Halloween Scaries: What’s Holding the Senators Back?

Oh, Halloween, the time of year when everyone is watching scary movies and going door to door asking complete strangers for free sweets. There’s nothing quite like it, especially after it was essentially cancelled thanks to the pandemic in 2020. For Ottawa Senators fans, curling up on the couch and watching the game has provided as many frights as a ‘Saw’ movie at times, even though the team has been much better than they were in 2020-21. The season isn’t off to a bad start for the Senators by any means, but they are far from perfect, and on some nights, they are quite far from good, too.

The expectations for the Senators have them somewhere between missing the playoffs and having a mid-round pick, to just squeaking into the playoffs if they could get on a good run. For the time being, it feels like they are living up to those expectations, and showing early on that they will be good in the future, but they aren’t quite ready to contend just yet. If they can get some things in order, they could be good now, but that doesn’t necessarily align with the blueprint the Senators have laid out.

Senators Aren’t Good Enough Defensively

Early in the season it doesn’t look like the Senators are going to have that tough of a time putting the puck in the net, but while scoring is great, it doesn’t mean much if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net. That has been a massive issue for the Senators kicking off the season, and frankly, calling them bad is insulting to the bad defensive cores in the NHL. Nobody is asking for perfection, but the defence the Sens are currently boasting is walking the line of being American Hockey League calibre.

Let’s quickly take a second to talk about the Senators’ top defensive pairing. It’s perhaps as good as the Sens could ask for with both Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub playing fantastic hockey at the moment. So far this season, the pair has combined for seven points in Ottawa’s seven games this season. They also combined to be plus-13, and while plus/minus can’t always be used to determine how players are playing, it is pretty telling that the rest of the defensive unit is heavily in the minus. Between Chabot and Zub, the Sens have a good thing on their first pair.

Thomas Chabot Ottawa Senators
Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators (Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The real issues lie with the bottom four. Nikita Zaitsev hasn’t been terrible this season, but his upside isn’t very high. He is the kind of player that’s only going to be in Ottawa until some of the young guys are ready. Nick Holden has looked like the team’s third-best defenceman this season, but again, he might be a placeholder down the road. With the final three defencemen, there really isn’t too much of anything positive to share. Victor Mete, Josh Brown, and Michael Del Zotto have not been good this season, and it’s not like there were high expectations for them to begin with. Mete has reverted to his form with the Montreal Canadiens, Brown has been the cause of numerous goals again, and Del Zotto hasn’t been good in his limited action.

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Additionally, there is virtually zero offensive production from the Senators’ defence, outside of their first pairing. You don’t always need massive amounts of offence from your defence, but sometimes the ability to open things up and have scoring from everyone on the ice is important. This is what makes players like Chabot, Cale Makar, and Adam Fox so effective. You don’t need everyone to be flashy offensively, but they need more than they are getting, particularly out of their bottom four.

Murray And Forsberg Need to be Better

There has been hope for the Senators’ goaltending situation for some time now. When they traded for Matt Murray, the hope was that he would find a way to regain his Stanley Cup form, something that hasn’t happened for him. Anton Forsberg started the season with a stellar performance in a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but since then it has been downhill for him. Needless to say, the goaltending has been a weak spot for the Sens in their quest to shock the world and make the playoffs.

Matt Murray Ottawa Senators
Matt Murray, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There’s no hiding how much the Senators’ veteran goaltenders have been struggling this season, but they likely already have their goalie of the future in the system. Despite a weird obsession with keeping Filip Gustavsson on the bench, he has been showing that he is not only the man for the future but also the man for the present.

Gustavsson has seen very limited playing time early in the season, but when he has been in the net, there’s a higher level of confidence that mistakes can be made without being punished every time. By no means is he perfect, and no one should expect him to be, as he’s only been in the NHL for a very limited amount of time, and is still young at the age of 23. Going forward, the Senators need to stick with Gustavsson, and give him a chance to prove that he can be the starting goalie for the team this season.

D.J. Smith’s Gritty Preference

One of the biggest criticisms towards Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith has been his preference towards bigger and grittier players over those who bring more flash and skill to the table. This is somewhat of a complex issue, of course, there are times where you need some additional grit in the lineup, but that isn’t always the case. This issue becomes particularly glaring when Smith chooses to play Josh Brown over Erik Brännström or when you see Zach Sanford on the ice in a power-play situation.

Zach Sanford St. Louis Blues
Zach Sanford, formerly of the St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Yes, there have been injuries that have led to Zach Sanford and Scott Sabourin being in the lineup at the same time, but Smith doesn’t seem to have an issue using these players more than he should. One of the power-play units that have been used this season is Sanford, Connor Brown, and Tyler Ennis. There are arguments to be made for both Brown and Ennis, but there is no point in time where Sanford should see power play time.

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Everyone is looking for their Tom Wilson or Ryan Reaves, but the difference with those players is that they are at least somewhat talented and can contribute to your team more than just being difficult to play against. In the Senators’ case, they don’t have that and they seem to be trying to force it to happen. They need to stop trying to fit their roster into a certain mould and play the best players they have because the mould they have isn’t working as they would have hoped at the moment.

Injuries to Pinto, Murray, White, and Watson

Currently, the Senators have four players that were supposed to be a big part of their season on the injured reserve. Murray, who hasn’t been terrible when he has played (although Gustavsson should still be playing), Colin White, who the Sens are still hoping for a big breakout season from, Austin Watson who would give the team the grit they are looking for, and Shane Pinto who is one of the team’s more promising young players.

Colin White Ottawa Senators
Colin White, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

The one that hurts the Sens the most is Pinto. In the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, they spent the first pick in the second round on Pinto, a spot that after the Seattle expansion is now a first-round pick. Through four games this season, Pinto has registered only one point, but he has looked really good and it seemed that he was bound to break out sooner rather than later. Then in the team’s Oct. 21 game against the San Jose Sharks, he went hard into the boards and left the game. He tried to stick it out for one more shift in the second period, but he would once again leave the game and hasn’t played since.

Every team has injuries but they don’t always happen to important players. For the Senators, that’s exactly what has happened. They have held their own down four important pieces, but they will be a better hockey team when they get everyone back. When exactly that is going to be is still unknown, but relief is coming for some of them, and the sooner the better on that front.

Life is ‘Gourde’ in Ottawa

We’ve focused exclusively on the negative here, but that doesn’t mean there are no positives for the Senators. There is plenty for them to build on, particularly with their young crop of players. From Pinto to Josh Norris, to Brady Tkachuk, they have the talent to win for years to come. There are still some stepping stones to clear before they are ready to compete for Stanley Cups, and while they aren’t there this season, the Sens are close to the end of the rebuild than they are the beginning of it. They have that to look forward to.

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