It was a bit of a disappointing week for the Ottawa Senators with losses to the Ontario rival Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Kraken, but they secured a win in the shootout against Vancouver.
At this time next week, the Senators will be in Philadelphia preparing for the final game of the season. With 5 games remaining, fans are anxious to see if Jake Sanderson will make his Sens debut, Brady Tkachuk can hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career and if Thomas Chabot will return to the lineup.
We asked out Faces Friday Sens Roundtable to give their grades of Pierre Dorion, DJ Smith and what moves they would make this off-season to turn Ottawa into a playoff team in 2023.
This week’s Sens Roundtable consists of:
Claire Hanna – TSN Reporter
Frank Senators – Insider and Genius
Brandon Plant – SENS TALK
Callum Fraser – Sens beat writer for NHL.com
Brent Wallace – The Wally and Methot Show
Everyday Sens – EverydaySens.com
Who has been the most underrated Sens player this season?
Brandon: For this question, I had multiple players come to mind immediately. Some who have played all year in Ottawa, and others who played most of their seasons in the AHL. But I always seemed to wind up focusing on one player. That player was Parker Kelly. Parker Kelly this season has been a welcomed addition whenever the Senators have called him up from the AHL. He brings so much to the table: energy, speed, scoring ability, and toughness. All attributes you need for a successful 4th line in this era of the NHL.
With 6 goals and 10 points in 36 games in Ottawa this season, Kelly is shooting at a clip of 15%. Some may say that Parker is likely to regress from that number, but I’d argue his shooting percentage is tied for third on the team due to limited shots on net and opportunities. Parker Kelly has converted 6 goals on 40 shots while averaging 10:13 on the ice per night…it’s not crazy to think that if Kelly got more opportunities to produce offensively in the NHL, he would. Even Sens Head Coach DJ Smith put Kelly on the first line not too long ago, so it appears DJ can see Kelly’s potential too. I’m expecting a big season for Parker Kelly next year, once he’s finally inserted into Ottawa’s lineup as a full-time NHLer.
Everyday Sens: I’ve got two answers for this question. Tim Stützle is well known around the league, especially with this new (and silly) diving reputation. I don’t think that fans outside of Ottawa quite understand his impact, however. His transition to centre has unleashed a monster. Stützle is an elite puck handler that drives play every single night but isn’t recognized enough around the NHL.
In Ottawa, I feel that Erik Brännström has had an underrated season. Brännström has been a polarizing figure and has become somewhat of a whipping boy for much of the fanbase. Although Brännström isn’t the franchise defender he was once expected to be, he’s been better than credited for. He’s a critical component of Ottawa’s puck movement and possibly their best puck-moving defenseman (bold, I know). Brännström is far from refined, but his season has certainly shown positive signs that deserve more appreciation.
Claire: I don’t know if he can truly be considered underrated, but I’m going with Anton Forsberg. So many times, he’s kept Ottawa in a game with brilliant saves. He’s been healthy the entire season, stepped into a huge role as the starter and had the added pressure of playing without a future contract most of the season. Forsberg displayed solid composure behind a young team still finding its identity.
Callum: Alex Formenton’s stat line doesn’t do his season justice. He has 28 points (15 goals, 13 assists) in 73 games, but he’s done that while only ranking 11th in power-play time per game amongst Senators forwards with at least 10 games played. Formenton has shown incredible versatility this season, moving up and down the lineup, playing a fast-paced, skilled game, yet also being a thorn in the side of the opponent. And he’s been one of the most dangerous shorthanded threats in the league. Maybe next season, he’ll turn into that elusive top-six forward we can’t seem to stop talking about.
Frank Senators: Nick Holden. Reliable defense every night, veteran leadership, locker room morale contributor, and 1x funny moment guaranteed for each Helmet Video. Definition of underrated.
Wally: This may be unpopular, but for me, it’s always Connor Brown. Since he arrived in the nation’s capital, he leads all forwards in time on ice per game. He can play anywhere in the lineup and is second in points scored (trailing only Brady Tkachuk). However, he never really gets the respect of being a top 6 forward, and there is this constant chatter of the Senators’ needing a top 6 forward.
How would you grade the jobs of Pierre Dorion and DJ Smith?
Claire: This is an impossible rating when you had a team that was never at full strength all season, plagued with injuries and Covid19 illnesses. I think DJ Smith speaks the language of a new-millennial style player, which is crucial. Overall, Smith squeezed a lot out of a group that was frequently missing key members in a lineup. Dorion was hopeful the rebuild was over, and realistically, it might have been. But with the countless injuries, we’ll never know.
Callum: Progress has undoubtedly been made, but expectations are no longer to simply make progress. The vast majority of the pieces are there – you’re still waiting on one top prospect blueliner, a couple of depth forwards and maybe a young goaltender to take the next step – so, at the bare minimum, Sens fans should’ve expected a serious playoff push this season. And now, Ottawa is staring down yet another finish near the bottom of the barrel. Regarding Dorion’s part in this, the opening night roster just wasn’t strong enough. The blue line was left vulnerable. Once again, the coaching staff was forced to ask too much of Thomas Chabot, as Dorion’s decision to keep Josh Brown and acquire Michael Del Zotto hurt more than it helped. And there wasn’t much done upfront until the Nick Paul trade. Which, to be fair, looks to be a tidy bit of business. Mathieu Joseph may have single-handedly brought Dorion’s grade up a whole letter for me. I’ll go with a C for the general manager.
As for D.J. Smith, it should be noted how slow the Senators started this season and for the second year in a row. The season died in November when the club managed to win a single game. Yes, illness and injuries played a major part, but Smith himself will admit that doesn’t absolve the team from its poor performance. And I’d like to have seen Erik Brannstrom in a more solidified role all season. But … moving Tim Stutzle to centre – though a little later than some would’ve liked – is paying off; the power play is looking competent for the first time in a long time, and the team is finishing strong. It’s a B- from me.
Everyday Sens: Pierre Dorion had a quiet 2021 off-season. He didn’t make any major moves after publicly stating that there was a necessity to do so. Ottawa’s season has been derailed by injuries and COVID, but their lack of depth and weak defense have been exemplified (especially before the deadline). Dorion could’ve improved these aspects by taking advantage of cap-strapped teams last season, but he didn’t. This summer could be the most important in franchise history. Time to earn that extension!
- J. Smith can only make the most of the roster he’s given. It’s hard to blame Smith for how much adversity the team’s roster has faced this season. Still, he has continued to make questionable lineup decisions along with a stubbornness to change situations that clearly aren’t working. Smith has proven to be a fantastic morale coach; I’m curious to see how his deployment choices affect the team moving forward. My grade on him is still being made.
Frank Senators: Dorion – S for Senators. Solid job signing Tkachuk and Batherson to good deals; Joseph was a shrewd acquisition, the Dadonov-Holden trade keeps paying off, and securing Forsberg was a good move.
DJ Smith – DJ+. He continues to elevate young talent. Made some gambles on line combos that have paid off. He sticks up for the team and has won their respect. The expectation for next season is that the minutes for some of the veteran defenders go down as the new talent matures.
Brandon: Pierre Dorion: C+ The long-time Ottawa Senators General Manager has had a turbulent season, to say the least. It started with a bang, signing Brady Tkachuk to a massive 7-year, $57.5 million contract extension and then naming him the 10th captain in franchise history. That’s where the good vibes ended for a bit. Ottawa wound up collapsing during the first few months of the season, effectively killing their playoff aspirations before they had even begun. The rebuild is certainly far from over. While it’s not necessarily the GMs fault that the team got horrible luck with injuries and COVID outbreaks (yes, plural), it is his fault that the team had a ridiculous lack of depth throughout its lineup. For a team with ‘playoff aspirations,’ Ottawa was certainly quiet last offseason. Pierre Dorion should be credited, though, for a few key moves this season: Signing Tkachuk long-term, extending Anton Forsberg long-term, and bringing in Mathieu Joseph in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning. While Dorion just signed a three-year contract extension to remain as the Sens GM, the way he handles this upcoming offseason will be critical in whether or not he’ll be sticking around for the long term. Especially with potential new ownership on its way. What happens with Josh Norris this summer? Does PD sign him short or long-term? Interesting times ahead…
DJ Smith: C While I like DJ Smith the person, DJ Smith the Head Coach leaves me scratching my head sometimes. The deployment of certain players throughout this season has left a lot to be desired. Such as putting Chris Tierney on the second powerplay wave over an emerging Mathieu Joseph, the consistent deployment of Nikita Zaitsev as a top defender, and healthy scratching Tyler Ennis multiple times this season, even though he was one of the lone players to produce offensively in Ottawa’s bottom-six this season. It’s not all negative in terms of DJ’s deployment this year, however, as he’s the one to thank for putting together Ottawa’s explosive top line of Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson. He has also given Erik Brannstrom a much longer leash this season, especially with the current absence of Thomas Chabot from the lineup. In terms of the team’s performance this season, DJ Smith is sort of in the same boat as Pierre Dorion.
It’s not DJ’s fault that Ottawa has dealt with a ridiculous amount of injuries and COVID outbreaks, so it’s difficult to get a radar on his team’s play. I’ll say this, though, net-front coverage has been a disaster this season, and the defensive errors out front have to be cleaned up next year. Next year will be a massive season for DJ Smith. If the team is healthy and struggles out of the gate once again, his job is certainly in question. Which is unfortunate because I think the guys in the room really like DJ. Some have called for DJ Smith to be fired often this season, but I’ve refrained from doing so. If Ottawa struggles out of the gate again next season, however? I may have a change of heart.
Wally: Great question. DJ Smith’s job is so dependent on Pierre Dorion’s decision-making that we have to start with Dorion. I have always felt, and continue to believe, that he is out of his element. His missteps on the pro-scouting side have been detrimental to this organization. Dorion continues to try and sell hope while the franchise sits at the bottom of the standings once again. The “rebuild” was supposed to be in the rear-view mirror. Are there signs of improvement? Yes, but without solid goaltending and a proven defence, this team will struggle to find a postseason berth. Dorion: D
D.J. Smith can only play the hand he is dealt, and this roster needs work, but it’s obvious the young players have responded to him as they get more games under their belt. Is he the guy to coach them to a playoff spot? I’m not sure, but this group will need to take big steps next season to show that Smith can lead this team. Smith: C+
If you were GM, what 3 moves would you make this off-season to make the Sens a playoff team in 2023?
Wally: Let me start by saying if this is going to be a playoff team next season, the answers will have to come from within. We all like to say “just buy out this guy” or “trade that guy,” but that’s just not a reality a lot of times with bad contracts. Matt Murray is the interesting one for me. I think both sides would like a divorce, but is that possible with $15 million real dollars left on his contract? You can’t make the playoffs without stable goaltending. Anton Forsberg had a great run this season, but the Sens need 2 quality goaltenders.
I would trade Nikita Zaitsev if possible, but you still need to upgrade the blueline.
And the easy answer is a top 6 right-winger. Claude Giroux?
Everyday Sens: First Move: Acquire a proven top-six winger. This has to be number one on Pierre Dorion’s checklist, and I’m confident he’ll pull the trigger on a deal this summer. The real question remains to be seen: Will Dorion acquire the right player? This is a hit-or-miss situation, and they need to hit.
Second Move: Trade Nikita Zaitsev. I hate to harp on a guy, but moving on from Zaitsev is a must for the playoff-hopeful Senators team. They have a solid young defence corps in place for next season (Chabot, Sanderson, Zub, Hamonic, Brännström, Holden) along with Thomson and Bernard-Docker coming. Zaitsev just doesn’t fit the pedigree that they need to become competitive. A team like Arizona should be interested if a sweetener is coming their way- which is worth it.
Third Move: Improve depth/Make the right roster decisions. Ottawa has added replacement-level or below-average depth players consistently since their rebuild began. It’s time to move on from that trend. Whether it’s signing a quality free agent(s) or simply promoting the likes of Parker Kelly and Mark Kastelic, among others, the team’s depth has to be improved.
Callum: 1 – Figure out the goaltending situation. I have no clue who will grab the starting position come October.
2 – Find a bonafide top-9 forward. Top-six if you’re feeling extra ambitious.
3 – Sign Josh Norris for the next 100 years.
Claire: Acquire another Top 4 defenseman. Yes, there are many young prospects coming up (Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Jake Sanderson) who will make an impact, but I think you need one more strong leader in this group. Thomas Chabot is relied on way too much for big minutes most nights, and it’s important to lighten his load a bit.
Add another scoring threat on offence – again with some veteran experience. As this young team starts to grow, having people to show them how to win is going to be important, and there’s only so much you can teach yourself.
Sign Daniel Alfredsson in some capacity. Maybe it’s as a coach, maybe it’s behind the scenes, but there’s an opportunity to bring in a former legend who can teach these guys a lot about what it means to be a Senator and capture the heart of a community.
Frank Senators: Figure out a True #1 goaltender. Find us one proven Top 6 forward in the off-season. Pay me $10,000 and let me play for the Ottawa Senators.
Brandon: Move #1: Buy out Nikita Zaitsev. While buying out Nikita Zaitsev would save the Sens roughly $1.6 million on the cap next year, I’m simply making this move to free up a defensive position for a guy like Lassi Thomson or Jacob Bernard-Docker. While Zaitsev is certainly an NHL calibre defender, he’s being deployed as this team’s best defensive option, and unfortunately, that cannot be the case moving forward. Ottawa has better internal options, and his contract makes him unmovable. My ideal defensive pairings next year look like this:
These pairings have a solid blend of offensive and defensive abilities. I like how Chabot and Thomson looked together this season before Lassi’s injury, as Thomson’s two-way game compliments Chabot’s offensive skills. Artem Zub is this team’s best defensive defenseman, and putting him next to a top, but raw, prospect like Jake Sanderson would do wonders for Sanderson’s development. Chabot played his best hockey when paired up with Zub, who is statistically one of this league’s best defenders.
Artem Zub would not only help settle down Jake Sanderson’s nerves, but he’d also allow him to play his game at the top level with ease. Lastly, Brannstrom and Hamonic as the bottom pairing allow the Sens to have an elite puck-mover play against lesser competition on that third pairing, while Hamonic and his rugged style would provide solid defensive abilities to help out Brannstrom on the defensive side of things. Nick Holden, who is signed for another season, would be the perfect 7th defenseman. He’d be a great mentor for the young guys and provides a solid defensive option if you’re dealing with injuries on the blueline.
Move #2: Bring Claude Home. With Claude Giroux a free agent this summer, it’s a no-brainer for the Sens to take a jab at the former Flyers captain by bringing him home. In 71 GP between Philadelphia and Florida this season, he has 20 goals and 59 total points. Those are really solid numbers and that would automatically make Giroux the second leading point producer on the Ottawa Senators.
With Ottawa’s first line of Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson locked in for the immediate future, it’s time to find some partners for Tim Stützle to play with. By adding a guy like Claude Giroux, Tim Stützle will finally have the elite winger he’s been looking for all season. No offense to guys like Alex Formenton and Connor Brown, but both are better suited as elite third-line wingers. With Tim Stützle already producing 20 goals and 53 total points in 74 games this season, just imagine his production if he had a consistent pair of wingers to build chemistry with? We have to remember Timmy is only 20 years old, and the best is yet to come for him. This would be great for his development.
Move #3: Lock Up Josh Norris long-term. Josh Norris’s breakout season has been a pleasure for us Sens fans to watch. While being Ottawa’s first 30-goal scorer since the 2011-12 season, Norris also leads the Senators in powerplay goals this year with 16 on the man advantage. He’s become so automatic from that right hashmark spot, nearly unstoppable at times. This is why signing Josh Norris long-term is key for Ottawa’s playoff odds next year. We’ve seen in the past what happens when Ottawa doesn’t sign their elite RFA forwards long-term, can you imagine a scenario in which trade rumours are running rampant over this team’s #1C? How do you think that’ll affect the boys in that locker room? Contract drama like this certainly wouldn’t boost our playoff odds. Let’s remove all doubt. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. Franky, I highly doubt it. I think Norris loves it here and elects to sign long-term. But we said the exact same thing with Mark Stone, and look how that turned out. With Drake Batherson and Brady Tkachuk both locked up for multiple years, it’s time for Josh Norris to join the party. Although, it won’t be cheap.