OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators have been perennial basement dwellers for five years running, but the team finally seems poised to make significant progress.
The past few difficult years have been spent building a young core that started with workhorse defenceman Thomas Chabot and went on to include captain Brady Tkachuk and forwards Drake Batherson, Josh Norris and Tim Stutzle.
With the additions of veteran Claude Giroux, high-scoring winger Alex DeBrincat and goaltender Cam Talbot, the Senators might finally be able to make some headway in the Eastern Conference, although they’ll be facing some tough competition in the always competitive Atlantic Division.
Ottawa will need to shed some bad habits if they want to keep pace with the likes of Tampa, Toronto and Florida.
For the past three seasons, which coincides with how long head coach D.J. Smith has been behind the bench, the Senators have struggled to get off on the right foot.
In his rookie season in 2019-20, Ottawa was 2-7-1 after ten games. The 2020-21 season, which was comprised of an all-Canadian division, saw them go 1-8-1. Last year, they stumbled out to a 3-6-1 record.
“Clearly we know we’ve got to get out to a good start,” said Smith. “You’ve got to be in every game. You’ve got to chip away at points right from the get-go, and that’s pro sports. We’re big boys and we’ve got to be ready when the season starts.”
While the Senators will likely be able to score a few more goals thanks to DeBrincat, Giroux and the supporting cast of forwards, the bigger question is whether or not Ottawa’s defence and goaltending will have sufficiently improved.
As impressive as general manager Pierre Dorion’s moves were this summer, he failed to acquire a solid, veteran blue-liner.
Ottawa will be led by Chabot and Artem Zub, who have proven to be an effective pairing. Travis Hamonic and Nick Holden will be counted to provide veteran leadership while rookie Jake Sanderson showed significant poise through the pre-season, but has yet to play an NHL game.
Erik Brannstrom, Nikita Zaitsev and Jacob Bernard-Docker will all be pushing for regular duty.
Ottawa’s numbers defensively over the past three years are somewhat depressing. The Senators finished 30th in goals against in Smith’s rookie season, improved to 23rd his second year and fell to 26th last year.
The tandem of Anton Forsberg and Talbot was intended to help improve those numbers, but Talbot will be sidelined for the first five to seven weeks of the season leaving the bulk of the work to Forsberg.
The 29-year-old Forsberg proved to be a stable net presence in the second half of last season and was rewarded with a three-year extension. He finished the season with a 22-17-4 record and .917 save percentage.
If Forsberg can hold down the fort for the first 14 games, Ottawa might be able to ride the stretch out in Talbot’s absence. It bodes well that the Senators don’t play any back-to-backs in the first six weeks of the season.
What can’t be overlooked is Ottawa’s depth of its bottom six.
The third line trio of Shane Pinto between Tyler Motte and Mathieu Joseph has been nothing short of impressive through the pre-season.
Pinto, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, looks ready to make a statement and is benefitting from Motte’s experience and Joseph’s speed.
“I think a lot of the credit has to go to Pints, you see how well he’s played,” said Smith. “But also a guy like Motte, who just knows how to play the right way. And then Joe’s got all that speed. So, it is comforting for sure. They’re the line that’s had the most success five-on-five because they’re playing the right way. So far, they’ve played the right way the most and the longest and they’ve had the most chances.”
The fourth line has yet to be finalized but Austin Watson and Parker Kelly will likely find themselves on the wing of either Dylan Gambrell or Mark Kastelic. While Kastelic has been solid, his two-way contract may make the Senators’ decision a little easier.
Smith is entering his fourth season behind the Senators bench and has yet to lead his team to the playoffs, or even got them close. This year he’s been given additional resources and expectations are that much higher. Should the team get off to a slow start one can’t help but wonder how much leeway he’ll be given.
The season hasn’t even started and the Senators already have issues in goal. Talbot, acquired in the off-season, will be out of the lineup for the next five to seven weeks with a broken rib. Talbot was brought in to offer veteran support to Forsberg, but likely won’t be available until mid-November. In an effort to shore up their crease in Talbot’s absence the Senators claimed journeyman netminder Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken. The 31-year-old has played in just five NHL games, but has plenty of experience and could provide some relief until Talbot returns. The Senators will be counting on Forsberg to find the consistency he had late last year.
The Senators solidified their forward core after signing Norris and Stutzle to long-term contract extensions, but have yet to secure Zub. The 27-year-old Russian is in the final year of his contract and set to become an unrestricted free agent. Other than Chabot, Zub has been the Senators’ best defenceman and a solid addition to its blueline. Ottawa can ill afford to lose his services, but may have some tough decisions to make as they will also be looking to sign DeBrincat to a long-term extension and he will be looking for a big payday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 11, 2022.
© 2022 The Canadian Press
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