The Ottawa Senators have endured a lackluster start to the season and sit at the bottom of the Atlantic Division as a result. It feels like an eternity since the team entered the year on a wave of optimism after the arrival of Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat, and Jake Sanderson.
The Senators have significantly underperformed expectations, with injuries, poor puck luck, and questionable application undermining any progress they made in the summer. However, numerous individuals within the franchise have the ability to help them turn the situation around.
Now, as the calendar is about to flip over into the new year, the Senators have arrived at a turning point. If they want to make an impression this season, they must act quickly. Here are three people the franchise needs to step up in 2023.
Senators Head Coach D.J. Smith Must Find Five-on-Five Improvements
After the Senators lost 5-1 to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday (Dec. 20), head coach D.J. Smith blasted his squad in the local media. It wasn’t the first time he has criticized the team publicly, but it was arguably his bluntest intervention. “It just wasn’t good enough, right from the get-go,” he told reporters in Manitoba. “We’re just not sharp. No execution on breakouts. Turnovers. You get far too behind and the game is over.”
However, his comments reflect how the season has unfolded for the Senators: they have been brutally inconsistent since October and could waste yet another season.
That said, Smith has done some impressive work this season. The Senators rank fourth on the power play and tenth on the penalty kill, which proves he is capable of formulating a plan that works for his current mix of players.
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However, success at five-on-four isn’t enough to shift the needle. The Senators need to find a system that works for them at five-on-five – and Smith is running out of time to work it out. He must step up in the new year.
New Contract Puts Senators Defenceman Artem Zub Under Pressure
The Senators and defenceman Artem Zub inked a four-year contract extension worth $18.4 million, the team announced on Wednesday (Dec. 21). The Russian will have a modified no-trade clause throughout the deal, which starts this summer.
Zub has 40 points (11 goals, 29 assists) in 142 appearances since joining the Senators in 2020-21 and has quickly become a key piece of the puzzle in Ottawa. The 27-year-old has plenty to offer in the years ahead but is now under pressure to find a new level of performance.
“Artem’s transition to North American hockey has been remarkable,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “He has worked hard to establish himself as an excellent NHL player and a strong defender. He consistently helps make us a better defensive team while he’s on the ice. We’re pleased to reach agreement with him on an extension of this length.”
Zub has contributed four points (two goals and two assists) in 14 games this season. In order for the Senators to have a successful second half of the season, they are counting on Zub to raise his performance level.
Erik Brännström Still Has Another Level to Find
There is still plenty of untapped potential within Erik Brännström. While the 23-year-old defender has improved on his performances from last season, his three assists in 32 appearances haven’t exactly set pulses racing at the Canadian Tire Centre.
For what it’s worth, Brännström has been a net positive influence for the Senators this season. His efforts haven’t shown up on the scoresheet (yet?), but he has developed consistency and boasts impressive underlying numbers. The Swede’s defensive partnership with Nick Holden leads the Senators in expected goals share (51.6 percent) and ranks second in goals against per 60 (2.22).
However, there is still room for improvement for Brännström. He is now 107 games (and 148 shots) without a goal, a run that dates back almost two years. The Senators need him to find a higher level in the new year.
Looking Ahead for the Ottawa Senators
The Senators return to the ice on Thursday (Dec. 22) to take on the Washington Capitals at home. They will then continue their four-game homestand with games against the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins. Now is the perfect time for them to turn their season around.