The Ottawa Senators are in a peculiar position in the 2021-22 NHL regular season. They clearly are not the class of the reassembled Atlantic Division, yet they’re clearly better than the dregs of the group (Buffalo, Detroit). In sum, the Sens are still in the early stages of becoming a dangerous team, but the improvement they make may not be enough to propel them into a playoff position.
Slotting them in sixth spot in the Atlantic doesn’t mean I dislike the Senators. To the contrary: winger Tim Stützle is dynamic and crafty beyond his years; defenseman Thomas Chabot is a minute-muncher – he averaged 26:17 last season – and he can contribute offense as well. In the system, they’ve got D-man Erik Branstromm, who averaged 0.43 points-per-game in 30 games lastd season; and they’ve got elite NCAA blueliner Jake Sanderson, and a number of other potential NHLers trying to hone their craft in the minors and/or their junior and collegiate hockey leagues. They’ve got winger Drake Batherson, who scored a career-high 17 goals in 56 games last year. And they’re all less than 25 years old. Their best hockey is still to come.
The Sens also have a hell of a two-way center in Connor Brown, who scored a career-best 21 goals in just 56 games in 2021 – including another career-best in his five shorthanded goals – and led Ottawa in scoring last year. Brown had the most ice time of all Ottawa forwards (an average of 18:15 per game), and he’s signed to a very reasonable salary cap hit of $3.6 million per season. He’s absolutely part of the bigger picture for the Senators, who need his grit and determination to be a winner to help power their engine.
That said, the Senators are in need of a legitimate No. 1 center, and although they in theory have the financial support of owner Eugene Melnyk, they aren’t a trade partner fit for the Sabres and Jack Eichel. Ottawa may well have a group of prospects that satisfy Sens GM Pierre Dorion, but trading Eichel within the same division is not something that would sit well with fans of other teams in the Atlantic. It’s more likely a team like the Anaheim Ducks puts together a package of prospects and draft picks that makes Sabres GM Kevyn Adams feel like he’s getting full value for Eichel.
The other area of concern for the Senators is their goaltending. The Sens acquired two-time Stanley Cup-winner Matt Murray from Pittsburgh and promptly signed him to a four-year, $25-million contract, but Murray’s first year in Ottawa was not ideal: the 27-year-old posted a bloated 3.38 goals-against average and an .893 save percentage – the second straight season Murray’s SP would be lower than .900. Backup Anton Forsberg and prospect Filip Gustavsson fared somewhat better, although in smaller sample sizes (Forsberg: 3.21 GAA, .909 SP, 8 games-played; Gustavsson: 2.17 GAA, .933 SP, 9 games-played). They need one of those three netminders to step up and claim this year’s starter’s job, and carry a load of at least a half-season between the pipes. Consistency, as it is everywhere else in Ottawa, is the key here.
Let’s face it, this Sens team has some holes in the lineup. They are not strong nor deep at center, and their defense corps – well, when Michael Del Zotto and Nikita Zaitsev are your second pairing on the back end, you’re going to have problems. And their bottom-six forward group is not the most talented in the NHL, not by a longshot. And we haven’t even mentioned their first-line winger, Brady Tkachuk. Doiron is locked in a stalemate over a new contract for the 22-year-old Tkachuk, and it has already lasted through the pre-season for the Senators. The outcome of the contractual showdown may impact Ottawa on the ice and in the dressing room, and a young team like this shouldn’t be asked to deal with anything other than improving, but Tkachuk’s determination to get paid well, and for a long time, could be a dark cloud hovering over the Sens in the early part of the season.
See what we’re getting at? The Senators have some impressive talent throughout the roster, but they also have major question marks, and some of those question marks will have answers Sens fans don’t want to hear. Not all of their prospects will become Grade-A contributors, and Doiron may have to make more moves to put his team in a playoff spot. But then there’s the fact the Lightning, Panthers, Maple Leafs, Bruins and Canadiens are, on paper, considerably better than Ottawa. It’s difficult to envision the Senators as currently constructed finishing ahead of those five teams, but stranger things have happened in the NHL.
Still, sometimes things don’t go so strange, and projections on teams are exactly right. This could well be Ottawa’s fate this year. In their rebuild, they’re now in the league’s mushy middle – too good to finish last in the division and contend for best odds at gaining the first-overall pick in the next entry draft, but too poor to come close to earning the right to play in the post season. Their next job, likely in 2022-23, will be to pull themselves out of the mush and establish themselves as a true Cup contender. It may happen. But they’re just not there yet.