The black hole on defense beyond Ottawa’s top pairing of Chabot & Zub has been an endless source of debate and online vitriol in the early stages of the season. So much so, that the team has been forced to split up their one fully functioning pair in an attempt to make other blue liners serviceable and keep Chabot’s minutes under 40 on any given night.
With a 3-8-1record through the first dozen games, it’s abundantly clear that the rebuild is far from over. So what do fans do when the on ice product isn’t up to snuff? They reminisce of course. So let’s look back on brighter days when the team’s D-corps wasn’t nearly as anxiety-provoking as the current model.
Here are the top 5 defensive groups that Ottawa has iced in a season:
5) 2001-02: Chara, Rachunek, Phillips, Salo, Redden, Leschyshyn
This would be the year fans would first lay eyes on Zdeno Chara in an Ottawa Senators jersey, and he would not disappoint. He would set (at that stage of his career) career highs in goals, assists, and points while amassing 156PIMs forcing Islanders fans to wonder why they let him go in the first place. Putting an exclamation point on his turnaround, he went from a -27 with New York the year prior to a +30 with the Sens. And in the early 2000’s before advanced analytics took over the game, +/- was still viewed as an important stat.
Curtis Leschyshyn enjoyed one of the few injury free seasons of his career, playing in 79 games, and Sami Salo played his last season in the Nation’s Capital before heading out west to become a mainstay on the Vancouver blue line. Phillips, known more for being a stay at home defenseman would put up his highest offensive output on a per game basis this year scoring 0.35PPG and Wade Redden was just beginning his 5 year stretch as one of the premier offensive defensemen in the league.
4) 2017-18: Karlsson, Chabot, Borowiecki, Ceci, Phaneuf, Oduya
There wasn’t much that went right in 2017-18. The team finished in 30th place after being a goal away from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals the year before, and it would spark the beginning of the current rebuild the team finds itself mired in. So why would this season find itself on the list of top defensive crews in franchise history you might ask?
Well for starters, if you start combing through the rosters of previous iterations of the Senators you’ll quickly realize that Ottawa won’t be confused for the late 90’s New Jersey Devils anytime soon. Ottawa’s run of success was based primarily on their offensive prowess rather than being built from the back end out. You’ll also quickly realize that pretty well the first decade of competition is largely forgettable. And when you’re talking about removing a third of an organization’s existence right off the hop, that’s a substantial amount of defensemen you’re taking out of the conversation.
So because they’re such a young team (by NHL club standards), we have to include the one season where the two most offensively gifted blue liners in franchise history crossed paths. Yes the other names were either on the back 9 of their careers at this point, or became casualties of the rebuild. But at the end of the day, fans in Ottawa would likely sell a kidney to have a blue line featuring Chabot and prime Karlsson versus what the team is currently fielding.
3) 1998-99: Redden, Phillips, Salo, York, Kravchuk, Traverse.
After sneaking into the playoffs the previous two seasons, this was finally Ottawa’s coming out party. They won the North East division, posted a then franchise record 103pts, and wins (44), and kept a playoff streak alive that wouldn’t end until 2008-09. They also allowed the fewest goals against in a full season (179) in franchise history, a record that still stands today.
This was peak Jacques Martin hockey on display here. System first, defense by committee, solid all round effort. For his efforts, Martin would win the Jack Adams award, and despite the “boring” label that would sometimes get attached to Martin coached teams, Ottawa would score the 11th most goals in a season in club history.
Whether it was systems, a team effort, or just plain hard work, you can’t argue with the results. While this year’s team might not have had the star power of future Senators teams, they got the job done in a big way and helped cement Ottawa as one of the perennial playoff contenders in the East.
2) 2014-15: Karlsson, Methot, Phillips, Ceci, Borowiecki, Gryba
Although it may not have been his statistically best season as a Senator, Karlsson still managed to post 66pts, win his second Norris trophy, and be named the 9th captain in Senators history. This lineup also produced one of the most fondly remembered defensive pairings of Sens folklore in Methot/Karlsson, something fans hope that Zub/Chabot can one day replicate.
It was also the final year for former 1st overall draft pick Chris Phillips, who would retire at season's end, and could be argued that this was Cody Ceci’s best year in a Sens uniform. So much so that, depending on who you ask, the Oilers were reportedly one Eugene Melnyk approval away from trading Taylor Hall to Ottawa for Cody Ceci straight up a season later.
While some might question this group being ranked ahead of others, they still managed to post the 10th best GA over a full season in franchise history, rack up 99pts, and make the playoffs. All in front of Andrew Hammond, who as we would quickly find out in subsequent years, wasn’t the NHL caliber netminder that his 2014-15 numbers would indicate. Is goaltending essentially akin to voodoo? Yes. Do his numbers also have a lot to do with the defense in front of him? Also yes.
With a good mixture of skill, size and sandpaper on the back end, this seems to be the model that Dorion & co. are trying to replicate with their recent run of ill fated signings. Methot (6’4”), Gryba (6’4”), and Phillips (6’3”) provided the size needed to clear the front of the net, while Borowiecki (who was 5th in the league in fighting majors this year) ensured that opponents weren’t taking liberties with Ottawa’s forward group or their all world blue liner in Karlsson. That balance, plus a Norris winning season (something only one other Sens group can boast) are what give this year an edge over past iterations.
1) 2005-06: Chara, Redden, Phillips, Volchenkov, Meszaros, Pothier
This year will likely live in Senators infamy for all time, as the “what could have been” year. Most will remember it as the time Dominik Hasek had a cup of coffee in Ottawa before going on to win a Stanley Cup with Detroit. But what shouldn’t be overlooked here is how stacked the Ottawa blue line was. This was arguably peak Chara/Redden/Phillips, and would be the last time Big Z would be in a Sens uniform.
Those three don’t need much further explanation, but what some overlook is the supporting cast defensively that also played out of their minds this year. This crew would be led by rookie sensation Andrej Meszaros who would notch his career high in points with 39 and be a +34 on the year. Brian Pothier would mirror this by setting career highs in goals (5), assists (30) and points (35) and total a career best +29 on the year. And who could forget everyone’s favourite bruiser Anton “A-Train” Volchenkov who, when he wasn’t hitting everything that moved, posted what would be the 2nd highest points total of his career (17) and tied a career high for goals (4). Those totals might not jump off the page in the modern NHL, but considering Ottawa only recently got it’s first goal from a blue liner, Mez/Pothier/Volchenkov’s outputs look almost prolific in comparison.
Ottawa set a record for the most goals in a single season (314), 8th fewest against (211), finished 1st in the North East division, 1st in the East, 2nd in the league, and tied a franchise record with 113pts. So while 05-06 will always be remembered as “the Hasek year”, it could just as easily be remembered as the best defense corps from top to bottom that Ottawa has ever rostered.
By Kyle Skinner | Sens Nation Hockey