Following up on the previous article projecting the Ottawa Senators’ forwards, we’ll now take a look at the Senators’ defence and goaltending. Last season, the team’s defence was their biggest issue; only 10 teams allowed more goals against, and only five teams allowed more shots per game. Injuries were a significant factor, but far from the only one, and changes needed to be made over the offseason to give the team a real chance at competing in 2022-23.
However, few changes were made, leading some to wonder whether the Senators’ back end could prevent them from making a serious push for the playoffs. There is hope that a few players will bounce back and take big steps forward in their development, but will it be enough? Using last season’s line combinations and production, this article will attempt to project how well the Senators’ goalies will finish in terms of wins, and how many points each defenceman will contribute.
One of the biggest questions heading into training camp is who will take over the starting job for the Senators? It’s a situation that the team certainly didn’t expect to be in two years after acquiring Matt Murray in 2020. But injuries, inconsistencies, and a loss of confidence forced Ottawa to look at other options in the net. Thankfully, Anton Forsberg was fantastic last season, posting a 22-17-4 record along with a 0.917 save percentage (SV%) over 47 starts. That performance not only earned the 29-year-old Swede a fantastic new contract but also gave the organization the confidence to move Murray, sending him to the Toronto Maple Leafs for future considerations.
But there appears to be some hesitancy in committing to Forsberg as their full-time starter, as the Senators went out and acquired Cam Talbot from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for prospect Filip Gustavsson. Despite being 35 years old, Talbot recorded a very solid 0.911 SV% and a 32-12-4 record in 49 games. He’s been remarkably consistent over his nine seasons in the league with a career average of 0.915 SV% over nearly 400 starts and only put up a sub-0.900 SV% once.
However, it’s unlikely that the Senators expect Talbot to compete for starting minutes over Forsberg. Instead, the team is preparing to have a starting tandem, with each goalie playing around 40 games barring injuries. Using last year’s records, Forsberg should end up with a similar total, playing around 45 games and winning roughly 20-25 of them. Talbot, on the other hand, will likely take a slight step back while posting a similar SV%, playing around 35 games while recording between 15 and 18 wins.
That leaves 12 games unaccounted for, which will likely be given to Mads Sogaard and Kevin Mandolese, who will likely be given a few cups of coffee and a chance to show the team how their skill is progressing. Sogaard is particularly intriguing after he won his very first NHL start, making 27 saves en route to a 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. The Danish goalie has plenty of potential and could eventually push for a starting job in the NHL, and he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to play NHL games as he develops.
More so than any other position, the Senators’ defence remained virtually unchanged ahead of the 2022-23 season. Rumours abounded about who the team was pursuing in the offseason, primarily circulating around Arizona Coyotes defender Jakob Chychrun. Still, in the end, the price for acquiring him was far too steep for Pierre Dorion. While it’s still possible a trade happens, the defence remains the weakest area on the team. Here are the projected lines, according to Daily Face Off.
|Thomas Chabot||Travis Hamonic|
|Erik Brannstrom||Artem Zub|
|Jake Sanderson||Nikita Zaitsev|
There’s no question that Thomas Chabot is the Senators’ top defenceman. He not only led the team in ice time but also came first in the NHL, playing an average of over 26 minutes a night, which was a full five more minutes than the second-place player in Ottawa. He was also on pace to put up 52 points before a fractured hand nearly ended his season. It would have been the second time he crossed the 50-point mark, joining Erik Karlsson as the only other Senators defender to score 50-plus points more than once.
Chabot’s absence gave the Senators a look at what their blue line would look like without him for 18 games. Although his absence left Ottawa’s blue line in disarray, the team faired far better than expected, posting an even win-loss record over that time and allowing no more goals than they scored. Even their goals for and against averages improved, with the team allowing roughly three goals a game, which was a slight decrease from the 3.4 goals allowed per game with Chabot in the lineup.
One player who helped facilitate that was Travis Hamonic, who was acquired in part to take some of Chabot’s minutes to give the star a more manageable workload. The former Vancouver Canucks defender dressed for 19 games with the Senators, during which he posted the highest on-ice save percentage (oiSV%) of his career, which is all the more impressive considering that most of his games were played without Chabot, with the pair only coming together for the final four games of the season.
Although Hamonic’s recent performances have been promising, there is a lot of reasonable doubt surrounding him ahead of the 2022-23 season. Will the Senators be getting a minute-munching defensive stalwart that he was with the New York Islanders from 2010-17 and showed glimpses of again at the end of last season? Or will he continue to struggle with injuries and personal issues that led to poor play and trade requests while with the Islanders and the Calgary Flames?
A lot of that will depend on how well Chabot and Hamonic gel early in the season. In their four games together, the Senators won three games, but the pair only contributed four goals while allowing six. Chabot was far more effective when paired with Artem Zub, but the team struggled more when they played together. It seems as though Ottawa is banking that breaking up their two best defenders will help jumpstart their defence, which is why Hamonic is projected to start on the top line. If everything goes according to plan, Chabot should be expected to get close to 50 points once again, while Hamonic will be playing heavy defensive minutes and likely will chip in around 20 points.
It’s fair to say that all eyes will be on Erik Brannstrom this season after signing a one-year, $900,000 contract in early September. The former 15th-overall selection in 2017 was acquired in a deal that sent the beloved Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights, and so far, the 23-year-old Swede has failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him. In 116 career NHL games, he has just 31 points; a far cry from the sleek puck-moving defender he was described as on his draft day. Other aspects of his game have improved, with his possession metrics hovering around 53% and his oiSV% above 0.910, but that isn’t quite good enough to secure a roster spot if the points don’t follow. His recent contract is a typical show-me deal, and he’ll need to have a big season to ensure he stays a Senator.
Zub, on the other hand, is all but guaranteed to have another strong season. Since arriving from Russia in 2020-21, he’s been a revelation on the blue line, providing consistent defensive support while chipping in offensively. He’s easily been the Senators’ second-best defenceman over the past two seasons, both offensively and defensively. After starting with Chabot on the top pair, he was transitioned to playing alongside Brannstrom on the second pairing. The duo weren’t quite as successful, allowing 15 goals compared to the 12 they scored, but some of that can also be blamed on the team’s overall performance.
Given their familiarity with each other, Brannstrom and Zub are in a great position to start the 2022-23 season strong. Look for Zub to once again score 20-30 points, and while Brannstrom is far more difficult to predict, I think that the pressure will help him break out with 30 points or more. Contract years can be great motivators for players, and no one should be more motivated than him this season.
Yes, Nikita Zaitsev is still a Senator, at least for the time being. Unfortunately, he has become Ottawa’s scapegoat for their poor performance, but there’s little that can be said in favour of him. His possession metrics were some of the worst on the team and less than half of his shots ended up on the net. Additionally, his oiSV% was one of the worst among Senators’ defencemen, sitting just above Chabot, whose numbers were tanked simply by playing more than everyone else, and Brannstrom, who is still developing. Zaitsev doesn’t have those excuses, however, as the 30-year-old averaged just under 19 minutes a night, the lowest among active defencemen on the roster.
But there are aspects to Zaitsev’s game that are beneficial to the team. He may no longer be the offensive option he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs when he scored 36 points, but he’s become a reliable defensive presence in Ottawa. Last season, he ranked third on the team with 103 blocked shots, was second among Ottawa’s defencemen in hits, and was fourth in defensive point shares, which is an estimate of the number of points he contributed through his defensive play.
Zaitsev’s defensive abilities may be the perfect pairing for rookie Jake Sanderson. The University of North Dakota standout and fifth-overall selection from 2020 is all but guaranteed to claim a spot on the roster out of training camp but will need some time to adjust to the pace of the NHL, especially after missing a significant chunk of last season while recovering from two hand surgeries. But the skill is there to completely transform the Senators’ defence, and he’ll be expected to eventually take over a spot on the top pairing, likely alongside Chabot.
If everything goes well, Sanderson will quickly acclimatize to the speed and skill of the NHL and put up around 30 points, which could earn him some Calder Trophy consideration. He’s no slouch with the puck, but Ottawa doesn’t need him to command the offence; that’s what Chabot is for. Instead, he’ll be more of a defensive specialist while earning time on the special teams. Zaitsev, on the other hand, will likely sit around 10-15 points again, if he remains with the team.
Nick Holden was brought in to provide leadership and defensive stability, especially for Brannstrom, who he worked well with while with the Golden Knights. Although 35 years old, he’s by no means washed up, scoring 19 points and blocking 112 shots last season and ranked second in defensive point shares with 3.7. He was also third among defencemen in ice time, playing nearly 20 minutes a night. But, barring a trade, he may have trouble finding a spot in the lineup in 2022-23. The most likely scenario is that he pushes Zaitsev out of a spot, forcing the Senators to place him on waivers to free up some cap space.
Beyond Holden, there aren’t any serious battles ahead of training camp. Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson will be pushing for spots, but without a one-way contract, they’ll find themselves starting the season in the minors and forced to wait for an injury or trade. Newcomers Jacob Larsson and Kristians Rubins are in the same boat, even though they could emerge as top seven defenders in October, and will almost certainly start the season in Belleville.
Last season was far from ideal in terms of defensive pressure and goaltending, and while injuries were a factor, they weren’t any more than any other NHL team. The issues came down to defence in 2021-22, and while it may be unfair to place that much pressure on a small group of players, Ottawa’s defence will be under intense scrutiny in 2022-23, especially after it remained practically unchanged from last season. The Senators’ defence is by far the weakest among Atlantic Division teams pushing for a playoff spot, so they will need to be at the top of their game if the Senators want to end their rebuild.