OTTAWA — It’s a fresh start for the Ottawa Senators. After finishing last in the NHL standings in 2018-19, the team is focused on taking the next step in their rebuild. With a new coach and plenty of new faces, there is a sense of renewed optimism.
Last season, general manager Pierre Dorion decided go into a full rebuild, parting ways with captain Erik Karlsson and dealing Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline. On July 1, he sent defencemen Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur to the Toronto Maple Leafs and later traded veteran forward Zack Smith to Chicago.
After firing head coach Guy Boucher late in the season, Dorion decided D.J. Smith, an assistant to Mike Babcock in Toronto the last four years, was the man who could help lead the franchise back to respectability.
The 42-year-old rookie head coach will have his hands full as he attempts to instill some defensive responsibility into the group.
Last season, the Senators allowed a league-high 301 goals.
Looking to add some veteran leadership on the back end, Dorion signed 38-year-old free agent Ron Hainsey and acquired Nikita Zaitsev in the Ceci trade. Both newcomers played for the Leafs and Smith was responsible for Toronto’s defence.
The hope is Zaitsev will partner with Thomas Chabot, who flourished last season with 14 goals and 55 points to finish 10th among defencemen in scoring.
Chabot, who recently signed an eight-year extension, is considered a cornerstone to the rebuild.
“I think his offensive side is unbelievable,” said Smith. “I look at teams that have won championships like (Scott) Niedermayer that eventually he was the shutdown, offensive, everything guy and that’s what I see with Thomas. He’s not just an offensive guy. He has just unbelievable hockey sense and he’s going to make everyone around him better.”
The Senators suffered a loss to their blue line before the season started as Christian Wolanin suffered a torn labrum preparing for training camp and is expected to miss four months or more. The 24-year-old had signed a two-year deal in the off-season and was expected to play a significant role on Ottawa’s defence.
His absence created an opening and for now it appears Erik Brannstrom will be the beneficiary.
Brannstrom, acquired in the deal for Stone, had a solid camp and appears set to play in Ottawa’s season opener against the Leafs as he survived the last round of cuts.
Cody Goloubef appears to be the seventh defencemen.
Colin White is expected to start as the No. 1 centre between Brady Tkachuk, who surpassed expectations last season in his rookie year, and the newly acquired Connor Brown. The trio performed well through pre-season, but the challenge will be whether they can handle the pressure and workload of the regular season.
One of the biggest surprises at training camp was 27-year-old forward Scott Sabourin, who had been invited on a professional tryout. The Ottawa native had played for Smith when he was head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals.
Sabourin was signed to a one-year, two-way contract earlier this week and is one of the 14 forwards remaining. With Rudolfs Balcers sidelined indefinitely with a lower body injury, Sabourin and Filip Chlapik will be battling to get into the lineup.
“All you can do in this sport is show up and put the work in,” said Sabourin, who has yet to play an NHL regular-season game. “I’ve been around for seven years and haven’t quite had this opportunity, so I try not to get ahead of myself and just take it day-by-day.”
Smith has been impressed.
“He gets on the forecheck, he’s hard to play against and he’s better on the wall than I expected and he’s certainly there looking out for our young guys,” said Smith. “We’ve got a lot of them and he’s done a good job of that.
“He’s got a little more skill than people give him credit for and like I said I feel he can get on the forecheck, create some havoc and create some energy for us.”
With so many young players, goaltenders Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson will likely see a heavy workload as the team adjusts to a new system.
The early plan is for the two to share the workload. Anderson, 38, is entering the final year of his contract, while Nilsson was signed to a two-year extension.
While Anderson understands the mindset, he plans on making it difficult to pull him from the net. Anderson says he wants to be the guy the Senators rely on as their No. 1 netminder.
Ottawa Senators at a Glance
D.J. Smith is in his first season as an NHL head coach. He signed a three-year deal.
29-47-6, missed playoffs and finished last in the league.
Thomas Chabot: Signed an eight-year extension and will be expected to take on a big leadership role both on and off the ice. Chabot is the Senators’ top defencemen and will be expected to eat big minutes. The Senators will need him to be at his best to have any chance of winning most nights.
Brady Tkachuk: Entering his second year in the league, the Senators have big expectations for the feisty winger. The fourth overall draft pick from 2018 finished with 22 goals and took on a bigger role after Mark Stone and Matt Duchene were traded.
Colin White: The 22-year-old signed a six-year extension and will start the season slotted as the No. 1 centre. White understands the increased expectations and is looking forward to the challenge, but time will tell whether or not he can handle the added responsibilities and workload.
The Big Question
After finishing 31st overall last season and allowing a league-high 301 goals, the focus this season is defensive structure. The Senators look drastically different from last season after another summer of roster change and a new coach in Smith. How quickly this group can come together and make the necessary adjustments will largely determine if they can make any headway in the standings.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2019.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press