Just a few months ago the Ottawa Senators were the NHL’s Cinderella story. They defied the odds to even make the playoffs, then they pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to a game 7 overtime which put them within 1 goal of playing for the Stanley Cup. This run raised expectations among Senator’s fans and ownership coming into this season as they decided to go all in and hopefully get that one step further. Sadly for Sens fans this year has been the exact opposite of that because the team currently sits 3rd last in the entire NHL with 25 points and a -21 goal differential. To make matters worse it appears they have gone insane and there is now a non zero chance of a full-on fire sale in Ottawa possibly involving an Erik Karlsson trade. This is a far cry from what was supposed to be despite the fact that this is almost the same roster with a slight upgrade at center, so this begs the question, what is wrong with the Ottawa Senators?
This most obvious problem for the Sens has been the play of their starting goalie, Craig Anderson. Coming into this season I considered him to be an under-rated goalie based on the past few seasons, but wow has he done everything to prove me wrong so far this season. To quantify how badly his struggles have hurt the Sens we can turn to Corsica’s goals saved above average (GSAA) metric. What this does is compares how many goals Anderson has let in relative to a league average goalie. From here we can use the average of his past three seasons compared to this one. Then we can compare his estimated talent level to see how many goals Anderson not being himself has cost the Sens so far.
Over the three years before this season we can that Anderson has been around a league average and in total saved 6.05 goals above average. When we adjust that 3-year sample for the number of shots, then we can see that coming into this season it would have been reasonable to project Craig Anderson to save 0.14 goals above average on every 100 shots faced (3-year talent). The problem is that this year he has been the worst goalie in the entire NHL, allowing 1.67 more goals per every 100 shots than a league average goalie. From here we can quickly calculate based on the 602 shots Anderson has faced so far he has cost them; 10.09 goals below average, 10.932 goals below what his previous talent suggests, and 14.74 goals saved below last season. Using the ballpark 4.5 goals as a win we can then calculate out that if Anderson was simply performing up to last years standards the Sens are suddenly only a -6 goal differential team with roughly 31 points, just one back of Boston for the final wildcard spot. Of course, goalie performance is very noisy so there is a chance Anderson makes these last two paragraphs obsolete really fast, but the fact of the matter is when asking “What Happened to the Sens?” Anderson’s performance is the first place to look. Of course, this horrible stretch is not all on Anderson so for the second issue lets transition up the ice to the skaters.
Shooting at 5 on 5
Ask anyone what the Sens skaters do best and I’m sure you would get a variety of answers revolving around more defensive attributes and their infamous trap. However, I would argue that this team’s best attribute over the past 3 seasons has been shooting talent. This seems like a really weird statement as this team does not have many major offensive weapons and is infamous for asphyxiating the life out of hockey games. So, to get an idea of what I mean let’s take the Sens skaters goals over the past three seasons and subtract their expected goals. The difference between what the player has scored and what a league average shooter would have done with those shots can be used as a proxy for shooting talent. (Most of the defensemen have been removed from the chart to not overload you with info and they are basically average anyways)
With this graphic, it becomes easy to see that weirdly enough, the Sens benefit from having great shooting talent. This is not something little either, Mike Hoffman ranks as the 5th best shooter in the entire league over the previous 3 seasons with his shooting talent resulting in an extra 18.87 goals at 5 on 5. Perhaps even more impressive is Erik Karlsson ranking just behind him at 9th overall, and second among defensemen with his shooting talent resulting in an additional 16.13 goals above average. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene also sit in the top 25 shooters of the past three seasons giving this team amazing shooters at the top end of its lineup. Going down the lineup nearly everyone looks at very least slightly above average with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Nate Thompson being the only real drags on the roster. All together this team (including the defenseman not on the graphic) have scored 54.06 goals above expected! This is a crazy high number and means shooting talent certainly should be a major strength for the Sens. The problem is when we look below to the graph below comparing the team’s goals to expected goals with regressed shooter history taken into account, we find something different.
The results are not as dramatic as I expected, but they are meaningful none the less. First off, the Senators player with the worst luck thus far has been Erik Karlsson.
[Quick tangent here, this means if Karlsson had luck removed from this year he would have an additional 4 goals at even strength, which would leave him with as many primary points as the next best blueliner has points with 74 fewer minutes played. In this alternate reality, I’m willing to bet the narrative around him is a lot different right now.]
Looking beyond Karlsson, we find Zack Smith is also due for some big-time regression. Luckily for the Sens, it hasn’t been all bad because Dzingel and Stone contrast those two. But the fact remains most of the team is a little snakebitten at 5 on 5. Altogether the team is underperforming their shooting talent adjusted expected goals by 2.26 goals, which has cost them roughly one additional point in the standings.
Losing 2.26 goals doesn’t really doesn’t seem like a big deal on its own. However, when we add these 2.26 goals lost with the 14.76 goals lost from Anderson, we get a total of 17.02 goals lost relative to if the shooters were finishing at their normal efficiency, and if Anderson was playing to last years standards. Altogether, in this alternate reality the Sens have a -4 goal differential, and currently, sit with roughly 32.5 points putting them either tied for a playoff spot or in sole possession of third in the Atlantic (depending if you round-up or down). This would leave them on pace for 95 points which are typically enough to get into the playoffs. If the Sens were in the final spot in the Atlantic and on pace for 95 points the narrative around the Sens is probably much closer to how they “defy analytics” like last year rather than the tire fire surrounding the team currently.
So what is wrong with the Ottawa Senators? The short answer is that if you liked the construction of last years roster, there is nothing wrong with them this year. The problem is they can be used as a sort of case study on how to avoid building a team. Rather than relying on consistently outshooting and out-chancing the opposition, the Sens need efficient shooting and great goaltending to get them anywhere near contention. This is great when it works and in the long run these are legitimate skills, however, in the short run playing like this leaves you really susceptible to variance. And yes, this variance can be on either extreme causing a team to go from the final 4 in the playoffs to the bottom 4 of the standings just a few months later, despite the fact that nothing has really changed.
Are there any other major flaws with the Sens I missed? Let me know on Twitter @CMhockey66