February Will Define Senators’ Season

The Ottawa Senators have performed admirably so far this season, but February will be the defining month for this team. Coming in at 26-16-6 in 48 games played, the Senators are on course to secure a playoff berth.

The Senators are in second place in the Atlantic Division, but they can’t pretend it’s comfortable. In the Eastern Conference — and the Atlantic Division specifically — teams are unbelievably close in the standings. Only nine points separate the sixth and sixteenth place teams in the East (the Senators and Detroit Red Wings, respectively). This means nobody is out of postseason contention in the East; one big winning or losing streak could make or break playoff hopes.

Games in Hand

One advantage that the Senators have is their amount of games played. This season, the NHL schedule includes a bye week for each team. The Senators had theirs in early January, so they have a few games in hand on some division rivals. The Montreal Canadiens are first in the Atlantic, nine points ahead but with three more games played. Sandwiching the Sens in the standings are the Boston Bruins, third in the Atlantic. The Bruins have the same amount of points but have played six more games.

The only division opponent who has also already had their bye week is the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are three points behind the Senators with the same amount of games played. Despite not being in a playoff spot, their point percentage is higher than the Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are holding onto the second wild-card spot, but the Leafs are only a point behind with three games in hand.

Auston Matthews, NHL, Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Throughout February, the Senators will play 13 games, six of which are against division rivals. There are two sets of back-to-back games, and they’ll play six in 10 days to close out the month. Meanwhile, the Bruins, Canadiens, Lightning, Panthers, Red Wings and Sabres all have their bye weeks this month.

By the end of February, the standings will be more truthful after all those bye weeks. To make things more interesting, the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline is March 1. That means that how the Senators do in February will directly affect their roster considering the deadline. Let’s explore the three ways we could see this month going down.

Scenario One: Plenty of Ws

The first scenario is the most optimistic one, though not the most unrealistic. All 13 games they’ll be playing are against non-playoff teams as of Feb 2. If the Senators end up collecting around 10 wins this month, they can create some separation between them and the teams at their heels. In this scenario, they would also become true contenders for their division by the end of the month.

In this case, the Senators would likely be buyers at the deadline. To fill out their roster, they may look into adding some scoring depth as well as adding a bottom-four blueliner. They could try to move Curtis Lazar at the deadline if they think a deep playoff run is possible. They also have over $5 million in cap space for general manager Pierre Dorion to work with.

Curtis Lazar (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Scenario Two: Plenty of Ls

The second scenario is a pessimistic one, but also the most unlikely. If the Senators end up crashing and burning throughout February, they could wind up near the bottom of the East. If they only win around four games this month, they would waste their games in hand over divisional rivals. In this scenario, they would fall out of a playoff spot with little hope of return.

In this case, the Senators would likely be sellers at the deadline. Possible candidates for trade bait would be Andrew Hammond, Chris Kelly, Tom Pyatt and Tommy Wingels. These players wouldn’t have big returns, but they could be the missing piece for a contender looking for depth.


Scenario Three: Holding Steady

The third and most likely scenario would be the Senators keeping up the same level of play. If they end up with around eight wins in February, they’ll create some separation between themselves and the playoff bubble teams. Unless the Canadiens stumble, they and the Senators could establish themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic. In this scenario, Ottawa would cement themselves as a playoff team, but not a Cup contender.

In this case, the Senators would likely stay quiet around the deadline. They would keep their roster intact and make the playoffs, an improvement from last season. If all goes well, they could have prospects Thomas Chabot and Colin White joining the roster next year. Both Chabot and White were first round picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and are expected to be impact players. They could end up being what the Senators need to make the jump to become Cup contenders.

Enjoy the Ride

It’s going to be a wild month leading up to the trade deadline. Coming into February, every team in the East is still battling for a playoff berth. There will be no easy games, but if the Senators continue to play their game, they can put themselves in a great position to make the postseason.