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Cirque Du DJ: Enough with the Line Juggling

Through 35 games, Connor Brown had 6 goals on the season. Not exactly the type of production the Ottawa Senators had in mind when they inked the Etobicoke native to a 3 year $3.6M AAV extension in the offseason. Fast forward a few games, and he’s suddenly the hottest scorer in the NHL with goals in 6 straight contests.

Now boasting a 14% scoring percentage (which would tie a career high he set in 2016), Brown would essentially be on pace for a 20 goal year over the course of a full season. Mind you, this also puts him well ahead of the league average scoring percentage of 9.7% and suddenly amidst some of the premier snipers in the game (McDavid sits at 15%, Ovechkin 14%, Panarin 15%).

Given the sheer number of breakaways and odd man rushes Brown found himself incapable of converting in the early part of the season, you just knew that he was going to get a few bounces going his way at some point. But few could have predicted this recent scoring spree.

The offence is nice, but save for a single season with a McDavid led Eerie Otters team in 2013-14, goals have never been a huge component in Brown's game. If Ottawa fans are expecting him to be a key offensive contributor moving forward, you’re likely to be disappointed. Management however appears to have a different perspective on the matter, regularly moving Brown up and down the lineup, playing everything from 1st line to 4th line minutes this year.

Which, in a weird way actually ties into the biggest area of concern the Senators need to address as their prospects start moving up from the college ranks: Balance & Consistency. 20 goals seems like a realistic ceiling for Brown's skill set over the course of a full regular season. And if the Senators are getting that kind of contribution from a 3rd line player in the playoffs, that’s the kind of balanced scoring that wins championships in today’s NHL. And make no mistake, if Ottawa is to become a championship caliber team, Brown will be a 3rd or 4th line player. If, however, the team is leaning on him to play top 6 minutes as they have for long stretches this year, then that’s a recipe for more of the same basement dwelling results we’ve seen of late.

What’s concerning from a development standpoint is the sheer number of different line combinations, taxi squad promotions/demotions, and general turnover the roster has seen in an already shortened season. You’re not going to win a Stanley Cup without contributions from every player on the team. This isn’t basketball where LeBron can recruit 1 or 2 of his friends and drag a roster into the finals single handedly. And the only way to get contributions from top to bottom is to have a balanced attack, with players that gel and play well with one another.

How are prospects expected to develop chemistry with their linemates when they don’t know who they’ll be on any given night? Give them consistent linemates, let them gel, and watch your team become more balanced without needing to inject any new players into the mix.

Athletes are creatures of habit, from their pre-game routine, to what time they show up at the arena, they’ve got a pattern they follow. They aren’t wired to function well in an ever changing environment, and Ottawa this season is like a 6 year old hopped up on sugar holding a snow globe. Just shaking away without a care in the world.

Drake Batherson scored 7 goals in 6 games, then only had 1 night where he scored in his next 12 games. Ottawa’s best prospect since Jason Spezza, Tim Stutzle has already had goalless droughts of 7, 8, and 13 (and counting) this year. Thomas Chabot has 1 goal in his last 28 contests. Even Brady Tkachuk, one of the lone bright spots for Ottawa this year in his quest to lead the league in shots & hits, is currently mired in a 10 game stretch with only one goal to his credit.

Ottawa is quirky in the sense that fans aren’t expecting them to win, and fans tend to hop from one story line to the next: “Drake, what a legend! Oh, here comes Joey! Brady fought Weber! Look at Connor go!” But underneath all of that lies an issue which will rear its ugly head sooner rather than later, they can’t leave well enough alone. It’s almost as though they think that by tinkering with lineups and call ups (even after a strong performance where they earn a win), they’re playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. The reality however, is they’re playing with a toaster in a bathtub while everyone else is playing checkers. They’re their own worst enemy.

So while the storylines are fun, the stats don’t lie. This isn’t a team that’s thriving and setting a foundation for a championship culture. It’s more of a trial by fire without much in the way of long term benefits for those who are counted on to actually put the puck in the net. Management can use the excuse of “showcasing vets” for only a few more days now. If this lineup juggling continues beyond the trade deadline, then something (or in this case someone) has got to give. Whether it’s Dorion, DJ or both, the blame has to land somewhere, and lord knows it won’t be on Melnyk if he has any say.

If you’re truly focused on competing and making the playoffs next year (which, if that isn’t the goal then what are we doing here, people?) then the 13 games following the trade deadline are crucial from a development standpoint. Map out how you see your lines for next year, set it and forget it. If you want to tweak it once after 6 games, go nuts. But making adjustments every single game is like trying to find the cure for a disease, but changing the experiment every morning. This is 9th grade science here, and in an age of quants, CORSI, and advanced metrics, maybe someone needs to remind the front office at the CTC of this. The team's slogan last year was “The Kids Are Alright”.

Well, if that’s the case then let’s see what they can do when they aren’t micromanaged to a fault in the homestretch of 2021.

By Kyle Skinner | Sens Nation Hockey


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