When the 2020-21 NHL season began on Jan. 13, 2021, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who thought the Ottawa Senators would have a shot at competing for a playoff spot in the Scotia North Division. Most would agree with the sentiment that general manager Pierre Dorion had a successful offseason, but knew that they still had a lot of growing pains to go through.
The biggest acquisition of the offseason came between the pipes when Matt Murray was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second day of the NHL Entry Draft. It was then followed up with veteran pieces such as Erik Gudbranson, Austin Watson, Derek Stepan, Braydon Coburn, and Cedric Paquette in the coming days with Ryan Dzingel included later on in the season.
With the exception of Murray and Dzingel (whose future is unknown), most of those additions ended up moving on prior to or at the trade deadline, and they were all non-factors for the Senators this season. It was a disappointment, seeing as the organization was hoping they would complement the younger players and help generate more success. Instead, the team was driven by players who have been here for a while or had just arrived. They ended the season on a high, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, and there’s a lot to be excited about. That being said, here are my choices for the three biggest surprises in Ottawa this season.
Connor Brown was easily the biggest surprise this season for the Senators. In just his second season with the team, he elevated his game to another level and the organization should be hopeful that this trend will carry into the 2021-22 season. Back in October of 2020, Brown and the Sens avoided arbitration by agreeing to terms on a three-year, $10.8 million contract. What was originally thought of as a hefty price for Brown — that narrative has changed for the time being. At 27 years old, Brown is a veteran on this team and leads by example in many different aspects this season.
In 56 games, he recorded 35 points and netted a career high in goals with 21. Mind you, those 21 goals came over the course of a shortened season, so during a regular 82-game schedule, Brown was on pace for 30 or more. That number put him with the likes of Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Stone. On top of his already established defensive game, Brown led the NHL in shorthanded goals with five and was the key piece to their penalty kill. The cherry on top was him breaking the franchise record in the last half of the season for most games in a row with a goal at eight. Let’s hope that Brown can continue this pace next season and finish in the top three of team scoring again.
In his first full season with the Senators, Drake Batherson made an immediate impact. Before this season, he had already logged 43 games at the NHL level, but ultimately spent the majority of his time in the American Hockey League. While playing for the Belleville Senators in the AHL, he torched his competition. In 103 games, he recorded 116 points and this was a sign that he could have success in the big leagues. Selected with the 121st pick in the 2017 Draft, I don’t think many had picked Batherson to crack the lineup this quickly and with such effectiveness.
Earlier in the season, Batherson had tied the then-franchise record of six games in a row with a goal, originally held by Jason Spezza. This was later defeated by Brown, but Batherson was the first of the two to reach this accomplishment. He finished the season with 17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points, which put him on pace for north of 50 in a full season. At just 23 years old, the Senators may have found a top-pairing winger for the foreseeable future alongside Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris. There’s no telling where his ceiling is and it was a pleasant surprise to see how much his game progressed as the season went on. Seeing how he has now played 99 games at the NHL level, let’s hope there’s no sophomore slump in his second full season next year.
The future is bright in Ottawa as we all know, but other than Tim Stützle, no one might have a brighter future on this team than Josh Norris. Acquired as part of the Erik Karlsson trade back in September 2018, Norris had himself a season to remember. He played three games with the Senators in 2019-20, but it was nothing more than getting his feet wet at the NHL level. The Scotia North Division housed some of the best centres in the league such as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Scheifele, who Norris had to go up against on a nightly basis. Quite the task for a rookie.
Norris did pretty well against those guys all things considered. Of course, he had players like Tkachuk and Batherson on his sides, but we all know how important the role down the middle of the ice is. On pace for north of 50 points in a full season, Norris finished with 17 goals and 18 assists for 35 points and put himself in the Calder Trophy conversation from the get-go with fellow teammate Stützle. No one was going to take that away from Kirill Kaprizov this season, but Norris made a strong case. His defensive numbers were also off the charts as you can see here.
There were more surprises on this team other than the three aforementioned players, but I felt like these guys had the most impact. While it was impressive to see Stützle perform at the level he did in his rookie campaign, that was almost expected when you go as high as he did in the draft. It wasn’t as much of a surprise as it was validation that he will be a core piece moving forward. Tkachuk once again elevated his role on this team and it’s looking like he’s the leader in the clubhouse to become the next Senators’ captain. Once again, not a surprise.
Early in the season, Nick Paul had got off to a roaring start. I had even written on how he was the biggest surprise out the gate; however, his game remained average for the rest of the season and he was leapfrogged by the three players headlining this piece. That’s not taking away anything from him as he was still a nice surprise this season and formed into a solid role player for their checking lines.
And last but not least, Artem Zub. The 25-year-old defenseman was inserted into the lineup early on and didn’t look back. While most would say Zub was among the three biggest surprises, I felt like since he wasn’t there since day one, there wasn’t enough to go off of. That being said, the Sens found themselves a gem on the back end. Obviously, the organization loved what they saw and they locked him in for another two seasons with an average annual value of $2.5 million. Like most of the other rookies, let’s hope he can carry his play into next season.
Giovanni Siciliano is a THW freelance writer that covers the latest news and rumours surrounding the Ottawa Senators. He is a lifelong hockey fan who aims to give his readers more knowledge and better insight pertaining to the game. After completing an internship at The Hockey News, and having a few of his stories published like this one, Giovanni knew he wanted to make this a career and share his passion for hockey with others. He was the host of the FaceOff Hockey Podcast before joining the team at THW. To interact with Giovanni about the Senators, the NHL or any other sport, you can follow him on Twitter by clicking here. You can also check out more of his articles here.