The Ottawa Senators are far from where they expected to be by the end of December. Sitting at seventh place in the Atlantic Division, any hopes of a playoff spot are quickly starting to fade. The math certainly isn’t in their favour, as the Senators are 15 points back of the final playoff spot in the division with 47 games to go.
Unless the team is banking on another improbable charge to the postseason, changes are imminent in Canada’s capital. However, since the mandate from ownership is still to win now, it doesn’t look like general manager Pierre Dorion will trade any key players for draft picks.
During a press conference earlier in the month, Dorion said he still has faith this team can contend.
Sens GM Pierre Dorion: We're seven games out of the playoffs and 53 games are left. Maybe I'm too much of an optimist, but that's where I am.
— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) December 13, 2017
However, the Sens have failed to make up any ground since mid-December. Right now, the Senators have a roster that’s built for playoff contention that is playing itself into the draft lottery. The moves Dorion makes in the next few weeks will show us if he’s willing to fully rebuild, or if he is just preparing his roster for next season.
Even if Dorion isn’t willing to acknowledge this season as a write-off, the Sens might still be better off giving their prospects some NHL experience. However, veteran role players Alex Burrows, Tom Pyatt, Nate Thompson and Gabriel Dumont are all signed for one more season, so there isn’t much room for 20-year-old forwards.
Time to Tank?
The team’s roster construction isn’t the only thing standing in the way of giving players like Colin White, Gabriel Gagne and Filip Chlapik ice time, as Guy Boucher’s coaching strategy involves leaning heavily on experienced players. While Burrows has seen his ice time take a noticeable dip since the first month of the season, Boucher has only taken him out of the lineup once, on the second half of a back-to-back.
During training camp, Boucher perfectly summed up his approach to rookies by saying “You don’t give steak to a baby, you give them baby food.” While this approach worked out for the Sens last season, the coach’s philosophy isn’t in line with the reality of this team’s current situation. Any signs of improvement for the Senators have been followed by the same problems that have haunted the team for the last few seasons—subpar special teams, poor defensive zone play, and inconsistent scoring. Of course, Filip Chlapik isn’t going to fix all of these problems, but there are some other benefits to giving the kids a chance.
During the 2010-11 season, the Senators were in a similar situation heading into the New Year. Bryan Murray, Ottawa’s general manager at the time, decided to stand pat until the month of the trade deadline when veterans like Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Alex Kovalev were all dealt. Head coach Cory Clouston, however, managed to survive the February purge. After icing a younger lineup, the Senators ended up hurting their draft position by climbing out of last place in the Eastern Conference. Dorion could learn from the 2011 season and shake up his lineup before the playoffs are completely out of reach. The other option is to stay the course in the hopes that the Sens will either turn things around or play themselves into the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes.
Deepening the Prospect Pool
While Senators fans are anticipating some bigger moves, Dorion was able to make one notable signing over the Christmas break. The Sens signed Barrie Colts centre Aaron Luchuk to an entry-level deal on Boxing Day. While Luchuk was never selected in the NHL draft, the 20-year-old has made a name for himself by leading the OHL in goals this year and winning the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires last spring.
Luchuk will spend the rest of the season in the OHL, but this signing could have some significant implications for the Belleville Senators next season. The newest Senator exhibited some strong chemistry with Sens prospect Logan Brown while Luchuk was still in Windsor. While Luchuk has put up some impressive numbers on his own, the Senators are surely hoping the pair can rekindle their magic if they play together in 2018-19.