It has been a strange season for the North Division. While it’s not surprising that the Toronto Maple Leafs were first in the division since the season started, few expected the Calgary Flames to struggle as much as they have or that the Edmonton Oilers’ goalie situation to be completely fine. But no team has been as surprising as the Ottawa Senators. They started the season nearly in dead last after a lengthy losing streak but have since figured out the source of their problems and become one of the hottest teams in the NHL, winning eight of their last ten games. Of their two losses, only one was in regulation, as well.
Once the league’s laughing stock, this team now looks poised to break out next season in a big way. Brady Tkachuk is becoming one of the NHL’s premier power forwards, Drake Batherson has been dominant all season and could be the team’s future point leader, and Tim Stützle will almost certainly be the Senators’ best player in a few seasons. Even the goaltending and defense, which have long plagued the team with inconsistency, looks promising, from Erik Brannstrom’s emergence to the revitalization of Victor Mete’s career and even Mads Sogaard, who earned wins in each of his first three starts in the AHL.
So, while Ottawa will finish near the bottom of the league once again and earn themselves yet another top-10 draft pick, it finally looks like the rebuild is nearly over. This is a team that is hungry for success, and who knows? Maybe that could come as early as 2021-22.
Here are some of the biggest headlines from the past week.
Item One: Pinto Scores His First
Rookie Shane Pinto netted his first NHL goal against the Montreal Canadiens on May 5, picking up the rebound from a big slapshot from Artem Zub and putting it past goaltender Jake Allen. It was his ninth game as a professional and his fourth point since joining the team on Apr 17. The former University of North Dakota star recorded an assist in his first appearance but had been held off the score sheet despite earning more ice time until Wednesday night. It’s a big moment that the 20-year-old won’t forget any time soon.
Pinto has had a strong start to his career, slowly earning more ice time each game, and earning the praise of his teammates for his skill and smarts on the ice. When asked about his new teammate, Josh Norris said, “…he’s going to be a good really good player. He just does everything right. He’s got good speed, good skill and he can really shoot the puck. I could go on and on about him. He’s an awesome kid too which really isn’t a bad thing.” (from ‘SNAPSHOTS: Matt Murray is starting to show the form the Senators expected … Shane Pinto has been the centre of attention,’ Ottawa Sun, 20/04/2021)
Next season, Pinto will still be a rookie and could be in the conversation of rookie of the year. There will be some tough competition from Cole Caufield, Quinton Byfield, Rasmus Kupari, Nick Robertson, Peyton Krebs, and Alex Newhook, to name a few. Still, if the Senators surge like they have to end this season, Pinto will have a great opportunity to have a dominant season. There likely will be a spot on either the second or third line, depending on how the expansion draft goes this summer, and it will be the young centerman’s position to lose.
Item Two: Alsing Makes NHL Debut
Another milestone was reached on Wednesday night when defenseman Olle Alsing made his NHL debut, playing 12:05 minutes on the third pairing and recording one block and two hits. He played most of this season with the Grazz99ers in Austria’s ICEHL, joining the Belleville Senators when the season finally started back up in January. During his time in the AHL, he scored one assist and was a minus-10 over seven games.
Alsing joined the organization back in 2019 when he was signed as a free agent to a two-year entry-level deal after putting up 15 points in 49 games in the Swedish Hockey League. He was returned to the SHL in 2019-20, where he scored an impressive 20 points in 36 games before the season was shut down. The performance had many excited about the young defenseman’s potential and eagerly anticipating his arrival in North America in 2020-21.
However, it hasn’t been a smooth transition. From the late start date to the loan to Austria, Alsing has not looked as strong this season as he did last year. And now, with the emergence of Brannstrom and Mete, and the arrival of Jacob Bernard-Docker, there may not be a spot in Ottawa for him next season, especially with Lassi Thomson’s development progressing nicely in the minors. Alsing’s contract also expires at the end of this season, and though there could be an opening for him after the expansion draft, it seems unlikely that he remains around long-term.
Item Three: Forsberg Re-Signs for 2021-22
With a number of high-profile restricted free agents needing new deals for next season, not many would have expected Anton Forsberg to be the first to ink a deal. But that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday, as the Senators announced that they had signed him to a one-year, $900 000 deal. Claimed off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets in March, he has become a reliable presence in the net after Matt Murray, Joey Daccord, and Marcus Hogberg went down with injuries since then, posting a 3-3-1 record and sporting a 0.917 save percentage over seven appearances.
However, his signing doesn’t make a lot of sense for next season, when allegedly everyone is healthy. Daccord likely becomes the team’s backup behind Murray, and then there will be a pile-up in the minors with Hogberg, Sogaard, Filip Gustavsson, and Kevin Mandolese. Where does Forsberg fit into all of that? Well, his signing likely pushes out Hogberg, who also is an RFA but has not performed well this season. Of the five goalies who’ve started an NHL game for Ottawa, he has the worst save percentage despite playing the second-most games. But that still leaves four goalies in the AHL, and Forsberg’s contract is a one-way deal, which could force out Daccord, as he’s still waiver exempt.
Instead, this deal may be in preparation for the expansion draft. According to the Expansion Draft rules, each team will need to expose a goalie who either “…is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22.” Forsberg now fits that description, as he will be under contract in 2021-22. That doesn’t mean that this is Pierre Dorion’s plan, as Forsberg has been a solid goalie for them, but it does give them one more option when choosing who to protect.
Item Four: Chabot Records 150th Point as a Sen
Thomas Chabot hit a big milestone on May 1, recording his 150th career point with the Senators, recording an assist against the Canadiens. The feat was accomplished in 253 games and placed him fourth among all-time Senators’ defensemen, surpassing Zdeno Chara’s 146 points back in April. He also has the fourth-highest points-per-game among defensemen in franchise history with his 0.591 just below Steve Duchesne and Norm Maciver, but still a ways away from Erik Karlsson’s 0.826.
There’s no question that Chabot is one of the franchise’s best defensemen. Already he has established himself as a dynamic offensive player, leading the defense in scoring for the past three seasons and leading the team in point shares in 2020-21. But he’s also become a reliable defensive player this season, leading the team in ice time, sitting second in blocked shots, and third in defensive point shares. But the best part is that he’s only 24 years old; there’s a lot of room left to grow for him, and the Senators can’t wait to see which team records he sets next.
Item Five: Stützle Nets His First Hat Trick
Saturday night’s win over the Winnipeg Jets was huge for the Senators, marking their third in a row and giving them the best 10-game record in the NHL. But it was even bigger for Stützle, who scored the first hat trick of his career, netting the second, third, and fourth goals of the game in the 4-2 win.
In fact, all of Ottawa’s offense came from the third line, which featured Stützle, Pinto, and Connor Brown, who scored the game’s first goal. It seems to be a strong matchup for all involved, which the German youngster echoed. “Those two guys are great players and I really enjoy playing with them,” he said. “We try to make plays over the ice all the time.” Fellow rookie Pinto ended up with two assists, marking his first multi-point night in the NHL.
Stützle becomes the sixth Senators’ rookie to score a hat trick, following Alexei Yashin (1993-94), Daniel Alfredsson (1995-96), Sami Salo (1998-99), Martin Havlat (2000-01), and Brandon Bochenski (2005-06). It’s also the first hat trick the franchise has seen since Bobby Ryan scored one in February of 2020 in his second game back with the team after entering the league’s substance abuse program.
What’s Next for the Senators?
The Senators take on the Flames on Sunday night, then head back home to host the Maple Leafs on May 12 in their final game of 2020-21. After that, management will enjoy a nice little break before getting down to the expansion draft, scheduled for Jun 21, and the entry draft, slated for Jul 23-24.
For the fans, however, they’ll have a chance to tune into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which will probably start in a couple of weeks, depending on when the last games are played, and will likely feature some classic first-round matchups between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, as well as the Oilers and Jets. Although they aren’t the Senators, the upcoming matchups still offer plenty to get excited about.