On the Ottawa Senators’ defence myths, Dion Phaneuf and options moving forward

There’s a lot of upheaval on the horizon for a good number of NHL teams, what with the Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft, the entry draft – where many big trades have happened in the past – and then free agency on July 1.

As with followers of all teams that don’t have very obvious decisions to make regarding who to protect from Vegas, Ottawa Senators fans have been debating future roster construction, to wit: what’s to be done with the defence corps.

The decision by veteran blueliner Dion Phaneuf not to waive his no-movement clause, which would have allowed to the Senators to protect another defenceman, has thrown a wrench in the works, at least as it pertains to the Senators’ ideal outcome (I’m not sure his decision is all that devastating to the team no matter what happens, but we’ll get to that shortly).

Let’s start by debunking what I think are a few of the myths floating around about both Phaneuf and the team’s defence as a whole.

1. Dion Phaneuf is a bad teammate for not waiving his no-movement clause

I’ve read a couple local reports that suggest Phaneuf’s decision not to waive his clause was, at worst, selfish, and, at best, not necessarily selfish but a reason he’s likely to fall out of favour with the Senators moving forward. The suggestion has been made that, since he wouldn’t waive, the Senators should do everything in their power to trade him before the draft so they don’t lose one of Cody Ceci or Marc Methot (to say nothing of Freddy Claesson or Chris Wideman, who would probably be superior picks for Vegas).

I think what sometimes gets lost in all this is that Phaneuf is a real person who lives here. It hasn’t even been a year and a half since he was dealt to Ottawa from Toronto, where he’d lived for a long time and had stability. He’s since put down roots here, reportedly loves the city and the team, and maybe, after going to the Eastern Conference final as a veteran, he doesn’t want to go to a squad that will almost certainly be terrible for years to come and a town that would appeal far more to a 22-year-old than a 32-year-old.

Put another way: let’s say you worked at a federal government job (this is Ottawa, after all), and your manager approaches your cube with a proposal…

Manager: “Hey Gary.”

You: “Hi Gene. What’s up?”

Manager: “Listen, we’ve got a decision to make. We love your work here at Employment and Social Development Canada. You’re a valued member of the team. There’s a government lottery coming up to fill out all departments and, due to your seniority, you’re protected from possibly going to Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Halifax. Unfortunately, Stan isn’t protected. If you were to waive your seniority though, there’s a chance we could keep both you and Stan. What do you say!?”

You probably aren’t even going back to Deb and the kids with that scenario, no matter how small the odds that Fisheries wants your HR skills. You’d say “no thanks.”

Setting aside the human factors behind Phaneuf’s decision, he exercised an option in a fairly negotiated contract, so it should be a moot point anyway. This is the Senators’ problem, not his.

2. The Senators could trade Phaneuf even if they wanted to

Dion Phaneuf is 32 years old and his performance has been declining for some time. He’s been useful to Ottawa, but he carries a cap hit of $7  million through 2020-2021. You can’t simultaneously argue that there’s no chance Vegas would take him and he should therefore waive, and then in the next breath suggest he could be moved *for* assets. Most teams are in Ottawa’s boat, with more players they want to protect than they have spots for. That’s without adding a guy on a pretty debilitating contract.

3. Phaneuf’s decision is a big hit to Ottawa’s defence depth and Stanley Cup hopes

One thing you’ll hear often around here is that Ottawa has a really nice defence corps and plenty of depth. That’s true if you define “depth” as having enough guys under NHL contract to fill out the lineup card, but to suggest that losing anyone who doesn’t wear No. 65 is the difference between winning a Cup or not is fairly ludicrous if you dig into the numbers. I like Ottawa’s forward group, and Craig Anderson is an elite NHL goaltender. You could make a strong argument that Ottawa’s defence is in fact its weakest spot when you exclude Erik Karlsson.

Let’s take a closer look at possession numbers over the past couple of seasons for the main players in this situation.

A couple things jump out at me here. First of all, you have like what you see with regards to improvement under Guy Boucher. The numbers are moving the right way year-over-year for all players except Phaneuf (these numbers apply only to games played with the Senators – the Leafs outings have been stripped out).

Another thing that should jump out if you’re considering who you might like to avoid losing to Vegas – the only guys over 50 per cent Corsi are Claesson and Wideman – two afterthoughts on most peoples’ protected lists.

Now if you’re anyone but Marc Methot, you’re probably thinking, “hey, no fair!” Methot has benefitted from playing most of his time with the best defenceman in the world. Let’s see what happens when we strip out minutes played with the captain.

Keep in mind with RD like Ceci and Wideman, we’re talking about a very minuscule number of minutes played together. Those are more coincidences than anything. Oddly enough, Methot was above water without Karlsson during the regular season, but as a rule he’s been crushed without 65 by his side. Again, we like what we’re seeing from Wideman (though in limited minutes against worse competition) and Claesson (who played well with and without Karlsson). Mark Borowiecki is a seventh defenceman in all scenarios as far as I’m concerned.

What should the Senators do?

Everyone has an opinion on this. Here’s mine: it may sound harsh, but Cody Ceci has been the Senators’ worst big-minute defenceman over the past couple of seasons. Unless you strongly feel that he’s suddenly going to blossom into a legitimate Top 4 defenceman this season, it’s time to deal him while he still has value and while the team still feels it’s in go-for-it mode.

Ceci is fairly young, he has a little bit of offence, and the perception of him around the league still seems to outpace his actual performance on the ice. What you do after that isn’t going to change all that much. If it’s me, I protect Claesson and leave Methot exposed due simply to Claesson being seven years younger and $4 million cheaper. Claesson has also shown he can handle playing with Karlsson and he’s close in age to Ceci. If Methot goes, that also frees up some salary to shore up the right side defence before the season gets going.

James Gordon is publisher of HockeyMarkets.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/James_J_Gordon

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