It’s not easy to make the playoffs in the National Hockey League. In a long 82-game stretch, everything needs to go right. For the Ottawa Senators, there are a number of obvious lingering issues from last year, such as bad special teams, tons of shots against and a pattern of low possession time. But, what else can the team do to improve their chances of making the playoffs?
Special teams have been an issue in the past—especially last year—and so far this year, they continue to be. Through four games, the Sens have only scored on one of their 11 power play opportunities. This is especially disappointing considering it is supposed to be new head coach Guy Boucher’s specialty. On the other hand, they’ve successfully defended 13 of their 17 penalty kills, although the high number of penalties indicates a lack of discipline.
Erik Karlsson needs to continue to play his game, and so far this year, he has done that. Despite speculation that Boucher’s style could clash with the captain’s occasional defensive weaknesses, his offensive upside is prevailing once again. So far, Karlsson has 2 goals, 5 assists, 12 shots on goal, and holds a plus-minus rating of plus-7.
But, what are some of the underlying, less obvious issues?
Craig Anderson needs to stay healthy and have a strong year. That might seem like an obvious statement, and it is, but especially so for the Sens’ veteran goaltender.
He has an odd pattern that shows he has a bad season every two years. That pattern can be attributed to some of the uncommon injuries he’s sustained, but the team and its poor defensive structure over the past few seasons are mostly to blame.
The Sens have been offensively-lopsided, to say the least. They have had no trouble scoring thanks to a strong forward core and, of course, Karlsson. But, in their own end, the team has done a horrible job insulating and supporting their goaltenders.
Since the 2011-12 season—Anderson’s first full year in Ottawa—the Senators have averaged 32.8 shots against per game (worst in the league) and they have only killed off 75.8 percent of their penalties (29th in the league).
In that same time frame, Anderson is 10th in saves, 11th in goals against and 8th in save percentage among goaltenders with at least 200 games.
The team needs to be better so that their number one goaltender can be better.
General manager Pierre Dorion, his assistants and his coaching staff need to continue making decisions that focus on what’s best for the team. Many have speculated that in recent years the Sens management has favoured players with local ties and/or upcoming individual achievements.
For example, Chris Neil, 37, has been an intimidating presence on the roster since his debut in the 2001-02 season. But, as the league continues to shift towards speedier, more talented players, Neil needs to prove that he can still contribute and make an impact as a fourth-line player. Prospects such as Phil Varone, Matt Puempel, Nick Paul and Ryan Dzingel are waiting in line and fighting for a permanent spot—it’s important that Dorion and Boucher aren’t swayed by Neil’s upcoming 1,000-game milestone.
Another example is Curtis Lazar, who was drafted 17th overall by the Sens in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. In each of his first two full seasons with the team, he hasn’t produced more than six goals or 20 points, a result of his inconsistency and inability to adapt to the NHL level of play. This year, after missing some preseason time due to illness (mononucleosis), Lazar is starting off his season with the Sens’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton, a conditioning stint with no timetable for his return.
No need to rush Lazar back or make any promises. He's been playing to survive in the NHL, not thrive. Needs a mental reset & improve skills.
— Shawn Simpson (@TSNSimmer) October 11, 2016
Big Contracts Need to Pay Off
You’ve probably heard this one before: Bobby Ryan needs to score 30 goals. After being acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks, the Sens signed him to a seven-year, $50.75 million contract right before the 2014-15 season. In his time with the Ducks, he hit the 30-goal plateau four seasons in a row, but he hasn’t yet achieved that number after three seasons in Ottawa.
After being left off of Team USA’s World Cup of Hockey roster, he knows that this is the year to take a step forward as a Senator, and he has all of the tools to do it.
As the 2016-17 season kicks off, Ryan is clear of nagging injuries. He has a new linemate in Derick Brassard—an upgrade to his former linemate Mika Zibanejad and a better fit because he is a left-handed shot who is more developed and more accomplished.
“I’ve really liked what I’ve seen right now with Bobby,” Boucher said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen. “He fits perfectly with Brassard. That’s what we were hoping. They click very well. (Ryan) has been unbelievable on the power play, so I really like what we’ve got.”