The Ottawa Senators finished last year’s regular season riding a high, ending with one of the best records in the league, down the stretch at 9-2-1. The team seemed to have some of the major kinks worked out and established a competitive environment late in the season but was it fools gold or the real thing?
Looking ahead to this season the Senators are finally faced with some pressure to compete. Dually noted, the competition appears to be rather substantiated in comparison to last year, with divisional realignment coming undone and returning to normalcy. The competition in the Atlantic division boasts both Stanley Cup finalists from a year ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens. The perennial regular season dynamos, the Toronto Maple Leafs. A team that took a major jump before having a terrific offseason in The Florida Panthers and the aging but still effective, Boston Bruins. Then, a major drop in competition, here’s how the team’s would have finished on a projected 82 game schedule.
Major additions and subtractions
Lets begin by saying that the word major should be used lightly when referring to any moves the Senators made this offseason. There were a few rather insignificant moves and one UFA signing which could have a significant impact on the team’s success but we’ll get into that when we break down the defense. Some people will see no changes as a relative positive while some as a missed opportunity. Either way you look at it, the Sens remain in cap-heaven going into the season with an abundance of extra funds ($21 million and change). Of course one particular player has yet to be signed which will have an impact on the actual cap hit ahead of the regular season (hopefully). Here’s a look at the significant additions and subtractions for Ottawa.
The Sens opted to move on from Evgeni Dadonov after just one season. The 32 year old, right winger produced just 20 points for Ottawa and didn’t look comfortable last season. He was frequently bounced around the lineup and had a dose of NHL reality when he wasn’t playing alongside former Panthers teammates, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Although Dadonov only mustered up 20 points, 13 of those were goals, the Sens will have to hope that growth and development internally can supplement what Dadonov brought to the table in terms of production. Perhaps Zach Sanford could return to his scoring ways from 2019 when he established himself as a reliable scorer, posting 16 goals, 30 points in 58 games played for the Blues. Losing Joey Daccord to the Seattle expansion was more attributed to Ottawa’s young depth in the crease and moving on from Logan Brown was a must as the two sides were not seeing eye to eye.
The Sens boast some terrific young talent up front this year however, there are still some significant question marks heading into the season. The single, biggest concern on paper will be at the centre ice position. With Josh Norris safely slotted in as the Sens top centre this year, that statement alone should worry you. Norris had a terrific rookie season and even if you consider him to live up to your expectations and not have a sophomore slump this year, what’s behind him is even more concerning.
Is Shane Pinto a #2 centre already, heck is Shane Pinto even an NHL player yet? It’s a widely debated topic heading toward the regular season.
Goal scoring was surprisingly not a major issue for Ottawa last season or at the very least not THE issue. At 2.77G/game the Sens finished middle of the pack in that regard. Bonus fact, the Sens were the only team in the NHL to never get shutout last season. I’m sure if you bet on that line ahead of the season you’re buying a new house right now.
Aside from the rather glaring hole down the middle the biggest question mark surrounding the Sens offense is simply youth. If you do factor Pinto into the Sens top 6 next year, the average age of that entire top 6 would be 22. That’s absolutely unheard of.
One thing that can help the Sens offensively this year is their depth at the bottom of the lineup. A speedy winger who can breakout just by converting on more breakaways in Alex Formenton, or an ultra utility player like Nick Paul can really boost the offense. Quality depth of course, can relieve the top end of the lineup, who for many will be experiencing the grind of a full 82 game schedule for the first time. Here’s a look at the projected Sens offense.
Though offense isn’t the most glaring weakness, it is a question-mark due to the inexperience and lack of elite talent at the top of the lineup. A youngster like Tim Stutzle can certainly change the fate of the offense if he can find traction and breakout earlier than expected, I think we can safely label the young German, as the ultimate x-factor for this group.
Speaking of question-marks, there’s plenty to go around when dissecting the Senators blueline and goaltending situation heading into the season. Before getting into specific players, the Sens finished just in front of the Sabres with an average of 3.4 goals/game allowed last year and it wasn’t just on the goalies as they allowed an equally bad, 32.1 shots/game. Projected starter, Matt Murray was anything but spectacular last season, boasting one of the leagues worst save percentages (.893) among active goaltenders. Murray will undoubtedly need a bounce-back season to solidify his spot as the starter and give his team a chance to win. For Murray it seemed he was battling both confidence and injuries throughout his first season behind the Sens defense and he’ll have to regain his Stanley cup winning form if he intends to turn things around with the looks of this group of defenseman.
At the top, the Sens actually have what seems like a solid 1st pairing in Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub. Chabot is consistently one of the league’s top minute munchers (26:17) and Zub was the Sens single biggest surprise from last year. Zub’s mobility and defensive prowess should compliment Chabot’s offensive arsenal and finally provide an adequate partner for Chabot. After that is where things get rather interesting. The Sens brought in Michael Del-Zotto, their sole NHL free agent signing and it appears as they see something that everyone else doesn’t in the 31 year old defenseman, from Stouffville Ontario. Del-Zotto, a one time coveted puck moving defenseman, has always struggled in the defensive zone and early in camp, coach DJ Smith has elected to utilize Del-Zotto and Nikita Zaitsev in a shutdown role on the second pairing. We could go in depth and analyze every reason why this pairing will fail to shut anything down (aside from a clean breakout) and it won’t matter. We’ll just have to provide, head coach DJ Smith and his staff the benefit of the doubt and have faith that he is open to changing things quickly should it ultimately fail.
The biggest x-factor on the blueline is easily Erik Brannstrom. Brannstrom is the singular talent that the Sens acquired for Mark Stone, and has yet to breakout in the big league. At just 22 years of age, many people are already writing the youngster off as a bust. Brannstrom demonstrates flashes of skill, an excellent ability to get shots through in the offensive zone yet struggles with the basics of defending and gap control defensively. Also worth noting that Brannstrom’s ability to be “big” is 5’9 and that’s not changing anytime, ever. The Sens will have to accept Brannstrom’s lack of size for what it is, if they’re ever going to reap the rewards of his breakout passing and offensive upside. If Brannstrom can even become an average defender, he’s capable of being a perennial all-star caliber player, but the “if” in this equation remains a large question.
Defense and goaltending are the two biggest areas of concerns heading into the season. Not only did the Sens fail to address these areas in the offseason, they may have actually moved in the wrong direction. The addition of Del-Zotto and how he’s utilized could determine the extent of the impact. Fear not Sens fans, the blueline looks vastly different as early as next season with the likely additions of two North Dakota alumni in Jake Sanderson and Jacob Bernard-Docker.
Last year the powerplay was a constant concern for the Sens (15.5%). They couldn’t maintain zonetime and that was in part to do with their poor faceoff percentage (47.4%) and their inability to cleanly gain the zone. On the contrary their penalty kill was a disaster to start the season, with multiple personal changes and an interesting collapsing structure. Thankfully Ottawa was able to greatly improve the PK by the 3/4 mark of the season and found the right structure as well (78.9%). The expectation is that both of these units can take major steps this season with the added bonus of familiarity and a more mature lineup. If there’s any reason to be optimistic this season, my money is on the special teams units taking major strides. The Sens are young but there’s no shortage of fire power up front and a few really good, defense first forwards sprinkled in.
The single biggest headline approaching the Sens season is in regards to RFA Brady Tkachuk. Not only is Tkachuk the most likely candidate to become the next captain of the team, his contract could have a major implication on the many young Senators players that follow. With Tkachuk unsigned approaching the regular season, the Senators are gradually losing the interest of those that have stuck with their rebuild formula for success, teardown and all. The Tkachuk contract, the length, the term and all the details will mean so much more than what meets the eye. The organization is backed into a corner and almost have no choice but to overpay the player who will represent everything that this brand is trying to sell to the fanbase. Time will tell how this situation plays out.
Overall, as things stand for the Senators it will be hard to imagine a drastic improvement from last season. The goaltending is the same, the defense is interesting to say the least and there are some holes up front, specifically in the most critical area down the middle. While my expectations remain low, Pierre Dorion likes to say, “the game is not played on paper,” and that is a statement that was certainly radiated by the Montreal Canadiens during last season’s cup run. Could the Senators take a major step forward and be playing meaningful hockey games down the stretch this season? My rationality tells me, no but in hockey anything is possible.