In terms of raw talent, the Ottawa Senators have some of the NHL’s best young defensive players in their organization. Thomas Chabot is one of the league’s best young offensive defenders, while Jake Sanderson looks like he’ll become one of the best two-way blueliners within a few short years, thanks to a dynamic blend of skating and awareness. Add in Artem Zub, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and Erik Brannstrom, and there is a lot of skill on Ottawa’s back end.
However, “raw” is the keyword here. From 2017 to 2021, the Senators have allowed more goals than almost any other team, ranking in the top five in goals allowed league-wide for five consecutive seasons. Ottawa attempted to fix the issue by bringing in Erik Gudbranson, Cedric Paquette, Josh Brown, Brayden Coburn, and Michael Del Zotto, but none of them provided much overall relief, and some even made the problem worse. This season saw the team rank outside the top-10 in goals allowed for the first time since 2016-17, but that may have more to do with some historically bad teams around them rather than any significant defensive improvements.
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
While the core is very young and there is hope for the future, it doesn’t change the fact that they are lacking a dynamic defensive presence on their roster who can slot into the top defensive pairing. However, if the Senators use their top 10 pick at the 2022 NHL Draft to add Czech defenceman David Jiricek to their organization, then there’s a very good chance that these issues all but disappear in a few short seasons.
Jiricek is a Two-Way Behemoth
With just a few months until the draft, the race for the best defenceman available has come down to just two names: Slovakian Simon Nemec and Jiricek. The pair are incredibly similar — both are right-handed, two-way defenders who are excellent skaters and possess great defensive awareness. So far, Nemec has been the higher-rated prospect thanks to his incredible hockey IQ and has been projected to go somewhere in the top-5. That’s great news for teams picking in the 6-10 range, as that’s likely where Jiricek will end up, and he’s not that far away from his Slovakian counterpart.
Jiricek has been a terror in his second professional season with HC Plzeň in the Czech league. Standing 6-foot-3 and already weighing in at 190 pounds, he loves to use his size to throw huge hits anywhere on the ice, and will actively patrol the blue line to shut down incoming opponents with some well-timed physicality. But he’s not simply a human wrecking ball, as he is excellent at reading the play and watching it develop. From there, he knows where best to position himself to eliminate a passing lane, force a forward to the outside edge, or use his long stick to poke the puck out of the players’ possession.
Although he’s excellent in his end, Jiricek isn’t just a shutdown defenceman. He owns a cannon of a slapshot that he’s not afraid to use, which helped him rack up five goals in 29 games this season, second-most among all U20 players in the league. It likely would have been higher had he not suffered a knee injury at the 2022 World Juniors after just a single appearance, causing him to miss most of the remainder of the season. Thankfully, he returned to action just a few weeks ago and looked better than ever, joining Czechia’s men’s team for the Euro Hockey Tour where he’s scored two goals and two assists in 10 international contests.
With his blend of physicality, offensive skills, and defensive awareness, Jiricek won’t have to wait long to hear his name called on draft day. The only thing that may hold him back is how teams view his positioning and decision-making, as both are a bit underdeveloped at the moment. He’s also somewhat inconsistent in the physical side of his play, as many young defencemen are, which means he’ll likely need a bit of seasoning before he breaks into the NHL. But given he has NHL size and strength already, most teams will be looking to add him sooner rather than later.
Senators Need a Top-Pairing Defenceman
Right now, there’s no better defenseman in Ottawa than Chabot. The 25-year-old has emerged into a consistent 40-50 point player, and one of the NHL’s leaders in average ice time. However, he also has yet to play a full season, thanks to a string of injuries he’s suffered. A lot of that has to do with his deployment; in 56 games this season, he played over 30 minutes in one game on eight occasions, and ranked first in average ice time among all players in 2021-22. Travis Hamonic has given him some reprieve since coming over at the 2022 Trade Deadline, but he’s not a long-term solution. The Senators need a top-two, minute-munching defender who can play alongside Chabot.
With Chabot being a left-handed shooter, it makes the most sense to have a top right-shot line up beside him. The team has several young right shots, too, and many at one time or another have been projected to be the answer to the Senators’ deployment problem. So far, none have proven capable of handling the intense workload that Chabot faces night in and night out. Zub has been the best thus far, and even spent much of the first quarter of the 2021-22 season alongside the Senators’ best defenseman. He’s looked even better in the second-pairing alongside Nick Holden, where he’s emerged into a premier shutdown player.
Bringing in a player sooner, rather than later, is the best option for the Senators at this time, as the young core is reaching its prime. The only thing holding them back is their inability to prevent other teams from scoring. In 2021-22, Ottawa ranked 24th in expected goals for, sixth in expected goals against, and 12th in percentage of high-danger scoring chances that were converted into goals and over 12%. With nearly 1900 scoring chances against them, that becomes a lot of potential goals that are getting through the team’s defence. Pending free agents like Jon Klingberg and Josh Manson, both of whom are right-handed, could give the team a huge boost, but the price will be exorbitant, and with Josh Norris and Alex Formenton needing new contracts this summer, that move may just be too expensive.
While it may not be the biggest need — especially with the jury still out on Brannstrom, Bernard-Docker, and Thomson as to what their NHL impact will be — the Senators still have a gap on the top pairing that needs to be addressed before they can compete for a playoff spot. Therefore, the draft may be the best method for them to add a cheap, young talent that has the potential of fulfilling that role. The Hockey Writers’ Arlen Dancziger proposed taking Ivan Miroshnichenko with an early second-round pick, and if the talented defender falls that far, it would be a steal despite his recent diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. But he’s a much riskier addition and doesn’t give the Senators a sure-fire option on the top pairing. A better strategy would be to use their top-10 pick this year to grab one of the highly-talented defenders available.
How Does Jiricek Fit in Ottawa?
First and foremost, Jiricek is a right-handed shot, which is at the top of the Senators’ list. Right-handed defencemen have become highly coveted, and thus demanded a premium in both trades and contracts. Seven of the top-10 highest-paid NHL defenceman are right-handed, and nine make at least $8 million, compared to just four who are left-handed. So, grabbing a highly-skilled, two-way defenceman with a right-handed shot available at the entry draft is a great way to lock up a very difficult player to acquire.
The Senators, however, have a spot already set aside for him on the top pair beside Chabot, and should he join the organization, that would be his to lose. He’s already highly aware of his surroundings, and can read the ice better than many his age. No one else in the organization, except maybe Sanderson, has the defensive prowess that Jiricek already has demonstrated in international and men’s league play.
But maybe the most intriguing to the Senators is his ability to score big goals from the blue line. As I mentioned in my previous draft target article, the Senators are in desperate need of more goals, and adding a dynamic sniper to their top-six is likely the best way to address that. Adding Jiricek eases the pressure on Ottawa to acquire a bonafide scorer, while also bringing great speed that would allow him to keep up with the likes of Norris, Drake Batherson, and Formenton. According to The Hockey Writers’ Alex Hobson, he patrols the ice with similar confidence and presence as Detroit Red Wings’ freshman phenom Moritz Seider.
Finally, Jiricek is a nightmare to play against thanks to his intelligence, speed, and physicality, which fits well with the aggressive style the Senators have been developing around captain Brady Tkachuk. He’s far from the only one on the team who can frustrate opponents, though. Tim Stützle has proven that he can get under the opponent’s skin, especially Montreal Canadiens’ pest Brendan Gallagher. Austin Watson, Mark Kastelic, and Parker Kelly are experts at playing an in-your-face grinding style, and prospects Ridly Greig, Tyler Kleven, and Tyler Boucher are developing into premier pests. Jiricek would fit right in with them.
The Senators are close to becoming a dominant team in the Eastern Conference, but cannot still consistently shut down opponents and put pucks in the net. Jiricek addresses both those issues superbly, and while he may not be able to join the team for a couple of seasons, he gives Ottawa the ability to breathe easier knowing that their blue line is in much better shape than it was before. The only question now is whether or not he’ll be available when the Senators pick.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.