After a significant “Hot Pierre Summer” the Ottawa Senators are definitely a team on the rise. With major trades, big signings, and some key prospects entering the lineup, I thought it would be fun to look at how they stack up to their divisional opponents in a few key areas. First up, the Montreal Canadiens.
Forwards Match Up Well
Looking at the key forwards for both groups, we’re going to see a selection of players that embody similar roles. Nick Suzuki and Tim Stützle are the quick, crafty, set-up guys. Alex DeBrincat and Cole Caufield are lethal shooters who can drive play in their own right, and finally, Brady Tkachuk and Kirby Dach are big bodies who can go hard into the corners and battle in front of the net. Obviously, there are differences in the way each one thinks and plays the game, but they all occupy similar roles on their respective teams.
DeBrincat / Tkachuk / Stützle vs. Caufield / Dach / Suzuki
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but right now Suzuki is better than Stützle. He has a more well-rounded game and is stronger in the faceoff circle. Their points were close last year (58 for Stützle, 61 for Suzuki) and they have similar possession metrics. But Suzuki has proven he can handle added pressure for the Habs after playing a key role in their past two seasons. Stützle will be looking to build upon his rookie season, especially after signing an eight-year extension. He’s taken great strides in his development and should see a healthy bump in points when he plays alongside DeBrincat. When the season ends, Stützle may wind up the victor, but heading into it the smart money is on Suzuki.
When it comes to the snipe show, both teams have advanced shooters in DeBrincat and Caufield. After a tough start and some time in Laval, Caufield exploded under the guidance of freshman coach Marty St. Louis. He ended last year on an absolute tear, the kind of play where he could have been a Calder Trophy lock had it started in the first weeks of the season.
The Chicago Blackhawks transplant DeBrincat has a stronger history. With two 40-goal seasons under his belt, the question is whether or not he can continue to do it without the elite playmaking of Patrick Kane. Even without his former set-up man, he has all of the tools to produce another 30-goal season. I think he’ll gel nicely with his new team and could hit 40 again. Having him play behind Tkachuk in the depth chart should help create favourable line matchups, possibly allowing for him to reach a new peak.
Both teams have their big boy who can power through plays when given the chance. But there are differences in how they play their game. At this point, there’s little discussion to be had here. Dach is in dire need of a rejuvenating season if he wants to stick around in Montreal. There’s a lot to like about his game, as he’s certainly faster and more skilled than a lot of other big bodies, but he just hasn’t been able to translate that to success at the NHL level yet.
For Tkachuk, you know what you’re getting. He’s going to make life hell for the opposing team and score a good number of goals while doing it. Coming off a career-high of 30 goals, he should stand to build on that this year with the Senators’ roster improvements. He’s adapted well to the leadership role and his game is one of pure intensity, a rare sight for someone just 22 years old.
The impact of Tkachuk and the scoring ability of DeBrincat outweigh the development needed for Stützle. For the Canadiens, Suzuki is a top centerman, but Caufield and Dach are still unproven. While the Canadiens are forming a strong core that could be situated for success, they’re lacking for the immediate future. At least for the time being, the advantage goes to the Senators.
Clear Defensive Advantage
The Senators have a clear number one defender in Thomas Chabot. An absolute workhorse who can eat minutes, stop rushes and generate offense through outlet plays. On the other side, the Canadiens’ back end is a smattering of “could-be-goods.” I honestly wasn’t even sure who to pick as a key defenseman. With the crushing blows of Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, and Alexander Romanov all moving on, the current defensive makeup of the Habs is one without any real identity or truly standout players.
Chabot vs. Committee
The Senators still have work to do on the backend. But until we see what players like Jake Sanderson are capable of or how the continued development of prospects is handled, the team can count on Chabot night in and night out. For all the highs and lows of the team since he joined, he has been a bright spot nearly 100 percent of the time. If you were to critique his game, you’d ask for some better offensive pressure, but clearly, the game plan has been to shoulder a large amount of defensive responsibility. As the new members get better and can eat up some of that challenge, he should have more free reign to make those rushes he’s clearly capable of.
It’s a tough time to be a goalie in Montreal. With limited known entities patrolling the blue line, you can’t quite be sure just how many shots you’re going to face each night. While veterans David Savard and Chris Wideman are still around, the rest of the defensive grouping is relatively young and unproven. Justin Barron appears to be the real deal, but after just five appearances last season, he’s going to be shouldering a heavy burden this year. His junior years were very strong, and his time in the American Hockey League (AHL) was good, if not great. It’s likely that he’ll have a decent season, but with such a small sample size, it’s hard to say if his game will continue to translate to the NHL level.
Barring something crazy, I can’t see the Canadiens’ defensive group matching up well against the Senators. With Chabot at the helm, Sanderson coming into the league, and a supporting cast of middling defensemen, there’s so much more to work with in Ottawa. Former Pittsburgh Penguin Mike Matheson could have a good year, but that’s only if it’s true that he was underutilized in the Steel City. Unless Barron has an incredible year and the combo of Savard and Wideman turn the clock back a few years, it’s essentially no contest. The advantage here has to go to the Senators.
Big Questions in the Crease
With changes on both sides, the goaltending situation is a murky one as there were big additions and big losses, but still some household names. The Senators directly moved into “win now” mode by adding proven goalie Cam Talbot in exchange for the up-and-coming Filip Gustavsson. For the Canadiens, the inevitable was no longer delayed with Carey Price finally confirmed to be heading to long-term injured reserve (LTIR).
Talbot vs. Allen
The future looms large for the Canadiens when it comes to the crease. With the confirmation that Price is heading to LTIR, Jake Allen will be saddled with the core responsibility of being the starter. Rookie Cayden Primeau has signed a deal and will see some playing time, but unless there’s a mid-season change, the net belongs to Allen. While he has always been a reasonable goaltender, he’s a bit of a far cry from his monster 61-game season with the St. Louis Blues. The last two years in Price’s shadow have seen him play well but not necessarily well enough to start the number of games he’ll see this season. For the Habs to find success, he will need to find that extra edge to eke out a couple of extra wins.
One of the biggest questions right now is just how much Cam Talbot has left in the tank. He seems determined to take the net as a starter, but the Senators are likely heading down the route of a fairly even tandem. He has posted some great numbers in his career, but generally on teams much stronger on the blue line. As he comes into a bit of a “run and gun” system, he’ll need to find that next gear to compete. Age catches up to us all no matter what, and Talbot is certainly no exception, as his play over the past few years has been okay at best. There have been a few bright spots, but overall it’s been decidedly average. Coming into the nation’s capital, he’ll need to bring his best to support Anton Forsberg as he comes into his own as a goaltender.
While it’s not really a battle of the greats, Allen has played with a little bit more consistency over the last couple of seasons. Despite the departures on defence, he’ll likely feel more at home with the group in front of him than Talbot will. For those reasons, I think the Habs get a slight nod in this category. Overall, it’s a close matchup, but looking just at these two goalies, we’ll give the advantage to the Canadiens.
We’ll see the first of their matchups in December (not counting the preseason) with two in a row to follow in January. The Senators have definitely improved and will likely take the season series, but the Canadiens have enough going on to at least make the games interesting. With the Sens hunting for a playoff spot, there’s a valuable eight points to grab if they can stick to their game plan against the Habs.
Devin resides in Ontario, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. He’s interested in where the eye test intersects with advanced stats and is on a quest to make a formula to determine who really is the best overall defenseman.