Senators Report Cards at the 3/4 Pole
In a few hours, the Ottawa Senators will be taking on the Columbus Blue Jackets in game 62 of the season.
This will be the first time in five years that game 62 had real significance to their season’s outcome. They have just acquired that elusive top four defenceman, moved Nikita Zaitsev’s contract off the books and are as healthy as they have ever been this season.
Here’s my 35,000-foot view of the last 21 games and how I see it playing out the rest of the way.
PIERRE DORION A+
I know Dorion has been something of a lightning rod in Sens Nation, but since the last review, he has gotten Zaitsev off the books and delivered Jakob Chychrun in trades that consisted of picks only. He also got a player with club control remaining in Julien Gauthier for a pending UFA in Tyler Motte. He decided not to upset the chemistry of the team at the deadline by moving his UFAs and the players have rewarded him by getting back into playoff contention. I have to give the man his due. He’s had a great season so far.
DJ SMITH B+
I wrote a piece in late November calling for Smith to be replaced at seasons end. The only thing that would change my mind was if he managed to resurrect the season and get to the playoffs. That hasn’t happened yet. However, the idea is not as far-fetched as it was at the 22 games mark when the team was in last place with an 8-13-1 record.
I am not convinced of his strategic capabilities and the Senators’ goaltenders do see a lot of rubber at times. That said, these players are playing for their coach. I guess that’s all that matters.
Having the league’s 5th best power play at 25.11% (Davis Payne) and 6th best penalty kill at 83.04% (Jack Capuano) goes a long way. However, even strength goals are up now as well to 128 or 65% of their scoring. All are positive trends.
I have to give the man his due. If he gets the team to the playoffs, he can finish his contract.
BRADY TKACHUK (C) A+
He continues to be the hood ornament on the Senators’ freight train. He leads the team in scoring, he doesn’t even have to drag them into the fight. They follow him. The sight of him taunting the Red Wings bench amidst those two beat downs just proves that the Sens have their guy.
Scary thought? He isn’t even fully developed physically yet. Thanks Marc Bergevin.
THOMAS CHABOT (A) A-
Now that Nikita Zaitsev is gone, I fear that Thomas Chabot will become the new Sens Nation whipping boy. He is on pace to match his point total in the same number of games as last year. The power play that is carrying the Senators is largely on his watch. He may not have the points you would expect from that. However, he has a lot to do with getting it to the zone where the triangle sets up and the puck starts moving.
He has become a bit of a one speed player with all the ice time which has hurt his defensive play. He may not play with Chychrun, but no one will profit more from that acquisition than him.
CLAUDE GIROUX (A) A+
He has exceeded all expectations on and off the ice. He can smell a playoff berth now and that’s bad news for the opposition. It’s strange to say that the best face man on the team is not even a center. I am not questioning anything unconventional. That penalty kill often starts with Giroux winning a face off, the Senators icing the puck, and Giroux going to the bench.
ALEX DEBRINCAT B+
I have been fairly lenient in my evaluation of DeBrincat up to now. He hasn’t been bad by any means. His is a big part of the power play. However, I need to see more from him. I expected an adjustment period, so I was not expecting him to be an automatic 40 goal player. I did think he was a sure 30 goal man.
He is passing on obvious shot opportunities. He needs to be reminded why he was brought here. He may actually be in his own head. His +/- is trending down despite the upswing in the team. He is capable of more and he needs to be more for the Senators to get where they want to get.
DRAKE BATHERSON B
Like DeBrincat, he needs to improve at five on five. His offensive play is not the issue. Despite some new line combinations, the results aren’t changing. He is in line for the “Green Jacket” Award for the unofficial and auspicious identifier of the worst +/- in the league -30 which is down from -28 at the midway mark.
His contract is still great value, but in the here and now, he needs to be better.
TIM STUTZLE A+
Stutzle seems to have taken being excluded from the All-Star game personally as he is playing with a passion. It’s startling to think he is still in the last year of his entry level deal. He plays with pace, has genuine finish, can distribute the puck effectively and has a bit of that German truculence that irritates the opposition.
To top it all off, his defensive game has improved immensely which makes him a choice to play in all situations.
SHANE PINTO B+
He continues to play above his weight in the two hole. He is contributing offensively though not at the pace he might want to. As far as rookie seasons go, he is meeting expectations. His -15 is holding steady. He is getting match ups that aren’t necessarily favourable to him.
Lots of upside here. When Josh Norris rejoins the team in the fall, Pinto will be the beneficiary in five-on-five situations.
MATHIEU JOSEPH C
Joseph also missed a good portion of the last 20 games due to injury and, after feeling the wrath of DJ Smith by being scratched at a home game against his brother, Joseph has turned up his game.
A lot of people point to how it would have been better to keep Nick Paul than trade for Joseph. Watch them skate. I would agree that Paul has value. However, he is playing in an experienced and structured system. Joseph’s speed creates turnovers and will be useful as the intensity ratches up down the stretch.
This hasn’t been a great season for Joseph, but he is still a plus player and part of that penalty kill that the Senators boast. He is younger than Paul and his contract is half the length.
DERICK BRASSARD B
His 1000th game was likely his best of the season. I think we all wanted that shot at the empty net to hit the target and get him a hat trick. In his limited role, he has delivered some solid two-way hockey and is a plus player.
His value may be felt most in the final 21 games of the season now that the playoffs are within sight. The end of his career is in sight, and I think Brassard will do everything he can to get another ticket to the dance.
At $750K, he’s been an absolute steal.
MARK KASTELIC C+
He missed a good chunk of the last 20 games due to illness and then a brief stop in Belleville. He made good use of this time. Since returning, he has shown his physical play more consistently, continues to win big draws and has even gotten back on the score sheet.
His time in Belleville was surely due to his entry level contract status and being waiver exempt. Now the team is free to play the best available players in the organization.
PARKER KELLY D+
Recently, Kelly has found himself the odd man out of the lineup and, if I’m honest, it’s long overdue. For all of his work ethic, there isn’t a lot to show for it at the end of the day. He will likely draw back in when Brassard can’t do back to backs or in case of injury.
With another year of one-way money to come, this player needs to carve out a niche for himself or he will be watching more and more.
AUSTIN WATSON C+
Recency bias might cause me to over-evaluate this player. For a good chunk of this evaluation period, Watson was a healthy scratch. Parker Kelly is now living that reality. He has produced some points and upped his game. If he can stay at that level, he might end up getting an extension.
If I am honest, I think Scott Sabourin could do what Watson is doing and more for roughly half the price. I know Watson is a popular teammate. He is also a bad spend of $1.5 million.
DYLAN GAMBRELL C+
Gambrell is playing his best hockey as a Senator. I have been critical of his lack of offensive production. He has picked up a few points of late. I stand by that evaluation. However, the Red Wings broke a string of 18 consecutive successful penalty kills last week. That 83.04% penalty kill has something to do with Gambrell.
As an RFA, it would not surprise me to see Gambrell back next season. However, I wouldn’t weep if he were moved along. He has the remaining 21 games to show the team that he can produce some offence to go with his defense. If he does, he might be a Shaun Van Allen type of player. I don’t see that happening.
JULIEN GAUTHIER C+
Gauthier comes to the Senators with more potential than portfolio. My initial impressions of him are that he is a big player who hasn’t figured out a way to use his size to his advantage. He has the speed to be effective, yet he is not always so. At 6’4” 225 pounds, with his speed, he should be a nightmare to play against, yet his results are middling. That suggests hockey sense could be an issue.
He has four penalty minutes in 46 games played. I find it hard to believe if a guy that size is playing the way he should be that he wouldn’t run afoul of the law more often. That suggests to me that he is a gentle giant.
In his first game against the Bruins, he had the puck and a path to the front of the net. He chose to shoot from a bad angle and curl behind the net.
In a small sample size, I don’t want to be overly judgmental. To be continued.
ARTEM ZUB A
He isn’t flashy, but he is highly effective. That penalty kill is his calling card. He has endeared himself to Sens Nation and even dropped the gloves against Tyler Bertuzzi. Grapes would be proud. Zub, Chabot, Sanderson and Chychrun make as good a top four defense as there is in the east or they will be if they stay healthy.
NICK HOLDEN C+
He missed some games due to injury during these last 20 games. When he returned, he was better than when he left. His veteran experience will be helpful down the stretch if he can stay healthy and he is another character guy.
He is coming to the end of his runway, and I thought he might get dealt at the deadline given his playoff experience. However, with the playoffs now within the Senators’ grasp, it’s better that he be here.
His offence has been a pleasant surprise, but he is what he is and that’s not a bad thing.
JAKE SANDERSON A+
He isn’t the best defenceman on the team yet. I still give that distinction to Chabot. Chychrun may also give a run for that honour. However, you can see that within a year or two, Sanderson could be the Alpha. He has played more games this year than he has the past two collegiate seasons and yet he seems to be getting better and showing no signs of fatigue.
He is the Senators’ Calder candidate for sure. His combination of mobility, size, speed, and hockey sense are unquestionable, and the offensive output is only just beginning.
TRAVIS HAMONIC B
He has played extremely gritty hockey and will likely benefit from the Chychrun acquisition from a match up perspective. Now that he ends up playing the right minutes, I expect things to get even better. As a bottom pair defenceman, I think Hamonic can be very effective.
Like Pinto, he has been playing above his weight class for most of the season and given a valiant effort. The fact that he wasn’t moved after Chychrun was acquired tells me he will be back next season.
ERIK BRANNSTROM B
This is another player who is not becoming what he was brought to Ottawa to be but is still playing his best hockey as a Senator. His lengthy goal drought mercifully came to, and end and he managed to pick up a few assists.
That said, now that Chychrun has been acquired, he was DJ’s first scratch on defense. This is an oddity in that, when Sanderson was injured prior to the Chychrun acquisition, he seemed to be playing more than Hamonic. However, in the new alignment, his 5’10” 185-pound frame may make it difficult for him to crack the five/six pairing on defense as players of that ilk are normally bigger and more robust.
Depending on the opponent, this could be Brannstrom’s reality for the remaining 21 games which is kind of a shame given that people are calling him Branny now. I have always viewed him as a tweener for this exact reason. Teams that want to win can’t rely on defensive shutdown men of that size.
CAM TALBOT B+
Like many others, Talbot missed a good portion of the last 20 games due to injury. That said, he has shown himself to be fully healed and ready to be the number one guy. The starts against Detroit and Rangers showed the kind of veteran goaltending that the Senators will need if this run is to continue. Perhaps seeing Mads Sogaard and Kevin Mandolese excel while he was on IR gave him a little extra motivation.
ANTON FORSBERG C+
It’s hard to get the vision of Forsberg being carted off the ice writhing in agony out of my mind. When I heard it was two MCL injuries that wouldn’t require surgery, I breathed a lot easier. The Senators won’t see him again this year, but they will see him again and before his injury, he was riding a three-game win streak and playing some of his best hockey.
MADS SOGAARD/KEVIN MANDOLESE A+
With Sogaard winning NHL rookie of the month for February and Mandolese winning his start against the Islanders with a great performance, it’s safe to say that these two have contributed mightily to the Senators resurgence.
From a micro perspective, they have kept the Senators in the hunt while Talbot got healthy. From a macro perspective, they have shown that the Senators have two capable goalies that are worth developing for the future.
At the midway mark, I said I wouldn’t fully commit to the Senators as playoff candidates until I saw a watershed type of victory against a top team in the east. The game against the New York Rangers at MSG after they had acquired Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane was all the proof I needed. The Senators were the better team in a hostile environment and came from behind in the third period to win.
The Ottawa Senators will make the playoffs this season.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey