Why the Ottawa Senators have failed to build off last season’s surprising success

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

It may be time to look ahead to next season for the Ottawa Senators.

With an embarrassing 8-4 loss to the New York Rangers last night, in what players were calling the most important game of the year, the Senators now sit seven points back of Columbus forthe final playoff spot in the conference with 14 games remaining.

Oh, and they need to jump Detroit, Washington, and New Jersey too. A tall task to say the least.

Barring an unforeseen hot stretch by the consistently inconsistent Senators, it looks as though they will miss the playoffs, in a season filled with great optimism just five months ago.

With a team ravaged by injuries in a lockout shortened 2013, Ottawa surprisingly managed a seven seed in the Eastern conference, managing to even win a wildly entertaining playoff series against the heavily favoured Montreal Canadiens before being swept by the star filled Pittsburgh Penguins.

Here’s a little refresher from that Montreal series. Your welcome.

http://bit.ly/PR7OUi

Nevertheless, expectations were met and exceeded by a well balanced young squad. No one gave serious consideration to the Senators all season who were without top players Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and Milan Michalek for extended periods of time.

Yet they still managed to make some noise.

For this reason, with the current season approaching there was considerable optimism in the air for Senators fans.

The Daniel Alfredsson debacle stung. Badly.

The heart and soul of the franchise departed for Team Sweden, leaving a sour taste in the city while creating a large void in terms of leadership and experience. Those two qualities weighing much bigger than the 40 year olds deteriorating on-ice performance (26 points, 47 games).

To right the ship, GM Brian Murray went out and got a 27 year old four time 30 goal scorer Bobby Ryan to replenish the right side. Not bad. Assets were parted with in Jacob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen, and a first round pick but you got to trade something to get something and that’s exactly what Brian Murray did.

Clarke MacArthur was brought in for some scoring depth and that was that. Alfredsson out, Ryan and MacArthur in.

To go along with that, a rising squad returning to full health figured to be enough to return the Senators to- at the minimum- a playoff spot  and hopefully more.

So now Sens fans beg the question. Why hasn’t this happened.How has a healthy team, fresh off a confidence boosting season, digress?

Rarely can disappointment in a team sport boil down to one thing, but the issue has been evident.

The most glaring deficiency has been the defense.

In 2012-13, the Senators boasted the second lowest goals against in the league at 2.08 behind only the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks (2.02). This was despite yielding 31.3 shots against per game, good for 23rd best in the league.

Bottom line: Craig Andersen was masterful. A league best .941 save percentage and a 1.69 Goals Against Average. RobinLehner wasn’t too shabby either, posting a .936 SV % and a 2.20 GAA as Andersen’s backup.

Sportsnet analyst and former 13 year NHL veteran Jason York weighs in on Ottawa’s goaltending excellence last season.

“There goaltending covered up a lot of their problems,” York said. “The stats Anderson put up last year were amazing, incredibly hard to duplicate.”

Fast forward to this year.

Craig Andersen currently sits 30th in the league with a .908 SV % and boasts an ugly 3.10 GAA. Backup Robin Lehner has been even worse with a .907 SV % and a 3.24 GAA.

These stats amounting to the second worst GAA in the league at 3.28, only behind the lowly New York Islanders.

The 27 spot dip is by far the largest discrepancy in the league and makes it easy to see why the Senators find themselves on the outside looking in.

Making the defense look all the more detrimental, the Senators actually average a significant higher number of goals this year (2.81) than last (2.33) as well.

In all fairness to Andersen and Lehner, defence is a team-oriented focus so they haven’t received much help there. The shots against per game has been even worse this season, currently sitting at 34.5/game third last in the league behind Buffalo (34.6) and Provincial rival Toronto (36.3).

Jason York sees no reason for Ottawa fans to give up the youngLehner yet however, a positive sign seeing as Andersen’s youth is behind him.

“He’s still young, he’ll be fine. He’s only 22. No reason to lose faith in him.”

Besides team defence, scoring depth would have to be number two in the ‘man we need more of that’ rankings.

The Kyle Turris line featuring newly acquired wingers Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur have accounted for 64 goals this season. Add in the 17 from d-man Erik Karlsson and you have 81 goals from these four players.

That’s 81 of Ottawa’s 191 goals coming from four players, roughly 42.5%. Not good.

When the Turris line and Karlsson haven’t been going it’s usually up to new Captain Jason Spezza and his troops to pick up the slack. That has been far from a reality.

Spezza has had a revolving right winger for the duration of the season so let’s focus on him and his left winger Milan Michalek.

30 goals and a minus 47 rating in 131 games combined. Just simply not enough. Not enough depth to overcome the inflated goals against numbers on a nightly basis.

So as the season’s end looms in the coming weeks, Senators fans may want to start looking towards the summer where changes in some capacity seem all but likely by Bryan Murray and his brass.

Bobby Ryan is set to become a free agent and as pointed out, the Senators can’t afford to lose scoring. So unless Murray can find a way to convince Ryan that Ottawa’s the place to be, things may get even uglier next year.

A thought Senators fan would rather not entertain.