The NHL Trade Deadline passed this week with the Ottawa Senators making some trades, and most importantly, moving Nick Paul to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Mathieu Joseph and a 4th round pick in 2024. Josh Brown was traded to the Bruins for Ottawa-born forward Zach Senyshyn, and Pierre Dorion sent a 3rd round pick to Vancouver to bring in right-shot defender Travis Hamonic.
With that being said, the roster is basically set for the final 19 games of the season. We brought back the Faces Friday Sens Roundtable to discuss who’s been the biggest surprise, disappointment, ways the team can attract fans and how the Sens can make the playoffs in 2023.
This week’s Sens Roundtable consists of:
Graeme Nichols, Writer for Rome in a Day.
Lisa Wallace, Writer for Canadian Press.
Stephen Hickson, Steve on Sens.
Jack Richardson, Co-host of the Future Sickos Podcast.
Greg Morgan, Creates Sens Videos.
Shawn Simpson, Host at TSN 1200.
Which player has been the biggest surprise this season?
Simmer: Forsberg has been the biggest surprise. He’s really helped stabilize the goalie position and brought much-needed stability to a young team. Could he be another late bloomer like Craig Anderson?
Greg: Gambrell surprised me; I checked the Sens roster on NHL.com the other day for the first time in ages… and there he was. His name also appears on TSN’s roster listing; I’ll be gosh darned. Honestly, though, it has to be Norris. I think there was a fair bit of doubt regarding him being a legit #1 centerman before this season started. He definitely put all those doubts to sleep. He put those doubts in a Rowdy Roddy Piper-Esque sleeper hold and wouldn’t let them tap out. Credit to Norris belly tattoo guy; he knew what was up all along. Josh is definitely getting paid, hopefully by the Senators.
Jack: While it has been a brutal season for the Senators, I think the progression of some young pieces has been encouraging. Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Tim Stützle or Thomas Chabot would probably all be good answers, but I’ll go with Josh Norris as the biggest surprise this season. He finished last year scoring at a decent clip to tie his linemates for second on the team in goals, so fans were aware of how well he could put the puck in the net. This season has been a completely different story, though. Norris has 26 goals in 47 games which would have him on pace for 45 goals in a full season had he not missed 15 games with a shoulder injury. A big piece of the Erik Karlsson trade, Norris is giving fans reason for optimism during a pretty gloomy year.
6thSens: I want to highlight Tim Stützle taking advantage of his unexpected opportunity to play regularly as a centre thanks to injuries to Pinto and White, but the easy answer here is Anton Forsberg. With Matt Murray’s inconsistent health and performance, Forsberg’s taken the job since January and run away with it, posting some of the best goaltender metrics during that span. If you told me at the beginning of the season that he would be rewarded with a three-year contract extension, I would have been shocked.
Lisa: I don’t know if you can really call it a surprise, but I think everyone has enjoyed watching the steady progression of Josh Norris. Watching the top line of Norris, Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson has been a highlight this season. Norris is Ottawa’s first 25-goal scorer in three years, and that’s after missing 16 games. His one-timer from the right faceoff circle is lethal and a highlight on the Sens power play. Norris is well-deserving of a big payday!
Steve: Josh Norris. Last year, he showed potential as a first-line player going up against the league’s best every night. This year he has turned into an elite sniper that seems to score almost every night – and that’s without Drake Batherson running the power play. Will he become the first Senator since Heater to score 50? I think so.
Who has been the biggest disappointment?
Lisa: While there are a number of different players I could have chosen, I had to go with Matt Murray as good goaltending can mask a lot of issues. The expectation was Murray would build on some of the success he had late last season, but that didn’t happen. I don’t think anyone would have believed it would take Murray until January 13th to register his first win, and while there were injuries, this team needs consistent goaltending if it has any hope of becoming a contender. When you’re paying someone $6.2 million, you expect them to deliver. Murray will be going into year three of a four-year deal, and we have no reason to believe he’s going to be this team’s best goaltender moving forward.
Steve: It’s been a weird year to evaluate individual performances. So many Senators have been injured or out with COVID, which has caused many to slot in higher than they would otherwise. I think I’m going to go with Chris Tierney. Ever since putting up 48 points in 2018/19, his play has significantly declined. At least the weird goals off of body parts are fun.
Simmer: Sanford was the biggest disappointment. At a time when the Sens needed some much-needed veteran support and leadership. He was pretty much a no-show most of the season.
Greg: This is a tough one, so many great candidates. If we are talking about a player that fell the furthest from the expectations I had for them at the beginning of the season, it would probably be Brannstrom. He shows those periodic flashes of brilliance, but he just can’t seem to hold his game together for any length of time. I know he’s still young, and I should be patient, but I expected him to show more growth this season. Mark Stone, Mark freakin’ Stone.
6thSens: I think the biggest disappointment this year has to be Matt Murray. Although he had an unbelievable nine-game stretch (Jan. 13th – Feb. 12th) that had fans believing he had turned a corner and was resembling the goaltender who won two Cups in Pittsburgh, injuries have derailed his season. For a goaltender who has gift-wrapped a four-year, $25 million contract, Murray’s appeared in less than 40-percent of the Senators’ games across the last two seasons. And when he has played, the team simply has not been able to rely on him playing with any measure of consistency.
Jack: Again, there are a lot of directions you could go on this one which says a lot about how the team has performed this season, but I’ll go with a popular answer: Matt Murray. A lot of his struggles are linked to inactivity because of injury or illness, but the Murray-saga in Ottawa has been nothing short of a disaster. Brought in to be the starting goalie, Murray has only started 45 of the 119 games. It’s hard to control injuries and illness, but he’s failed to provide it for a young team lacking stability. He did show glimpses of strong play before his most recent injury, but the recent 3-year-extension for backup Anton Forsberg is an indication that Murray’s clock might be ticking in Ottawa.
How can the team attract more fans?
Jack: This is a hard one. The easy answer is winning hockey games and building up your marketable players like Tkachuk, Stützle and Chabot. In years past, the excuse could be that being sandwiched between the 2 biggest markets in the sport is a difficult spot for the Senators to be in. But we’re now entering year 30 of this version of the Ottawa Senators, meaning multiple generations have grown up with this team. For a small market like Ottawa, putting a good product on the ice is the best way to win people over. I look at markets like Columbus, Nashville, Florida or Carolina. These are all small markets that have built up fanbases through exciting hockey. The Sens need to emphasize that, and I think they’ll get there.
Lisa: There’s no doubt the organization needs to do a way better job marketing its new stars. You have several exciting players who seem to enjoy interacting with fans, yet we still know very little about them. Stützle and Tkachuk created a buzz last year just by connecting with some neighbourhood kids. I don’t want to hear that COVID made things difficult because that affected everyone, and if you want to stand out, you need to be creative, and the Senators have done nothing to build excitement around its young core. You could do some fun videos and online Q&A sessions with fans or create engaging content. Some of these initiatives don’t even cost a lot of money, but they require ingenuity and creativity, and the Sens have lost some key staff members who were capable of doing just that. You have a fantastic French ambassador in Thomas Chabot to finally try and make inroads in that market, yet the Sens still don’t take advantage.
Steve: I feel like I could write a lengthy book on this. I’ll mostly avoid the elephant in the room, but the reality is that the on-ice and business decisions are a reflection of who is at the top of the organization. Over the past 15 years, the Senators have withdrawn from the Ottawa community. There is almost no presence from the team in large parts of the city (not to mention Gatineau). The team fired their long-time charitable arm; they seem to have few business partnerships, and a quick google search for ‘Senators student nights’ yields a web page from the 2019/20 season. There needs to be a significant effort from the business side to promote this young core, build community partnerships, and attract new fans. Aside from this, getting to the rink is a huge pain that can and should be improved through better transit service. There are only 11 OC Transpo 400 series buses scheduled to go to CTC for the Saturday, March 26 game. Only three from Orléans, two from Kanata, and only one from Barrhaven. That seems shockingly low.
Simmer: At this point, it’s all about winning and taking the team next level. It hasn’t been easy with covid and a rebuild. But I truly believe if they win, the large crowds will return.
6thSens: The answer is threefold: 1) Management and the front office have to adapt to the modern NHL; 2) the roster needs to win games, and 3) the organization needs to communicate better. I recognize that apathy has set in for some because of the owner, but that is out of everyone’s control. This is an intelligent fan base that you cannot fool. Despite their messaging, it is blatantly transparent that this team’s process needs to be overhauled in terms of how they evaluate players and allocate their limited resources. Ottawa is a small market team, and they have never embraced that identity under Dorion. Management needs to be smarter and more efficient.
Greg: Aside from winning hockey games? I think these days, a strong social media presence is important; I feel like they took a huge step back after parting ways with Craig Medaglia. His funny/original content and willingness to interact with fans reeled me into the “Sens Twitter“ community, and now I couldn’t escape if I wanted to. A downtown arena is key; if you want new fans, you need to make it easy for them. Going to a game should just be part of the night out; having restaurants and nightlife in the vicinity is vital. When a team with a downtown arena wins, and the fans pour out and populate nearby establishments, it creates a certain team-city connection that is contagious, and perhaps others would want to be a part of that. Let’s face it, what happens in Kanata, stays in Kanata.
The Sens will make the playoffs in 2023 if ___?
Lisa: At this point, the only way I see any potential of that happening is for the Senators to acquire a true top four “D,” legitimate top-six forward, and one of their three goaltenders has a career season. The problem is no matter what the Senators do; it still might not be enough just because of the division they play in. Do we really think Florida and Tampa will fall off a cliff? Detroit appears to be improving, and you still need to deal with Toronto and Boston. I honestly believe the Senators would need the stars to align in order to make the playoffs next spring.
Simmer: If they get fully healthy and improve team play. I would also say a top 6 winger and top 4 D is still needed at this point.
6thSens: The Senators will make the playoffs if they add a top-six forward, two defencemen, and Anton Forsberg continues to match the Vezina level of Igor Shesterkin. Two of the roster’s holes could be filled by the addition of hometown boy Claude Giroux and uber-prospect Jake Sanderson. If the latter emerges and instantly performs at a high level in 2022-23, it would go a long way to finally resolving the blue line’s problems — which has essentially been an area of weakness since the franchise reached the 2007 Stanley Cup Final.
Greg: The kids continue to progress in the right direction; they stay healthy, get above-average goaltending, Sanderson fits into the top 4 early and if they can figure out that RD situation. If all else fails, the CTC breaks out with a radioactive spider infestation.
Steve: They add a legitimate top 6 forward, remain healthy, get good rookie seasons from Pinto and Sanderson, and get above average goaltending from whatever tandem they end up going with.
Jack: There are a lot of “IFs” entering the summer for this team. IF they add another top forward to play with Stützle. IF they add a solid defenseman to round out the top 4 of Chabot, Sanderson and Zub, and that’s only IF Jake Sanderson is an impact player immediately like we all think he can be. IF Forsberg can maintain the level of play he has shown this season and IF Murray can stay healthy. Finally, the biggest IF of all is IF they can stay healthy, which they have not this season. Even IF all those factors pan out, there is no guarantee that this will get them in the playoffs. But things that are in the team’s control need to happen to show the fans that the owner was serious about spending money to be a competitive team.