Senators Must Act Now To Save 2022-23 Season

“There are no explanations or excuses,” said Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk after his team lost 5-2 to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday (Dec. 6). “It’s unacceptable. It’s on us – we just weren’t ready.”

After their latest defeat, the Senators find themselves in a deep hole. They are rock bottom in the Atlantic Division and ahead of only four teams in the league-wide standings – all of which have their eyes set on ‘earning’ favourable odds in the lottery for Connor Bedard.

When asked if the Sens’ poor start was due to a lack of preparation or focus, defenceman Thomas Chabot said: “I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it that. You’re not going to play a game perfect every night, but once you see it’s not going your way, you have to take a step back and play a system – and we didn’t do that tonight… Everybody in the locker room knows that we weren’t ready to play and that’s something that can’t happen as a group.”

The Senators were ineffective from puck drop to the final buzzer versus the Kings. It took them more than four minutes and a fair chunk of powerplay time to get their first shot on goal, at which point they already trailed by two.

“We were just flat and allowed way too many chances,” head coach D.J. Smith said, “and that’s on me. Our preparation to start the game starts with me as the coach. It’s certainly unacceptable, but my job is to make sure these guys are ready to play.”

Evidently, the Senators were not ready to play the Kings, who are battling for positioning in a competitive Pacific Division. They were second-best throughout.

“We were loose and the game got away from us in the first period,” Smith added. “Then, you’re fighting an uphill battle and playing losing hockey… it’s just not good enough.”

In fairness to the four members of the franchise who spoke to reporters after the loss, they shared the tone set by Smith and Tkachuk: their performance, especially in the first period, was unacceptable. But there was no clarity on how they would address the issues that saw the Kings run riot at the Canadian Tire Centre.

D.J. Smith Ottawa Senators
D.J. Smith, Head Coach of the Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“The excuse would be that there were two emotional victories and now there is a let-down, but that can’t happen in the situation we’re in,” explained Smith. “We’re crawling ourselves off the mat and cannot, knowing how much this win would mean going into the road games in Dallas and Nashville, miss the chance to jump on a team at home.”

However, the Senators missed their chance versus the Kings and never looked like they would, could, or wanted to seize it. With that in mind, here are the three options the franchise has to save its season.

Option 1: Senators Could Stay the Course

It would be controversial, but the Senators could do nothing. General manager Pierre Dorion was praised in the offseason and had valid reasons to believe that adding Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat, and Jake Sanderson to his squad would shift the dial.

With that in mind, the first option available to the Senators is for them to try and play their way out of trouble under Smith. After all, it is only a month since Dorion provided his head coach and players with a vote of confidence. However, there are issues with that plan – not least the sense of inertia that has set into the roster.

“We weren’t ready to go off the bat,” said forward Drake Batherson of the loss to the Kings, “we hung the goalies out to dry and we obviously can’t afford to do that at this point in the season. We didn’t really have a good start and it’s hard to come back from 4-1 behind after the first period. It’s just disappointing, we’re going to have to put it behind us and focus on the next one.”

If Dorion decides to stay the course with this current mix, he will be gambling the season on the Senators enjoying a rapid turnaround without any external help. It would be a bold choice.

Option 2: Senators Could Execute a Trade

Alternatively, the Senators could execute a trade. They have been on the lookout for a defenceman for a while and would clearly benefit from adding quality to their blue line.

But there is an obvious drawback to making a trade now, with the team at the bottom of their division. Dorion is in a position of incredible weakness, as it would be very difficult for him to acquire a value addition to his defence without having to overpay, which would create more problems than it would solve.

There is another problem, or question, to consider: what would be the point of making a trade now, with the Senators unlikely to make the playoffs? It would add a new element to the team, but it feels like Ottawa needs more help than that to rescue their season.

Option 3: Senators Could Fire Head Coach D.J. Smith

Smith took responsibility for his team’s poor start versus the Kings. He repeatedly told reporters that it was his responsibility to make sure his players were ready to play – a task he failed to complete.

“We didn’t get to the net and they had the puck too much,” he summarized. “We were a step behind all night… when they leave the locker room, they have to be ready and they weren’t.”

Ottawa Senators Bench
Ottawa Senators Bench (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When asked if his team’s main issue was inconsistency, Smith focused his answer on a lack of work ethic. In other words, he accused the Senators of phoning it in.

“I don’t know about [a lack of] consistency, we just won four of five and played really well [during that stretch],” he explained. “What I didn’t like about the first period is that we didn’t play hard enough. You’re going to have games where you don’t have it, but you’ve got to find ways to stay in the game. Instead, we shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Tkachuk added: “I don’t know. We’ve been having some successes of late, so maybe we thought it was going to be easy tonight. But there’s no easy game or moment in the NHL. It’s unacceptable, it’s as simple as that.”

Related: 3 Senators’ Takeaways From Disappointing November Stretch

Smith finds himself between a rock and a hard place as a result. He took responsibility for the team’s poor start, but also accused his players of not playing hard enough at a point in the season when the Senators need every point they can get. In that case, is he still the right person for the job? If the players lack motivation and are performing poorly, would they benefit from hearing a new perspective from behind the bench? Possibly, but Batherson does not think so.

“No, it’s not on him,” he told reporters at the Canadian Tire Centre. “The gameplan was there but we weren’t ready to go. That’s nothing to do with the coaches. They had the gameplan, we just didn’t execute it.”

Smith has been afforded plenty of time to find solutions. He has still yet to find them. If the Senators want to turn their season around, they are running out of time to act before they are forced into the Bedard tank race.

Looking Ahead for the Senators

The Senators have a tricky schedule to contend with in the week ahead. They face the Dallas Stars on Thursday (Dec. 8), before traveling to Tennessee for a tussle with the Nashville Predators on Saturday (Dec. 10). Finally, they have must-win games versus the Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens.

In the meantime, the franchise will be under the spotlight. After their heavy loss to the Kings, they are running out of time to save their season.