The Ottawa Senators are poised for a huge turnaround this season.
As most would know by now, the Sens engineered a number of surprising, dramatic, off-season moves that should lead to immediate improvement. This includes acquiring three players who played in the 2022 NHL all-star game: Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat and Cam Talbot. They also unloaded expensive underachievers Matt Murray (traded to Toronto) and Colin White (buyout).
And let’s not forget, the probable improvements don’t stop there.
- They’re also adding defenceman Jake Sanderson, a former 5th overall draft pick and one of the game’s most highly touted prospects.
- With any luck, the Sens will have way fewer players losing games to injury, most notably getting full, healthy seasons out of Drake Batherson and Shane Pinto.
- They likely won’t have a COVID-ravaged locker room, being told by the NHL to suck it up and play through it, while other teams were later granted postponements.
- Their exciting young core is another year older and another year closer to their prime. Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Thomas Chabot, Batherson and DeBrincat.
- D.J. Smith’s training wheels are off. He’s now been a coach in the league for three seasons and should be primed for a lot fewer rookie mistakes. Only six active NHL head coaches have been with their current team longer than Smith.
- There may even be a pleasant training camp surprise or two – there so often is.
Well, that should be plenty for one off-season, right?
But the common refrain over the last few weeks has been, “Yeah, but they still need another top 4 defenceman.”
Easy there, Debbie Downer. Did we so quickly forget that this team has missed the playoffs badly in each of the last five years? After such an amazing off-season, harping on about shortcomings right now feels a little like winning a new car and grumbling about the colour. Can we take a half a second to enjoy all these new toys?
But it can’t be denied. The Sens eventually do need another defenceman. Ideally, a big, physical, mobile, puck-moving, minute-eating, punch-you-in-the-mouth, right-shot defenceman. That’s obviously way easier said than done, of course. NHL teams tend to latch on to those guys, stroking their hair, saying nice things and buying them puppies.
The asking price for Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun is reportedly two first rounders and a top prospect. Is Chychrun two first rounders and a top prospect better than Travis Hamonic? Nah. If the Dogs pull one of those three things off the table, then you’ve got the makings of a deal. Even in good times, teams still have to keep half an eye on restocking the roster. You can’t just hand Arizona your pin number to your bank of future assets.
While it would be nice to have him, the Sens don’t need Chychrun or a player like him to challenge for a playoff spot next spring. If you take the time to look around the league at other rosters, including playoff teams, you’ll find rosters that don’t exactly have four studs on their blue line.
Yes, they will absolutely need a player like that (and probably another year of team development) if they plan to eventually dance with the best-of-the-best and re-join the ranks of perennial contenders. Except for that unexpected run in 2017, that’s a club the Sens have generally been excluded from for the last 15 years.
But if we’re just talking about a playoff spot, that’s already a realistic goal for 2022-23. Talent-wise, the Sens top 9 forwards compare favourably with the best in the league. Goaltending is better too. Both of those facts will make their 4th best defenceman, whoever he ends up being, look a lot better than he did last season.
While the Senators finished a long way out of the playoffs, it’s not like that carries over into this season. At an absolute minimum, they will need 20-25 more points than last season and they need at least one playoff team to drop off. But these things do happen.
In 2017, while the Sens were going to the conference final, the Colorado Avalanche were the NHL’s worst team – absolutely horrible with just 48 points. The following year they jumped to 95 points and made the playoffs with a top four (based on regular season average time on ice) of Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Patrik Nemeth, and Nikita Zadorov. All good players back then, but not one career Norris Trophy vote among them.
On the other hand, the Sens plummeted from 98 points to 67 that year, embarking on a dark, five year slog they’re just now starting to crawl out of.
The 2017-18 Avs obviously had young stars up front, like the Senators do now. So an average blue line was enough to get to the 2018 playoffs. The Cup finally returned to Denver five years later, as Samuel Girard, Bo Byram and the MVP of everything, Cale Makar, took the blue line to the next level.
The Sens need to improve on what they have too, even if it means giving up a couple of first rounders. The window of opportunity has begun to crack open and the sooner they bolster that blue line, the sooner they can start to contend. Pierre Dorion may find better prices at the deadline as bad teams (looking in your direction, Arizona), beaten up by a trying season, accept their fate as rebuilders.
In the meantime, the Sens rebuild is finally over. For real. We mean it this time. They now have enough to be in the playoff hunt all season.
By Steve Warne | Faces Magazine