Senators’ Recent Moves Promise a Return to the Playoffs

The 2021-22 season was supposed to be the turning point for the Ottawa Senators. The young core consisting of Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, and Tim Stutzle was in place and beginning to thrive, and the team had finished the 2020-21 season on a very high note, despite not making the playoffs. All signs pointed to them not finishing in the bottom 10 in the NHL again.

Of course, we now know that never came to pass. The Senators struggled out of the gate, losing 16 of their first 20 games and quickly fell into the league’s basement. Their top scorer was injured on a reckless play, their goalie was wildly inconsistent and dealt with further injuries, and nearly every free agent brought in was once again not a great fit for the team. Despite some moments of hope, the team never fully recovered from its rocky start and finished with the seventh overall selection in the 2022 draft. For such a promising group of players, the performance was beyond underwhelming, forcing management to take a serious look at what the team was lacking and how they could address those areas if the plan was to compete for a playoff spot.

So, with gaping holes in the top-six, on the blue line, and questions surrounding their goaltending trio, general manager Pierre Dorion and the Senators decided to get aggressive. In just over a week, Ottawa has been unstoppable in their quest to make their team markedly better heading into the 2022-23 season. Arguably no other franchise has taken such drastic steps in improving their roster, and they did it all without parting with one of their talented prospects or core players, and they aren’t finished yet. But is it enough to get the organization back into the playoffs after five long years?

Senators Transform the Top-Six With Giroux, DeBrincat

Have the Senators ever acquired a player of Alex DeBrincat‘s calibre? The closest they probably come is the deal for Wade Redden a year after he was the second overall pick by the New York Islanders in the 1995 NHL Draft. However, the deal cost them their first overall pick in Bryan Berard, who refused to sign with them. With DeBrincat, Ottawa only gave up three picks to the Chicago Blackhawks. To say that the deal was robbery may be a bit of an overstatement as defenceman Kevin Korchinski (selected with the seventh overall pick) could become a very good top-four play driver, but it certainly looks like a major win for Dorion.

DeBrincat is a certified star, scoring over 40 goals and 70 points twice in his five-year NHL career, and at just 24 years old, it’s almost a guarantee he gets better. His best season came just last year, playing in all 82 games and putting up 41 goals, 37 assists, and 78 points. There was no bigger offensive force on the Blackhawks in 2021-22, as the 5-foot-7 winger nearly doubled Patrick Kane’s goal total and contributed to almost 20 percent of the team’s total goals scored.

But that’s not all the Senators did. One week later, Ottawa landed one of the top free agents available, signing Claude Giroux to a fairly team-friendly deal of $19.5 million over three years, which works out to an average annual value of $6.5 million. Although he was rumoured to be on his way to Canada’s capital for months, it was still surprising to see such a prominent player choose the Senators without needing an overpay.

Claude Giroux Florida Panthers
Former Panther Claude Giroux signed a $19.5 million deal with the Senators on July 13 (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Giroux is in the back half of his career, but he’s still an effective player. He had a great 2021-22 and his best since 2018-19, scoring 20 goals and 65 points over 75 games with the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers. Among players over 30, it was the 21st-highest total; among those 34 or older, he was ninth. Then, in the playoffs, he added eight points in 10 games, placing him second in scoring on the Panthers. Although he’s no longer a 100-point player, there’s still something left in the tank, and he’s proven to be an excellent facilitator on both ends of the ice.

Senators Will Win More Games

With just two moves, the Senators’ top-six looks radically different, and the team now has plenty of options as to how to organize things. DeBrincat is an elite first-line winger who scored 9.8 goals above expected with a terrible Blackhawks team, the highest on the roster. However, last season he also had one of the lowest shooting percentages in his career at 15.2 percent. To score over 40 goals in a year where you were less dangerous with the puck is unbelievable. No one on the Senators had an equivalent impact; Norris, the team’s leading goal-scorer, had an incredibly high 20.3 shooting percentage but just 8.8 goals above expected. Batherson had the same shooting percentage as DeBrincat but scored only 5.3 goals above expected.

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

But does that mean DeBrincat unseats Tkachuk as the team’s first-line left winger? Right now, that seems unlikely, as the Senators’ captain has cemented himself as the heart and soul of the franchise with solid all-around play. That places DeBrincat on the second line alongside Stutzle, who is an excellent setup man. The German sophomore put up 36 assists last season, the second-highest total on the Senators, and averaged 1.49 assists per 60 minutes despite not consistently playing with any pure goal-scorers. The potential upside to this new combination is massive.

Facilitating that is the Senators’ decision to move Connor Brown to the Washington Capitals for a second-round pick in 2024. Although he was solid for the team since coming over with Nikita Zaitsev from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019, it was difficult to imagine him helping the team push for a playoff spot. In three seasons, he scored 117 points in 191 games, topping out at 21 goals in a single season, primarily on the second and third lines. With a win requiring, on average, at least five goals, Brown contributed just two wins last season and had a 70 percent wins above replacement (WAR). For a second-line player on a playoff team, that’s just not good enough.

Related: Senators Get Scoring Touch, but Big Risks, With DeBrincat Trade

Giroux, on the other hand, is the perfect player to have on a competitive team. Like DeBrincat, he won’t be expected to jump onto the top line and unseat one of Tkachuk, Norris, or Batherson. Instead, he’ll join the second line with Stutzle. In his brief time with the Panthers, he scored 3.5 goals above expected, put up 1.85 assists per 60 minutes, and was one of the team’s most effective players on offence. He also ranked in the 91st percentile in WAR last season, facilitating offence and defence whenever he was on the ice. He may not be as dangerous with the puck any more, but when he plays, he wins games, which is exactly what the Senators need from their top-six.

Murray Is Out & Talbot Is In

An underrated deal that will also likely boost the Senators this season is trading away Matt Murray and bringing in Cam Talbot. It’s no secret that Murray struggled in his two seasons with Ottawa, never posting a winning record, allowing on average at least three goals a game, and never had a save percentage higher than .902. There have been many theories as to what happened to the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie — he may have still been dealing with his father’s death in 2018, his injuries were much worse than reported, or he had a falling out with the franchise after an American Hockey League demotion. Whatever the case, it was hard not to feel bad for him, especially after he became the scapegoat for much of the Senators’ problems. But in the end, he wasn’t going to help the Senators win games, so he had to go.

Matt Murray Ottawa Senators
Matt Murray will hope to restart his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Thankfully, the Senators saw that the Minnesota Wild were also looking to offload a goalie, so after sending Murray to the Maple Leafs, they acquired Talbot for youngster Filip Gustavsson. Despite being 35 years old, Talbot played the most games he had since 2017-18, starting 49 contests for the Wild and posting a 2.76 goals-against average and a 0.911 save percentage in that span. He worked well when splitting time with Marc-Andre Fleury, and with Anton Forsberg in net for the Senators already, he’ll likely fill a similar role with the Senators. Talbot wasn’t spectacular — he only ranked in the 40th percentile in WAR — but he’s a significant upgrade on Murray in both consistency and performance.

The only unfortunate part is that the Senators had to part with the promising Gustavsson to make their current tandem stronger. He had a great first few games in 2020-21 but struggled last season, posting a sub-optimal .892 save percentage in 18 starts. With Mads Sogaard looking ready to start challenging for NHL games and both Leevi Merilainen and Kevin Mandolese improving each season, Ottawa felt it could part with a bit of potential in favour of stability and mentorship in the short term.

Senators Still Looking for a Defencemen

Despite all that the Senators have accomplished, they aren’t done yet. Their defence is still lacking another top-four player, and after dumping Murray’s restrictive contract, the expectation is Zaitsev’s days are numbered in Ottawa. The Russian defender has been even more inconsistent than Brown, and his $4.5 million salary has been an eyesore on the team ever since he joined the team in 2019-20. With his $2 million signing bonus already paid, he’s a much more viable option on the trade market.

Nikita Zaitsev Ottawa Senators
Nikita Zaitsev has likely played his last games with the Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Senators have been tied to several defencemen, and although they may seem unrealistic, the DeBrincat trade showed us that we shouldn’t discount any of these rumours. MacKenzie Weegar seems like the most likely option right now. He’s a right-handed defender with the ability to play big minutes on both offence and defence. In 80 games last season, he totaled a career-high 44 points and had a plus-40, the ninth-highest plus-minus in the NHL. He was also consistently matched up against other teams’ top talent, yet still ranked in the 97th percentile in WAR to the Panthers. Oh, and he’s reportedly close with Giroux.

With the Panthers already over the cap ceiling, swinging a deal for Weegar makes plenty of sense for a team with plenty of cap space like the Senators. However, he’s also expected to command a hefty price, which Dorion may be unwilling to do; he has yet to part with a prospect in the three deals he’s made thus far. That has led some to look more into Jakob Chychrun as an option. While the Arizona Coyotes defenceman is skilled, he doesn’t fit the team’s needs quite as well. He’s a left-handed shot and will likely be even more expensive than Weegar. However, the Coyotes would be much more willing to take on salary — could there be a deal in the works that sees Zaitsev go the other way?

The Vegas Golden Knights are also in some cap trouble, with Zach Whitecloud being an option that the Senators might consider. He’s a right-handed shot and only 25 years old but is fairly unproven. He played just 59 games last season, scoring 19 points, but looked good with Team Canada at the 2022 World Championships, scoring two goals and four points in 10 games en route to a silver medal. There he played alongside current Senators Batherson, Chabot, and Nick Holden, and Dorion would have gotten a decent look at him if he observed any of those games.

Zach Whitecloud Vegas Golden Knights
Zach Whitecloud is a darkhorse candidate for the Senators to pursue (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

There aren’t many good free agent options left, but John Klingberg remains unsigned after he requested a trade from the Dallas Stars back in January. He fits what the Senators are looking for — right-handed and able to play big minutes — but his defensive stats are questionable, to put it nicely. With Ottawa already struggling on defence, the team won’t want to commit big money to the Swedish defenceman. He’s likely looking for an $8-9 million deal, which is way too rich for the Senators. Unless the asking price comes down, don’t expect him to sign.

What Are the Senators’ Realistic Chances?

The Senators have a much better roster already than last season, which will translate to more wins. But will it be enough to get into the playoffs next season?

The worst team to make the 2021-22 playoffs in the Eastern Conference was the Washington Capitals, who had 44 wins and 100 points, 11 wins and 27 points ahead of the Senators. The lowest point total from a team in their division was from the Boston Bruins, who finished with 107 points. That’s a lot of ground to make up, but it’s not impossible. Adding up all of the Senators’ departures, the team lost 44 goals. DeBrincat scored 41 goals last season, while Giroux had 21, bringing in a total of 62 goals and a net increase of 18 goals.

While that still doesn’t fill the 28-goal gap to reach the Bruins’ 255 goals last season, it’s not a stretch to assume Norris, Stutzle, Batherson, and Tkachuk will also take another step in their development next season, either, and suddenly, the gap has all but disappeared. Add in a new offensive defenceman, a few goals from rookies Shane Pinto and Jake Sanderson, and a slight decrease from Boston, and the Senators are clinging to the last playoff spot in the East.

Of course, this is all based on last year’s stats and doesn’t take into account the Buffalo Sabres or Detroit Red Wings improving, which is probable. But based on the moves the Senators have made so far, this team is primed to push for a playoff spot in 2022-23, and they’re only going to get better.

Advanced stats from JFresh and Evolving Hockey

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