At the mid-point of this winter of discontent for fans of the Ottawa Senators, it’s time to take stock and salute the team’s top three players to this point in the season. While the Senators’ record is a disappointing 14-22-4 over its first 40 games, there’s reason for hope and not just because Canada’s resident rodent weather forecaster Wiarton Willie this week predicted an early spring (in contrast to that doomsayer Punxsutawney Phil south of the border).
In their last 20 games, the Senators have played .500 hockey and in their last 10 matchups, have a record of 4-5-1 in a schedule that included games against five of the NHL’s top teams including the Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals. By comparison, the team’s record over the first 20 games of the season was 4-15-1 as they struggled through atrocious goaltending, COVID-19, and injuries.
Three players in my opinion have played a big part in what little success the team did see in the first half of the season and in their improved play of late. That’s not to say others couldn’t have made the top-three list. The peanut gallery is sure to disagree with my selection, but let’s have a look anyway at my picks for the top trio in the first half.
There’s a strong case to be made for D-Man Thomas Chabot as the Senators’ most valuable player (MVP) in the first half of the season. Sure, his goal production rate is on track for a career-low this year and he is far from the perennial Norris Trophy calibre defenseman the Senators had hoped he would be. Yet it’s important to keep in mind that he’s playing with a team that has been the league’s punching bag for the last five years.
Chabot’s ice-time at an average of 27:08 per game is the most of any blueliner in the league this year. Only the Edmonton Oilers’ Darnell Nurse comes close at 26:32 per game. Chabot’s underlying statistics are solid with a plus-minus of plus one – second only to Artem Zub among regular defensemen on the roster. While his plus-minus is a problem in comparison to the NHL’s top defensemen, that’s largely because he plays for a team whose defence has been a dumpster fire up until now.
With three goals at even strength, he trails Zub by one. Where he shines at offense, however, is in the assist department being the play-maker that he is and the ice-time he logs. With 20 assists, no other Ottawa rear guard compares to him in this category. Perhaps even more impressive is his shots-on-goal tally which at 109, is second only to Brady Tkachuk this season. Still, a dismal shooting percentage of just 2.8 explains why his goal tally this year is low compared to his best year in 2018-19 (14 goals and 55 points).
It’s not only on-ice statistics that make an NHLer valuable. Intangibles count and that’s what makes Chabot so important to the Senators. He is part of the team’s leadership and has mentored the up and comers in the defense corps playing over the course of the season with Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Erik Brannstrom.
Many would tag Tkachuk as the Senators’ MVP over the first half of the season. I disagree, but don’t take my word for it – the NHL initially named Drake Batherson as the Senators’ representative at this year’s NHL All-Star Game. Even so, the big captain is unquestionably among the team’s top three players.
This season, Tkachuk is on track for 25 goals and 62 points – his best year ever over the course of his four-year tenure with the Senators. With Drake Batherson probably out for the rest of the season and Josh Norris sidelined with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, the Senators will look to the big left-winger for much of their offensive firepower over the remainder of the season. Barring injuries, he is sure to lead his team in points production.
The importance of Tkachuk’s contribution on the score sheet is only eclipsed by the intangibles he brings to the team. He has become the team’s heart and soul leading them into battle every night and defining the team’s character by example.
Nick Paul put it best when Tkachuk was named team captain last fall saying, “Brady’s the guy that puts it out there every night. He leads by example. He scores, hits, fights, does everything so he’s a great leader.”
Yet perhaps one of the more important intangibles Tkachuk brings to his team as captain is the relationship he has with Chabot. The two make a powerful duo at the helm with Tkachuk saying of Chabot, “He’s every much as great of a leader as anybody that I’ve ever met and he’s going to be right there with me. It’s going to be together like it always has been. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to keep leaning on each other and keep progressing and that’s what we’ve always been doing and I’m really excited to do this with him and both of us take this team to the next level.”
Before he was injured, Batherson led his team with 13 goals and 21 assists for a total of 34 points in 31 games. The 23-year old has been the Senators’ only point-per-game man this season. That’s even more impressive coming from a player in only his second year as a regular on the Senators’ roster.
Sidelined by a cheap shot shoulder check from Buffalo Sabres’ fourth-string goalie Aaron Dell on Jan. 25 that caused a season-ending crash into the boards, Batherson was on track to rack up 85 points putting him among the NHL’s top 20 points-getters at that time. Only two other players in franchise history have produced at that level. That was in the 2007-08 season when Jason Spezza registered 92 points and Alfredsson 89.
Many pundits say Batherson has the potential to become one of the league’s biggest stars. That depends on many things, but the odds of that coming true would be dramatically improved if he found himself back playing with Norris and Tkachuk on the Senators’ top line in the years to come.
Honourable Mention – Josh Norris
Before he was injured, Norris led his team with 18 goals and was on track to notch 41 over the full 82-game schedule. That performance is impressive coming from a 22-year old playing only in his second year as a regular in an NHL roster.
Norris has a deadly shot and finds himself matched up against opponents’ top lines. Over his first 82 games to start his career, the young Michigan native had 27 goals, putting him three behind franchise record holder in that category, Alexei Yashin, and one ahead of Ottawa great, Daniel Alfredsson.
Outlook for Senators’ Last Half of 2021-22 Season
With Batherson likely gone for the season and no timeline yet on Norris’ return, other players have the chance to step up and establish themselves in the top three. It could be Tim Stutzle now sitting at the fourth spot on the points board with 21 markers. Hot on his heels is Alex Formenton with nine goals and 10 assists.
Another to watch is Matt Murray, now showing signs of a Phoenix-like rise from what were the ashes of his dismal first half. In his last five games, he has registered three wins and two overtime losses with a save percentage of .936 and a goals-against-average of 2.20. All of this gives Senators fans hope that he will become the championship net-minder they thought they had acquired.
This year was to have been the one in which the Senators transitioned into a team to be taken seriously. A poor start, injuries, and the pandemic extinguished hopes for that. Even so, the Senators now have an opportunity in the second half of the season to give their fans a glimpse of what was to have been the team’s transition year. Any number of players now have a chance to help write that story.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney