It was quite the day for hockey in the nation’s capital yesterday. The 2021-22 NHL season is officially underway, the Sens beat the Leafs 3-2 in their season opener, and oh yeah, a certain someone signed a 7 year $57.5M contract extension.
With the lone remaining RFA now inked, Ottawa can officially turn all their focus to the on ice product this fall (and Sens Twitter can find a new topic to get worked into a frenzy about). But even if you were to set aside the Brady Tkachuk drama for a moment, there are still a ton of questions heading into this year when it comes to the Senators.
Here are the top 5 storylines to monitor as the Sens kick off their 2021-22 campaign:
1) Brady Tkachuk
What, did you think just because he’s signed to a new contract that suddenly Tkachuk would get moved to the back burner? Brady is now a made man in Ottawa. While the team likely overpaid from an AAV standpoint ($8.2M, while more established scorers such as Andrei Svechnikov and Elias Pettersson signed $7.75M and $7.35M deals respectively), locking up Tkachuk for a longer term is something the organization and fans alike can live with.
Now the question becomes whether Tkachuk can live up to the lofty expectations that accompany such a hefty pay raise. Brady’s career high in goals and points both came in rookie season (22G, 23A for 45pts), though if you take his points per game pace from last year and extrapolate that over the course of an 82 game schedule he would have come in at 52pts in 2021.
Granted, when you’re inking a player like Tkachuk, you’re signing him for more than just goals and assists, but there will still be a segment of the fanbase who won’t be able to get past his boxscore every night. Grit, and “dragging people into battle with him” aren’t exactly things that show up on the scoreboard.
His father Keith had multiple 30 and 40 goal scoring seasons on his resume, and even eclipsed the 50 goals plateau twice in the mid-90’s. While those lofty goal totals likely wouldn’t translate to the modern NHL game, it’s not unreasonable to expect Tkachuk to flirt with the 30 goal plateau moving forward. Anything beyond that has to be taken as a pleasant surprise.
Yet it will be just as interesting to see what the organization does with its newly signed power forward off the ice as anything he does on it in the days to come. Do they name him captain this week? Do they let it drag on for a month or more? Or were they soured by the negotiations and wind up naming Chabot captain afterall? There’s no guarantee when it comes to Melnyk & Co. but it would be quite shocking to see anyone other than number 7 donning the “C” this year.
Speaking of which…
2) Melnyk and the Sens Front Office
When the Senators brought in Pierre McGuire last year as SVP of Player Development many fans wondered what his role would be within the organization. Now several months later, there still isn’t much clarity on that front.
Optimists hoped that adding a seasoned hockey ops vet like McGuire could add an extra layer of insulation between Melnyk and the day to day operations of the franchise. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear as though Eugene is ready to relinquish control over hockey decisions anytime soon. As Bruce Garrioch reported yesterday, Pierre Dorion had been working the phones constantly with the Tkachuk camp. Ultimately he said, Melnyk finally gave the green light to get a deal done on the day of the Sens home opener saying “I just felt we were getting really close to a deal. When you’re doing contracts like this, I keep Eugene updated. The call I had with him Tuesday night, he just told me, ‘Pierre, get it done.’”
The fact that the Sens and the Tkachuk camp got all the way to opening day before Eugene gave Dorion the green light to “get it done” is a little concerning, especially when the team was struggling to even reach the cap floor ahead of opening night. But more so than that it reconfirms the notion that Dorion’s hands are tied when it comes to meaningful hockey decisions even now, 5 years after being named GM.
Melnyk famously remarked that 2021-2025 would be the Senators years of “unparalleled success” and that the team would spend close to the cap in order to truly contend. Time will tell how true or hollow those remarks will ring, but last I checked we’re within that window and the Sens are currently $20M+ away from the cap. So if not now, then when does the front office begin to push their chips towards the middle of the table? After all, “the rebuild is over”.
3) Shane Pinto & the 2nd line Centre role
Shane Pinto had an unbelievable pre-season where he had some true flashes of offensive brilliance. Then again, so did Brandon Bochenski many moons ago. While the offense is nice, the Senators should be more focused on grooming one of either Stutzle or Pinto into their 2nd line centre of the future.
If the front office isn’t going to spend to the cap, and elect instead to use this as another development year, then they’d better get their 2nd line centre role figured out in a hurry. Getting young players like Stutzle or Pinto acclimated to the role now, as opposed to on the fly in a year where the team is contending, is going to be paramount. Unless Ottawa goes out and trades for a bonafide top 6 centreman, one of either Tim or Shane will need to play that role.
In 2020-21 Ottawa ranked 6th worst in the league in faceoff win percentage coming in at a paltry 47.4%. For his career at UND, Pinto had a faceoff win percentage of 61.9% which is second best all-time in program history. He was named NCHC player of the year, and NCHC defensive forward of the year as well, which bodes well in terms of what fans can expect out of him in his own end as well.
Given the Colin White injury, it looks like Pinto will be given every opportunity to show that he can anchor Ottawa’s second line this year. Once Tkachuk slides into the lineup expect a top 6 of Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson, Stutzle-Pinto-Brown to be an Ottawa mainstay. The question remains, “will that be enough to compete come playoff time”? Or does Ottawa still have another splash to make on the trade front?
4) Ottawa’s Goaltending
Tell me if you’ve heard questions about this before? After signing a 4yr/$25M contract with Ottawa last offseason, expectations were sky high for two time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray. Unfortunately, Ottawa made a series of questionable trades and signings, hoping that by adding some veteran presence to their lineup, they would be better positioned to compete.
Well, we all know how that story played out. Most (if not all) of the veterans brought in last year were either shipped off for spare parts at the deadline, or simply not brought back this year. At times it looked like Ottawa’s blue line was being patrolled by pylons, and outside of Chabot and the emergence of Zub, there weren’t many bright spots to speak of defensively.
So it should come as no surprise that Murray got shelled during the first half of the season. Fast forward to the end of the year, where management finally heard the fans' cries of “let the kids play!”, and Murray turned in a sparkling .954 save percentage and 1.37 GAA down the stretch.
With Filip Gustavsson not needing to clear waivers to start the year, Ottawa elected to send him back to Belleville and roll with a combination of Murray and Anton Forsberg between the pipes. Forsberg is a perfectly serviceable backup at the NHL level, and showed last night what he can do when given opportunities (46 saves against the Leafs), but no one is expecting him to become a franchise goaltender. Which means that barring a trade it will be one of either Murray, or Gustavsson taking on that role moving forward.
Murray was less than 100% so he didn’t start last night, and Gustavsson is ready to roll at a moment's notice but will likely get some seasoning in the minors to start the year. Which version of Murray the Sens see this year will go a long way in determining how long Gus stays in Belleville. But of all the positions on the Senators roster, goaltender remains the biggest question mark moving forward.
5) Erik Brannstrom’s future in Ottawa
At a certain point, something has to give. Dorion and DJ seem to be at an impasse when it comes to Brannstrom and what role he will have with the Senators this season and beyond. Dorion appears unwilling to include Brannstrom in any potential trade packages, seeming to cling on to the fact that he was the centrepiece of the Mark Stone trade. While DJ Smith seems unwilling to play Brannstrom, electing to go with veteran D-men who may be a touch more responsible in their own end but can’t generate offense to save their lives, at every turn.
Ottawa’s biggest question mark may be in nets, but their biggest weakness is their thin blue line. Chabot and Zub form a decent top pairing duo, but beyond that are we really sure that any of Michael Del Zotto, Josh Brown, Nick Holden, or Nikita Zaitsev are bringing more to the table than Brannstrom could? And if you’re not sold on him, then move him now while he still has interest from teams around the league, rather than have him watch games from the pressbox as a healthy scratch each night.
Ottawa finally moved on from the Logan Brown situation, whereby the organization’s handling of the prospect ultimately limited Brown’s trade value when the Sens were finally ready to move on. Let’s hope that’s not the case with Brannstrom when all is said and done.
By Kyle Skinner | Sens Nation Hockey