key factor in winning in hockey.”

The 2012-13 Senators finished 26th in the league in goals for, in part due to injuries to key offensive talent like Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, and Milan Michalek. They also finished 2nd in the league in goals against, in part due to the most successful PK in the league, which itself was heavily supported by a record-breaking .941 SV% season from Craig Anderson and equally solid seasons from Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop.

This year, Karlsson, Spezza, and Michalek are back, Bobby Ryan has come to town, and it’s not unreasonable to expect offensive steps forward from players like Mika Zibanejad and Kyle Turris as they move down the depth chart and face weaker competition. Perhaps most importantly, we understand Erik Condra has been taking shooting drills against the broad side of a barn all summer, and a modest improvement in his shooting percentage alone could net the team as many as 350 additional goals this season.

On the other hand, it’s also not unreasonable to expect the team’s goaltending and PK to regress, and for the team’s defensive corps to struggle as Jared Cowen returns from injury, Patrick Wiercioch is expected to replace Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips is a year older, and Joe Corvo is being given his own jersey and everything. So I feel comfortable making the following two predictions about the 2013-14 season:

a) The Senators will score more goals than last year.
b) The Senators will allow more goals than last year.

I feel especially comfortable with these predictions because I checked and the Senators are scheduled to play 34 more games than last year. But you know what I mean.

So in this brave new world of goals, goals, goals, who’s under the most pressure to perform, and who’s going to be most responsible for the team’s success or failure? Let’s find out!

10) Cory Conacher

Cory Conacher is a small man who plays a salty brand of hockey. This is not a bad thing – Nick Foligno had a relatively successful career in Ottawa running opposing goaltenders, and Conacher appears in some ways to be his speedy little heir. Like Foligno, Conacher is also a bit of a tweener at this point and could land anywhere from the second line to the fourth. But the team picked Conacher up last season expecting him to score goals like he did in Tampa and the AHL, and if he’s not doing that this season – and if Ben Bishop is having a better season than any of Ottawa’s goaltenders – you can bet he’s going to hear about it.

9) Clarke MacArthur

One of the narratives that developed quickly after the tragic events of 7-5 was the widespread agreement that it was unfair to consider Bobby Ryan as a 1-for-1 replacement for Daniel Alfredsson – they’re different players with different roles, and no player could be expected to replace Daniel Alfredsson’s legacy.

The thing is, legacy aside, we’re basically expecting Clarke MacArthur to replace Daniel Alfredsson - he’s supposed to be the new second-line winger who drives possession, plays D, and scores on a regular basis. And I think he’ll do it – plus his team mugshot makes him look like Tom Scharpling – but if MacArthur is slow to develop chemistry with Kyle Turris, some fans won’t hesitate to compare him unfavorably to #11. These fans will also mention that they always thought MacArthur was a bum when he played for the Leafs, and that it’s time to give Chris Neil top-six minutes. Nobody likes this scenario, so let’s all hope MacArthur scores 20 goals.

8) Jared Cowen

It’s hard to know what to expect from Jared Cowen – he looked pretty bad in the playoffs, but he probably wasn’t anywhere near 100% healthy. The team seems to expect he’s going to step in and be a second-pairing defensive stalwart, if not right away, then soon, and we’ll find out how much they believe this based on the value of the contract he finally signs.  That contract, in turn, will directly affect how much fans expect of him, right away.

In a way, Cowen’s unlucky that he’s the last guy to sign – if Patrick Wiercioch was the only remaining RFA, we’d all be having the exact same conversation about whether or not he’d shown enough yet to get either money or term. But Patrick Wiercioch signed a reasonable bridge deal over a month ago, and so here we are, putting all the pressure on Jared Cowen.

7) Patrick Wiercioch

Oh wait, Wiercioch isn’t off the hook either. Wiercioch only has about half the NHL games Cowen does, and yet the team’s already locked him up for the next three years expecting him to be the second-pairing offensive defenceman replacing future Hall-of-Famer Sergei Gonchar. Wiercioch had a nice rookie season last year, scoring 19 points in 42 games, but nagging injuries, and perhaps the faith of Paul MacLean, kept him out for most of the playoffs in favour of Eric Gryba, a player with a safer game but significantly less upside. Wiercioch is going to be expected to score this year and play a lot of PP minutes, and if he doesn’t, we’re going to see more Gryba, more Phillips, more Corvo, and maybe even more Mark Borowiecki. And if any of those guys are getting significant second-pairing minutes, that probably means less goals for and more goals against. And that’s . . . (checks initial assertion about how to play hockey) . . . bad.

6) Zack Smith

Zack Smith can punch people in the face and he’s a hunk-and-a-half. He also basically stopped scoring goals on a semi-regular basis around the end of 2011. Let me just check today’s date . . . damn! Either Smith or Mika Zibanejad is likely going to be moved to the wing this year, and if Smith doesn’t score it’s going to be him. That makes him . . . Chris Neil.

Smith is also under contract making Chris Neil-money for the next four years, while Neil is signed for three.  If these two essentially make each other redundant, who do you think is going to get moved? Hint: Chris Neil has a no-trade clause and is beloved. If, on the other hand, Zack Smith is a third-line checking centre who can score occasionally, his contract is a bargain. Which is it, Zack? And quit staring at me with those pale, endlessly-deep blue eyes.

5) Craig Anderson

If this were last season, Craig Anderson would be #1 on this list. This season, I’m putting Anderson here because I think it's understood he’s going to slip a little from last year, and I don’t think the fans are going to scapegoat him immediately if he loses a few. But he still has to be good. Increased scoring is going to take some pressure off him, but if both he AND the team go cold for any significant period of time? Hoo boy, look out.

The other factor putting pressure on Anderson is the development of Robin Lehner. On the one hand, Lehner is supposed to be the goalie of the future, and that means he’ll probably get at least 20 starts this season so the team can assess whether or not Anderson can be traded at some point next season. On the other hand, Lehner is an RFA after this season and the team may just be cheap enough to limit his starts in order to shave a little off his next contract, although that may wear Anderson out before the playoffs. Ideally, competition between the two will drive both to play out of their minds again this season, but that just makes next year’s decision even harder.

4) Bobby Ryan

Bobby Ryan has done everything right since being traded to the Senators – he’s come in hot, he’s talked up how much he loves the city and the team, and he’s come across as a happy-go-lucky guy who just wants to score the goals this team badly needs. He’s also mentioned, off-handedly, that he tends to be a streaky scorer, and he’s . . . interested to see what it’s like day-to-day facing the media in a Canadian market. I think the city’s honeymoon phase with Ryan lasts at least into 2014, and I think by that point he’ll have established himself nicely on the stat sheet, even if he is streaky. But make no mistake – at the end of this season, anything less than 30 goals, maybe even 35, will be considered a disappointment. Anything more than 50 will wipe Dany Heatley from the record book forever - let me see if I can type the rest of this with my fingers crossed.

3) Milan Michalek

In terms of actual salary, Milan Michalek is the highest-paid player on the team this year. This stat may or may not be mentioned at several points during the season, particularly if Michalek is earning it from the trainer’s table. But this year is still a huge gamble for Michalek as he’s going into yet another season hoping his knees have been rebuilt, except this one’s a UFA year. If ze Germans actually got it right this time, and Michalek plays a full season with a healthy Jason Spezza? He might challenge Ryan for the team lead in goals, and almost certainly sign a fat contract somewhere else after the season. If he breaks down again? He’ll still see some of that money, but he might have to get it from Calgary.

Michalek coming into this season with something to prove is a good thing, because it’s one of those rare cases where a player’s profit-maximizing incentive corresponds perfectly with the team’s. I don’t think Michalek will be in Ottawa next season, but I think this is the year you want him on your team, not necessarily the five after this one.

2) Erik Karlsson

We still don’t know whether the Karlsson we’re going to see this October is the Karlsson that went down in Pittsburgh last February. We’re not even seven months out from his injury, for crying out loud. And if Karlsson is only at, say, 85%, even if he’s still the best player on the team, the wailing and rending of garments over whether he’ll ever return to his pre-injury level is going to make the plagues of Egypt look like a couple of days of bad weather and a few cold sores.

I’m not saying Karlsson is to blame for any of this, or that he should be doing anything differently – the worry and psychic distress the city of Ottawa projects at his left heel this season is out of his control. But Karlsson is the straw that stirs this team, and if he’s not at his best, the team’s not at its best. And we’ll see whether or not he’s able to handle that, and whether or not we’re able to handle that. No pressure, Ottawa.

1) Jason Spezza

Whether you get the “C” or not, this is your team now, bud. Try to spread all that weight as evenly as possible across your back.

We all have concerns about Spezza’s ability to stay healthy, but assuming he is healthy, I have no concerns about his ability to step right back onto the first line and dish passes to Michalek and Ryan. I also expect, if he is named captain, that he’s going to get even more grief from fans and the media every time he turns the puck over. But he’s used to it by now, right? Spezza’s return from injury, combined with scrutiny of his leadership ability and expectations that he’s going to feed Bobby Ryan whatever goals Erik Condra hasn’t already scored, is enough to make him the Senator under the most pressure this season. Congratulations, Jason!
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