For the first time in a long time, the Ottawa Senators have hope heading into a new NHL season. After the acquisitions of Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux up front, giving them an incredibly talented top-six, and adding Cam Talbot in goal, which gives the team the strongest goaltender tandem the franchise has seen in years, there is little doubt in many minds that this team will push for a playoff spot.
The team has been fairly quiet over the past several weeks, leading some to believe that this may be the roster the Senators head to training camp with. If that’s the case, there are a few spots up for grabs that will be hotly contested among the team’s top young players. Here are five prospects who have the best shots at grabbing one of those spots for the upcoming season.
It was somewhat surprising to hear Pierre Dorion claim in a TSN1200 interview that he’s comfortable with the current roster heading into training camp. Given that the Senators have been actively looking to move Nikita Zaitsev and his unseemly $4.5 million contract due to his steep regression over the past several seasons, it doesn’t seem like the team is quite ready for the 2022-23 season. However, Dorion clarified his statement with the follow-up that the defence is wide open, saying, “If you’re good, you’re playing. If you’re not good, you’re not playing.”
With that in mind, it seems impossible that Jake Sanderson will be left off the opening night roster. Since going fifth overall in the 2020 draft, the hype around the 20-year-old has been massive, with more than a few people suggesting that he could win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Even Dorion admits that Sanderson will be an all-star, stating, “I was part of the group that picked up Erik Karlsson and Thomas Chabot, and I consider that we have a player whose impact could be as great if not better than these two players.”
The only question heading into 2022-23 is Sanderson’s health. He missed a good chunk of the 2021-22 season with a hand injury that also kept him out of making his NHL debut in April. Recent reports claim that he’s feeling fairly comfortable, although there is still some weakness when defending with one hand on his stick. That seems to be the only thing that may prevent him from dressing for the Senators’ first game. They don’t need to rush him and potentially re-injure their future star, so his health will be a top priority this season.
Like Sanderson, Pinto missed a significant chunk of last season due to an injury. However, his injury — a dislocated shoulder sustained on Oct 21, 2021 — ended his season after just five games. Before that, he was projected to be a lock on the third line and compete for the Calder Trophy. His two-way game and high compete level saw him nominated for the Hobey Baker award while playing with the University of North Dakota and claiming the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s (NCHC) Best Defensive Forward Award in 2020-21.
This season, it’s no different, with Pinto projected to be the team’s third-line center between Alex Formenton and Mathieu Joseph. The Senators are in desperate need of a defensively responsible center on their bottom-six as the team was one of the worst at preventing scoring chances last season, ranking sixth-worst in expected goals against and 12th-worst in high-danger scoring chances. But even more so, they need players who can contribute offensively, as they ranked 24th in goals scored last season. DeBrincat and Giroux will help that tremendously, but getting some consistent support from the rest of the roster will be crucial. Pinto brings all of that to the table, making him incredibly valuable despite being just 21 years old.
However, much like Sanderson, Pinto may need some time to get back up to speed after missing most of last season. His skating has faced some criticism, and after so much time off the ice, he may be lagging behind his peers more than before the injury. With several other prospects chomping at the bit to grab a roster spot, he may end up in the minors to readjust to the pace of the NHL. But even if he starts down in the American Hockey League (AHL) in October, don’t be surprised if he’s back on the roster before the new year.
Despite Dorion’s claim that the defence is wide open, it will be difficult to change too much from what the Senators have right now. Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub will likely be back on the top pairing, Nick Holden and Travis Hamonic will slot somewhere in the bottom four, and, if there isn’t a trade in the next month, Zaitsev will be back on the bottom pairing, likely alongside Sanderson. Despite his struggles, coach D.J. Smith has shown that he likes to play him in defensive situations.
But if the team is serious about giving spots to those who earn them, that opens the door up for Jacob Bernard-Docker to usurp Zaitsev on the right side of the third pairing. Yet another North Dakota alumni, he was one of the NCHC’s best defensive players during his three seasons with the team, winning the conference’s Best Defensive Defenceman Award in 2021 and helping the team secure back-to-back NCHC Championships. He’s no slouch with the puck, either, ending his college career with 60 points in 95 games.
While Bernard-Docker’s offensive skills have not yet translated to the professional ranks — he had just nine points in 58 AHL games last season — he’s been a solid defensive presence for both the Belleville Senators, where he was a top penalty killer and in his 13 NHL games. In his eight-game stint last season, he had one of the better on-ice save percentages and was nearly tied with Zub, who’s been praised for his defensive efforts, especially when paired with the offensive-minded Chabot.
But the aspect that may give Bernard-Docker the biggest edge is that he is right-handed, which projects to be a major weakness once again for the Senators. On the right side, Ottawa currently has Zub, Hamonic, and Zaitsev, which is far from an ideal group. But with Bernard-Docker, it starts to look and feel a little better. He’s still just 22 years old, but he has the potential to be a top shutdown defender, and this may be the year he starts stepping more into that role.
While the Senators’ defence is reportedly wide open, the forwards are much more set. Still, it’s hard to imagine a player proving that he can perform on the team and not getting a spot on the roster, and there may not be a more ready player right now than Ridly Greig. The third of three first-round picks in 2020, he was seen as the best agitator of his draft class, though not one with top-six potential. That’s no longer the case after fans watched him dominate at the 2022 World Juniors with Canada. In five games, he scored three goals and six points, but he also blocked shots, got in opponents’ faces, and was just a general pain to play against.
Greig’s blend of strength, skill, and confidence always had fans eagerly anticipating his arrival in Ottawa, but now there’s a chance he could end up on the first line alongside fellow pest Brady Tkachuk. Even just the prospect of those two playing together should give other teams chills. However, jumping up from the Western Hockey League (WHL) to the NHL is a big step, and he may benefit from a season in the AHL. The Senators have shown that they’re not afraid to wait on their top prospects, and just because they’re more competitive now won’t change that mentality.
But even if Greig can handle the transition, he may not be healthy to join the Senators in October. At the 2022 World Juniors, he took a hit in a game against Switzerland that separated his shoulder, forcing him to miss the remaining two games of the tournament and will keep him off the ice for the next three to four weeks. It’s his second shoulder injury in his career that’s forced him to miss substantial time, which may result in the Senators being extra careful with bringing him up to the NHL.
Greig wasn’t the only Senators prospect that made some noise at the World Juniors. Roby Jarventie was one of Finland’s best players, scoring four goals and nine points, the third-highest point total on the team. He was a big part of helping his team get to the final against Canada, where they fell 5-4 in overtime to earn a silver medal. He was especially deadly on the power play, using the extra space to line up his powerful and accurate slapshot.
Jarventie may also have a leg up on Greig in that he’s already spent some time in the AHL, spending all of last season with Belleville and scoring 33 points in 70 games, good for fifth on the team. Additionally, he’s played professional-level hockey in Finland, skating with Liiga’s Ilves Tampere for 48 games in 2020-21, during which he scored 14 goals and 25 points. While his upside isn’t quite as high as Greig’s, he could have a much easier time adjusting to the NHL, which could see him slide into the roster this season.
Ottawa May Have Too Many Good Prospects
While these five prospects have the best chance to earn a roster spot this season, they are far from the only players looking to make an impact soon. Tyler Kleven, another North Dakota alumni and a bone-crushing hitter, could find himself on the third pairing alongside former teammate Bernard-Docker or Sanderson, or that spot could go to the speedy two-way defender, Lassi Thomson. Further down the road, Zach Ostapchuk, who also played for Canada with Greig, has the skill to be another tough goal-scoring forward, while Egor Sokolov will try to add to his eight career NHL games.
After so many seasons of struggling to win games, the Senators finally reaping the benefits of their rebuild, and having so many good prospects fight for limited spots may make for some frustrating camp battles. But it’s the best-case scenario the team could be in and promises to pay dividends in the future.
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.