It’s hard to believe that the Ottawa Senators season is already 25% in the books. Even harder to believe is that from this time last year, there are only eight players actively playing for the parent club.
With the Senators holding a record of 8-13-1 and sitting in last place in their division, you could say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Last year, after 22 games, they sat at 6-15-1 and dead last in the league. A four-point increase is far less than this Sens fan had in mind at the start of the season.
This season, despite no Covid-19 pandemic to deal with, the Senators have had their share of injuries right out the gate which has certainly set them back. That said, there has still been more than enough of a sample size to evaluate the current roster.
Let’s see who is making the grade and who needs to stay after class for some remedial work.
PIERRE DORION B+
I know Dorion has been a lightning rod for criticism in the past and deservedly so. However, based on the off-season he has just had, it’s hard not to recognize the work he has done.
I alluded to, in a previous piece, that all of his off-season acquisitions have panned out. Giroux, DeBrincat, Talbot and Motte have all contributed meaningfully to the team.
If Dorion had delivered an extension for Zub, this would have been an A. I am not certain who is holding that up either. Perhaps Zub wants to see what he is going to be playing with before he makes a longer-term commitment.
I know people want to see that elusive top four defenseman. The Senators need it to be sure. However, I applaud Dorion for not paying a King’s ransom to get someone like Jake Chychrun. The ask price on this player is insane. I am more curious to see how Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson pan out while Nikita Zaitsev is in the minors. Sometimes salvation lies within.
DJ SMITH C-
I wrote a piece recently about my thoughts regarding DJ Smith and his future with the Senators, so I won’t belabour this point. Smith isn’t a bad head coach. He isn’t a very good one either and no team that I am aware of wins with mediocrity behind the bench.
This team, and its record, is a reflection of him and his lack of accountability, structure, poor lineup evaluation and in game strategy.
BRADY TKACHUK (C) A+
I have been bullish on Tkachuk since before the Senators drafted him and he has done nothing to change my mind about that. He is leader top to bottom and easily on his way to being the prototype power forward in the league. He brings it every night and the players follow him.
THOMAS CHABOT (A) B+
I have heard rumblings about Chabot and not playing as well as he needs to be. I agree to a certain extent. However, he is still the alpha on defense. When in the lineup, he plays the hardest minutes and the most minutes….literally. His average TOI at the end of October was most in the NHL at 22.5 minutes of regulation time.
I agree that his pace hasn’t been as good, and the power play has looked sluggish. However, when you play as much as he does and you are up against the best the other team has every night, it’s hard not to become a one speed player. He missed his wing man, Artem Zub, badly during his absence.
CLAUDE GIROUX (A) A-
I will be the first to admit that I didn’t think Claude Giroux would want to be part of a team that was still being pieced together at the age of 34. Despite his connection to the nation’s capital, I assumed he would want to go where he had an immediate chance to compete for a cup. He has been more than the Sens could have hoped for, and he clearly loves playing here.
Despite some malicious rumours about him being a toxic influence in the dressing room in Philly, he has proven to be worth his weight in gold in the room and on the ice. He still has the pace and the hands to be effective. Hockey sense is off the charts.
ALEX DEBRINCAT B+
With only six goals in 21 games, it would be easy to say that DeBrincat hasn’t lived up to expectations. The smooth finish hasn’t been there, and he even showed some self-doubt on 2 on 0 in San Jose where he chose to pass rather than shoot.
However, DeBrincat plays a complete game. The goals will come. He is contributing offensively by way of assists and it’s not unusual to have an adjustment period when coming to a new team.
NIKITA ZAITSEV (A) D-
This player has taken enough abuse. He is out of the limelight for a while and that’s where he belongs until he can be moved or simply plays out his contract. Hopefully he won’t be part of the midway evaluation.
DRAKE BATHERSON B
Batherson came out of the gates on fire to start the season. He has since tailed off and looks a bit snake bitten. He has been juggled between line mates to try to get himself going. I am not worried about the player overall. The game is there and the contract he signed is still great value. What I have seen is him trying to do too much rather than simplifying his game. It’s not uncommon when players struggle. This is especially true when the team struggles at the same time.
Unlike DeBrincat, who plays a more complete game, his -15 is hard to ignore when he isn’t putting up points. Time to get back to the basics.
JOSH NORRIS NO RANKING
He wasn’t off to a great start, but he is missed to be sure. It’s not just his offensive production that is missed. When you see other players try to absorb the minutes he would normally play when they aren’t ready, like Shane Pinto for instance, you get reminded how important players like this are.
TIM SUTZLE A-
Despite Erik Karlsson’s outstanding start to this season, any doubts about who won that trade begin and end with the Sens getting Stutzle at #3 overall in 2020. The defensive side of the game still remains his weakest. However, his speed and dynamic play are on full display most nights, and he is only beginning to scratch the surface of what he can be. Jason Spezza is, in my opinion, the best center in franchise history. Stutzle has that potential. Sens Nation are going to have to live with the frustrating mistakes like they did with Spezza.
He will be worth it in the end and his contract extension was a steal.
SHANE PINTO A-
Pinto started on fire to begin the season and set the record for goals in consecutive games by a Senator. He has certainly tailed off on the scoresheet and I point to being separated from Tyler Motte and Mathieu Joseph as a big reason. He was asked to fill Norris’ minutes and he wasn’t ready for that. He had a good thing going and should have been left there.
He has hockey sense, size, speed and can light the lamp. It’s rare to see his defensive awareness given that he has only played 38 career games.
MATHIEU JOSEPH C-
Consistency is what is lacking from this player’s game. He can be very effective using his speed and he is not a defensive liability. He can also be invisible. I never thought the offensive outburst he showed late in the season last year was a sign of things to come. I like the extension he got.
However, I see him as a third line player who can play short spurts up in the lineup. I would like to see him consistently playing with Pinto and Motte as they were a solid line when playing together.
TYLER MOTTE B
I see Motte as a solid addition. Third line players need to play with pace and defensive awareness which is why I think he fit well with Pinto and Joseph. The hot start didn’t fool me. He wasn’t going to score at that clip.
However, Motte has been effective and a plus player who can kill penalties. If you can get that for a one-year deal at $1.35 million, consider yourself lucky. He was brought in to fill for Alex Formenton. Is he as good? No, certainly not. His ranking reflects what I expected from him.
DERICK BRASSARD C+
Again, like Motte, I had limited expectations from a 35-year-old player. He is defensively responsible, still has some finish and can still play with enough pace to be effective. In my utopia, I had thought of him as a viable option to slot in for Norris. He doesn’t have enough game left to do that and be effective over the long haul. In short spurts, he can be.
If you can pay $750K for a plus player who can score at nearly a point every other game, count yourself lucky.
MARK KASTELIC C+
I am a fan of this player. When he was drafted as an overage player, it was said that it was his skating that had held him back. So far, that hasn’t been an issue in his first full season.
As a fourth line player, I didn’t have a lot of offensive expectations. His size and willingness to engage physically and to drop the gloves hasn’t gone unnoticed and players on the fourth line need to be able to do that.
That said, this is not a fourth line player for a team that is serious about making the playoffs this season. By the time he plays through his contract extension, he will be.
PARKER KELLY D+
I am seeing Kelly as more of a tweener who will always have to fight to stay in the NHL. His work ethic is unquestionable. His hockey sense is also there. The physical tools to be effective, night after night, are borderline at best. Kelly has dressed for all but one game and he has one point. Check the fourth line contributions of other teams. This just doesn’t cut it.
AUSTIN WATSON D+
Watson is the player everyone wants to cheer for. His willingness to lay his body on the line for the good of the team is inspiring. Unfortunately, like Kelly, he does not belong in the NHL full time. He loses most of the fights he engages in. He doesn’t play with enough pace, and he has
very little offensive upside. This is the last year of his deal, and I would be very surprised if he gets an extension.
DYLAN GAMBRELL C–
only played six games. I view him as a better option than Parker Kelly though that isn’t saying much. He has the pace but no offensive upside. I was surprised when Dorion gave him the extension. DJ is a fan of his apparently.
ARTEM ZUB A
Zub’s worth was never more evident to the Senators than for the nine games he was out of the lineup and the four games he has played since his return. The last two, in particular, really highlighted the impact he has on Thomas Chabot and his game. He is rock solid defensively and has more offensive upside than he gets credit for.
The Senators are the only team who can negotiate with him at the moment. Here’s hoping for an extension of five to six years.
NICK HOLDEN C-
Holden has had to, on occasion, fight to stay in the lineup. Of course, some of the games he was scratched for was to keep Zaitsev in the lineup. Holden is value for the money at $1.3 million. He is defensively sound and provides good veteran presence in the locker room. His mobility or lack thereof has been exposed. Father Time is undefeated.
At 35, he is also more of a seven than a top six on a team that is serious about making the playoffs. When JBD is back from injury, I suspect Holden will find himself giving way to make room and, if I am honest, I believe Lassi Thomson is a better option as well.
JAKE SANDERSON A+
Giving Sanderson a higher ranking than Chabot should not be construed as saying he is better than Chabot at the moment. I think all of Sens Nation has breathed a collective sigh of relief to see how well Sanderson has adapted to the NHL game. He has already played nearly as many games this year as he did all of last year at UND. This is a potential five/six tool player who has provided stability to the defense core.
Suffice it to say, the Senators made out like bandits in the first round of the 2020 draft.
TRAVIS HAMONIC B
Hamonic is playing top four minutes and he is a five/six on a playoff contending team. He has played to what I expected of him and, for the Senators to be successful, they need him to be better than that. He was supposed to be the one who provided stability to Jake Sanderson’s game. I would say it’s been the other way around.
I want to give Hamonic his due. He has been enough of what Sanderson has needed to be successful and for that, his $3 million cap hit doesn’t seem outrageous. I am satisfied with Hamonic. In a five/six role, I think I would be extremely satisfied.
ERIK BRANNSTROM C+
I don’t mean to be too hard on Brannstrom. He is finally a regular on the Ottawa Senators blue line. He has played every game, and this is easily the best he has ever played.
However, he is not going to be what he was pegged to be when he came to Ottawa in the Stone trade. He has shown some flashes with his puck movement and ability to make that first pass.
He is a poor man’s option on the power play to the point that DJ has resorted to using Claude Giroux and even Tim Stutzle as options.
He hasn’t scored and doesn’t seem like a threat to score. This is not a bottom pairing defenseman on a team that is serious about making the playoffs.
Is he good enough to be in the NHL? Yes. Is he good enough to have an impact? No.
JACOB BERNARD-DOCKER/LASSI THOMSON B–
They have only played a combined eight games. To me, they represent better options moving forward than Brannstrom and Holden in the short term and Hamonic in the long-term. All three of the latter are on expiring contracts.
CAM TALBOT B+
Yet another acquisition from the offseason that seems to have paid off. Despite his injury absence, he has played consistently and given the Senators a chance to win in most games. He hasn’t stolen any games. Aside from the San Jose game, I can’t think of any losses I would hang on him either. Filip Gustavsson is having a solid season for the Wild, at the moment, but the Senators needed veteran goaltending this year.
ANTON FORSBERG C+
Forsberg hasn’t played at the level he did to earn that contract extension. Then again, I didn’t expect him to. This has never been a starting goalie and I expected what he has been this season. He hasn’t been bad. In Florida, he was outstanding and nearly stole points in both games. The story of his career has been consistency. It is said that no one works harder and for the money he makes, he is a solid 1B goalie in the league. His numbers don’t flatter him on the goals against average side of things at 3.43. His save percentage of 90.4 is indicative of a competent goalie. The Senators are getting what they paid for.
From my vantage point, the Senators disappointing start this season can be linked to three things:
1) Depth – the bottom 3 forwards and defensemen on the Senators simply aren’t good enough compared to what they are competing against.
2) Coaching – the Senators are not dressing the best players in their organization every night. This is particularly true on defense.
3) Injuries – Other teams have coped with early season injuries more effectively than the Senators have. Teams like the Bruins have more depth and better coaching to fall back on.
I wasn’t convinced that the Senators roster was a playoff candidate when they were healthy at the start of the season. I remain of that mind today and I don’t believe they are going to take that step forward until a new coaching staff is brought in and more insulation is provided to Chabot, Zub and Sanderson.
The Senators are what they are. An up-and-coming team with tons of upside potential and a few holes to fill in their roster.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey