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Faces Friday Sens Roundtable  

It was another entertaining week for the Ottawa Senators with back-to-back 5-2 wins over the Detroit Red Wings, which saw hat-tricks in both games, one from Mathieu Joseph, the other from Josh Norris.

Mads Sogaard earned his first NHL victory in his first career start against the Red Wings, Tim Stützle got under the skin of the Montreal Canadiens, and their fans in a 6-3 win over their division rival and Ottawa welcomed back Mark Borowiecki in a 3-2 loss to Nashville last night.

With only 12 games remaining in the Sens season, we asked our Faces Friday Sens Roundtable for their grades of GM Pierre Dorion, head coach DJ Smith, and their season highlights.

This week’s Sens Roundtable consists of:

Chris Stevenson – Sens analyst on TSN 1200.

Margaret O’Toole – Fan since birth.

Brandon Piller – Co-host of the Locked On Senators Podcast.

Cam – Lalime’s Martian on Twitter.

Wayne Scanlan – Sens writer for Sportsnet.

Brendan Bell – Former NHL defenceman and Sens analyst.

What has been the highlight and lowest point of the Sens season?

Wayne: I think these junctures were only two weeks apart. On Dec. 1, the Senators dropped a 6-2 game to the Vancouver Canucks and that “clunk” heard at the CTC was the sound of the Sens hitting rock bottom. Not only was it a miserable game, it was Ottawa’s sixth straight loss and 12th in 13 games. They had just completed a horrific, Covid-riddled month of November (1-10-1), which pretty much doomed their season as far as competing for a playoff spot.

But by Dec. 14, what a turnaround. That night in Florida, the Sens spanked the Florida Panthers 8-2, three nights after blanking the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0. By Dec. 14, the Sens had won five of their previous six and beat some very good teams with wins over Carolina, Colorado, TB and Florida. They also beat the New Jersey Devils in that stretch. Anton Forsberg won all five of those games, establishing himself as the go-to in goal. So, low point – Dec. 1. High point – Dec. 14.

Brandon: The highlight of the season for me was the home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs. So many things made this a great game. Sens fans were finally allowed back in the building for the first time in a long time. The atmosphere around the rink was electric. The Sens made fans happy with a 3-0 lead in the first period, and Anton Forsberg made 46 saves for the win. Nothing better than sending Leafs fans home with an L.

The lowest point of the season was November. Only one win in twelve games for the entire month. Recording the Locked On Senators Podcast 5 days a week when the losses were piling up was a tough stretch. The Sens were dealing with injuries, and the number of players on the Covid protocol list was out of control, yet they still had to play games. There was supposed to be optimism this season, but November basically ruined any chance of this team battling for a playoff spot down the stretch.

Margaret: The highlight of the season to me was at the very beginning when Brady Tkachuk’s new contract and captaincy were announced. He is so important to the rebuild, and seeing the commitment from the front office sends such a positive message to the fanbase. After years of losing players, it’s really just good for the vibes to have a beloved figure locked down.

The lowest point for me was Chabot’s recent season-ending injury. It’s been such a cursed season with so many players out of the lineup, so that one hit especially hard. Chabot really carries the whole defensive core on his back, so it was discouraging knowing the team’s performance on the ice would be heavily impacted by losing him.

Chris: The highlight has been the evolution of centre Josh Norris into a legitimate No. 1 centre. He’s the first Senator in 10 years to score 30 goals in a season. His ability to score from distance gives him a diversified threat, and his presence in the right circle instantly makes the power play a threat. He’s due for a new contract, and like captain Brady Tkachuk said, “Ka-ching.”

The lowest point has been the continued unsettled situation in goal. Matt Murray’s uncertain status as a dependable player — never mind as a No. 1 — remains the biggest question mark hanging over the franchise. That uncertainty has forced the Senators into a position where they had to sign Anton Forsberg as insurance for next season. They now have three goaltenders on one-way contracts next season (Filip Gustavsson is the third).

Lalime’s Martian: The highlights of this season have mainly come off the ice for the Sens. We as fans have been absolutely spoiled with a great variety of ‘get-to-know’ the players content – the ‘Breakaway’ series the team does had behind the scenes on Brady Tkachuk’s arrival on opening night, Stützle and Norris carving pumpkins on Halloween, and ice skating with the Watson and Holden clans over the break. Most importantly, however, the team is releasing post-win videos where the players give out a bike helmet, and shades to their choice for player of the game and those have been really hilarious.

The low point for me was the stretch leading up to the trade deadline between Feb 19 and March 19, where the Sens won just 3 out of 15 games and were without Norris, Batherson, Chabot and Murray for extended periods to injury.

Brendan: Opening night. Tons of concern about Brady missing training camp and a potential contract stalemate. Brady gets signed, shows up at the rink to a great ovation, and Sens beat the Leafs. Hard to beat that.

Low point was December 1 in the 3rd period. The Sens were about to go 4-15-1, and JT Miller scored a highlight-reel goal that made the Sens look lost. The team had just returned from their West Coast trip, where they lost all 4 games, and they came home and laid an egg against a bad Vancouver team at the time.

How would you grade the jobs of Pierre Dorion and DJ Smith this season?

Margaret: I think Pierre Dorion has done just enough to get a passing grade for this season, 5/10. To be clear, this is just looking at what he’s done since October, different story if looking back any further. Dorion’s performance should always be looked at through the lens of the monetary constraints he has been working under. I would’ve loved to see him acquire a top 6 forward and/or top 4 defencemen at some point, but those are expensive pieces to add to the lineup. Overall, he made some important contract renewals happen and didn’t totally screw up at the trade deadline by taking on any really bad contracts or any more questionable veterans.

DJ Smith has done marginally better; I’ll give a 6.5/10. First off, the players seem to really like him, and there’s a great environment going on that he has helped create. Points off for being a little stubborn with his line combinations at times; I think you might as well try out a bunch of different stuff with a season like this. Special teams could also use more work, obviously.

Brandon: I think DJ Smith deserves a lot of credit this season, even though it’s another poor record for his team. The entire season there has been one key player out of the lineup, and for a stretch of games, there have been multiple top guys not available. He has been willing to tinker with the lineup to make adjustments and kept some consistency with effective lines and pairs. He did the best with what he could, and I think he was able to keep the young player’s spirits up and give opportunities to deserving prospects.

Pierre Dorion didn’t do the team any favours with a quiet off-season. Making bold claims about this team’s goals after only acquiring Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto was an interesting move. He was able to lock up Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson long-term with good contracts, giving fans some assurance that more fan favourites weren’t about to be shipped out. Dorion had a decent deadline moving out expiring contracts like Zach Sanford and Josh Brown. Signing Anton Forsberg to a 3-year deal may scare Sens fans, but I think it’s what had to be done given the uncertainty in the crease. I think he was fair with the reported contract extension offer to Nick Paul, and when they couldn’t come to an agreement, he went out and acquired a great young talent that is already fitting in nicely in Mathieu Joseph. This off-season will determine whether Dorion can build a playoff contender or not.

Chris: The results for general manager Pierre Dorion and coach D.J. Smith this season have put them in a position where their jobs should be on the line to start next season. In the words of Mike Milbury, they should be “on alert.” The challenge for Dorion is to bring in a legitimate supporting cast for the club’s young stars. Smith needs to get his team to play some defence. This team will not contend for a playoff spot until its goal differential is in the green. The Senators are a combined minus-122 in Smith’s time behind the Ottawa bench.

Brendan: Dorion – I would have loved to see Nick Paul re-signed, but I really like that they were able to get Mathieu Joseph out of Tampa. The Hamonic trade looked like a headscratcher at the deadline, but he has fit in very nicely and played well to this point. Pierre has a big offseason ahead of him where the Sens will need to add a few pieces to this roster to challenge for a playoff spot next season.

DJ – young team continues to grow, and DJ continues to put youth in all situations. Stützle at centre will end up being a great move in the long run. Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson seeing some time on the PK and increasing their responsibility is great for long-term development. I did not like Josh Brown being in the lineup most nights, but the Sens have been thin on D all year.

Lalime’s Martian: I give Pierre Dorion a C- grade on this season’s work so far, and here’s why: Up until the trade deadline, he had only made one in-season trade (Acquiring Dylan Gambrell for a pick – not exactly a blockbuster) and beyond that, his only other moves were picking guys like Adam Gaudette up off waivers while the team was struggling. Not getting Nick Paul signed, forcing a deadline deal was disheartening for fans who are done with losing their favourite players, but landing Mathieu Joseph in return for Paul makes that trade feel very OK as Joseph’s been exceptional since coming to Ottawa. He buried his biggest off-season acquisition, Michael Del-Zotto, in the minors for 26 games when he could have been up helping this team win, which is an ugly scenario, but he also recently signed Anton Forsberg to a nice 3-year extension, and I see that as a win.

It’s not entirely fair to give DJ Smith a poor grade on the season when he hasn’t had a fully healthy lineup at all. Missing key players like Batherson, Norris, Chabot, White and Murray for extended periods of time, plus the early COVID battles the team faced – it’s hard to blame DJ for the poor record. His choices in personnel and ice-time have been solid lately, although I would like to see him start giving Mathieu Joseph more opportunities with more skilled linemates. I think a C+ is fair for DJ this season, but he’ll have far more pressure next year.

Wayne: It’s easy to pick on Dorion for some of the off-season failings in recent years, especially when it comes to veteran fill-ins. And Smith certainly hasn’t achieved the results fans might have hoped for as the club tries to move out of the rebuild phase. But the thing I have liked about both men is that they have refused to give up on this team or this season, despite the Covid issues and devastating injuries to centre-men, plus losing Drake Batherson and Thomas Chabot for significant stretches. Smith’s young core continues to play with energy and enthusiasm, as witnessed by their home and home wins over the Red Wings last weekend. Josh Norris, Tim Stützle and Brady Tkachuk etc., have fans excited about the future. Smith himself has been upbeat and positive.

Dorion’s deadline swap of Nick Paul for Mathieu Joseph is looking shrewd, as the Sens get a younger, faster player who looks to have upside as a scorer (witness the hat trick in Detroit). Another deadline acquisition, Travis Hamonic, has provided a nice veteran presence on D and could play an important role next season when ace prospect Jake Sanderson joins the blueline full time.  If Dorion can get Norris signed this summer to a long-term deal, a lot of the pieces will be in place.

Who has been the most underrated Sens player?

Brendan: Connor Brown has been the most underrated player since he came over from Toronto. He is invaluable to this young group. Leads all F in ice time and averages over 20 minutes a night. Moves up and down the lineup. Great on the PK.

Chris: I’ve really liked what defenceman Nick Holden has done for the Senators this season in an underrated role. He’s not flashy, just dependable, which is something the Senators have needed on their blue line for, like, forever. He’s third on the team in 5v5 ice time, fourth in the league among defencemen in short-handed ice time per game and third on the team in expected goals against.

Lalime’s Martian: Connor Brown, and it ain’t that close. Everybody is always talking about the Sens’ top line and Timmy Stützle as the biggest offensive threats on the Sens roster, but many are sleeping on the offensive impact of Connor Brown this season. He quietly sits 3rd in team scoring with 37 points in 54 games; he provides leadership, plays the right way, and kills a ton of penalties. He often leads all Senators forwards in Time On Ice and is very likely to break his career-high of 43 points by the end of this season.

Margaret: With so many injuries, it’s too bad we didn’t get to see a few young players that might’ve had quietly exciting seasons. There are young guys excelling (cc: Norris) or guys who I hope aren’t still around for this team’s true competitive window. For most underrated, I’ll go with Tyler Ennis providing some depth at forward. 16 assists and 24 points so far isn’t too shabby from a guy signed off a PTO.

Wayne: I would probably say, Nick Holden. Artem Zub, perhaps the club’s best all-around defender, has his own, cultish fan club and deservedly so. But Holden has been the steadying influence back there. Uncle Nick. The young guys love him. Brady Tkachuk more or less “babysits” the Holden’s four kids, and last week, Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Sanderson all attended minor hockey games played by a couple of Holden’s kids. How awesome is that? What I have learned about Holden is that he is 34 going on 24. His wife says he has a child’s energy. He is in-the-moment, loose. And on the hockey side, Holden plays 20:05 minutes a night (his highest TOI since 2016-17 when he played 20:37 per game with the Rangers!). Holden is -1 on a team with a -40 goal differential, is a key penalty killer, and has chipped in 15 points in 62 games. No wonder Dorion signed him to a one-year contract extension earlier this season.

Brandon: I would say Anton Forsberg has been the most underrated player for the Ottawa Senators this season. Matt Murray was brought in to be the #1 goalie, but his health issues and inconsistent play have not allowed him to do that. Filip Gustavsson is a promising prospect but isn’t ready for an NHL workload, even at a backup level. Thank goodness they were able to pick up a steady veteran goalie like Forsberg on waivers! The fact that he has a winning record on this team is amazing. Every night he starts, I’m confident he can give the team a chance to win, and I believe the players and coaches feel the same way. He has earned his contract extension, that’s for sure.

 

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