Optimistic. That was the one word thrown around all summer when it came to the Ottawa Senators and the 2021-22 season. And while there are a few reasons to believe that the Sens’ rebuild is over as general manager Pierre Dorion suggested, there’s an equal amount of reasons to believe they haven’t arrived just yet.
The younger, core players in the starting lineup and their prospect pool are among the best in the NHL. But, the Atlantic Division, lack of consistency in net and defensive prowess are what could hold the Senators back this season in terms of taking another step forward. The NHL has been moving towards a game designed around more speed and skill, which the Senators have. However, history would show you that the past several Stanley Cup Champions are still built with strong goaltending and team defence, at the very least.
The Senators are on the right path, though. This season will be all about continuing to play with the identity that was gritty, relentless, and full of energy. It will be about managing expectations, too, for all the aforementioned reasons. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t be excited. It’s a long road ahead that will be filled with many ups and downs. That being said, here are three storylines to keep an eye on during the Senators’ 2021-22 season.
Matt Murray’s Performance
Matt Murray had a disappointing first season in Ottawa, to say the least. He was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins last October in a trade that saw the Senators give up Jonathan Gruden and the 52nd overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft (Joel Blomqvist). At the time, Pittsburgh was in a situation where they had three goaltenders on the roster and Ottawa needed an NHL starter. They swooped in for a pretty cheap price all things considered, but the real cost was the four-year, $25 million contract carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $6.25 million.
Murray’s last few seasons in Pittsburgh were far from what we saw when they were making Cup runs in 2016 and 2017. During his last season as a Penguin, he split starting duties with Tristan Jarry. He had a record of 20-11-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average (GAA) and a .899 save percentage (SV%) with one shutout in 38 games. He went 1-2 with a 2.50 GAA and .914 SV% in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers when they lost in four games to the Montreal Canadiens. His numbers were on a downward trend so the contract immediately raised eyebrows.
Last season, Murray was hit with the injury bug again. He missed several games and his consistency could never get on track. In 27 games, he went 10-13-1 with a 3.38 GAA and 0.893 SV% — statistically the worst season of his career. He wasn’t the only goalie who had trouble staying healthy in Ottawa but he was the most important. If the Senators are going to continue on its upward trend, Murray is a big piece of the equation. He has to stay healthy and more importantly, give his team a chance to win every night he plays. If he gets off to a rocky start, you can bet that talks will begin on what to do with him going forward.
Besides the Stanley Cup pedigree that Murray has on his resume, Dorion brought him in knowing that he could provide Ottawa with stability in net, being the team’s top netminder for the next four seasons, at minimum. It was a clean slate and the beginning of a new chapter in his career. “I see a team that’s headed in the right direction and headed there pretty quickly,” Murray said. “I paid a little bit of attention at the draft a couple of nights ago and yesterday. This is a young team stacked with talent and absolutely headed in the right direction.” So far, the first of the four years didn’t go as planned, but he should be ready for a bounceback.
The Bottom Pairing Defencemen
During the offseason, Dorion had gone out and acquired two veteran defencemen in Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden. Del Zotto, a former first-round pick (No. 20) of the New York Rangers back in 2008, who’s played 710 NHL games with the Rangers, Nashville Predators, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and the Columbus Blue Jackets, signed a two-year, $4 million deal with the Sens on July 28. Holden, who is 34-years-old, three years older than Del Zotto, arrived in Ottawa the very same day. He and a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft were dealt by the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Evgenii Dadonov.
It’s no secret that both players have tons of experience, and that’s something Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith were striving to bring in. However, it created a bit of a controversy in who would be seeing the ice the most outside of the top-four, which is, presumably, Thomas Chabot, Artem Zub, Nikita Zaitsev and Victor Mete. A lot will change as the season goes on with player performance and injury being the main factors. But for now, the five and six spots on the backend are completely up in the air.
When Del Zotto signed for two years, it revealed that management had a belief in him. For a player who was coming off of back-to-back one-year deals at no more than $750,000 per, I’m not sure where they came up with two years with an AAV of $2 million. Maybe it’s the veteran aspect, or simply just trying to reach the cap floor but if the preseason is any indication of how the rest of the season will play out, it already looks like a waste of time and money.
Holden, on the other hand, has one year remaining at $1.7 million that he signed with Vegas back in Feb. 2020. He has more of a defined role in comparison. At 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds, he played just 17 games with the Golden Knights last season but was a big part of their playoff run. He recorded seven points in 15 playoff games, was physical and had great leadership according to teammates. The trade involving him coming to Ottawa was more about the cap relief from Dadonov’s contract and the amount of younger talent pushing through upfront, but he’s still a great depth piece to have. Coach Smith actually gave him a vote of confidence, stating that he will be in the lineup on Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Besides those two new players, there’s still Erik Brännström in the mix. He has been a talking point for the past few seasons now, highlighting the Sens’ prospect pool until recently. This year’s training camp was believed to be his last shot at making an impression on the coaching staff to finally place him in the lineup consistently. So far, he’s done well, pushing for one of those final two spots during the preseason. He had been paired with Holden for a few games, bringing back some familiarity when the two played together in Vegas briefly. Now knowing that Holden will be in the lineup for the season opener, maybe that will entice Smith to dress Brännström and pair them together. The two of them have looked great and maybe that’s all Brännström has needed, someone who’s more of a stay-at-home defender as a partner.
Then there’s Josh Brown, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson. Brown is in the final year of his deal with the Sens, having only played 26 games with them last season. When he was brought in from the Florida Panthers, his size and physical play were what drew him to coach Smith, hoping that he would fit his mould. With little to no upside on offence, the games that he was in the lineup showed how capable he was on defence. Although 26 games were a drop from his days as a Panther, most of them came towards the end of the season when Erik Gudbranson was traded and rookie defenders were not called up as frequently. That should’ve foreshadowed more playing time in 2021-22, but with the way things look now, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Bernard-Docker and Thomson will be sure to see some minutes if they excel with the Belleville Senators of the American Hockey League (AHL) this season so there’s also that hurdle for Brown to clear. Not to mention, Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven, who are much younger, will be here sooner rather than later. The Senators have a good problem in having so many d-men to choose from for the bottom pairing. Barring any significant injuries or drop in performance from the top four, they will have many options going forward and it is expected to be a fluid situation all season long.
Sophomore Seasons from Tim Stützle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson
Even though the Senators were among the league’s worst last season the rookies shined bright. Many players made their NHL debuts like Tim Stützle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. Yes, Batherson and Norris have played games for the Senators previously, but it was both their first full seasons in the NHL. Batherson carried over his AHL success into the NHL scoring 17 goals and recording 34 points in 56 games. Norris, who only played three games in the NHL prior to Batherson, who had 53 under his belt, had an almost identical season. With 35 points in 56 games, Norris was making a strong case for last season’s Calder Trophy alongside Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov.
Norris will be the top centre with Batherson and Tkachuk once again this season. They were by far Ottawa’s most dangerous offensive line and nothing has changed over the course of the offseason to suggest otherwise. How they perform in their second full season in the NHL, with larger roles and more minutes, remains to be seen. If the chemistry they showed is any indication, expect an uptick in points for all three players.
They will, however, be faced with matching up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers’ top lines this season, teams they didn’t see at all in 2020-21. So, on top of Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, who they saw frequently, you can now add Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Aleksander Barkov to the list. Their sophomore seasons will be a true test.
Stützle had shown the makings of an NHL superstar as well, recording 29 points in 53 games. He was all over the ice, looking extremely confident and comfortable. He had spent time on the power play, displaying his skill much like in the video above. Part of reaching elite player status in the NHL is about playing a 200-foot game and going toe-to-toe against the league’s best every night. As this season goes forward and Stützle continues to grow, I expect coach Smith to utilize him more, spreading out the offence making it more difficult for teams to defend against.
These three players are crucial pieces to the Senators’ core, and much like Murray’s play in net, the team’s overall success will be driven by their play. As I mentioned, the bottom pairing defencemen slots will be an ever-changing situation all season unless two players really step up and grab them. When the Senators get ready to take on the Maple Leafs tonight, these will be the three storylines to watch for going forward.
Giovanni Siciliano is a freelance contributor for The Hockey Writers that focuses on the Ottawa Senators. He is a lifelong hockey fan who aims to give his readers more knowledge and better insight pertaining to the game. When Giovanni isn’t covering the latest news & rumours in Ottawa, he is usually crying about being a Detroit Lions fan, playing video games or rewatching The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Office or Seinfeld for the 1000th time. After completing an internship at The Hockey News, and having his stories published like this one, Giovanni knew he wanted to make this a career and share his passion for the game with others. He hosted the FaceOff Hockey Podcast before joining the team at THW, and currently co-hosts and produces the Improversation podcast. To interact with Giovanni about the Sens, NHL, NFL, T.V shows or games, you can follow him on Twitter by clicking here. You can also read more of his articles here.