Senators Report Card: The Midway Mark
If you had told me that back when I wrote the quarter pole evaluation that the Senators would hit the midway mark as a .500 team, I would have told the bartender to cut you off. The team was sitting at 8-13-1 after 22 games and sitting last in the Atlantic Division.
Now, a mere 19 games later, the Senators have leaped over the Montreal Canadiens into seventh in the division, and have not only hit the .500 mark, but Sens Nation has even started scoreboard watching. YES! Now the outcomes of the games of the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres and even the Florida Panthers, have become more than a matter of casual interest.
By this time last season, the Senators’ playoff fate was well known, and it was just a matter of who would be sold off at the trade deadline.
Let’s see who we have to thank for this resurgence and see who still needs to pick it up.
PIERRE DORION A-
In the last review, I had said that if Pierre Dorion had delivered an extension for Artem Zub that I would have rated him an A- instead of a B+. Well, he delivered a very club friendly four-year extension and has positioned himself for a seat at the table with new ownership.
If he wants an A, he can extend Shane Pinto and Cam Talbot. If he gets Zaitsev off the books and fills that top four hole in their defence by next review, it’s an A+.
DJ SMITH C+
Though my opinions about the long-term viability of D.J Smith are known, I have to acknowledge the improvement with a bump in his rating. I stand by what I said, and I was clear that, even if the team got back to .500, that they had done all they could do for this head coach.
Much of the Senators improvement stems from special teams. The power play has risen to 27.2%, good for fourth in the league (Davis Payne). The penalty kill has risen to 82.9%, good for sixth in the league (Jack Capuano). Still, they roll up to D.J. Smith in the end.
If the next 20 games resemble the last 19, we’ll talk.
BRADY TKACHUK (C) A
I point to his leadership as a huge reason for the season turnaround. His evolution isn’t even close to finished. He and Tage Thompson are going to wage war in the Atlantic for years to
come. I knocked him down to an A from an A+ as his -10 is hard to completely ignore. The whole team needs to be better at five on five and it starts with him there as well.
THOMAS CHABOT (A) A-
I would never suggest that going into concussion protocol is a positive thing. However, it’s hard not to notice how well Chabot has played since he missed those four games. He is a workhorse and drives the offence. He is not what Erik Karlsson is offensively. Erik Karlsson isn’t what Chabot is defensively. Now that he has Zub back and knows he is here for the next four years, I expect he will continue to thrive.
CLAUDE GIROUX (A) A+
Giroux has been a coup of a signing for Pierre Dorion. He has met and surpassed all expectations and his leadership is likely as important as Tkachuk’s in the dressing room. There has been no decline in his game at all. His diving play to intercept a pass to feed Stutzle against Washington is evidence of what he brings to the table. Great competitor who just happens to be almost even in the +/- at -1.
ALEX DEBRINCAT A-
Things have started to turn around for DeBrincat in this segment of the season. His impact on the power play has been undeniable. That makes his -14 a little easier to digest. As a whole, the Senators are not nearly as good 5 on 5 as they are on special teams. That’s not all on DeBrincat, but if he is to get an A or better, that aspect needs to improve. He has a decent two-way game, but he needs to be part of the collective solution in their own zone.
NIKITA ZAITSEV (A) C-
Though he is injured now, Zaitsev was recalled from Belleville and played some better hockey when he got here. His fate runs hand in hand with his team’s. If the Senators are possessing the puck and forcing the issue, players like Zaitsev are more insulated.
DRAKE BATHERSON B
Though he has regained his scoring form and actually sits third on the team, I can’t advance his rating based on a team worst – 28. I know that stat is widely viewed as being misleading. I am sorry, when yours is double the next worst on your team, there is nothing misleading about that. He has been a big part of the resurgence on offence. This is largely due to the power play. There is no denying his offensive prowess and the value of his contract can’t be overstated. Watching him get walked by Josh Morrissey in Winnipeg should have served as a reminder to him to bring it all the time.
TIM SUTZLE A
It’s hard to believe he hasn’t turned 21 yet. He will likely lead the team in scoring by season’s end. He is dynamic every night and brings a consistency to his game that makes him a nightmare in transition. His defensive game has even tightened up a bit. If he can do it, the rest of the team has no excuse.
The Senators have their #1 center.
SHANE PINTO B+
His offensive numbers have curtailed somewhat. I attribute this to slotting more than anything. He was forced out of the comfort of the three hole into Josh Norris’ ice time and I am not certain he was ready for that. His 200-foot game is still developing. He is starting to produce in the face-off circle at 55.3% for the season. That said, he is competitive every night and is playing in all situations. He does need to be part of the five-on-five solution for the team at -15. I am still very bullish on this player.
TYLER MOTTE B
Before getting injured, Motte was contributing well. I like him more as a fourth line player on a contending team and a third line player on a resurging team. He was a big part of the penalty kill resurgence and plays responsibly at five on five.
DERICK BRASSARD C-
Brassard is starting to look his age. Offensive production has all but ground to a halt and his ice time has been in the 10-minute range. You could do worse for a fourth line center. However, the pace isn’t there for him to be truly effective. He is defensively responsible, so he won’t hurt you.
MARK KASTELIC C+
His game continues to evolve. He plays big and is good on the dot at 60%. With only five points in 38 games, it’s hard to project him as anything more than a fourth line player on a contending team. Right now, he is playing third line due to the injury situation, and he is giving a good account of himself. When Norris is back and Pinto gets pushed back down to the third line, Kastelic will play where he is more comfortable. Still has upside and can contribute in the right role and his faceoff % is an asset to penalty killing.
PARKER KELLY C-
His play has improved noticeably since the last review. He has a few more points to show for it and nobody works harder. The injury situation has forced him to play more than he might though his 10 minutes TOI average would say otherwise. He is still more of a fourth line player than anything else. His contract is decent value. Unlike Kastelic, he doesn’t have the frame to really impose himself on anyone.
AUSTIN WATSON D+
Another player who has been forced to play more than he otherwise might. I know he has four goals. With two of them into an empty net, I find myself already wondering how the Senators can better spend that $1.5 million cap hit next season. D.J. Smith is a big fan of his and he is easy to cheer for. He is a glue guy. So was Chris Neil. When Neil produced these offensive numbers, he sat in the press box.
DYLAN GAMBRELL D+
With his pace, he is an effective defensive player, but unlike Kastelic, he is mediocre on the dot at 39%. Since he got that lucky giveaway goal against the Lightning in his first game of the season, he hasn’t registered a point since. You can’t win in a sustained way with guys like this in the lineup on a regular basis. His ice time reflects this at roughly 11 minutes per game.
ARTEM ZUB A
Having missed half the season due to injury, he has had a hard time getting into a rhythm. However, it’s hard to deny the Senators and Thomas Chabot are better when he plays. He plays defensively as aware as anyone and still impacts the offensive game. His contract is great value for the Senators. If he stays healthy, the Senators chances of being relevant in the second half go up immeasurably. For those who say that +/- is a misleading stat, Zub has been a + for 2.5 seasons.
NICK HOLDEN C
Holden is value for the money he makes and his nearly 17 minutes of ice-time per game are the right kinds of minutes. He kills penalties and is remarkably effective for his lack of footspeed. He has been good for Erik Brannstrom and his development by providing some stability. I don’t see him being here beyond this season. JBD is better but for contract status, Holden continues to play.
JAKE SANDERSON A+
Sanderson has put himself firmly into the Calder conversation. He is a potential five tool player who is probably the single biggest reason the Senators have managed to be competitive this season. I know that’s a bold statement. I am not saying he is the best player on the team or even the best defenseman because he is neither. However, if he weren’t able to log 21 minutes of ice time on average per game this season, with Zub having missed the time that he has, who might have played those minutes? I said before the season that the Senators' chances largely hinged on how well Sanderson was able to transition to the NHL. They caught a huge break here.
He will likely represent his country in an Olympic game. Sadly, he is American.
TRAVIS HAMONIC B
I also said before the season started that without an upgrade on defence, the Senators would be relying on Hamonic to play above his weight class. He has given a good account of himself. However, he would be better suited to a five or six role. If Dorion were to extend him beyond this season with a cap hit that reflected that type of defenseman, I wouldn’t complain. He is gritty and physical and has a decent shot from the point. I would rather see him play with Nick Holden or Erik Brannstrom than with Jake Sanderson.
ERIK BRANNSTROM C+
Brannstrom is something of a statistical anomaly. From my vantage point, he has never played better. He is showing some ability to transport the puck and he isn’t taking the big hits he used to early on. Decision making is quicker, and he makes a good first pass.
He had three points after 22 games and now after 36 (five games missed due to injury), he still sits at three points. He hasn’t scored a goal in over 100 games and nearly 150 shots on goal. Statistically speaking, even a little bit of luck would get him a secondary assist or a lucky goal.
I have never viewed him as a huge threat to score. However, when a player is here to provide supplemental offence and Nick Holden has a goal and six assists in the same number of games, it really does make you wonder what to project for this player.
CAM TALBOT B+
He has firmly entrenched himself as the number one goalie. His stats warrant it, and he can clearly log the majority of the games and be effective. The Boston game was the highlight where he showed the ability to steal a game for his team. This is a must for any starter.
Even more impressive is that he doesn’t play for the soundest defensive team in the league. It will take more of the same if the Senators are going to have any hope for a playoff spot.
ANTON FORSBERG C+
Forsberg played more earlier in the season when Talbot was injured. D.J. has ridden Talbot more of late. He delivered the Buffalo and Columbus wins with some top-notch goaltending which was reminiscent of his play last season. He also got pulled on three goals on five shots against Seattle which was reminiscent of his career. He is solid in two out of three starts.
Inconsistency even runs throughout a game. He played very well for most of a game against Dallas and then allows a soft goal to tie it within five minutes of a victory. The game was ultimately lost in overtime.
From my vantage point, the Senators resurgence can be linked to three main reasons:
1) Special Teams – it’s hard not to be successful when your team is fourth in PP% and sixth in PK% in the league. Your total of PP and PK % should be 100 or better. They are at 111. That said, 17 players on the Senators roster are a minus. Special teams are covering up for some shoddy five on five play.
2) Schedule – Of the 11 wins the Senators have collected in the last 19 games, 8 of them were against non-playoff teams. A win is a win, but they still haven’t played Carolina or Pittsburgh yet.
3) Leadership – Players like Tkachuk, Giroux, Chabot and Talbot have really shown the way and allowed for the rest of the group to thrive.
The last 19 games have restored some faith in Sens Army and the turnstiles are the better for it with a 25% increase in home attendance being advertised. The match is lit, and the Senators are relevant again.
Perhaps it’s the years of struggling we have been through as fans, but I won’t buy into this team being a playoff contender until I see them with one of those watershed moment type of wins against an upper echelon team. I know the Senators have beaten the Bruins twice. The last game was stolen by Cam Talbot. I need to see the best of the Senators against the best of those types of teams. If the lineup that started the season could have 20 games together relatively intact, it would give a much better idea of what the team has.
For now, I have upgraded from pessimist to cautious optimist.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey