As Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk and the rest of his team prepares for yet another early start to the golf season, it’s fair to ask what their performance this spring might reveal about their start to next season. Their fans are right to look toward the start of the 2022-23 season with trepidation. After all, appalling starts in their last two have relegated them to bottom-dweller status before the snows of November arrived in the nation’s capital.
With nine games remaining in a season in which the Senators have yet again been an easy two points for all but the lowliest of teams, their fans are looking for some comfort. There’s reason for hope, but also concern in what we’ve seen from them since early March.
The Senators Don’t Win Games They Should
Among the many things that should bother Senators’ general manager Pierre Dorion is that his team isn’t beating teams they should. In the 22 games they’ve played since March 1, they’ve come up against bottom-tier to middling teams in 17 of them. Of that number, they’ve lost 10 and won just 7.
What’s vexing for their fans is how they lost convincingly to league punching bags like the Montreal Canadiens and the Arizona Coyotes while putting up respectable efforts against top-tier teams and even managing to register a win against the St. Louis Blues (see 4-1 victory on March 8).
Difficulty winning games they should and notching surprise victories against top teams is the hallmark of bad hockey teams. They often score upset victories against strong teams because they are emotionally charged for those games while their league-leading opponents too often take them lightly or decide to take the night off. Against teams considered their equal, bad hockey clubs struggle to eke out wins since like them, their opponents are as desperate as they are.
Since March 1, the Senators have scored 62 goals and allowed 75 , notching a goals-for (GF) average per game of 2.82, which is just slightly better than their season average of 2.7. As for their goals-against (GA) per game average over that period, they gave up 3.52 per game, slightly worse than their season average of 3.41.
Since March 1, the Senators are 8-14-0 for a points percentage of .364, slightly worse than the .411 they’ve registered on the season. It can’t be said that the team has improved in the waning days of the season, but to be fair, injuries have wreaked havoc with their lineup. One can only wonder about their record had the likes of Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot and Shane Pinto been in the lineup consistently since early March.
What’s more, with Jake Sanderson yet to make his NHL debut and young guns like Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson waiting in the wings to take their place in the roster, it’s unfair to draw too many conclusions about the Senators’ likely start next season based on their record since March 1. Even so, there are other reasons to worry.
Goaltending is Senators’ Achilles Heel
The Senators found themselves out of playoff contention in the last two seasons before their first 20 games were played. In 2020-21, they were an appalling 5-14-1 after 20 games. This season, with Dorion having declared the five-year rebuild over and the team widely expected to transition to respectability, they posted an even worse 4-15-1. Sympathetic fans pointed to several explanations for their poor starts, but there is no denying that crummy goaltending was a major factor.
Anyone trying to glean some insight into the Senators’ likely start next season will want to see starting goaltender Matt Murray in action in at least a few of his team’s remaining nine games. It’s doubtful he’ll exit the injured reserve list before season’s end, but he is reported to be skating and taking shots.
Given the combination of Murray’s poor performance over the last two seasons combined with his constant injuries, nobody could blame Dorion or Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith for wondering whether he can become the goaltender who they believed would anchor their young team and give them the confidence they need to develop. He simply hasn’t provided the Senators with the reliability they need between the pipes.
Senators fans can take heart that whatever happens with Murray, Anton Forsberg has been signed to a three-year contract extension with an average annual value (AAV) of $2.75 million. He has stood tall in the net for his team since Murray was injured in early March. With a save-percentage (SV%) of .917 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.75, he is a respectable NHL starting twine-minder. Of goaltenders who’ve played 40 games this year, his SV% puts him at ninth overall in the league.
Forsberg has managed to keep other teams near the three-goal mark in most of the games he’s played. That’s crucial for a team like Ottawa that struggles to put up goals.
Still, if Murray doesn’t return to his Stanley Cup-winning form during his days with the Pittsburgh Penguins and has no future with the club, backup goaltending for Forsberg then becomes a question. Filip Gustavsson has struggled at the NHL level, registering a 3.78 GAA, a disappointing .866 SV% and a 3-11-1 record this year with the Senators. His struggles continue in Belleville with head coach Troy Mann publicly calling him out for his poor play.
Mads Sogaard got a trial run in front of Ottawa twine in March splitting the two games he played with a win and a loss. The 6-foot-7, 200-pound Dane has played far more than Gustavsson in Belleville and his numbers are almost as good. Even so, he’s just 21 years old and most pundits think he needs more seasoning before he can break into the big club’s roster.
For a decent start next season, solid goaltending is a must. Going on a nine or 10-game losing streak as they have in the last few seasons is something from which they will not recover.
Senators’ Young Guns Provide Hope
Josh Norris leads the team with 32 goals and 49 points to this point in the season while Brady Tkachuk with 26 goals has a good shot at cracking the 30-goal threshold. With two players scoring north of 30 goals the Senators would be in elite company.
Fans can also take heart with the points Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton have put up this year. They have all demonstrated impressive potential to become stars in the NHL. With all of them in their early 20s they have very long runways.
Still, almost six of every 10 goals the Senators record are put up by the five players mentioned above. Too often the bottom six is silent. If there is anything the Senators’ forward corps has demonstrated in the fading days of this season it is that they need another top-six forward. That must be high on Dorion’s to-do list this summer.
Senators’ Young Stars Need Veteran Presence
As exciting as the Senators’ young stars may be, they still need the mentoring and steady influence of a few veterans who know what it takes to succeed in the NHL. Dorion made some progress toward that goal at the trade deadline but more is needed.
Mathieu Joseph, acquired at the deadline, will no doubt be able to mentor some of the Senators’ young guns. He has two Stanley Cups under his belt with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In Ottawa he’s getting more ice time than he’s ever seen in his career and has responded by putting up a point per game over the 11 games he’s played. While he saw what it takes to win the Cup in Tampa, he’s still just 24 years old and could probably use some mentoring himself.
Travis Hamonic, also acquired at the deadline, is an NHL veteran but questions have arisen about his ability to lead and influence in the dressing room. Sportsnet’s Frank Seravalli has spoken of how “multiple players have reached out to say just what a breath of fresh air it was after getting rid of Travis Hamonic.”
Marc Methot also raised questions about Hamonic’s bona fides as a mentor to younger players in a recent tweet.
Many observers have called on Dorion to acquire pending free agent and Florida Panthers’ rental Claude Giroux this summer. (from, ‘There’s Hope on the Horizon for the Ottawa Senators,’ The Hockey News, 25/5/2022) With deep roots in Ottawa, he’d be a natural fit with the Senators. The 15-year veteran, seven-time All-sStar and former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, would no doubt prove a steadying influence for the Senators’ young stars.
If Giroux wins a Cup with the Panthers he’ll likely be open to a return to Ottawa. If not, one has to believe he’ll pursue his dream of a Stanley Cup championship with another contender. Ottawa wouldn’t fit that bill since it’s hopes of a bringing Lord Stanley’s chalice back to its hometown are a still a few years off.
Senators’ Season End Sends Mixed Signals About 2022-23 Start
While the Senators have provided some reasons for optimism for a good start next October in the closing days of this year’s campaign, there are also reasons for concern. Dorion and the rest of the Senators brain trust will be busy this summer trying to calm them.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
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