With the 2019-20 season just around the corner, the rebuild continues to be a focal point of the Ottawa Senators organization moving forward. After the past two seasons saw the Senators finish second last and last, and move along from the talents of Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman, Ryan Dzingel, Cody Ceci and Kyle Turris, supporters of the team are ready to turn the page.
In early Feb. 2019, owner Eugene Melnyk fully backed the direction of the team and targeted the beginning of a return to contention beginning in 2021.
The Senators have stocked up the prospect cupboard through trades and the draft and are beginning to amass a strong young nucleus. In order for the team to hit Melnyk’s 2021 trajectory, the 2019-20 season will be pivotal in staying the course.
What does a perfect Ottawa Senators 2019-20 season look like? Let’s rundown the ‘must-sees’ for the team this coming season.
Play the Youth
Recently fired Senators’ coach Guy Boucher was often criticized for playing veteran players too much in his tactics. While you always want to incorporate young players in your lineup to support their development, inevitable miscues and mistakes are likely outcomes. In the latter part of Boucher’s tenure in Ottawa, he was coaching more to save his job than to promote youthful progress.
With prognosticators seeding the Senators in the bottom of the league for 2019-20, why not give the reigns over to the next generation of talent? Frequent special teams play, challenging line matchups, increased minutes and situational shifts will only help fast track the development curve of the Senators youngsters. Embracing the idea that mistakes and blunders are part of the process, developing young players is a worthy investment.
New head coach DJ Smith is fully behind the youth movement and welcomes the challenge to work with a young team.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to have these young guys . . . and a chance to rise with them.”Sportsnet
With both general manager Pierre Dorion and head coach DJ Smith sharing the same philosophy, younger roster players need to be given every opportunity to take the next step in their development in order for the Senators to take the next step.
Explore the Organizational Depth
Next to the Anaheim Ducks, the Senators had the second-most transactions in the NHL in 2018-19. Given general player injuries and recalls from their AHL affiliate the Belleville Senators, the big club traded away significant pieces for prospects and draft picks, which saw more player movement within the organizational shuffle.
While this movement can become a nightmare for coaches at the AHL level trying to implement structure and schematics within their own team, recalls provide additional opportunities for NHL teams to evaluate prospect progress and truly determine what certain players have to offer. Take 22-year-old centre prospect Filip Chlapik for example.
The 2015 draftee has been part of the organization for a number of years and has yet to crack the lineup on a consistent basis. While his development has seen him steadily improve his overall game and two-way play, he could soon be passed over by younger prospects in the depth chart. More frequent looks at the NHL level will help the organization truly understand his trajectory and help make decisions on his future with the Senators down the line.
NHL recalls are also huge motivators for AHL players and creating healthy competition at any level is never a bad thing.
The Senators have done an excellent job stocking up the prospect shelves. The Belleville Senators narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season and should be a good bet to make the postseason this time around. With so much promise in their depth chart, the Senators need to put their blue-chippers to the test throughout the season in order to properly evaluate them.
The Senators 2019 offseason saw some of the most encouraging player news in recent memory. In late August, the team signed restricted free agent (RFA) centreman Colin White to a six-year, $28.5 million contract. The signing was an encouraging lead into training camp and just the start of things to come.
While White’s signing was significant, the biggest of the Senators’ RFAs to lockdown was Thomas Chabot. To the surprise and relief of many, the Senators and the all-star defenceman recently agreed to an eight-year, $64-million contract. The deal is the longest and most lucrative signing in Senators history.
With these two cornerstone pieces locked up long-term, there is renewed optimism in Ottawa that Senators management is committed to retaining homegrown talent. More importantly, Senators players are making the decision to commit to the organization and want to be part of the team turn around.
Barring any trades throughout the season, the team will need to make decisions on notable veteran free-agents Mark Borowieki, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Dylan Demelo and Craig Anderson. The next line of RFAs looking for new deals are Connor Brown, Anthony Duclair, Chris Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers, Nicholas Paul, Andreas Englund, Christian Jaros, Max Veronneau and Joey Daccord.
Will this crop of players want to be part of the Senators organization moving forward or better yet, will the organization want them?
Buying into the Coach
Once the puck finally drops next week to kick off the 2019-20 season, the Senators will have had six different coaches over the past 10 seasons. None of Cory Clouston, Paul MacLean, Dave Cameron and Guy Boucher could solidify the head coaching position for more than three seasons. Such frequent turnover has left the organization void of any sustainable culture or identity.
Smith enters this season in a favourable position. The expectations around the Senators’ placement in the standings are low as Smith will be primarily focusing on building a foundation for the team from the ground up. Key areas of focus will be improving defensive zone coverage and establish player accountability.
In an interview with TSN’s Ian Mendes, Smith shared, ” You can ask any of my players, I push guys really hard, but at the same point I always had their back”.
He also added, “I’m going to build trust and accountability. I’m going to be the most positive person they’ve seen in a long time. We’re going to make this thing fun.”
While accountability is paramount on a team that has been spiralling for direction, arguably Smith’s biggest challenge will be to achieve player buy-in. He is known to be a players’ coach and it will be vital for him to earn the trust of the Senators’ young core if the team hopes to march forward.
Finishing at the Bottom
Finishing poorly in the standings is never something to be targeted, but should the Senators hope to have ‘unparalleled success’ from 2021-25, earning a top-five draft pick is an absolute must.
Since 2009, both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup three times. Each team was able to draft staple pieces to help construct a championship blueprint. Over a three year span, the Penguins selected Sidney Crosby (first in 2005), Evgeni Malkin (second in 2004), and Marc-Andre Fleury (first in 2003). In consecutive drafts, the Blackhawks selected Patrick Kane (first in 2007) Jonathan Toews (third in 2006). These picks were cornerstone pieces of modern-day dynasties and in order for the Senators to make their mark, drafting superior talent will be key.
Looking ahead to the 2020 NHL Draft, this crop is already being labelled one of the best in years. Headlined by left-wing scoring sensation Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL, the top five to ten picks are absolute standouts. In no particular order, after Lafreniere are fellow scoring wingers Lucas Raymond, Cole Perfetti and Alexander Holtz followed by powerful centre Quinton Byfield, playmaking pivot Hendrix Lapierre and goaltending prodigy Yaroslav Askarov.
Should the Senators finish in the bottom five of the standings for the third consecutive season, it would certainly be the most positive negative they have seen in years.
Minimal Ownership Headlines
It has been well documented that Melnyk has lost the support of the Ottawa faithful. From the failed attempt to move the arena downtown to Lebreton Flats, the birth of #melnykout from his comments prior to the 2017 Winter Classic in Ottawa and a recent lawsuit by a Connecticut casino, the organization could use a lull from the off-ice drama.
Now that the player deck has been shuffled and a core is being established, the Senators are finally trending upwards. At this point, the best investment that ownership could make is to remain in the background and out of sight and out of media.
Only time will tell, but for all the stars to align and create the perfect
2019-20 season for the Ottawa Senators, all they may need is a little luck. Something they haven’t had in some time.
Ottawa Senators writer for The Hockey Writers.
Scout/writer on the Nashville Predators at Dobber Prospects.
Ottawa native, hockey player, coach and referee.
Forever a fan of hockey with a keen interest in prospects and NHL rookies.