3 Ways the Senators Can Fix Their Season

Two months ago, the Ottawa Senators were ready to book their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17. They were arguably the most successful team during the offseason, landing one of the most prized free agents in Claude Giroux and acquiring the hottest trade target in Alex DeBrincat for a relatively low cost of just a first-round pick. On top of their extremely talented core, the sky was the limit for 2022-23.

Now in November, things look very different. The Senators have just six wins in 17 games which included a seven-game losing streak that has since placed them just two points ahead of the last-place Anaheim Ducks. For many fans, the season already feels lost, and many have turned their attention to where the team will fall in the 2023 NHL Draft. That’s placed a lot of pressure on every level of the organization, and if Ottawa wants to show that they are a changed franchise, they need to make a significant change and fast.

Call Up Their Prospects

The Senators have already been shuffling their lines, trying to generate some new chemistry. Giroux was bumped up to the first line, unseating Drake Batherson, who has since bounced between the second and third units. The second and third lines have been fairly fluid as of late, with only DeBrincat remaining in his second-line left-wing spot; Mathieu Joseph, Shane Pinto, and Derrick Brassard have all moved around several times, yet with little effect on the result of the game.

That means the roster needs some new blood and it’s been reported that Pierre Dorion has been very active in the trade market. However, barring a move, the team could turn to its incredibly deep farm system. Ridly Greig, Egor Sokolov, Angus Crookshank, Rourke Chartier, Cole Reinhardt, Lassi Thomson, Dillon Heatherington, and Kristians Rubins have all been solid in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season and should earn some time with the big club, especially if the Senators continue to struggle.

Some may argue that these young players aren’t ready to play in the NHL or won’t make a significant impact right away. Yet it’s unlikely many saw Pinto making such an impact right away, yet he sits tied for first on the team with eight goals. Jake Sanderson has also hit the ground running, leading the Senators’ defence with nine points while also sitting first in on-ice save percentage among all players who play an average of over 20 minutes a night.

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But the Senators’ two biggest rookies are far from the only success stories. Mark Kastelic hasn’t had the same offensive impact as the other two, but he’s been fantastic in the faceoff circle, winning nearly 58 percent of his 134 draws. Jacob Bernard-Docker, a 2018 first-round pick, has a 98.3 on-ice save percentage in six games, and over two games, recent free-agent signing and 2015 first-round pick Jacob Larsson has the highest Corsi For percentage on the team.

So who knows which prospects will click with the current roster? The only way to find out is to give them a shot, and at this time, it’s the easiest way to give the team a bit of a boost.

Fire D.J. Smith

A more drastic measure, but one that is tried and true, is firing the coach and bringing in a new person behind the bench. There has been significant criticism of head coach D.J. Smith recently, especially in his reliance on veterans and key players like Nikita Zaitsev and Thomas Chabot, which has yielded poor results.

D.J. Smith Ottawa Senators
D.J. Smith, Head Coach of the Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What’s more frustrating is that the Senators have been pretty good lately. Brady Tkachuk has scored 21 points in 17 games, putting him on pace to break the 100-point barrier. Tim Stutzle is on pace to hit 82 points, Batherson is looking like he’ll set a career-best in points, and no goalie has a save percentage lower than .900; Cam Talbot has one of the 10 best save percentages among starting goalies this season. The problem clearly appears to be behind the bench. But Dorion gave him a vote of confidence in a Nov. 9 press conference, saying Smith isn’t going anywhere in possibly the strangest way possible.

One thing about Pierre Dorion is Pierre Dorion is very loyal. D.J. has done a good job. He’s shown that he can win. I’m not giving votes of confidence or anything I think that’s foolish. D.J. is our coach. He’s going to be our coach. I have faith in how this team plays under D.J.

Pierre Dorion

However, that was over 10 days ago, and Dorion has a history of giving a vote of confidence and then immediately backtracking; Julian McKenzie revealed on Yahoo Sports that Guy Boucher was fired in 2018-19 and replaced with interim head coach Marc Crawford before the Senators hired Smith that offseason, despite hearing a similar sentiment from Dorion not long before. Although the team broke their losing streak three days after that press conference, they’ve still posted a losing 2-3-1 record since, so Smith is far from safe.

Ottawa Senators former head coach Guy Boucher
Ottawa Senators former head coach Guy Boucher (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

But there’s also the risk that bringing in a new coach won’t help all that much. Last season, the Vancouver Canucks fired Travis Green after an abysmal start, bringing in Bruce Boudreau. Under him, the team surged and nearly made the playoffs, but the boost only lasted so long. Now, the Canucks’ newest coach is likely on his way out after the team has once again struggled to start the season.

A new coach also only occasionally results in a complete change of fortunes. Everyone remembers when the Pittsburgh Penguins replaced Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan in 2015-16 and went on to win the Stanley Cup, or when Craig Berube was brought in mid-season to the St. Louis Blues in 2017-18. But more often than not, a non-playoff team will remain a non-playoff team, even if they see a bump in their win percentage. So, while moving on from Smith may give a temporary boost, it’s much riskier in the long run, and it will be tough to blame Dorion if he sticks to his guns.

Trade a Key Player

The most extreme option remaining for Dorion is to trade a key player. By far the riskiest, it also has the potential to have the biggest impact on the franchise. Just look at when the Winnipeg Jets moved Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic for the Columbus Blue Jackets Pierre-Luc Dubois. Neither player was thriving in their current environment, so they moved on from them. Neither made an immediate impact on their new team right away, but this season, Dubois is looking like a top centerman in Winnipeg and is on pace to set a career-high in points. Laine has struggled with injuries in Ohio, but last season he was a point-per-game player and if he can remain healthy, has shown he can be deadly with the puck.

Patrik Laine Columbus Blue Jackets
Patrik Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season, the Senators could have a trade candidate in Chabot. He’s been the team’s best defenceman in the past, hitting 55 points in 2018-19, but lately, he’s struggled to stay healthy and shore up the defensive side of his game. It hasn’t helped that Smith has continued to play him upwards of 30 minutes a night, despite the emergence of Sanderson, Bernard-Docker, and Brannstrom as legitimate options to take on some of his ice time, so maybe Dorion needs to force his hand and bring in a better two-way defender.

Related: Senators’ Overreliance on Chabot Signals Bigger Problems

Could they finally bring in a player like Jakob Chychrun, who has been connected to the Senators for months? Or could they target someone like Quinn Hughes, who would fit in well with Ottawa’s reliance on speed and dynamic plays? Moving a top player would open up many more options for Dorion, but it would also potentially cause new issues, especially if they choose to move a defenceman like Chabot, as the team’s defence is already weak as it is. It’s a massive risk, but if the season continues down its current path, it may be the best course of action.

Something Needs to Change

Despite the criticisms that the season is already lost, there have been some positives in the Senators’ play. The team has two wins in their last four games, and four of their losses this season were within one goal. Even their advanced stats look alright; they sit 13th in goals per game, ninth in Corsi For percentage, and are in the bottom half of the league in high-danger scoring chances against. Add in the improvements that have been seen in the team’s top players, and the struggles won’t continue forever. But something needs to be done sooner rather than later to ensure that the positive impacts being made aren’t wasted.

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