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Bouncing Back: Ottawa Senators Winger Mathieu Joseph Finds Another Gear

As the 2023-24 NHL season approached last fall, the Ottawa Senators had a big problem.

For the first time anyone could remember, the famously frugal Senators were suddenly spending more money on player salaries than the league allows. And many of Ottawa’s loudest armchair general managers on social media suggested that trading Mathieu Joseph’s $2.95 million-a-year contract might be one way to help the club slip back under the league’s salary cap.

In hindsight, what a terrible solution that would have been.

Following a Senators practice, Joseph is right on time for our mid-February visit. He meets me at the open door of the team’s locker room, dressed in a cream-coloured sweatsuit and a matching bucket hat, looking every bit as smooth as he does on the ice.

Now in his sixth year in the NHL, Joseph is still bringing the elite speed and defense he’s famous for, but the 27-year-old Ottawa winger is also on pace for career-highs in goals, assists, and points. Whether it’s the third line, the top line, the penalty kill, or the power play, Joseph looks comfortable in any situation. 

And that includes interviews, like the one he’s about to walk into.

By contrast, Joseph’s team is in the middle of another bumpy ride this season. Barring a miraculous springtime winning streak that would make Ottawa’s 2015 Hamburglar run seem dull by comparison, the Senators will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight year. 

But if we zoom in on Joseph strictly through the lens of his individual play, he’s exceeded all expectations. 40 games in, he had already surpassed all of his offensive numbers from last year. 

So, what’s been different this season?

“I think, in general, my game has evolved a bit every year, even if last year was maybe a bit of a down year,” Joseph said. “(Last year) was kind of a transition. I just got a new contract and wanted to perform and maybe put a bit too much pressure on myself. Maybe I was thinking a little too much. 

“So, I prepared myself to bounce back this year. I put the work in during the summer, went on the ice a little bit more, watched some video and took care of my body a little bit more. I feel like it’s paying off this year. But I was never a big stats guy. I try to be efficient at both ends of the ice, and when I get my opportunities, I try to capitalize on them.”

Joseph’s former team knew how to capitalize on opportunities. In 2020 and 2021, he won two straight Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Or, as he jokingly refers to the achievement, “One and a half Stanley Cups.” 

During Tampa’s first Cup run in 2020, Joseph played half of the regular season but didn’t get into the playoffs. So, in his mind, that was Joseph’s half-Cup, even though his name is proudly engraved on the trophy for that season. He did see plenty of action the following year, including the Cup final with games in his hometown against the Montreal Canadiens.

“Obviously, I’m never gonna forget that,” Joseph said. “Playing at the Bell Centre. I wish there would’ve been more fans (COVID). But it was still awesome. It’s kind of surreal to think about it. Playing that Game 5 and winning it at home in front of our fans was very special.”

That summer, Joseph had his day at home with the Cup and enjoyed it his way – not with champagne or beer. No, he ate poutine out of it.

“I always talked to my dad about it,” Joseph said. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve seen guys eating things out of the Stanley Cup, and I was like, it fits me. I want to eat poutine out of it. I thought it was a great idea and I was really happy about it. 

“It was also pretty special to celebrate those two Cups with my close people. And my mom and dad hadn’t seen some people in so long. Everyone came out for it. I was able to bring the Cup to my high school. So that was really cool.”

Less than a year later, with the Lightning on the road to their third straight Stanley Cup Final, Joseph got re-routed at the deadline, being traded to Ottawa straight up for Nick Paul. Joseph admits now that it wasn’t an easy transition. He didn’t see it coming at all and was disappointed at the time.

“Yeah, it was pretty much a shock for me, to be honest, Joseph said. “It was the first time I was traded ever. We already made one or two moves, and our general manager (Julien BriseBois) kind of came out and said there wouldn’t be any more trades.

“So, I was a little bit surprised about it, obviously. At the time, I didn’t really understand it. I was playing on the first or second wave of the penalty kill. I’d been battling with these guys all year. We were in playoff contention, and I wanted to finish the year and battle with these guys for sure.”

Joseph’s average time on ice per game (13:42) had increased in Tampa Bay as well, but it was nothing like it would be in Ottawa (16:50), where they used him in all situations. So, for that reason and a few others, the disappointment was short-lived.

“I think, looking back at it, it was probably a good move for both organizations, and on a personal level, the move really helped me,” Joseph said. “I got to sign a four-year deal, have a little security, and be so close to home. And I knew some guys on the team who made the transition a bit easier. I even stayed with Chabby (Thomas Chabot) for those first six weeks.”

Chabot and Joseph are both amazing skaters, so they’ve literally been fast friends for a long time. They arrived in Saint John, New Brunswick, as 16-year-olds in 2013-14 and played four years together as Sea Dogs in the QMJHL. 

But Joseph says his best friend is his younger brother, Pierre-Olivier, who’s now a defenceman with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In their early days, coming up together in Montreal, they didn’t always get along.

“We didn’t really always like each other,” Joseph said. “I think growing up, we were not as tight. He had his friends, and I had my friends. But the more we grew up, the closer we got. With both of us playing in the NHL and having the same lifestyle for a long time, nowadays, I would definitely consider him my best friend. We have a great relationship, and I’m very lucky to have a brother like him.”

During games against the Penguins, Joseph says he sees his brother as an opponent. But that doesn’t mean he’d ever get in a fight with him. Just like it is with the Tkachuk brothers, their mom wouldn’t be down with that.

“My mom would never let us fight,” Joseph said. “Honestly, I don’t think she’d talk to us if we ever got in a fight during a game.”

But the Joseph’s do occasionally butt heads during games. In fact, Mathieu says he and Pierre-Olivier hold the distinction of being one of the rare brother combinations to take off-setting minors against each other in three different leagues – major junior, the AHL, and the NHL. 

Their NHL run-in last season during a game in Pittsburgh won’t soon be forgotten. They were both penalized for accidentally high-sticking each other in the mouth on the same play. 

While they skated off to the penalty box with fat lips, their mom, France, and father, Frantzi, got plenty of TV camera time in the stands, where they were chuckling and shrugging their shoulders at the absurdity of the situation. 

In the midst of another tough season, Joseph sayshe feels like the Senators are now finally heading in the right direction. He says he enjoys playing in Ottawa, and his interactions with the fans have all been extremely positive.

“After the season started, a lot of people came up to me and said, ‘Hey, congrats on your season so far, keep it going; I love the way you play.’ And it’s flattering to hear. We have a very passionate fan base. It’s rewarding for someone like me who’s just trying to work as hard as possible.”

If the Senators could find a few more players like Mathieu Joseph, their ongoing playoff drought wouldn’t be long for this world.

By Steve Warne

Photography by Kerbens Boisette

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