The Ottawa Senators look like a typical seller heading into the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline. They sit 24th in the league and are behind six other teams for a playoff spot, and even with three wins in their last three games, the postseason is almost certainly out of reach. With the 2023 NHL Draft projected to be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, it would make sense to dump as many expiring contracts as possible to load up on first-round draft picks. Cam Talbot, Travis Hamonic, Tyler Motte, and Dylan Gambrell could all attract buyers looking for depth on a playoff run.
However, now may not be the best time for Ottawa to enter the market as a seller. After sky-high expectations that this season was supposed to be different, 2022-23 has been more of the same, which has been incredibly disheartening to the young core that has never been able to experience any lasting success. After so long at the bottom of the standings, confidence and optimism are once again starting to wane, threatening to tear apart the rebuild before it can start producing results. The Senators need to start building momentum towards 2023-24, and even though this season may not be successful, a strong finish now will give the team enough energy to carry on in the future.
Senators’ Young Players Need Confidence
Hockey is as much a skill game as it is a mental game, with some arguing that it could be as high as 60 percent of the total on-ice product. So, when a player is struggling with their confidence, it can be a huge detriment to how they perform. For players that have chased winning for years, getting stuck in a cycle of losing can be incredibly frustrating, no matter how positive your mentality is.
Take, for example, Mathieu Joseph. Last season, he chipped in 12 points in 11 games, ranked second in the team’s possession metrics, and sixth in on-ice save percentage among players who appeared in at least 10 games after coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Big things were expected of him in 2022-23, but after 28 games this season, he’s put up just nine points. His on-ice save percentage has been better, meaning he’s been solid defensively, but his possession metrics have dried up, making him one of the worst puck carriers on the team.
Rather than continue to push him further down the lineup, however, head coach D.J. Smith saw a different issue, commenting on Jan 23, “Joseph had his best hockey last year when he played on the wing with [Josh] Norris and [Brady Tkachuk] for that stretch, and he was buzzing and he was creating offence and he felt important to the group.” So, on Jan 23, Joseph was up on the first line with Tim Stutzle and Tkachuk against the New York Islanders, and the Senators won 2-1. Two days later, they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-2, and the following night, they defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-0, with Joseph chipping in the game’s fourth goal.
Related: 3 Takeaways From the Senators’ First Half of 2022-23
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The change can likely be summed up in what Smith said — feeling important. The team knows they’re not playing for a playoff spot, but the fact that they’re in the same position they were last season despite adding Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux has been, at the very least, frustrating. Should the team trade away their pending UFAs, then the message is clear — the season is over, so don’t worry about winning. That’s not an easy message to hear, especially for a team that’s been here before, and it’s why tanking can be so hard to do, even for the worst teams.
“I think it’s extremely hard to try to lose. You can run guys up from the minors or play different lineups, but I believe it’s very hard to tell a good young player who is trying to get a contract, or enhance his value, to go out and play lousy…you should try to win and out of respect for the game, you had to put the best team on the ice. You shouldn’t just try to lose.”David McNab, former Anaheim Ducks’ executive (from ‘How to tank: Getting to the bottom of the NHL standings is more difficult than it looks,’ The Athletic – 25/01/23).
The Senators need to start setting up the core for success, and that means keeping the team’s veterans at least until the offseason. Even though Motte, Gambrell, and Derrick Brassard haven’t been effective with the puck, they’ve been important defensive contributors. Their leadership has allowed Stutzle, Tkachuk, and Drake Batherson to be all on pace to hit career highs in points this season, and Thomas Chabot looks like he’ll cross the 40-point threshold for the second time. The most important pieces are clicking, and their development is progressing. Now is not the time to mess with that by taking away what’s working.
Prospects Give Senators Plenty of Options
If the Senators want to make some changes now, the team needs to start adding pieces that will be part of their roster for the next several seasons. Thankfully, many of those players will come from within the system. Since their last playoff appearance in 2017, the Senators have made three top-five selections and eight first-round picks at the NHL Draft, along with 10 second-round picks. Stutzle and Tkachuk are the biggest acquisitions from that stretch. But Jake Sanderson, the fifth-overall selection in 2020, looks ready to take over the team’s blue line soon, while Shane Pinto, one of Ottawa’s second-rounders, promises to become a valuable middle-six center and stabilize Ottawa’s depth scoring.
Getting two or three major building blocks from the draft has been crucial for the Senators’ success, but they’re also demonstrating the depth they’ve accumulated. Ridly Greig, selected 28th overall in 2020 after Stutzle and Sanderson, tied the record for the most shots in an NHL debut with eight. Unfortunately, none went in, but he registered an assist on a goal by Giroux. Smith raved over the rookie’s competitiveness and hockey sense after the game, which is a good sign he’ll stay with the team after the All-Star break, especially now that Norris is done for the season with a shoulder injury.
Egor Sokolov, another second-round pick, has been the best player for the Belleville Senators this season and will be going to the AHL All-Star Classic on Feb. 5-6. He should receive a call-up shortly, especially with the team having some depth scoring issues. There’s also Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson, both right-handed defencemen and mid-first-round picks, who could help address some of the defensive issues Ottawa has been having. Bernard-Docker has been especially effective in boosting the Senators’ blue line, while Thomson has the potential to be a skilled puck-moving defender.
With so much talent in their system, the Senators need to start seeing if what they have can make an impact at the NHL level. So far, the results have been fantastic, but there’s a catch — the players who have found the most success have done so with the support of veterans. Putting Greig on a line with Giroux was the perfect placement for him; he would not have done as well if he was playing on the fourth line with two other rookies. Look at Thomson and Bernard-Docker, who have had little support on Ottawa’s weak defence corps and have struggled to find consistency, which has left them bouncing between the NHL and the minors. In time, these players will be important parts of the Senators. But right now, they need some experienced help.
Senators’ Issues Need to Be Addressed Now
With a rebuilding team, there is an understanding that losing now will result in wins later. But how long should the rebuild take? Every team is different, but at some point, it needs to start producing results. Take the New Jersey Devils, who drafted Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes first overall in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Last season, after seeing some big steps in their development, the Devils began to shift gears, acquiring Ondrej Palat, John Marino, Erik Haula, and Vitek Vanecek over the year. They still finished with the fifth-worst point total in 2021-22, but this season, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league, thanks to the veteran support and consistent growth from their core.
There are a lot of parallels between the Devils and Senators’ rebuilds: both have had nearly a decade of poor regular-season performances and have managed to construct their core through the draft. But what currently separates them is their inability to address the biggest roster issues promptly. Damon Severson was the team’s only top-four defenceman for years before Dougie Hamilton and Marino came in, which has given new life to a once-struggling defence. The top lines have been great, but Jesper Bratt and Tomas Tatar have provided consistent depth scoring, allowing Hischier and Hughes to break out this season.
If the Senators fail to address their current issues meaningfully, they risk becoming the Calgary Flames. After missing the playoffs for three seasons, the Flames underwent a rebuild in 2012-13, trading away Jarome Iginla, among others, and stockpiling draft picks that resulted in the selection of Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. Together with Johnny Gaudreau, who was a fourth-round pick in 2011, the trio formed the Flames’ new core and pushed the team back into the playoffs in 2016-17. Five years later, however, the trio have all left largely because the team never gave them the proper support. They exchanged Hamilton for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin, flipped Tkachuk for Jonathan Huberdeau, and traded veteran James Neal for Milan Lucic. Every trade was simply a lateral transaction, and so the Flames never improved.
So far, the Senators have been tinkerers, much like the Flames, bringing in placeholders while their young players develop. But when the young players were brought up, there has been no one of the appropriate skill levels to guide them. Thankfully, Giroux and DeBrincat have put an end to that, but the Senators can’t stop there. The next biggest priority is the defence, and rumours are circulating that general manager Pierre Dorion may have his eyes on Los Angeles Kings defender Sean Durzi, who is having a breakout season. That’s a player that they could — and should — part with a prospect or two to bring in.
The 2022-23 season will be a pivotal moment for the Senators. Either the team decides to push the rebuild on one more season and risk wasting precious contract years of their developing core, or they start making meaningful changes that turn their team from an underachiever to a competitive force. The team is close to reaching its goal. They just need to stay the course and finish the 2022-23 season strong.