It was an unfortunate week for Sens Nation with the sudden passing of owner Eugene Melnyk on Monday night. Melnyk was a passionate owner who was a big piece of the Ottawa community, even though he ruffled the feathers of Sens fans over the years.
It was nice to see the team sporting the ‘EM’ logo on their helmets, and the Nashville Predators honour him before the Sens/Preds game on Tuesday night. Ottawa’s on the road tonight against Detroit and return Sunday for the second game of their home-and-home series against the Wings, where there’ll be another ceremony remembering Mr. Melnyk.
Goaltending prospect Mads Sogaard was called up earlier this week and is expected to make his NHL debut tonight against the Red Wings; Jake Sanderson officially signed with the Ottawa Senators, but fans will have to wait for his debut after his hand surgery, and Drake Batherson returned to the line up last weekend, tallying an assist versus the Panthers.
We brought back the Sens Roundtable to discuss what they are looking forward to down the stretch, who’s at fault for another disappointing season and how the team can attract more fans.
This week’s Sens Roundtable consists of:
Kevin Lee, Occasional Blogger.
Ian Mendes, Senior Writer, The Athletic
Shaila Anwar, Sens pundit and long-time season ticket holder.
Steve Warne, Host of Steve Warne Project & Sens Nation Podcast.
What are you looking forward to most during the final 16 games of the season?
Shaila: I’m going to try to focus on the positives, and less on the final score: watching Tkachuk-Batherson-Norris back together gives us hope for the future, as will watching Jake Sanderson in a Sens uniform; the goaltending remains steady, all things considered, and who would not want to spend more time watching the magic that is Zub! But most of all, I am looking forward to Alfie Night (April 7, Swedish Heritage Night).
Ian: It would have to be the NHL debut of Jake Sanderson. This kid is coming into town with a ton of hype behind him, but when I watched him play at North Dakota this season, I think it’s warranted. He’s a smart, smooth-skating blueliner, who has an underrated offensive upside to his game. I would love to see him play even a handful of games this season, just to get a sense of how his game translates to the NHL level. I really can’t think of any on-ice storyline or situation that I’m more excited about in the last month of the season.
Kevin: The obvious answer is hopefully getting to see Sanderson suit up for at least a game. It’s unfortunate that we won’t see a fully healthy roster to end the season with Chabot and Pinto out, but it is going to be nice to watch a mostly healthy forward corps with Batherson returning. I’m also looking forward to seeing how Brannstrom can run PP1. On the flip side, in the back of your head, you have to be hoping for enough losses to have a chance at first overall in the draft lottery.
SensChirp: There are still 16 games left in the season?! Yeesh. Seriously though, the thing I’m holding on to down the stretch is the chance that at some point before the season is out, we might see something close to next year’s lineup. They’ve been holding this thing together with duct tape most of the year, but it would be nice to at least get a glimpse of what they look like with everyone healthy and with Shane Pinto and Jake Sanderson in the lineup.
Steve: I’m keen to see what Jake Sanderson looks like at the NHL level. I honestly don’t think he’ll be ready to go out and dominate right away because very few defencemen do. But I think we’re all interested to see how close he actually is. Hopefully, his hand heals in time to get in 5-10 NHL games.
Who’s most at fault for the Sen’s struggles this season?
SensChirp: It’s a combination of bad luck and expectations that were generally out of whack. Call it an excuse but the month of November derailed the whole season, and a lot of it was because this team was basically left to fend for themselves in the early days of the NHL’s pandemic experience. And then, in December, it was again the Sens that got hit the hardest by postponed games or playing in empty barns. This team was always going to have some long nights this year but combine that youth with just a ridiculous run of bad luck, and you get what really amounts to a wasted year.
Steve: There’s plenty of blame to go around, but I think the biggest factor has been COVID and bad luck. The injuries were ridiculous. The Sens just aren’t deep enough to deal with so many important players hitting injured reserve for significant portions of the season. Had the group been healthy all year, I still don’t think they make the playoffs, but I’m confident they’d have taken a big step forward this season.
Kevin: I’ll preface this question that the Sens got very unlucky this year with injuries and COVID, and I expect they would have finished the season higher had they not run into those, but that’s the life of a sports team. That being said, it has to be on Dorion. While he has done an excellent job of building the young core, he’s failed to surround them with any talent. I’ve always said that it’s been death by a thousand cuts. While he’s made no franchise destroying moves, all the little mistakes add up in terms of lost draft capital and underperforming veterans bringing the team down. And with every mistake, the margin of error of turning around this team becomes smaller.
Shaila: I think the Sens have again fallen short with some of the “reliable vets” that were brought in to support the kids but instead were like anchors on their progress. Too many nights, the Sens were let down by defensive lapses by players that just couldn’t keep up with the kids. We don’t know really how much management was limited by decisions from above in terms of budget or pro scouting, but for a team that will always have a lean budget, these types of mistakes in personnel are costly on the ice, on the cap and at the ticket booth.
Ian: When I used to work at TSN 1200, we created a segment called ‘Blame Pie’ – where we would allocate a percentage of blame to different people for a particular issue. If I was cooking up a ‘Blame Pie’ for the Senators woes this season, I would probably use the following formula:
Pierre Dorion: 60 percent
D.J. Smith: 25 percent
Injuries/Illness: 15 percent
I think Ottawa’s main issues this season have been related to poor roster construction. They said they needed to get a top-six forward and top-four defenceman heading into last season and didn’t accomplish either task. So it’s hard not to fault the general manager for supplementing a good young core with questionable veterans.
The head coach probably deserves some blame too, but I’m not sure how he was supposed to win on a consistent basis when he only really had one reliable defence pairing. At least the young players all took a step forward this season, and I think that reflects well on Smith, but they have to be successful next season, or his job is likely in jeopardy.
I also think this group has run into some injury and illness issues this season that could explain some of their struggles. And it’s the quality of players who have missed extended periods, such as Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Thomas Chabot, Matt Murray, Shane Pinto and Colin White, that make this a legitimate excuse for some of their struggles.
How can the team attract more fans?
Ian: This is a complicated issue, but I feel like there is a lack of connectivity between the fan base and the franchise. And it shows on various fronts – not the least of which is the attendance figures.
I would be promoting the heck out of my young stars if possible. Give Brady Tkachuk a regular spot on TSN 1200 and call it Tkachuk Tuesdays or something. Put Tim Stützle’s face on every billboard imaginable. Let some feature writers get to know Josh Norris, who I think is a very intelligent and smart young man. Connect with your audience in Gatineau by making Thomas Chabot available to the media on that side of the river on a more regular basis. Sell these personalities, because they’re young, exciting and dynamic on and off the ice.
I would also try and collaborate with some very creative and smart Sens fans on social media. Put Gatineau Greig in charge of making the hype video for the crowd one night before the game. Let the Silver Sevens writers in the press box from time to time and allow them to enhance their coverage of the team. You have these funny, engaging and intelligent Sens fans who are simply dying to connect with your team. Make it happen.
SensChirp: More DJ Prosper, for starters. There are all sorts of answers to this question, but the truth is, the best way to get fans out to the rink is, uh, winning hockey games. This city has proven it before, and I’m pretty confident it would prove it again if the team is even remotely competitive. Also, cheaper beer and more DJ Prosper.
Shaila: As a fan, I don’t want to be angry and negative all the time. Going to games should be an exercise in fun, enjoying a little distraction, hanging out with friends and being together in a group. We have lost so much of that over the past 5+ years. I think it all started really with the Alfie departure. That is where the organization (and the owner especially) lost a lot of goodwill with the community. Then all the troubles from 2018 on, and the rebuild is, predictably, taking longer than was promised. The worst is the impact of the pandemic, which has gotten us out of the habit of going to games (see you all at Alfie Night next week!).
Steve: Win more. It’s easier said than done, but winning cures just about everything. It’s always been the greatest marketing tool. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t suggest rolling back the ridiculous prices on drinks and parking.
Kevin: The team has tried numerous approaches over the past couple of years, and while all good ideas (theme nights, B1G1 promos, reduced parking cost, $1 hot dog games, etc.), none moved the needle that much in terms of attendance. Many people cite cost as the issue, but the team has some of the cheapest tickets in the NHL, so I can’t really cut much there. Parking egress is one of the biggest inconveniences for fans’ game day experience, but there’s only so much you can do there with the existing infrastructure. These are all issues that have existed forever, so really, it comes down to winning. Fans are willing to put aside a myriad of inconveniences to see a winning team.
Which prospect not named Jake Sanderson are you most excited about?
Kevin: It has to be Ridly Greig for me. If the World Juniors happen this summer, he’s a prospect we’ll all be keeping an eye on. He’s such an intriguing player in that he’s one of the rare breeds that can play with that edge while putting up points. Those players seem to be a big part of building a team that can win a Stanley Cup. Look at Tom Wilson and Brad Marchand. Maybe he’ll be that player for Ottawa.
Ian: This is a tough one, but I’ll say, Tyler Boucher. I feel bad the young man took a lot of heat for being drafted ahead of where many pundits thought he would go. But that’s not his fault at all. And when I’ve spoken to him, I’ve found him to be very engaging, honest and upbeat. He’s the type of kid you have a hard time rooting against once you connect with him.
I know he’s still probably 18-24 months away from really making a splash at the NHL level, but I’m excited to watch his development curve and see if he can live up to the expectations of being the No. 10 overall pick.
SensChirp: Hmm, I’m going to go with Jake Sanderson. But if I have to pick someone else, I’ll go with Ridly Greig. This guy is going to be an absolute nightmare to play against, and based on what we’ve seen out of him in Junior, he has some seriously underrated skill. Greig and Brady Tkachuk are going to be terrorizing opponents for years to come.
Shaila: I think JBD is someone I want to watch, particularly alongside Sanderson. Given that defence is an area that has, in general, really struggled as a group, their development will be the thing to watch next year. It will be crucial for them to improve this area to see some on-ice success next year. Therefore, I feel like the time is right this off-season to examine whether DJ is the coach they want to help the young core to grow and develop. I am not convinced!
Steve: Ridly Greig. Greig is doing exactly what you hope your first-rounder will do, and that’s be a dominant player at the amateur level. He plays the game with edge, and it’s tough to argue with 63 points in 39 games. Hey, Brandon Wheat King prospects have served Ottawa well before (Mark Stone). Maybe they can again.