Senators Need to Build From the Blue Line

There is no single recipe for success in the modern NHL. Over the past decade or so, Stanley Cup-winning teams have been big and physical, fast and skilled, and various places in between.

However, there have been few exceptions to the rule that a deep, skilled defence is necessary for turning a team into a contender. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators are poised for another long playoff run, bolstered by an elite top-four on the blue line. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings both won multiple Cups with strong defensive cores as well.

It’s for these reasons that if the Ottawa Senators are planning a rebuild, defence needs to be a top priority. Defence has been one of the Sens’ weaknesses for the last few seasons, even though the team’s defensive struggles were at times hidden by the exceptional play of both goalie Craig Anderson and captain Erik Karlsson.

erik karlsson, craig anderson
Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

This season, Ottawa allowed the second-most goals in the league and the seventh-most shots, and these numbers definitely have to improve if the team wants to be competitive next year. With Erik Karlsson’s future still in question, now is the right time to make sure the Senators are set on the blue line for the coming years.

Lessons to Learn From 2011

Building a strong defence was the goal the last time the Senators embarked on a rebuild. At the start of the 2011-12 season, the team had a core of young defensive prospects that included 21-year-old David Rundblad, 21-year-old Patrick Wiercioch, 20-year-old Jared Cowen and a 21-year-old Karlsson.

Of course, Karlsson had the best season of any Senators defenceman that year. Cowen played well in his rookie season, Rundblad was traded for Kyle Turris, and Wiercioch spent the season in the AHL. Karlsson’s breakout season was a big reason the Senators made the playoffs that season, and the team’s plan to rebuild with years of high draft picks was put on hold.

Even though the Senators made the playoffs again the following season, their group of young blueliners didn’t develop the way the organization had hoped. Karlsson was the only player in this core to become a top-pairing defender, and even just an NHL regular.

Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson had a breakout season in 2012 (Photo by Andy Martin Jr)

This is just another example of how a wealth of defensive prospects doesn’t guarantee stability at that position at the NHL level. The Senators currently have a number of young defencemen with high upside in the AHL, but their lack of NHL experience means there are still lots of questions about how players like Andreas Englund and Christian Jaros will transition to the big leagues.

Thomas Chabot has taken massive steps towards becoming an established top-four defenceman this year and could be set for a breakout season in 2018-19. However, if Karlsson isn’t in this organization’s long-term plans, they’re going to need more help on the backend.

It’s for these reasons that stocking up on more defensive prospects is a good idea, even if it seems like this isn’t an area that needs to be addressed.

Ottawa’s Draft Day Decisions

Defence should be the main area of concern for the Senators at this year’s draft, but the draft lottery will have a big impact on which position they choose to address with their first-round pick. The Senators are guaranteed a top-five pick in the draft and will likely have a tough decision on their hands when it comes to their first selection.

ISS Hockey has only one defenceman in the top five, consensus number-one pick Rasmus Dahlin. Adam Boqvist, Evan Bouchard and Noah Dobson are among the other high-end defencemen that could be selected in the top five, but a strong case could be made for the Sens to take any of the top forwards in the draft instead.

Rasmus Dahlin #8 of Sweden
2018 NHL Draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

Of course, the dream scenario for the Senators is to have the almighty ping pong balls of the NHL Draft Lottery fall in their favor so they can take Dahlin. In the likely event that this doesn’t happen, the Sens will be best served by taking the best player available to them in the draft, no matter what their position is.

Defence needs to be a priority for the Senators if they want to be a perennial playoff team again, but at this stage of their retool, they need to add talent wherever they can find it.