Lessons Learned: Ottawa Senators’ Preseason Edition

Ottawa finished the 2015 preseason with the most unlikeliest of wins. While being out shot 37 to 15, the Senators put five past Montreal St. John’s goalie Dustin Tokarski while Montreal could only score four on prospect Matt O’Connor. Ottawa’s offensive performance certainly made for entertaining viewing, but consistently relying on maintaining a 33% shooting percentage is not a recipe for long-term success. Yet, while the goals and wins don’t count, fans can learn a lot from these exhibition games. Here are three key lessons we’ve learned about the Senators from this year’s training camp.

Matt O’Connor is Very Good

Sure it sounds simplistic, but Ottawa’s new goalie has played very well and demonstrated the promise that made him one of the most sought-after college free agents. While O’Connor put up excellent numbers for Boston University last year, it was an open question as to how well his game would translate to the NHL. So far the answer seems to be exceptionally well. O’Connor put in strong performances in both the Senators’ July Development Camp and the rookie tournament in London, ON. and continued his excellent play once full training camp opened. Granted, he still let in four goals against Montreal on Saturday night, but Ottawa’s defense was porous to say the least, and without O’Connor, Montreal would most certainly have won.

What makes O’Connor so good in net is that he uses his size incredibly effectively. At 6’6” he is able to cover the entire bottom of the net when in the butterfly position and be exceptionally conservative with his movements. Similar to Carey Price, O’Connor manages to always look in control and in position. By playing such a calm style, he also inspires confidence in his teammates, even when they are scrambling to get the puck out of their zone. Furthermore, his ability to read the play should serve him well in the AHL which has a larger number of broken plays and scrambles than the NHL. In the summer I compared O’Connor to Ben Bishop and after a strong preseason this comparison still holds. Ottawa fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic for the team’s future in goal.

Mike Hoffman has Something to Prove

Mike Hoffman Ottawa Senators
(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

After receiving a one-year, two million dollar contract from an arbitrator this summer, it isn’t surprising that Hoffman feels like he has something to prove. Despite leading the Senators in goals last year, Hoffman was demoted to the fourth line at various points during the season and publicly called out by coach Dave Cameron for defensive lapses. He even featured in trade rumours over the summer, and while it was highly unlikely that Hoffman would ever be dealt, its clear that Bryan Murray and Dave Cameron expect more out of him this year.

So far, it looks like Hoffman has delivered. At the start of training camp Director of Player Personal (and former strength and conditioning coach) Randy Lee highlighted Hoffman’s off-season conditioning work. With Clark MacArthur starting the season injured, Cameron has moved Hoffman up to play on the first line with Kyle Turris and Mark Stone. In the last preseason game against Montreal, Hoffman scored a beautiful goal after using his speed to get open and receive a perfect pass from Stone. In addition, the coaching staff has also praised his renewed two-way commitment and are keen to reward him. While all of this bodes well for Ottawa this season, it means they are going to have to pay a lot more for Hoffman’s services next off-season.

Ottawa Lacks Depth On Defense

Ottawa has a strong top-four on defense with Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot on the top pairing and Patrick Wiercioch and Cody Ceci on the second pairing. However, the bottom pairing was a weakness last year that management has done little to address. The current third pairing for opening night projects to be Mark Borowiecki and Jared Cowen, both of whom struggled last year and were weak possession players. While Chris Wideman has looked promising in preseason and is currently the 7th defenseman on the roster, he has never played an NHL game before. With Eric Gryba gone and Chris Phillips hurt, when one of Cowen or Borowiecki struggles, Wideman will have to step up and prove that his offensive game can translate from the AHL to the NHL.

The big concern though is injury. Ottawa has four defensemen who can play top four minutes. If one of them gets hurt there isn’t an obvious replacement waiting in the wings. Furthermore, with Mikael Wikstrand currently being suspended, Ottawa’s depth on defense in Binghamton (and hence call-up options) is sorely lacking. As an attempted solution Ottawa brought in Mike Kostka and Mark Fraser to bolster Ottawa’s organizational depth on defense and while the two new signings may well make Binghamton’s blue line better, neither look like NHL defensemen. Other than playing one season for the Maple Leafs, Kostka has been a career minor league player. Fraser, alternatively has played at least 30 games every year since 2009-2010, however, in that time, he has been one of the worst defensemen in the league.

Furthermore, neither Kostka and Fraser had strong preseasons. Kostka looked good in early inter-squad games but once Ottawa started playing against other teams, it was clear that he was out of his depth and was sent down to Binghamton. Fraser, who signed with Ottawa after being released by the Maple Leads, was unable to handle Montreal’s speedy forcheck during the last exhibition game and frequently coughed up the puck. Even when he did manage to control the puck, Fraser does not have the puck skills to enable Ottawa to exit their defensive zone in possession of the puck, resulting in either a neutral zone turnover or an icing call. While he may be a decent option for Binghamton, Fraser is not an NHL defenseman.

If any one of Ottawa’s top six defenders gets hurt, it isn’t clear that there is an NHL-level replacement waiting in Binghamton and there certainly isn’t a another top four defender on the team. Remember last year, until December, Marc Methot was out with an injury and Ottawa was a negative possession team in that time that looked more likely to challenge for Connor McDavid than a playoff spot. Methot’s return and with no further injuries to Karlsson, Wiercioch and Ceci (plus a coaching change) allowed Ottawa to greatly improve in the second half of the season. However, it was only a miracle run that allowed the team to overcome the massive 14 point hole they dug for themselves. Another long-term injury and Ottawa will be relying on heroics yet again to make the playoffs.

Lessons Learned

Over the course of the preseason fans have learned that Ottawa has a strong group of goaltenders and forwards that will perform well over the upcoming season. Matt O’Connor provides important depth for the Anderson-Hammond goaltending tandem. While Anderson’s health is always a concern, O’Connor’s strong performance should settle some nerves about what happens in case Anderson (or Hammond) gets seriously injured.

Similarly, Ottawa has a wealth of scoring options among their forward lines, led by super sophomores Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman. Together on a line with Kyle Turris to start the year, they should continue to score at a prolific pace during their second year in the league. The only concern is on defense, which sounds odd given that Ottawa has a two-time Norris Trophy winner back there. But the lack of depth and management’s failure to address this pressing need during the summer has created a situation where Ottawa is only one serious injury away from falling out of contention in a competitive Atlantic Division.  So here’s hoping everyone stays healthy.