Dangerous. Unnecessary. Dirty. A bad play.
Those were just some of the words that were used to describe Buffalo Sabres’ goalie Aaron Dell’s decision to check Drake Batherson as he skated around the net. The Ottawa Senators’ star, not expecting a hit from a goalie, lost his balance and slammed into the boards, bending his knee unnaturally. The fall looked bad enough before the news broke that he would be out long-term with a high ankle sprain and be forced to miss his first All-Star Game.
Not only is it a worst-case scenario for Batherson, who was excited to be able to take his father Norm to Las Vegas for the weekend, but also the Senators, who will now be without their top-scorer for the foreseeable future. They were given some restitution after Dell was handed a three-game suspension on Jan 26, but it doesn’t address the issue that the team will now have to fill a massive hole on their top line. Along with the multitude of injuries, which only continue to pile up, Ottawa will be in a tough spot to find a suitable replacement going forward. They do have a few options, but none of them will effectively replace Batherson’s impact.
Batherson’s Historic Season
Batherson was on pace to record one of the best seasons ever in Senators’ history. So far this season, he led the team with 34 points in 31 games, scoring at a rate of 1.10 point-per-game which, if kept for the rest of the season, could have seen him hit 84 points. Had that come to fruition, it would have been the highest total since Erik Karlsson’s 2015-16 season, where he scored 82 points in 82 games and would have supplanted Jason Spezza’s 2011-12 season when the center hit 84 points in 80 games as the 10th-best season in Senators’ history.
So, it was a no-brainer when it came to who should be selected to represent the Senators at the 2022 All-Star Game. But Batherson isn’t just good by Ottawa standards; this season he’s also among the NHL’s best scorers. His 34 points were tied with Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Aleksander Barkov, and Filip Forsberg, and ahead of Patrice Bergeron. However, with his injury, he’ll be forced to miss his first appearance. Brady Tkachuk, who’s also having a career season with 27 points in 33 games, will take his place as the Senators’ representative.
Thankfully, Batherson didn’t fracture anything but don’t expect him back any time soon. According to the Hospital for Special Surgery, the minimum recovery time for high ankle sprains can be around six weeks, which makes the best-case scenario an early March return. But there’s also a chance this injury could keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the season, as some high ankle sprains can take up to six months to fully recover. With his career just getting started, the Senators need to be careful with his recovery time, otherwise, it could result in further injuries and potentially lead to surgery. With the Senators just starting to hit their stride in their rebuild, that’s the last thing they need.
Senators’ Internal Options are Slim
Unfortunately, the Senators’ right wing beyond Batherson is not in great shape. Their next best option is Connor Brown, who was regularly partnered with Tim Stützle and Nick Paul on the second line where he put up 19 points in 26 games. However, on Jan 13, took a puck to the face during warmups prior to facing the Calgary Flames, which fractured his jaw and will keep him out of the lineup for at least three weeks.
With their two best right-wingers out long-term, the next best option is Zach Sanford, who is having a strong season after joining the team from the St. Louis Blues in September but is not a top-line player. So far this season, he has seven goals and 10 points in 36 games while primarily playing on the third line. His career-best came in 2019-20 when he put up 30 points on the Blues’ secondary scoring unit, but when he was promoted to the top line, he struggled. He’s carved out a good spot as a third-liner with Nick Paul and Austin Watson, which has been an effective unit, and breaking that up will hurt the team’s depth while also potentially throwing off the top line.
Tyler Ennis could be an option, as he’s been very effective as a secondary scorer this season, chipping in four goals and 16 points this season and looking like a brand new player since coach D.J. Smith scratched the veteran for the last two games. “Sometimes you just need to refresh mentally, a reset,” said the Senators’ coach. “…and now all of a sudden he looks like, you know, he’s 20 years old again and he’s making all these plays. So that’s how finicky the mind is and how confidence comes and goes.” But could he handle playing on the first line? The 2008 first-round pick has the skill and speed, but at 32 years old, he may not have the energy to keep up with the young guns anymore, especially in such a prominent position.
The last name on the Senators roster worth considering is Adam Gaudette. Claimed off waivers at the end of November, he’s been a great addition to the team. In his nine games with the Senators, he has seven points, including four in his last three. However, he’s done that mostly in a reduced role, so Smith may be hesitant to break up something that’s working so well. Egor Sokolov and Logan Shaw could see some time with the team in the near future as the lines are shuffled around, but neither are first-line options at this time.
Senators Have Options in the Trade Market
Should the Senators decide that an internal promotion won’t work, they may look to bring in some help. Recently, rumours have popped up between the Senators and Minnesota Wild, who are looking to gear up for the playoffs and improve their depth. Chris Tierney has been thrown around as a potential target, but with the Wild sitting in a wild card spot, they likely won’t want to move any of their top-six.
The Senators have also been connected to Claude Giroux, who may be moved as the Philadelphia Flyers look to aggressively retool at the deadline. He is primarily a center, but has played on the wing in the past and owns a right-handed shot. The 34-year-old also grew up near Ottawa in Hearst, Ontario, and he may want to return home as his career starts to wind down. However, the Senators may opt to try and sign him on July 1st rather than spend valuable assets on an $8.25-million player.
Vitali Kravtsov is reportedly on the market after leaving to play in Russia at the beginning of the season. He and the New York Rangers have had a falling out, and teams may be hesitant to acquire a prospect who’s struggled to find his footing in North America, but the Senators could offer the 21-year-old right wing an excellent opportunity to play in the top-six, especially if Sanford or Tierney are moved in the coming weeks. The Detroit Red Wings’ Filip Zadina is another young winger to keep an eye on as the trade deadline nears, and another one the Senators may be looking at. Ottawa has been a great place for players to get a fresh start, and acquiring a talent like Zadina or Kravtsov could work out very well. However, neither will come cheaply, and it will cost a prominent prospect at the very least to bring them to Canada.
Ottawa May Have to Wait it Out
However, there may not be enough time to make a deal. With the trade deadline set for Mar 21, much later than usual, most general managers appear to be keeping their hands closely guarded. It also may be tough for Canadian teams to bring in players this year, as the current level of restrictions and testing has frustrated some players enough that they won’t accept a trade to the country, according to Elliott Friedman.
Jan. 27’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes gave fans a glimpse into what Smith may be planning, with Sanford starting alongside Tkachuk and Josh Norris, which looked alright, but was further complicated after Norris went into the boards awkwardly and left the game after a shove from Andrei Svechnikov in the first period. Should he miss a game or two, Stützle is the most likely candidate to move up and take his place. In that case, Ennis should join him, as the line of Ennis-Tkachuk-Stützle has worked fairly well in the past. Sanford is better suited as a secondary offense option, like his frequent linemate Paul.
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In any case, there may not be much the Senators can do except wait this out. It’s incredibly unfortunate to lose your best player to injury, but in a physical, high-speed game, it’s bound to happen. Thankfully, Batherson’s injury isn’t serious and Ottawa wasn’t looking at a playoff spot this year and were thus expecting another top-10 pick at the draft. Instead, they should use this time to get a better look at some of their prospects and reset for next season, when they’ll be stronger, more experienced, and be ready to start climbing the standings.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.