It’s no secret that Ottawa Senators general manager (GM) Pierre Dorion’s stock has risen dramatically this summer. Since acquiring Claude Giroux and winning the Matt Murray trade, the temperature radiating from his hot seat has cooled. For the first time in a while, he isn’t the NHL’s most under siege GM. His reputation has rebounded since the start of the offseason, reflecting the quality surge on Ottawa’s roster.
“I said at the end of the season, we want to play meaningful games late [in 2022-23], and I think we’re one step closer to doing that,” the 50-year-old told reporters after the Alex DeBrincat trade. “Obviously, the rebuild has been going on, we feel we’re in the next phase now.”
Infamously, Dorion and the Senators have been here before. He said the rebuild was “done” last season. It wasn’t, but the situation is different this time around.
Ottawa’s roster for the upcoming season is a marked improvement on the version rolled out in 2021-22. On paper, the Senators have upgraded in every department and should at least figure in the playoff conversation this season. With that in mind, how does head coach D.J. Smith’s new-look squad compare to his opening night lines from a year ago? Let’s break it down.
Ottawa Senators Goalies: Cam Talbot Replaces Matt Murray
Ottawa started 2021-22 with three netminders: Anton Forsberg, Filip Gustavsson, and Murray. They head into next season with Forsberg, signed to a three-year contract extension at $2.75 million against the cap, and Cam Talbot, recently acquired from the Minnesota Wild.
Gustavsson, and his league-minimum contract, was sent to Minnesota, while Dorion dealt Murray to the Toronto Maple Leafs in one of the offseason’s most-discussed trades. July was busy. But are the Senators better in net now than they were last season? They should be, especially if Murray’s career isn’t reignited by a move down the 401.
|2021-22 Stats||Appearances||Save Percentage||Goals-Against Average||Goals Saved Above Expected (per Game)|
|Anton Forsberg||46 (22-17-4)||.917||2.82||14.5 (0.32)|
|Cam Talbot||49 (32-12-4)||.911||2.76||6.4 (0.13)|
|Filip Gustavsson||18 (5-12-1)||.892||3.55||-8.6 (0.48)|
|Matt Murray||20 (5-12-2)||.906||3.05||-0.5 (-0.03)|
In effect, the Senators have retained their top netminder on a relatively modest contract and replaced two underperforming shot-stoppers with a solid, experienced No. 2. It’s a win for the organization.
Ottawa Senators Defence: Jake Sanderson Set for Breakout Year
Ottawa opened last season with a 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs, racing to an early lead before wobbling in the final period. Smith’s blue line has definitely evolved since then.
|Senators v Maple Leafs: 10/14/21||Senators’ Projected Defence: 2022-23|
|Left Defence||Right Defence||Left Defence||Right Defence|
|Thomas Cabot||Artem Zub||Thomas Chabot||Artem Zub|
|Victor Mete||Nikita Zaitsev||Erik Brännström||Travis Hamonic|
|Nick Holden||Josh Brown||Jake Sanderson||Nikita Zaitsev|
Jake Sanderson’s emergence is the franchise’s most important development on the backend. Provided he recovers from a nagging hand injury in time for puck drop, the 20-year-old will be in the frame to make his professional debut on Oct. 14 versus the Buffalo Sabres. Although there was never any shortage of hype surrounding the former fifth overall pick, the Dorion administration is clearly excited about introducing Sanderson to the NHL.
“I was part of a group that drafted Erik Karlsson and Thomas Chabot,” Dorion told TSN 1200 in May. “And I feel that we have someone… that the impact can be as good or better than those two guys. We have something special in Jake.”
Sanderson accumulated 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) through 45 appearances in the NCAA and wore the ‘A’ in his final season with the University of North Dakota. He also featured at the Beijing Olympics, registering an assist in his only appearance for Team USA.
Wherever the 6-foot-2 blueliner slides into the line-up, he will add puck-moving composure and defensive sturdiness befitting of an older, more experienced player. He’s also excited to be part of the team.
“There’s some big names and some pretty cool guys coming in,” Sanderson said. “I think the Ottawa Senators are going to be an exciting team to watch this next year.”
However, Ottawa’s defensive retool doesn’t stop with the entrance of their top prospect. Erik Brännström, though still unsigned, is a year older and should improve on his 14-point haul from last season. Travis Hamonic’s mid-year move has also worked out okay so far.
Lurking in the corner, there is an elephant in the room. Arizona Coyotes defenceman Jakob Chychrun continues to be linked to the Senators, a move that would radically improve the right side of their defence – the weakest part of Dorion’s roster.
Whether or not further changes are made to Smith’s blueline, his defence will make progress this season. It’s yet another victory for the organization.
Ottawa Senators Offence: Drastic Improvement in the Top-6
It’s all change in the top-six for the Senators. Smith will open the new campaign with a vastly improved forward group, including Brady Tkachuk (who missed the season opener a year ago), plus the newly acquired DeBrincat and Giroux. As it stands, Daily Faceoff projects Ottawa’s lines as follows:
|Brady Tkachuk||Josh Norris||Drake Batherson|
|Alex DeBrincat||Tim Stützle||Claude Giroux|
|Alex Formenton||Shane Pinto||Mathieu Joseph|
|Parker Kelly||Dylan Gambrell||Austin Watson|
By contrast, Smith’s top-six last fall included the promising Shane Pinto – who is set to be bumped down the lineup – and Connor Brown – who was dealt to the Washington Capitals for a 2024 second-round pick:
|Tim Stützle||Josh Norris||Drake Batherson|
|Nick Paul||Shane Pinto||Connor Brown|
|Alex Formenton||Chris Tierney||Tyler Ennis|
|Zach Sanford||Logan Shaw||Parker Kelly|
Unquestionably, the Senators are stronger in attack than in previous years. But what impact will this reshuffle have on the team’s fortunes as they target a playoff return?
“We’re thrilled to add a player of Claude’s calibre to our line-up,” Dorion explained on the first day of free agency. “He’s an elite offensive talent with exceptional face-off prowess and a player who maintains a strong work ethic. His leadership skills are arguably among his best assets.
“We’ve set out to bolster our roster this off-season and this addition is another important component in helping us achieve that. We’re very happy to welcome Claude and his family home to Ottawa.”
Giroux, a five-time 25 goal-scorer in the NHL, arrives at the Canadian Tire Centre ahead of his age-35 season, but with plenty left in the tank. He recorded 65 points (21 goals, 44 assists) in 75 appearances for the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers last season and will be a key player under Smith.
DeBrincat, meanwhile, is hoping to take the next step in his career after joining from the Chicago Blackhawks. He cost the Senators three draft picks in the offseason and is looking forward to joining the team.
“The immediate reaction was just shock,” DeBrincat said last month. “I saw some rumors and stuff but until it actually happens, it doesn’t really hit you. So, I was definitely shocked. But now I’m really excited to join this group. Obviously, a young core that’s ready to compete, to play in the playoffs, hopefully a good team and win some games this year turn in the right direction. I’m happy to be a part of that.”
Despite spending the campaign on a struggling team, the 24-year-old registered 78 points (41 goals, 37 assists) in 82 games in his final year with the Blackhawks. He will be integral to Ottawa’s push up the standings in the months ahead.
Also of note: Tim Stützle and Pinto are another year older and will benefit from being surrounded by more quality. As such, the Senators and their fans should be in for a more enjoyable season.
What Next for the Ottawa Senators?
Despite making a raft of improvements to his roster, Dorion still faces a complicated year ahead, as the Eastern Conference is set to be exceptionally competitive, with several teams taking positive steps this offseason.
Navigating a route to the playoffs from the Atlantic Division will be a tough task for Ottawa, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Panthers, and Maple Leafs retaining more of their key players. However, there is a window of opportunity for Dorion & Co.
If the Senators start the season on the front foot and avoid injuries, there is every chance they will be playing meaningful games in the back half of the campaign. In other words, progress has been made this offseason.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat 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.