It feels like an eternity has passed since the Ottawa Senators entered the month of November with four wins and four defeats on the season. Just four weeks back, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the team and the direction they were headed in under head coach D.J. Smith. But, after a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday (Nov. 30), dark clouds have returned to the Canadian Tire Centre.
In November, only one team – the Chicago Blackhawks – posted a worse record than the 4-9-1 Senators. They were even outperformed by the Philadelphia Flyers, who limped through a 10-game winless run after their early season momentum had faded.
Smith criticized the Senators for their lack of “execution” after their loss to the Rangers, which has become a theme in Ottawa. The 45-year-old has often lamented his squad for their poor attention to detail this season.
Smith has often cited advanced statistics to claim that the Senators have played the right way, but have yet to experience the benefits of their hard work. He is not totally wrong: they have created more expected goals than their opponents, but have so far failed to turn expected dominance into real dominance.
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Now, as the calendar turns over into the final month of the year, the Senators have arrived at a crossroads. If they continue to lose more often than they win, it could soon be time for general manager Pierre Dorion to enter the race for Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, or Matevi Michkov. With that in mind, here are three key takeaways from a rocky month for the franchise.
D.J. Smith Under Serious Pressure as Frustration Mounts
It has only been a matter of weeks since Dorion said he had full confidence in Smith. Unless the Senators rebound soon, it feels like only a matter of time until his position shifts and the franchise searches for a new head coach.
Smith is under intense pressure for several reasons, not least because expectations rose after an impressive offseason. Dorion added Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat to his roster in a bid to move into the playoff picture, but has yet to see any improvement from his squad.
Smith’s relationship with fans and media members is also under strain. His latest press conference lasted less than two minutes and was punctuated by soundbites about poor puck luck and individual errors. It is another sign that patience is starting to wear thin in Ottawa.
Shaky Goaltending Costs Senators in November
The Senators revamped their crease in the offseason – and it has backfired badly. While there is still plenty of hockey to be played this season, Dorion appears to have lost the trades that saw Matt Murray join the Toronto Maple Leafs and Cam Talbot arrive in Ottawa.
In defence of Dorion, both moves made sense at the time. The Maple Leafs were criticized for acquiring an injury-prone and out-of-form Murray as their starter, while the Senators took confidence from Talbot’s nine-year record in the NHL.
At the time of the trade, Dorion said: “Cam is experienced and provides us with greater goaltending stability heading into next season. He was instrumental in helping Minnesota reach the playoffs in each of his two seasons with the Wild. The tandem of [Talbot] and Anton Forsberg sets us up nicely for the upcoming year.”
Unfortunately, Talbot has endured a bumpy start to his time with the Senators. The 35-year-old has made several costly mistakes since returning from injury, not least the tight-angle shot he allowed versus the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 22.
Forsberg, with his .904 save percentage and 3.43 goals-against average, is also under pressure. In what should have been a breakout year for the 30-year-old, he has struggled behind a creaky defence at the Canadian Tire Centre.
The Senators need their tandem to find their form, a fact Talbot recently acknowledged: “Obviously, we need to keep playing the way we’ve been playing and stick to that. When you’re in times like this, maybe you need an extra save or two – and that’s on me and [Forsberg] to try and steal one to give us the best chance.”
Senators Takeover Speculation Creates Further Uncertainty
In addition to the team’s on-ice concerns, there are also distractions to account for at the executive level. While nobody should be surprised by the fact that the Senators are on the market, few expected conversations about the future of the franchise to revolve around Ryan Reynolds.
Anna and Olivia Melynk, who inherited the Senators from their late father, have insisted that the club must stay in Ottawa after the sale. However, that does not remove the stresses that come with an ownership change for day-to-day decision-makers within the franchise.
If not for the potential takeover, would the Senators have been more open to the prospect of acquiring a defenceman – a clear position of need – or a coaching change? Quite possibly. It would therefore be in everyone’s best interests for the sale to be quick and uncontroversial. It would clearly help Dorion if the race to purchase the Senators was more like a sprint than a marathon.
Looking Ahead for the Ottawa Senators
The Senators have a hectic, 14-game schedule to contend with in the month ahead. They start out with a rematch in New York versus the Rangers, before returning to the Canadian Tire Centre for contests with the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.
If the Senators want to turn their season around, it feels like a matter of now or never. They have winnable games versus the Nashville Predators, Montreal Canadiens, and Anaheim Ducks coming up, which could provide a much-needed morale boost. Alternatively, a handful of defeats could end any hopes of a turnaround. There is plenty to play for in December.
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Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.