The Ottawa Senators' season came to an end Sunday when the Montreal Canadiens eliminated them from the first round of the playoffs in six games. It was a valiant run by the Sens just to make it to the post-season, and after nearly being swept, they fought tooth-and-nail to extend the series an additional two games. But in the end, they ran out of teeth and nails, and now the focus must turn to their summer plans to get better.
Almost certainly, Ottawa's off-season will include the trading of a goalie. The late emergence of Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond has crowded the picture in the Sens' net, and one of the three netminders with NHL experience on the roster will be moved to address the franchise's needs. The goaltender they deal may be veteran Craig Anderson – who replaced Hammond in the Canadiens series and showed why he's still got three years and $12.6 million left on his contract – or it may be 23-year-old Swede Robin Lehner, signed for another two years at a salary cap hit of $2.25 million. Heck, it could be the 27-year-old Hammond (an unrestricted free agent) they wind up shipping out. But at a time when many teams (including Edmonton and perhaps St. Louis, among others) are looking for a new option in net, it would be foolish for Ottawa to bring all three back and not get as much as they can for one of them.
And when they do trade one of their goalies, the Sens need the return to help improve their blueline corps, which, despite the presence of Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson, still needs a ton of work.
All of Ottawa's current defensemen are under contract for the 2015-16 campaign, but this is not a group feared by other teams. Indeed, one of the reasons the late-season play of Hammond and the first-round performance of Anderson stood out was because Senators defensemen are usually giving up too many opportunities to the opposition.
In the regular season, only five teams surrendered more shots on net than the Senators (who averaged 32.1 shots per game) – and all five of them (Colorado, Arizona, Columbus, Toronto and Buffalo) were non-playoff teams. The pattern repeated itself in the post-season, when Ottawa's shots-allowed average ballooned to 37.3; only Chicago (38.7) was worse. But do you know why the Blackhawks are still playing and the Sens aren't? Sure, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and arguably the deepest core of forwards in the league are significant factors, but Chicago also has a terrific defense anchored by four veterans (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya) who each averaged at least 25 minutes of ice time per game in the first round.
Contrast the Hawks' blueline with Ottawa's. Karlsson averaged 28:58 against Montreal and Marc Methot logged an average of 23:48 in the first round, but the drop-off after that is notable. Twenty-four-year-old Patrick Wiercioch (19:17) was their next most-utilized defenseman, followed by 21-year-old Cody Ceci (17:59). Those youngsters may mature into better players, but until they do, the Senators' group of D-men will pale in comparison to those of their competition.
Now, the goalie market isn't going to magically present Sens GM Bryan Murray with an elite defenseman in exchange for one of the goalies he makes available. It's still primarily a buyer's market and teams such as the Oilers and Blues will have other options besides Ottawa's. However, Murray's focus with any goaltender deal has to be on acquiring additional defensemen the organization can develop. The Sens have more than a few young forwards with tantalizing abilities (including Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, Curtis Lazar and Mike Zibanejad). The same can't be said of the players on their back end.
Elite defensemen are the most precious commodity in the league today, and any true Cup contender can't just be a one-defenseman team. The L.A. Kings' blueline wasn't just about Drew Doughty. The Hawks' defense isn't just about Keith. Tampa Bay's defense isn't just about Victor Hedman. Defensive depth matters, and at the moment, the Senators simply don't have enough of it.