Despite being separated by three points in the standings, the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators could not be more different in where they stand in the league moving forward. The Hurricanes have a concise plan for how to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, while the Senators are further ensuring their descend into one of the league’s mediocre franchises with each passing day.
This season, the Hurricanes rank sixth in the NHL in score adjusted 5 on 5 Corsi For Percentage (52.3), while the Senators are 27th. With that, the Hurricanes have the worst PDO in the NHL compared to the Senators’ ranking fourth, allowing for the teams to be near-even in points this year.
The luck on the Senators side has allowed the team to ignore their issues and continue to try to contend the only way they know how. Ottawa is a team that neglects the analytical aspects of the game, instead going for veteran know-how and players with misguidedly strong reputations. Enter Dion Phaneuf, who was acquired in a buy-now move right before the trade deadline by a Senators team that clearly belonged in sell-mode.
Despite being on the outside of the playoffs not holding any of the characteristics of a Stanley Cup contender, the Senators bought on Phaneuf and sold on their top possession forward, Shane Prince. Only furthering the lunacy was the demotion of Mike Hoffman, one of the finest young scorers the league has to offer, to a fourth line role.
Ottawa has shown a lack of understanding of the roles best fit for their own players, which players belong on a playoff contending roster, and how to determine both of those factors. Aging, oft-injured veteran Craig Anderson and one-year wonder Andrew Hammond were kept in the offseason over Robin Lehner–another move that is looking like a failure. The Senators kept the older Anderson over the younger Lehner, choosing to stick with the experienced netminder to pair with Hammond likely for insurance against inexperience hurting the team, despite clearly needing the youth infused into ther lineup to form a direction for the franchise.
Ottawa has young talent in Erik Karlsson, Zach Smith, Curtis Lazar (another fourth liner currently in Dave Cameron’s doghouse) and Mark Stone. Unfortunately for fans of the Senators, with all of the young talent on the team, the management in Ottawa believes this is a team that can win now and win in a style that shoves aside analytics and player development in favor of what worked in the past.
It came as no surprise when the teams attending the Sloan Analytics Conference were announced and the Senators were not among them.
— Scott Cullen (@tsnscottcullen) March 11, 2016
One team present at the Sloan Conference was the Hurricanes. Much like the Senators, the Hurricanes are filled with young talent and promise. Unlike the Senators, the Hurricanes understood their positioning as an outside-looking-in team at the deadline and made sell moves rather than buy moves.
The Hurricanes shipped Eric Staal to the New York Rangers and defenseman John-Michael Liles to the Boston Bruins, signaling that the team knew they were not going to win anything this season, but wanted to be in better position for the future.
Meanwhile, Carolina continues to do everything possible to give its young studs chances to succeed in a possession-friendly environment. Having a young roster and managing to out-possess some of the top teams in the NHL is a trait to be praised for, and one that the Hurricanes have maintained throughout the season.
What has brought the Hurricanes down this season has been the goaltending, but Eddie Lack is still a young goalie with some promise, Cam Ward will be a free agent after the season and Alex Nedeljkovic is one of the brightest goaltending prospects in the NHL. The Hurricanes are loaded with potential and reason for hope, combined with a clear understanding of the direction the franchise is going in.
On Tuesday night, the Hurricanes defeated the Senators 4-3 in a game that went into a shootout. Carolina dominated the possession game from the second period on, eventually finishing with a 56.15 Corsi For % over the Senators’ 43.85%. Ottawa took an early lead, but was eventually weighed down by the tireless attack of the Hurricanes, finally surrendering its lead with only one second remaining in the third period before losing in the shootout.
The game works as a microcosm of the way the two franchises are being operated currently.
Ottawa had no business hanging around in that game, yet still found itself ahead of the Hurricanes in the waning seconds. Carolina used its superior talent and possession play to even things up, eventually coming out on top. When the final buzzer sounded, neither team gained much or lost much, but the Hurricanes were celebrating while the Senators were contemplating how things slipped away from them.
In the coming years, the Senators appear as they will be trying to do everything possible to avoid selling and continuing to build a team that is mediocre enough to compete for one of the final playoff spots, while not competing for the draft lottery. Carolina has gone through a massive rebuild, and continues to understand that as long as they are not cemented into the playoff race, there is still work to be done.
You can bet on Carolina doing that work, too.