The Ottawa Senators finished their fifth consecutive season outside the playoffs on Friday night when they won 3-2 in Philadelphia. It concluded a 10 win month to end the season and leave the team with it’s best record since it last made the playoffs in 2017.
It’s hard to imagine a rebuild where a team finishing 26th in a 32 team league with 73 pts could have taken a step forward isn’t it?
We won’t confuse any of the late season success with anything other than Fool’s Gold from a team perspective. However, let’s review the season as a whole and determine if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
PIERRE DORION: B
I know how the masses feel about Pierre Dorion and I understand why. However, I think our GM, for the most part, got it done this year.
I didn’t like the three-year extension right off the bat to DJ Smith, but this much is clear. DJ Smith is his guy. It’s hard to imagine that Pierre Dorion will live to hire another coach if Smith falters. This is especially true given the ownership situation.
I thought he got good return at the deadline. We all seem to like the return on the Nick Paul trade. The Forsberg extension at reasonable money could be a real steal and Jake Sanderson is now part of the fold.
I wasn’t expecting Norris or Formenton to be extended before the end of the season and Zub can’t be before July 1st.
When you consider his boss was dying throughout the season and that, based on Ian Mendes’ article in The Athletic, he may have been working for one of the most volatile people in the history of the league. Perhaps Sens Nation could show Dorion a little empathy. On the whole, Pierre Dorion did alright.
DJ SMITH: C
I have to hand it to DJ Smith, in three years where the wins were sometimes few and far between, I have yet to hear any rumblings about Smith having “lost the room”. I consider that, in and of itself, a victory for him. Whatever shortcomings he may have, the players haven’t quit on him. It’s also worth pointing out that Hockey Canada seems to think he has potential as well.
All the key pieces of the long-term puzzle took steps forward from last year. Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson, Stutzle and Chabot are all on or ahead of schedule.
His lineup decisions have mystified me as has affinity for certain more experienced players, but that’s why he gets paid the big bucks. The PP (19.3% - 20th) and PK (80.3% - 13th) aren’t awful but they remain something that will need to improve if the team is to compete for the playoffs next year.
For now, the vote isn’t in yet on DJ Smith. I need to see him bring his in game tactics to the level of his people skills.
BRADY TKACHUK (C): A+
Seeing his reaction to his GWG against Philly told me what I already knew about Tkachuk. He is a competitor who will drag his team into a fight. I can’t think of anything else the team could have asked of him this year. The opposing teams hate him, and his teammates love him. He will be the last player to wear #7 in franchise history.
JOSH NORRIS: A
He also took a big step forward this year after a successful rookie season. His is a puck possession game where he has already garnered a reputation for his half-wall one timer on the power play. He can score off the rush as well, but his bread and butter is that release. The chemistry is there with Tkachuk and Batherson. He remains the only one without a long-term deal which will hopefully get done over the summer.
DRAKE BATHERSON: A
His contract is another coup for Pierre Dorion. This kid is all the talent of William Nylander with more willingness to go to the dirty areas at $2 million per annum less. He has a Josh Norris type release from the other half-wall on the power play. Had his high ankle sprain not interrupted his season, he might would have surely led the team in scoring. His contract will be the best value in the league for years to come.
TIM STUTZLE: B+
I am prepared to throw in the towel and concede that Tim Stutzle is going to be a center in the NHL. Right now, he is the number two center to Norris given his defensive gaps and -27. However, as he evolves, it’s hard not to imagine how his speed isn’t going to put him in the one hole over time. It’s on Pierre Dorion to find him linemates that can skate with him and provide some offensive and defensive stability. I don’t see anyone fitting that description within the Senators organization right now.
CONNOR BROWN (A): B
There was a time when people thought, myself included, that Brown could evolve into a second line player. If this season has shown anything, it’s that he doesn’t have the finish to play in that role.
He is one of the most effective penalty killers and can generate tons of chances. However, 10 goals in 64 games given the chances he had to score shows that he is a third line player. His camp may value him more than that which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if next year is his last as a Senator if he even makes it through the year. I like him, but not as a pillar for the future.
ALEX FORMENTON: B+
As first full seasons in the NHL go, this one has to be considered a success. Formenton is clearly an NHLer full time now. His speed is elite and his hands caught up as the season progressed. The question remains, “What is he?”
Is there second line potential or is the third line the ceiling? His hands will need to improve even further to be a second line player, but he can keep up with Stutzle. We know that much.
He is up for extension and, if I am his agent, I bet on the player with a two or three year deal.
COLIN WHITE: C-
I have been resistant to the idea of pulling the trigger on the buyout clause given that the Senators are not really in need of the cap space right now and that this asset has had injuries keep him out of the lineup. However, with him missing time again due to Covid-19, I am wondering if Karma is at work.
When he played, the offence wasn’t there to any great degree, but I liked his game in a bottom six role. I don’t think he will get bought out, but I have resigned myself to the fact that he is unlikely to ever live up to his cap hit.
AUSTIN WATSON C
With 11 pts in the final 22 games, Watson may have restored my faith a little bit. However, I am not falling into the Fool’s Gold trap. I love everything non-hockey about this guy. It’s going to take more than a late season flurry in meaningless games to bring me around, but for now, I am at least curious if he can be more like that than the first 45 games.
PARKER KELLY C+
Kelly has the motor to play in the league and the hockey sense. He is on one way money next year and, if this season showed anything, it’s that he can be an energy line player in the league and be effective. He is already being penciled into a fourth line role for next season. He will need to play with expectations before I fully sign off on him. He has peaked my curiosity.
MATHIEU JOSEPH: B+
We all liked what we saw in his first 11 games with the team. We need to temper our enthusiasm a bit. On a team like Tampa Bay, this was a fourth line player. On the Senators team, he can hopefully evolve into a third liner but let’s not pencil him into the top two lines if we have any intentions of winning. His speed is better than the departed, Nick Paul. He isn’t as big but is willing to mix it up. I like him in the three hole who can backfill line two in case of injuries. He is up for arbitration in the summer. He will likely receive a qualifying offer while a longer-term deal gets worked out.
DYLAN GAMBRELL C
Gambrell is a fairly one-dimensional player who can play the defensive zone infinitely better than the offensive zone. I don’t like the idea of giving him a qualifying offer given seven points in 63 games. However, DJ Smith likes him and for a depth player, he would be reasonably inexpensive. Maybe there is more under the hood. I don’t see it.
MARK KASTELIC: B
Sens Nation is so much in need of a good news story, that four points in 14 games is enough of a sample size to have Kastelic penciled into opening night on the fourth line with Kelly and Watson. I am not saying it won’t happen, but if it does, that’s not a fourth line of a playoff bound team. Don’t get me wrong. I like what I see and, if he has a good playoff run with Belleville, that might advance his development. However, let’s not get too enamored too quickly. More time in the AHL might be required.
THOMAS CHABOT: (A) A
Despite his slightly lower point totals, this may have been Chabot’s best pro season. His +/- improved noticeably and his ability to control the pace of the game is elite. His value to the team is never more evident than when he isn’t on the ice. The Senators are far less threatening to play against without him.
ARTEM ZUB: A+
It’s hard to find a weakness in Zub’s game. He doesn’t have Chabot’s offensive flare. However, he has some offensive abilities, and he is the defensive equivalent of Chabot. Ideally, these two will pair up next year full time in order to maximize what Chabot can bring. Dorion needs to extend him July 1st with a nice five-year contract at $5 million per.
TRAVIS HAMONIC: B
I didn’t like what we paid to get Hamonic, but I didn’t mind what Hamonic brought in terms of performance. I know DJ wants him to play with Chabot. However, I am a fan of playing your number one with your number two and that’s not Hamonic. He is steady in his own end and with only one year left on his contract, the Senators have flexibility moving forward.
NIKITA ZAITSEV (A): C-
Zaitsev has become a lightning rod with fans and media because of his contract. He is very one dimensional which makes his contract cumbersome. He can defend at the NHL level but for his price tag, that’s not enough. Hearing rumours of him being a contract dump to Arizona which will likely cost a good asset. Worth it. I don’t question the effort but there is better in the system at far less overhead.
NICK HOLDEN (A): B
Holden had an effective second half of the season and earned himself an extension. Of course, much like my comment about Kelly, Kastelic and Watson, if Holden is in your top four, you are not making the playoffs. Ideally, he falls back to a five or six role and brings along Lassi Thomson and gets moved at the deadline to a contender. Mobility is still an issue, and he needs to play the right minutes.
ERIK BRANNSTROM C+
With Thomas Chabot out with an injury, the last quarter of the season shined a spotlight on Brannstrom and he acquitted himself fairly well. I stand by my previous assessment; in that he will always have to compete to stay in the lineup. He will surely get a qualifying offer and it’s hard to see him any higher than sixth or seventh on a healthy depth chart. His size prevents him from being able to defend without taking penalties and his zero goals really shows me that his shot doesn’t scare anyone.
MATT MURRAY: D
This season has to be considered a disappointment. His play had ups and downs, but I get the sense that there was a health issue on board when we acquired Murray. He is extremely fragile to contact. He has been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and that is very disconcerting. When he is on his game, he is capable of winning. That said, how can anyone have any confidence in him being ready for the start of the season? I fear LTIR for this player.
ANTON FORSBERG: A-
He has been a bright spot in an otherwise rocky ride in the crease this year. His performance can’t be ignored, but I caution anyone putting a #1 goalie tag on him just yet. If it happens, great. However, this season has been an anomaly for Forsberg’s career and now I need to see him play with expectations. If he turns out to be a #1 goalie, his contract will be great value for the next three seasons.
FILIP GUSTAVSSON: C+
The season was an up and down adventure for Gus and I think the team is partially to blame. Before Forsberg stole that game in Carolina, Gus The Bus was widely considered the Senators best option in goal in the organization. It didn’t take long for fair weather fans and media to dump all over him when he struggled. At times, he went long stretches without playing and that’s not how you develop a goalie or any prospect. Hoping he takes the reigns and has some playoff success in Belleville because I am not the least bit confident in Matt Murray getting healthy or staying healthy.
The team has announced that the following players won’t be back, so I won’t bother evaluating them. Chris Tierney, Tyler Ennis, Adam Gaudette and Victor Mete will all be leaving and leaving $6.6 million in cap space. Dorion will need to spend it wisely along with the money coming off Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf’s dead money deals to secure Norris. Then he will need to work to extend Formenton and Joseph and dip his toe in the free agency pond to give Stutzle someone to play with him on the right side.
Like all of you, I have had my fill of looking at the potential and not having even a whiff of meaningful hockey down the stretch. I am still bullish on the team and its direction, but the ownership situation might cause a problem when it comes to acquiring pieces to take this team to the next level.
For now, I am going to take a keen interest in how the Baby Sens do in their first playoff appearance because, contrary to popular belief, there is a correlation between playoff success and individual development.
Right now, the sum of the Senators parts is worth more than the whole. That needs to change next year if this team is going to compete for a playoff spot.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey