There are two teams that improved more than anyone else this offseason. The Ottawa Senators and the Detroit Red Wings made their waves in different ways but have categorically improved. Through drafting and recent acquisitions, both teams appear poised to have big seasons. Ahead of the season start, it’s time to take a dive into how the teams match-up coming into their season series.
Well Rounded Offense on Both Sides
Both sides of the matchup feature quick, crafty players. They’ve got strong two-way centers, and a physical play driver on the wings. Trusting the “Yzerplan” has resulted in a Red Wings team that is on the cusp of true competition. For the Senators, general manager (GM) Pierre Dorion shifted from a slow burn to a raging inferno in a matter of weeks. The pair of teams are well rounded in their top six and ready to make some noise. Whether they’re staring at Tyler Bertuzzi or Brady Tkachuk, players are hesitant to go into the corner or carry the puck too long. Josh Norris and Dylan Larkin are both players who can score efficiently and wreak havoc in the neutral zone forcing teams to transition. Lucas Raymond and Tim Stützle are the young European transplants oozing with skill and building on their base season by season.
Stützle/Norris/Tkachuk vs. Raymond/Larkin/Bertuzzi
Both Tkachuk and Bertuzzi throw themselves into nearly every situation with reckless abandon. Bertuzzi has some more skill, but Tkachuk carries a few extra pounds of force. Both players fill the role of a top-six skillset with the ability to grind the opponent down. With both of them coming off their first 30-goal season, Tkachuk reached that marker much more quickly. While they may play a similar style, Tkachuk is the one who truly sets the tone here. Barring a revitalization for Bertuzzi to bring his point totals higher, he just doesn’t bring the ferocity enough to keep up with the Senators captain.
Both the Red Wings and the Senators have acquired very skilled players from Europe who almost immediately slotted into the main roster. For the Red Wings, Raymond made an impact right away. With last season being his first in the NHL, he came out swinging with 23 goals, 57 points as a rookie. Had it not been for a stellar teammate at the blue line, he very well could have won the Calder Trophy for that performance. For the Senators, Stützle also made an impact, albeit less pronounced. While Raymond spent an extra year playing in Europe, Stützle went right to the main stage following the draft. A 29-point effort in the first season (53-game shortened season) and 58 points last season are indicators that the talent is there. The ceilings are high, as are the floors, and it’s really difficult to pick a horse in this race right now.
A top-line center who can score, play defense, and work in transition is the keystone of any successful team. After Norris signed a big-money extension, the Senators seemingly have that role locked in for a while. While I’m not entirely convinced that he’s a true 1C, he’s a quality player that meshes well with the characters around him. His 35 goals last season was huge, but a 20.35 percent shooting rate is simply not sustainable. I expect an offensive regression, but he has the tools to round out his game. Larkin potted 31 goals last season, improving from a couple of quieter seasons. At 26 years old, he still has room to grow his game and with the improvements of the team around him, he should continue to build on last year. Both players can pick off passes or make prime takeaways in the neutral zone. This is another toss up between the two rosters.
When it comes down to it, a lot of the key forwards match-up very closely. If you dig into the extras, there are guys like Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux up against David Perron and Jakub Vrana. This is very likely the closest matchup for forward groups that the Senators will face this season in their division. It’s just too close to call.
A Workhorse Against a Fearless Foal
Full disclosure: I love Moritz Seider. His Calder Trophy-winning rookie season was a showcase of what a nearly complete player looks like, even under immense media scrutiny. Thomas Chabot, on the other hand, has flown under the radar. He’s quietly been a very good defenseman. Until the “bubble season” he wasn’t a household name outside of Ottawa, but for fans of Canadian teams, they got to see a lot of him with the re-aligned divisions.
Chabot vs. Seider
Seider came into the league with seemingly everything to prove and he did it. Pundits around the globe considered his pick to have been a massive reach, right up until the first moment he did his best Niklas Kronwall impression at the blue line. Or it might have been one of the first (of many) reverse hits he threw. His defensive play hasn’t really been in question since he hit the league. He’s been strong, positioned well, and has only been surprised by quick feet a couple of times. This season, Seider should be building on the offense that fans saw as he gets more comfortable. Make no mistake, this is the Red Wings’ No. 1 defenseman for as long as he signs.
However, Chabot doesn’t explode people at the blue line. He waits patiently with strong gap control, and finds his time to pick the pocket of his opponent. His gameplay impact is the ability to strip pucks and generate transitional play. I’d love to see some more rushes from him. He’s capable of it, but he seems to get stuck in the “pass first” mentality. His defensive play has been solid especially when viewed through the lens of the team. The top two lines are filled with players who can collect the pucks that Chabot makes available. In a vacuum he could improve, but on this team, he’s an ideal fit. As the rest of the defense group evolves behind him, he could see himself being allowed a bit more freedom with a little less responsibility. Hopefully he won’t need to play over 25 minutes a night, allowing extra bursts of energy.
I believe that at some point Seider will overtake Chabot. As it stands right now, it’s an edge in favour of Chabot. Both players could stand to take a little bit from each other’s skillset, but Chabot has what it takes to be consistent night in and night out and for league-leading amounts of time.
Goaltender Changes of Scenery
For both the Senators and the Red Wings, the offseason included picking up some new netminders. Both teams are taking something of a gamble, but even the worst-case scenario adds stability to the net. The Senators are banking on Cam Talbot managing to stay at his current level for a little bit longer. The Red Wings have made the bet that Ville Husso’s previous season wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Who comes out on top is going to be a curious situation.
Husso vs. Talbot
It’s no secret that Husso had a stellar regular season with the St. Louis Blues. He played nearly half the games for the squad and came away clean with a .919 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.56 goals-against average (GAA). Those stats are good enough for seventh and 13th (among goalies with at least 20 games played) in the league, respectively. The Blues boast a very effective defensive core and a strong defense by committee culture, so how will he fare in Detroit? The Red Wings are built in a similar way and boast a Calder-winning blueliner, so it’s not as though he’s in for seismic change. It’s looking less and less likely that Alex Nedeljkovic will return to his Carolina Hurricanes form, so now all eyes are on Husso.
On the Senators’ side, GM Dorion shipped out two goalies and came back with one. The club is pinning plans of stability on Talbot. He’s a little long in the tooth, but he appears to still have some gas in the tank. He indicated early on that he intends to challenge for the starter role, but the most realistic avenue is one of shared starts. Where Husso was seventh and 13th, Talbot was 24th (.911 SV%) and 23rd (2.76 GAA). Those numbers were with the stronger defense of the Minnesota Wild.
Coming into this system could be an eye opener for the veteran goalie. It’s more likely that Husso has a similar season to last year than Talbot stepping up his performance in a big way. While both have some question marks, Husso is the goalie you take this time around, hands down. Given that it’s just been announced that he will be out five to seven weeks, Talbot will have serious ground to make up.
This should be one of the most interesting series to watch this season in the Atlantic Division. Both the Red Wings and the Senators have been topping the “Most Improved” lists and they appear to be neck and neck. This is a situation where the key players are so close that depth and a few bad bounces could decide any given game. The teams will meet three times in the back half of December with their final matchup occurring in February, and there are storylines aplenty.
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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.