Senators Still Doubtful as Playoff Contender Next Year

The Ottawa Senators finished their dismal 2021-22 season on a high note, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’ll make the playoffs next year. The odds are that Senators fans will be tending their tulip bulbs come spring 2023 instead of cheering on their team in postseason action at the Canadian Tire Centre (CTC).

Predicting Senators 2022-23 Season

Now I can hear Senators fanatics pointing to the team’s 9-5-1 record in April as proof they’ll be in the hunt for Lord Stanley’s mug next season. Still, I’d wager that in a private moment, they’ll admit that April’s winning record could just be their team continuing its long tradition of being good when it doesn’t count. They’re reminded of that painful custom every time they cast their gaze high into the rafters of the CTC and see the 2002-03 Presidents’ Trophy banner hanging there instead of a Stanley Cup pennant.

Ottawa Senators Celebrate
Ottawa Senators traditionally get hot at the end of the season after a bad start (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Senators got off to a terrible start this season dropping seven of their first 10 games. Last year they lost eight of their first 10. By November, helped along by COVID-19 and injuries, they had played themselves out of playoff contention just six weeks into the season. On the year, the Senators had a points-percentage (P%) of .445, the sixth-worst in the league and slightly worse than the .455 they registered the previous year. The team finished 26th in the standings in terms of points – slightly worse than their finish at 23rd spot in 2020-21.

In the last half of the season, the Senators’ P% was .429 – not meaningfully better than what they notched during the season as a whole. What’s more, the only reason it was that high was because of the .600 hockey they played in April. Yet that number was inflated by an easy schedule. Two-thirds of their games were against teams that were in the bottom half of the league and out of playoff contention.

It’s a stretch for Senators fans to be hopeful about what many said was a strong finish last month. After all, they had that type of finish in 2020-21 and that bought them nothing this year.

Related: Senators’ Season Finish Could Foretell Start to 2022-23 Season

Yes, I hear you protest that the team was laid low by COVID-19 and injuries. Sure, you can blame a lot on the disease, but other teams were hit hard too. As for injuries, NHL teams are always dealing with them, however, they somehow manage to play through them.

The hard reality is that for the Senators to make the postseason next year, they’ll have to rack up at least 30 more points than the pitiful 73 they did this year. Exactly who are they going to overtake in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division to secure a berth in the playoffs next season? The Tampa Bay Lightning with 110 points in 2021-22? Their hated archrival, the Toronto Maple Leafs? (115) Or perhaps the Florida Panthers (122)?

Overtaking Boston is as easy as it gets, but they notched 107 points with a .652 points-percentage. To equal that, the Senators would have to win 17 more games than they did in 2021-22. That’s almost a quarter of a season’s schedule they’ll have to win that they didn’t this year.

Senators’ Core Players Progressed but Not the Team

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion adopted a congratulatory tone in his year-end press conference last Sunday (May 1) saying, “we took a big step this year. Our young core now, we feel, can play pretty much against any core in the league. So that, for us, was a very important step as an organization.” Dorion can’t be blamed for touting the progress his young stars made this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that the team itself made no progress.

Ottawa Senators Pierre Dorion
Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

For Dorion to take comfort in the progress the team’s young core made this year should leave thoughtful Senators fans cold. That was the bare minimum that the Senators’ Board of Directors should have expected from Dorion and his team. Even in an organization that has performed as poorly as the Senators over the last five years, players like Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle and Drake Batherson were sure to take their game to the next level regardless of what Dorion and his head coach D.J. Smith did.

At his press conference, Dorion sounded like a bureaucrat positioning himself to explain another stinker next year. Asked what success would look like in 2022-23, he wouldn’t commit to making the postseason, saying instead, “We have to play meaningful games till the end. At this point in time that’s probably the best way to put it. Let’s look at what our roster looks like in September and then I’ll have a better, clear cut indication and probably give you a better answer.”

Related: Ex-Senators in the Playoffs: 5 Teams to Cheer For

Your guess is as good as mine as to what that twaddle might mean in plain English.  As Humpty Dumpty once said, “when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more, nor less”.

I suppose it could mean he’d be ecstatic if his team was competing for a wild-card spot and managed to claw its way into the postseason. Perhaps it means that he’d only be mildly disappointed if his team were mathematically in contention but in the end, didn’t make it. Just as up was down for Alice in Wonderland, success or failure seems all the same in Dorion’s version of that imaginary world. To paraphrase the Mad Hatter, it seems that Dorion isn’t under any obligation to make sense to you.  

Dorion’s “To-Do List” for the Offseason

So, what will Dorion need to do in the offseason to have a shot at a playoff run next year? At the top of the list (after signing Josh Norris) is to find a right-winger to play with second-line centre Tim Stutzle. With that, then arguably, they’d have a bona fide top-six – something that will be essential if they are to have any shot at making the postseason next year.

Tim Stützle Ottawa Senators
Tim Stützle, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That player can come through a trade or free agency. Yet even here Dorion is throwing up excuses, saying free agents just don’t want to come to Ottawa citing, among other things, Canada’s high personal tax rates.

Hogwash. Just look at Blake Coleman who signed with the Calgary Flames as a free agent this season. He came to the Stampede City from Cup-winning Tampa and hails from sunny Texas where nobody cares about hockey. You’d think he’d want to play there, but by all accounts, despite winter and the horrible pressure of playing in Canada, he and his family love life in Calgary. Also signing there as free agents were Jacob Markstrom (perhaps the best netminder in hockey) and blue line stud Chris Tanev.

While Dullsville-on-the-Rideau, (aka Ottawa) is a tough sell, it has much more to offer than Cowtown with its one horse, situated as it is in the middle of nowhere, hours from civilization of any kind. Next to Calgary, Ottawa looks like a combination of New Orleans at Mardi Gras and Paris in the spring.

As for trades, there are going to be teams looking to unload playoff disappointments or dump salaries to fit the cap. That’s where Dorion could move picks and prospects to add to what he says is the, “pretty superb group of young players” he has assembled in the nation’s capital. That should be his top priority this summer given his team’s limited depth beyond a core of six or seven players.

On the blue line, Dorion needs to add another legitimate, top-four rearguard. The team’s blue line has been a weak spot and it’s time to address the holes. Waiving Michael Del Zotto last week and not making a qualifying offer to Victor Mete was a good first start. If Dorion can find a way to ship Nikita Zaitsev out of town, the stage would be set for a battle among young guns Erik Brannstrom, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson for a spot on the roster.

Jacob Bernard-Docker Ottawa Senators
Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Once one of Smith’s favourites, it’s hard to see where Zaitsev would fit next year on the blue line. The Senators will probably have to eat part of his $4.5 million salary over the remaining two years of his contract, but they have the cap room to do that.

Dorion has decided Chris Tierney, Tyler Ennis and Scott Sabourin won’t be part of his team’s future and has one big decision remaining – what to do with Colin White. He’s proven to be a fourth-liner at best and the team has several options internally to replace him if he were moved this summer in a trade. Dorion pointed to Parker Kelley and Dylan Gambrell as two forwards who exceeded expectations this season.

Dorion Must Solve the Matt Murray Problem

That he needs to do something about his goalie Matt Murray is advice the beleaguered Dorion probably gets every day. He simply hasn’t delivered what Ottawa pays him to do between the pipes.

Related: Senators’ Rebuild Threatened by Problems in Goal

In his two-year tenure in Ottawa, he has played just 47 games. His numbers are awful – a goals-against average of 3.32 and a save percentage of .899. Dorion was gracious toward Murray in his post-season presser speculating that he may carry three goaltenders next year. That’s a pipe dream, as his decline and history of injuries started back in Pittsburgh. That’s why he lost his starting position there and was never able to hang onto it in Ottawa. It’s time to move on from him.

Dorion’s Days May Be Numbered

It’s hard to imagine that Dorion, or for that matter Smith, will be in Ottawa after next season if the Senators don’t see the postseason next spring. Yet that’s going to be a tall order.

They’ll need to be ruthless in deciding who among their current roster suits up in October and aggressive in pursuing the talent they need this summer on the trade market and free agency. What’s more, they must get their team off to a strong start next season. Their jobs depend on it.

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