The first quarter of this 56-game season for the Senators was more challenging than expected. The team came flying out of the gate with a big win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but fell hard into a nine-game losing streak that included three ugly losses at the hands of the struggling Vancouver Canucks. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had their fun against Ottawa and just when most hockey fans expected the Montréal Canadiens to pile onto the Senators’ troubles, Matt Murray and company put together one of their best games of the season. At the first quarter mark, it’s worth sifting through some of the key moments and storylines of the first 14 games.
Status of the Rebuild
The highs and lows of a rebuild can be difficult to track and more difficult to digest. The lowest moments are when fans and critics start to question what stage of the rebuild the team is in because it’s not clear anymore. Worse yet is when fans start to question the success of the rebuild before it’s even on the upswing. Some of this is inevitable, but we saw Ottawa arguably dip into this grey area during the week of their three blowout losses to Vancouver and the first loss to the Edmonton Oilers. There was little offense to be found until the game against the Oilers and coach DJ Smith pondered starting taxi squad goaltender Joey Daccord with no injuries to his two roster goaltenders.
The highs come when we see flashes of brilliance from young stars and flashes of the future of a team that works as a unit and looks mighty slick in the rejuvenated two-dimensional Senators jerseys. The last four games of this first quarter started to look more like what fans were hoping for. The Sens have only won one of the last four, but they’ve challenged their opponents in all matchups. Three of the four were decided by one goal and the Oilers only added a third goal to go up 3-1 late in the third on Feb. 8. On Feb. 9, the Senators were battling to tie the game with the Oilers back on their heels for extended moments in the final minutes.
Ottawa’s compete level has risen and is more consistent. They’re not getting blown out early in games as of late and the players seem to be supporting each other on and off the ice. They know they have a chance to win most games (both wins in the first quarter coming against the top two teams in the division), even if their inexperience costs them a point or two along the way. That’s ok at this point because the expectations haven’t changed: play hard, learn to play together as a young group, gain experience at the NHL level, and be a challenge to play against every game. Early in this quarter was tough, but in the last four games, fans and media have a restored sense of pride in the team and the stage and direction of the rebuild is once again quite clear.
Turning the Page on Experience-Heavy Philosophy
Perhaps the biggest concern of this opening quarter of the 2020-21 season was the apparent discrepancy in philosophy over player usage. It was reasonable to ask the younger players to challenge the veterans and play their way onto the roster early on, but once the train appeared to be going off the tracks, the youth needed to be given a shot. Whether this was a decision from the general manager’s office, or the coaching staff, or a collective discussion, it wasn’t working well for the Senators on the ice.
There’s no need for a complete reversal of the “experience-required” philosophy, but accepting the value of role positions on and off the ice can make the balance between youth and experience easier to obtain. Connor Brown is a role player (and a solid one at that), but he’s not the kind of role position player I am alluding to here. I’m thinking more about how a veteran player can have an influence and not play top or key minutes on the ice. Some of the most significant moments for a vet can come off the ice and when the camera isn’t on them.
It’s not ideal and it’s a tough spot to be put in to take little accolades and all of the weight of criticism when things aren’t going right. The drive to play likely never dissipates for professionals and it’s certainly easier for fans and analysts to speak to the value of taking a step back to mentor or help shelter the young core in certain situations. Nevertheless, the supportive and advisory veteran in the reduced role is essential to a successful rebuild and the unsung position of the process.
In an intriguing and positive way, we experienced the acceptance of perhaps a well-intentioned but mishandled plan to rely heavily on veteran players from the coaching staff. The insertion of Artem Zub, and Erik Brännström (before injury) on the back end benefited the defensive play and Matt Murray. Handing more key minutes to Tim Stützle is helping boost his confidence, but there’s still reason to shelter the young phenom as he develops. It’s not as simple as youth over experience or experience over youth, but it is clear that a combination of both is better than one over the other.
Murray’s play has been another huge focus for the team and fans. His ride has mirrored the path of the team. With the early excitement, he looked strong behind a team playing on adrenaline. As they dipped into the losing streak, he began to show physical signs of frustration. It’s hard to fault him, however. The Senators weren’t necessarily giving up an excessive number of shots per game, but the chances they did give up were often high-quality scoring opportunities. Every first goal of the game seemed to go in off a deflection and the most dangerous opponents often found themselves wide open facing Murray one-on-one.
Whether it was Brock Boeser (Jan. 28) walking off the goal line unchallenged on the power play to stand right in front and put it through Murray, or, more recently (Feb. 8), Draisaitl finding himself wide open against Murray three feet from the crease, these goals are defensive mishaps (multiple failed clearing attempts for example) before they are misplays on Murray’s positioning. He has had some trouble with rebound control, but it’s hard to argue that he’s cost the Senators multiple games even through the early tough stretch.
It’s no coincidence that Murray’s play improved when agile puck moving defensemen were brought into the lineup and young forwards were given more ice time and consistency with line combinations. Zub’s ability to cover defensively and move the puck out quickly limits odd-man rushes against Ottawa. Confidence in teammates has resulted in more confidence in Murray’s play in net. In the past four games, we’ve seen Murray make some of the saves that even demanding fans expect of the goaltenders. There will be more struggles along the way, but his renewed confidence and consistency is helping the team challenge their opponents on a regular basis.
Amongst all the changes, what might amount to the most significant is some consistency in the lineup. The team needed time to settle in after having not played a game in nearly a full calendar year and time to get used to some new faces under unusual circumstances. Perhaps the condensed season pushed the Senators to make some lineup changes that might not have come as quickly in a normal 82-game season. With the Belleville Senators of the AHL starting Friday, we may see more lineup changes, but if the Senators keep playing the way they’ve played in the past four games, it will be hard to justify sending some of the younger players down.
The first quarter of the season has been quite a ride. Let’s hope the Sens continue to find their footing during the second quarter and potentially be the pest to the rest of the Scotia North Division.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.