It’s not pessimistic to be straightforward about the future of the Ottawa Senators. They’re making great strides in their rebuild; that much is true. But over the course of the playoffs, more and more comparisons have been popping up between them and the New York Rangers. Both clubs are roughly on the same rebuild timeline, but the Rangers had a solid playoff run while the Senators got another early summer. Despite the similarities, the differences are much larger. So what are the Senators lacking that will cause them to miss another postseason?
Hard to Win in the NHL Without Superstars
It’s doable, but it’s difficult. As the league gets better and better, teams need to have those true x-factor players. Players who can break a game wide open. Depth scoring is key to stealing games and deep playoff runs but having those players who can turn it on for some shifts to sway the game are indispensable. The Senators have players who are approaching that status, but nobody is there yet. Brady Tkachuk has the raw talent to be a preeminent power forward in the league. He’s throwing hits and taking shots at an alarming rate but needs to round out his game and find some more consistency. Until he manages to will his way into every game, he can’t be considered a star.
Tim Stützle also looks poised to be a superstar. His development is coming on strong, and he’s shown exceptionally bright flashes of play. But much like Tkachuk, there’s a distinct lack of consistency. More so, he’s struggling to find the finish. He’ll make big-time dekes and turn defenders inside out, but then the play dies off his stick. Stützle needs to learn to find that next moment. Looking at the most recent Stanley Cup Champions, the Colorado Avalanche, some of their stars, like Nathan Mackinnon and Cale Makar, controlled games. Nearly every time they touched the puck, something beneficial happened for their team.
Until the Senators manage to improve their forward group, either through development or acquisitions, they’re going to struggle to win games against powerhouse teams. Their scoring is coming in bunches, but the team has to find the back of the net more. They ended the season with a goal differential of minus-40. It’s unlikely that the current roster will produce an extra 40 goals next season, so adding to that top-six is key. Even that may not be enough. The Vegas Golden Knights outscored their opponents by 18 goals and still missed the playoffs this season. The scoring has to come when it’s needed, not just when it can.
It’s Cliché, but Defense Wins Championships
Sure, the statement is overused. It’s also true that you can’t win without scoring. But either in the regular season or playoffs, the teams that make it through have competent defensive cores. The Senators have a solid number one in Thomas Chabot and another competitive defenseman in Artyom Zub. But beyond those two, their current defensive grouping remains sparse. As good as Chabot may be, he’s a far cry from the halcyon days of Erik Karlsson electrifying the league. There are players in the pipeline – like Jake Sanderson – who seem poised to be top defenders in the league, but player development is a tricky thing.
The Avalanche have Makar, Devon Toews, and Bowen Byram, who all stepped up and played some of the best hockey of their careers in the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning were able to capture back-to-back Stanley Cups largely with the help of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev. If prospects like Sanderson, Lassi Thomson or Jacob Bernard-Docker pan out, the Senators will have a defensive core capable of playing well against the rest of the league. But until that time, their current patchwork of defence doesn’t cut it.
The current defensive group isn’t the worst in the league, not by a long shot. But it’s in need of some additional talent. If the Senators are banking on Sanderson being a star player out of the gate, they will continue to struggle defensively this year. They need to insulate him with some complementary pieces that can take over to prevent burning out his development. Long-term planning needs to be the goal, not knee-jerk moves to improve for this upcoming season.
Senators Can Make the Right Moves this Offseason
There are opportunities for the Senators to make the necessary moves this season to sneak into a playoff spot. There are free agents that will be available to round out the roster, but general manager Pierre Dorion needs to start picking up the phone. Adding a highly-skilled forward to slot into the top six would be an immediate upgrade. Filip Forsberg would be a home run signing but is exceptionally unlikely to happen. The city of Ottawa has always had a hard time attracting free agents, and next season will likely prove to be no different.
Before his absurd playoff run, Valeri Nichushkin would have been a great fit for the team following his contract buyout and subsequent short-term signing with the Avalanche. After he cemented himself with the team this season, he’s due for a big payday that would likely result in a big-time overpay. He’s worth more than his current $2.5 million contract, but recency bias could cause competing GMs to throw far too much money his way.
On the defensive end, there aren’t a lot of options the Senators can pick up to build around. Ethan Bear could be a pick-up to help shore up the blue line until the prospects are ready, but it’s a risk to sign him long-term with his trajectory so far. Jakob Chychrun remains one of the largest trade targets among defensemen. The Arizona Coyotes have been collecting futures for some time now, and it’s unclear just how big the asking price is going to be as they are in no rush to lose a legitimate top-pair defenseman. In order to make this deal happen, the Sens would need to leverage a good chunk of their future, but it could set them on the path to an elite-level top-four defence group.
Where Do the Senators Land in the Standings in 2022-23?
It’s understandable that fans have little faith in Dorion to make the right moves. He’s been questionable at drafting, trades, and contracts. While extremely effective so far, the Mathieu Joseph sample size is small, so it can’t be considered a great move just yet, especially after how effective Nick Paul was for the Lightning in the playoffs. If Dorion strikes out before the start of next season, the best-case scenario with the current group is to wind up with a wild-card spot.
For that to happen, they’ll need to capitalize early in the season. There’s also been a number of front office changes throughout the conference. Playing with consistency amidst the chaos to get those early season points would be critical for the team to succeed. They’ve been victim to slow starts in the past, but they can’t allow that to happen in 2022-23. The stars need to align for the Senators to comfortably get into a playoff position. Without a doubt, they are a team on the rise, but there’s work to do. As exciting as a deep playoff run would be, fans should temper their expectations and be content with this season simply being better than last.
Devin resides in Ontario, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. He’s interested in where the eye test intersects with advanced stats and is on a quest to make a formula to determine who really is the best overall defenseman.