Heading into preseason last month, the Ottawa Senators’ goal was to get their regular season off to a better start, in hopes of playing meaningful games at the end of the season.
The Senators have missed the playoffs five years in a row, and in the last two years they were so awful in the first month, those seasons were over before they started.
To enhance their chance of a better start, Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith said he wanted to use a good chunk of the preseason to allow players to get familiar with each other, to get on the same page and be ready to hit the ground running on day one.
A sensible idea.
The well-established line of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson provided a pre-mixed boost in that area – an absolutely proven commodity in the chemistry department, as familiar with each other as any line in the NHL. Meanwhile, Tim Stutzle at least had a chance for some preseason dress rehearsals with newcomers Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux.
But after seeing them all play exactly zero regular season games together, Smith tore the “Preseason as a dress rehearsal” page right out of his playbook and trashed it. Right before opening night, he tinkered, switching out his two centremen. Norris moved to Stutzle’s spot and vice versa.
“Well, I just didn’t see much chemistry with the puck,” Smith said on the morning of the Senators’ first game. “I thought everyone wanted to pass. And you need someone to shoot the puck. And Timmy’s proven he can play with those guys. Not to say that we wouldn’t switch it in the middle of the game or whatever. But I think Norris has fit in really nicely with those guys. He’s a bit of a net presence for them… there’ll be juggling as the year goes on, but we’re going to start this way.”
So instead of having one line that was completely on the same page and another with at least some preseason looks together, the top six forwards – the strength of the team – spent the first two games of the NHL regular season re-adjusting to new linemates.
It’s certainly not the sole reason the Senators have started the year with two losses (a 4-1 loss in Buffalo Thursday and a 3-2 loss in Toronto Saturday). It’s also not the full story on why they’ve scored a grand total of three goals in two games. But it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a contributor.
The sudden departure from what seemed like such a sensible preseason plan may highlight how much pressure Smith is feeling to have a great start, or at least one that isn’t completely soul-crushing. Under Smith, the Sens started last year 4-15-1. The previous season, they went 2-12-1. And now the coach has way better cards to play than he’s had in the past.
Pressure creates overthinking and second guessing, and the current 0-2 start won’t relieve anything. What should help is a nice five game home stand which begins Tuesday night against Boston at Canadian Tire Centre.
“It’s going to be nice to get back,” said Tkachuk. “We (only) had one home game in the preseason. We’re excited to see that place rocking and see standing room only tickets sold. We need them to be loud. We’re definitely very excited to play in front of our home fans again.”
After Boston, the Senators then host Washington Thursday, Arizona Saturday, Dallas on October 24th and Minnesota on October 27th.
Matt Murray and the Battle of Ontario:
As the Senators and Leafs renewed another season of hostilities on Saturday night, the Leafs are dealing with a very different kind of pressure.
The Sens have just torn down the scaffold from their rebuild, but the Leafs remain in “win now” mode.
Toronto has missed the playoffs or lost in the first round for 18 straight years now. If they can’t improve on that this season, jobs will be lost and Auston Matthews may lose interest long before free agency hits in 2024.
In Ottawa, there’s no pressure to go deep, but there is intense pressure to be competitive. Sens’ GM Pierre Dorion has no interest in having all this “Summer of Pierre” goodwill undone by another poor start. And his coach would be the one to pay for it.
While Ottawa’s blue line remains suspect, so does Toronto’s goaltending. And that’s perhaps the most intriguing connection between the two teams this season:
The Matt Murray trade.
Over the summer, GM Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe began to consider the idea of acquiring Murray, their junior goalie when they were all in Sault Ste. Marie together eight years ago. Despite winning two Cups, Murray is now a different goalie and had “buyer beware” written all over him.
For one, at $4.68 million a year for two more years (Ottawa is picking up $1.56 million on top of that), Murray was not a great fit financially for the cap-strapped Leafs. He’s also been a very inconsistent goalie for three years now and thoroughly injury prone.
But Dubas and Keefe ignored all the evidence of a bad idea. They felt like they could stir up that old Murray Magic.
Last week in his debut, Murray was inconsistent in a loss to Montreal, last season’s worst team. Then on Saturday morning, hours before he was to start against his old team, Murray left the morning skate and headed straight for long term injured reserve.
No one outside of Toronto was shocked, but maybe they were a little surprised that it took just one game for the Leafs to find out what Ottawa and Pittsburgh already knew.
Meanwhile, Dorion probably doesn’t get nearly enough love for the finesse he showed in that trade. Not only did he inexpensively erase a big mistake, he convinced his biggest rival to take it off his hands.
And that’s a savvy piece of business.
By Steve Warne