When Ottawa Senator fans discuss problems with their team, they’ll almost immediately bring up poor defensive zone coverage and a lack of depth on defence.
Or maybe perceived issues with the coaching staff. But a new issue has begun to emerge – their lack of secondary scoring.
At the start of the year, that wouldn’t have seemed possible. The top of their batting order was stacked with young talent like Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Alex DeBrincat, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. You’ve also got the very elite veteran Claude Giroux. As we hit the midway point in the season, all five of the healthy players in that group are hovering close to a point per game. They also found an effective third line in Tyler Motte, Shane Pinto, and Mathieu Joseph that was contributing at both ends. And that was key, because no matter what you have up top, your third line needs to be able to score.
But when injury struck, the Sens effectively eliminated their third line and opted for the equivalent of two fourth lines.
As we hover near the midway point of the NHL season, the Senators have just 63 goals at even strength. That places them 29th in the NHL in that category. And what you achieve at even strength can be an excellent measurement of what you are. Modern NHL coaching has turned much of the 5 on 5 play into a total grind, and some nights skill (and entertainment) is snuffed out completely. But obviously, the bulk of every single game is played that way, so the top teams are the ones who find a way to cut through the opponent’s proverbial barbed wire.
Take the Boston Bruins, for example. They’ve been an incredible story with an 11 point lead right now – and not just in their division. With a 32-4-4 record, they lead the entire NHL by 11 points. That’s a points percentage of .850.
So what do they have that the Senators don’t?
Well, a bunch of things. And it starts with having the best team defence, allowing an average of just 2.11 goals per game this season. Defensive systems are highly teachable to players who are willing to work hard and not take shortcuts. The Bruins also have the 2nd most goals scored in the league (behind only Buffalo) and their secondary scoring is a big part of that. Their skill goes way deeper than Ottawa’s.
At even strength, the Bruins have fourteen players with 10 points or more. That’s twice as many as the Senators, who have just seven.
So on the nights when the Sens skill guys either get shut down five on five or don’t succeed on the power play, there’s been no cavalry coming. The bottom six forwards and bottom four defencemen represent more than half the roster, and the players in that group are all averaging between 4-5 points. They can go weeks sometimes without scoring. That’s either lack of talent or lack of trust from coach D.J. Smith. Probably a bit of both. Smith seems to have no offensive expectations at all from his current bottom two lines. The motto is go out and there, forecheck hard, play it safe, and don’t hurt us while our top two lines get a rest. That’s generally the role of a fourth line, and right now Smith is operating like he has two fourth lines. As Austin Watson confirmed after the game Monday, they’re all about dump and chase.
“We’re good when we play the way the Ottawa Senators play,” Watson said. “We don’t play run and gun, we don’t turn pucks over at lines. We’re north-south, we dump and chase. It might not be sexy but it works for us.”
The return of Josh Norris and Mathieu Joseph this month will definitely help. Norris will be a sizable upgrade on Shane Pinto in that second line centre role, making the top six even better. Joseph should be back by the weekend, and along with Pinto, who will eventually move down, they’ll immediately inject more offence into that third line. They’re more skilled, obviously, and just as importantly, they’ll be encouraged to attack and create some occasional offence. Connor Brown and Alex Formenton would have been such phenomenal assets in this role. They’re now elsewhere and the Sens have just a 2024 second rounder to show for it.
It may also be well past time to see if a Belleville prospect (or two) can help inject some secondary scoring into that third line – someone like Ridly Greig, Angus Crookshank or Egor Sokolov. Perhaps Max Guenette would be worth a try on the blue line, to see if he can improve on Erik Brannstrom’s 3 points in 35 NHL games.
This doesn’t exonerate the Senators top guns either. If you’re 29th as a team in 5 on 5 offence, the top guys need to be better too. The 8 even strength goals they recently gave up to Seattle definitely tells a story. A quick glance at their seasonal plus-minus stats strongly hints at a group that needs to do more when they aren’t on the easy minutes of the power play.
Interestingly enough, the NHL’s top scorer at even strength this season? It’s not McDavid or Crosby. It’s former Ottawa Senator Erik Karlsson.
By Steve Warne