Senators News & Rumors: Smith, Batherson, Power Play Units

In this edition of Ottawa Senators News & Rumors, we reflect on a busy middle week of preseason, including reaction to the team’s 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Belleville. Also of note: head coach D.J. Smith has considered his plans for the power play, while forward Drake Batherson is excited for the start of the regular season. There’s plenty to unpack, so let’s tuck in.

D.J. Smith Disappointed With Senators’ Performance in Belleville

Ottawa lost 6-3 to the Maple Leafs on Friday, Sept. 30, marking a low point in what has been a positive preseason campaign. Smith named a strong roster for the visit with Toronto, with Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, and Thomas Chabot skating at CAA Arena.

The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, travelled to Belleville without their stars. Nick Robertson, David Kampf, and Dennis Malgin headlined Sheldon Keefe’s squad and pulled off a surprising result.

“It’s easy to evaluate,” Smith said of Ottawa’s performance vs. the Maple Leafs, “it’s very similar to the game we played in Winnipeg, except it’s flip-flopped. Their goalie made some saves for them there, but we weren’t connected all night and just didn’t play very well.”

D.J. Smith Ottawa Senators
D.J. Smith, head coach of the Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Senators made a slow start and never recovered, with goals from Robertson, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Victor Mete firing Toronto into a 3-0 lead within 9:49 of puck drop. It was the kind of opening gambit that forced Smith to call an early timeout.

“The message was just to do what we usually do but also to protect Forsberg because we were turning pucks over blatantly and he’s someone that is going to be one of our main guys this year,” the 45-year-old told reporters. “I wanted to make sure that from that point onwards we had a lot more pride defensively and make sure we’re taking care of him.”

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Although the Senators improved after Smith’s intervention, they remained second-best. Parker Kelly scored seconds after Austin Watson dropped the gloves with Wayne Simmonds, with Batherson and Angus Crookshank scoring in the final two frames to lift the home crowd’s mood.

“We certainly weren’t ready right off the hop and that cost us,” said Smith. “Whether it was nerves or something else, you’ve got to give them credit [because] they brought a group of checkers, good ones in the league, and when you’re playing against that you’ve got to play a certain style — but we just played into their hands.

“We were just too fancy. It’s a learning lesson: there’ll be a lot of really good clips of us not doing things the way we want to do them. We’ll practice tomorrow and be better in the future.”

When asked about recent upgrades to the facility in Belleville, Smith added, “It’s really good. I was around before the changes and they’ve done a really nice job of taking care of it. It’s a really nice place for kids to develop; it’s a state-of-the-art setup, it’s just a shame we couldn’t give the fans what they wanted tonight.”

Drake Batherson Pledges to Improve With Preseason Reps

Despite converting on the power play, Batherson left Belleville unimpressed by his performance and the result. However, he remains optimistic that the Senators will click before the season.

“It’s a little disappointing,” Batherson said of the defeat, “there’s [a] full barn and you want to get the win for them. I come from a small town and I know how much it means for these kids to come out and see an NHL game. We wanted to get the win but it wasn’t the case. We’ve obviously got some work to do but we’ll get it going.”

Batherson shared a line with Norris and Tkachuk on Friday, but the trio lacked their usual intensity. They ran into a highly-motivated squad of Maple Leafs and were knocked off their stride as a result.

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

“The chemistry just isn’t there yet,” the Fort Wayne-born forward told reporters. “It’s the second game [of preseason for Batherson] and we don’t expect to come out snapping around: it’ll take some time and I’m looking forward to the rest of the preseason games to get it going and to be ready for when the season starts.

“It’s like ping-pong out there in preseason: the puck is bouncing around and the ice is usually bad. It’ll get crisper as we go along but we’ve got some stuff to work on, including defensive zone breakouts and all of that. We’ll get right back at it tomorrow.”

With four exhibitions left to play until the start of the season, Batherson & Co. are running out of time to find their feet. The week ahead carries major significance as a result.

Senators Have Embarrassment of Power Play Riches

For the first time in a while, the Senators have a stack of skaters who can make an impact on the man advantage. They acquired a sniper (Alex DeBrincat) and a pass master (Claude Giroux) in the summer, improving an already formidable ensemble. However, the coaching staff is set to retain their top unit from last season, which could create an intense battle over power-play minutes between members of the core and Ottawa’s new arrivals:

PP1Brady TkachukJosh NorrisDrake BathersonTim StützleThomas Chabot
PP2Alex DeBrincatShane PintoClaude GirouxVacancyJake Sanderson

“It’s a great problem to have,” DeBrincat told reporters at training camp. “[There are] times during the year when power plays go in droughts and if you have two good ones that can pick up the slack or whatever it may be, I think it’s a friendly competition. And we obviously want to be the ones going out there and everyone wants to play — it’s a good problem to have.”

Alex DeBrincat Chicago Blackhawks
Alex DeBrincat, formerly of the Chicago Blackhawks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Smith, meanwhile, is taking inspiration from last season’s St. Louis Blues, who ranked second in power-play goals while dividing their stars. He’s keen to follow Craig Berube’s blueprint.

“They were second in the NHL on the PP while sharing their units,” he said of St. Louis. “We’re in that situation where I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Helpfully for the Senators, they have already enjoyed success on the power play. Batherson found twine vs. the Leafs and is pleased with the team’s early progress. “We’ve been practicing [the power play] a lot over the past few days, so it was nice to score one. It’s another thing to keep working on as we continue through preseason.”

Looking Ahead for the Senators

While the Senators continue to build chemistry, the start of the season is just around the corner. They only have four exhibitions left on the schedule, all of them vs. the Montreal Canadiens. After that, it’ll be time for the real action to start with their season opener against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 14. Hockey season is here.

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