Senators Final Report Cards - Garbage Bag Day 2023
The Ottawa Senators wrapped up their 2022-23 season Thursday night with a 4-3 OT loss to the Buffalo Sabres in what turned out to be former Sens goalie Craig Anderson’s final NHL start.
The Senators finished with a 39-35-8 record, which was good for 86 points. This is up 13 points from the 73 they finished with last year. They improved to sixth in the Atlantic Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference after finishing seventh and 13th last season.
They were playoff-relevant well beyond the all-star break, and attendance improved by roughly 40% over last year. Still, it wasn’t enough to get to the dance. So, let’s assess the pieces and see where improvements are needed.
PIERRE DORION A
With the team's pending sale creating a cloud of uncertainty over the hockey operations department, I have to tip my cap to Dorion for a job well done this year. People will point to the Talbot for Gustavsson trade and say, “What if?”. However, no one could have anticipated Gustavsson’s improvement this season based on how he had played last season. Overall, he delivered an extension for Tim Stutzle a year early on an extremely club-friendly contract, did similar with Artem Zub, acquired a legit top-four defenceman in Jakob Chychrun, got Matt Murray 75% off the books and onto Toronto’s, brought in Alex DeBrincat to form the eighth-best power play in the league and delivered Ottawa’s best free agent signing in recent memory in Claude Giroux. That’s not bad work IMO. If he can work the magic he did on Stutzle with Jake Sanderson and Shane Pinto, over the summer, he will have earned the right to stay.
DJ SMITH B
A rating of a B is not bad, and DJ Smith is not a bad coach. The Ottawa Senators are officially in their window now. Numerous key pieces are locked up long-term and Ottawa has become a free agent destination. They don’t need a good coach. They need an excellent coach the way a Formula One racing team needs an excellent driver. In four years as head coach, Smith has never been able to stabilize the defensive zone structure. Dorion needs to thank DJ for his service as well as his assistants.
BRADY TKACHUK A+
This guy has really come into his own as a leader and the community has embraced him. Never have the Senators had a player like this who can affect the game in so many different ways. The team has surrounded him with the support he needs to take the team to the next level. As long as he avoids his father’s habit of letting his physical fitness slip, the sky's the limit.
THOMAS CHABOT B+
By Chabot’s standards, this season was underwhelming. I am concerned that he may become the lightning rod for fan abuse now that Nikita Zaitsev isn’t here. I still find it hard to be overly critical of a guy who logs more minutes than anyone else on the team, averaging 24:58 per game against all the toughest matchups. As you may recall, the power play was once as high as sixth in the league and, when he was off, it slipped to eighth. Don’t be too quick to name Jake Sanderson the alpha. He will be one day soon. But Chabot is still an elite skater and puck mover.
CLAUDE GIROUX A+
There isn’t much more I can say about this guy that his career-high 35 goals, third in club points at 79, 17 power-play points and 58.5% faceoff win rate don’t say for him. He loves playing here and you can’t fake the kind of admiration his teammates have for him. Giroux was just the kind of alternate captain Brady Tkachuk needed.
ALEX DEBRINCAT B
I didn’t have him pencilled in for 40 goals this year, but I did have him pencilled in for 30. Many have pointed to his career high in assists at 39 to take some of the sting off. That wasn’t his calling card when he came here. I don’t view the season as a disaster, despite his -31. He was a big part of the power play, and I don’t question the effort. I just had greater expectations. I support a qualifying offer/"show me" year before long-term extension.
DRAKE BATHERSON B-
Given what Batherson had shown leading up to this season, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. Scoring 62 points is nothing to sneeze at. Doing that and finishing -35 is alarming, considering last season he was plus four. Part of me understands he was coming back from a high ankle sprain, which ended his season prematurely last year. I also wonder if the 2018 World Junior Hockey Team investigation has been weighing on him. I still love the contract and the upside for a soon-to-be 25-year-old is obvious. I think we were all expecting more this year.
TIM SUTZLE A+
Stutzle established himself as an elite up-and-coming player in the league this year. His ability to make plays at top speed and exploit the opposition is scary. And his contract is amongst the best-value deals in the league. He is a big game player who is only beginning to scratch the surface.
SHANE PINTO B+
Pinto’s rookie campaign was a success. He was forced out of his comfort zone by the Norris injury and did an admirable job. Properly slotted, he can be a solid two-way center. His faceoff percentage (52.1) is beginning to resemble his University of North Dakota days and will only continue to improve. Like most of his teammates, his play at five-on-five needs to keep developing.
MATHIEU JOSEPH C
Joseph was brought in to replace Nick Paul as a third-line player with speed. I didn’t think the offensive burst he showed last year after being acquired would stick, but I expected more than three goals and 18 points. I know he only played 56 games. Zero even strength goals is hard to fathom. It’s only one season and he did play a role in the penalty kill improvement. However, he's being paid like a third-liner. He needs to produce like a third liner. I think he misses the structure of playing in Tampa Bay.
DERICK BRASSARD B+
If his leg injury is the way his career ends, that would be a shame. For $750K, Brassard delivered a solid season and was worth every penny. He can’t handle the workload he once did. However, when he did play, he was an asset. The Masterton Trophy nomination is very appropriate.
MARK KASTELIC C+
As far as rookie seasons go, I view this one as a success. His value is not just in offensive production. His faceoff percentage (57.2) is huge for the penalty kill. His big frame allows him to be physical and he doesn’t mind dropping the gloves. Kastelic is on a very friendly contract for the next two years. I don’t mind a fourth line with him at center, but I don’t project him being more than that.
PARKER KELLY D+
Due to injury and being the odd man out, he hasn’t played since the last review. It’s hard to view this season as anything more than disappointing. Kelly seemed to regress. He's on one-way money next year as well. He will need to create a niche for himself and generate some offence to find a spot in the lineup.
AUSTIN WATSON C
Watson was never short on effort. The nine goals he scored were more than I would have expected. His willingness to sacrifice his body is admirable. However, he does not scare anyone when it comes to fighting and an upgrade is needed at this position. Within the organization, Scott Sabourin could do what Watson does at half the price and I don’t want Scott Sabourin to be a regular on the team next season.
DYLAN GAMBRELL C+
As an RFA, the Senators control this asset. I have never been crazy about him as a player. However, he has played his best hockey in the back half of the season. He has pace and can kill penalties. Much like Watson, 10 points in 60 games is nothing to get excited about. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is back next season as a depth player. He is affordable and knows his role. That said, if he's allowed to walk in favour of a better option, I can live with that too.
PATRICK BROWN C
Brown is a late-season acquisition for a sixth-round pick who is a UFA at season’s end. His production and Julien Gauthier’s were almost identical, yet he drew into the lineup ahead of Gauthier down the stretch. I don’t see a player here that can help the Senators get to the next level. He is 30 years old and is what he is. He works extremely hard but has very little offensive upside. I would let him walk.
JULIEN GAUTHIER C
Gauthier sat numerous games in the stands down the stretch, which shows he didn’t make much of an impression on DJ. This is an RFA and the organization needs to decide whether to qualify him or not. I can see why he has had a hard time finding a permanent home in the league. His tool set isn't used consistently enough to generate results. He has a huge frame and can skate, but he doesn't always play that way. Registering five points in 17 games is not disappointing. However, at 25, it’s hard to see him doing much better. That said, I would take him over Watson and Brown.
RIDLY GREIG B+
The 20 games Greig played with the Senators proved two things: 1) He will be an NHL player and a good one. 2) He wasn’t physically ready yet. Greig had nine points in 20 games and played with pace and hockey sense. His return to Belleville was not a surprise. With another summer of development, Greig may be ready next season. However, he is a center, and the Senators are four deep at that position already. Is he the third-line left winger that replaces Alex Formenton? We still don’t know. Greig has time on his side and, if he is in need of more seasoning, that’s not the worst thing.
ARTEM ZUB A-
Zub's offensive numbers were down over previous seasons. He also missed 29 games due to injury. He lost a lot of weight after his broken jaw, and I don’t think he was ever completely healthy after that. He still delivered his third straight plus season on a team that is mostly a minus. He is a huge part of the penalty kill.
NICK HOLDEN C+
The club has already announced that Holden won’t be back. He was a pro and a value add for his time here.
JAKE SANDERSON A+
Hard to imagine what would have become of the season had Sanderson just been good. He's a five/six tool player who should be on the podium for the Calder Trophy. Pierre Dorion said that not everyone can get a long-term extension. This player needs one and this off-season would be wise before he shows us all what he can really do next season.
TRAVIS HAMONIC B
As far as minutes and matchups go, Hamonic played over his head for most of the season. His grit is admirable and he wants to stay. I am in favour of a contract worthy of a sixth defenceman. If he would take what Holden made this year for two years, I could live with that. It’s important that we not overestimate what Hamonic meant to Sanderson’s development. Sanderson was at least as good for him as he was for Sanderson.
ERIK BRANNSTROM B+
Brannstrom just completed his best season as a Senator. I think we can say now he is an established NHL defenceman. Based on Chabot, Sanderson, Chychrun and Zub, he is clearly not in the top four. Does this player fit the mould of a bottom pair defenceman? I say, no. He is an RFA that will surely be qualified unless he gets moved. I think Brannstrom could help put the Sens back in the playoffs or fetch a solid bottom-six forward.
CAM TALBOT C+
Talbot has taken a lot of abuse for his recent play after coming back from injury. At the time of the last report card, he was healthy, had a couple of good starts under his belt and looked poised to lead the Senators on a playoff run. I was in favour of an extension for two years. Injuries came in and laid waste to that plan to the point that I would not extend Talbot. That's based on injuries rather than his play. When he was healthy this season, he played well and was clearly the number one goalie. He is 35 and just doesn’t seem able to stay healthy. With Forsberg recovering from a serious injury, the Senators need a sure thing for training camp.
ANTON FORSBERG C+
Forsberg missed the final 20 games. His season was up and down which was typical of his career. He is a capable backup who played above his head in a season with the Senators when there was very little pressure.
MADS SOGAARD B+
In his 19 starts with the Senators, the one thing Sogaard showed more than anything is that he can stay even-keeled. He didn’t have a Hamburglar run and, in some ways, that’s not a bad thing. A Hamburglar run would have gotten the Senators to the postseason. However, when the Hamburglar came back to reality in 2015, he couldn’t find anything close to the level he played at. Sogaard had some tough starts, but was able to shake it off. That’s half the battle for a goalie. I don’t know if he's ready for a full-time transition to the NHL next season when the expectations are going to be high. I do think there is something here that, properly developed, could be a good starter in the league.
Despite the Senators’ improvement this season, there are still a number of questions that need answering:
1) Who will own the team?
2) Who will coach the team next season?
3) Who will be the starting goalie on opening night?
4) What is Alex Formenton’s future with the club?
5) Will Alex DeBrincat sign long-term or take the qualifying offer route?
Based on the lineup they started with, I didn’t view the Senators as a playoff candidate, and losing Josh Norris five games in didn’t help the situation. Most of the core players took a step forward, but there were too many unknowns to believe the playoffs were possible.
Dorion managed expectations well by saying the goal was to play meaningful games in March. They played meaningful games in April.
Hopefully, the ownership situation is resolved over the summer, everyone comes back healthy, a new coaching staff is hired and Dorion has another solid offseason. If those things happen, the Senators could be the New Jersey of next season.
Let the Blue Team Elimination Watch Begin!
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey