Our Ottawa Senators 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Ottawa Senators made it to the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals and looked like they were set to be a good team for a few seasons. Since that playoff run the team has lost Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, Mark Stone, Marc Methot, Frederik Claesson, Ryan Dzingel, Tom Pyatt, Zack Smith, Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Chris Neil, Dion Phaneuf, Chris Wideman, Tommy Wingels, Viktor Stalberg, Mike Condon, Clarke MacArthur, Alexandre Burrows, and Chris Kelly.
That’s 21 players that have left the team. TWENTY ONE. This is not normal turnover in two seasons worth of hockey. The only thing worse is that Matt Duchene joined the team a season after the team made the ECF and has also since left. The team that made that incredible playoff run is nearly completely gone. The talent exodus out of Ottawa is astonishing. Only four roster players have been with the team since 2017. The only remaining roster players are Craig Anderson, Jean Gabriel Pageau, Bobby Ryan, and Mark Borowiecki. Colin White and Thomas Chabot saw a couple games that year so I’m not counting them.
Let’s review how they got there briefly.
In the 2017-2018 season, head coach Guy Boucher struggled to get offense going and the team was in the bottom of the standings. His trap defense which paid off in the playoffs wasn’t working and no successful adjustments were being made. Management gave him the 2018-2019 season to get things going in the right direction, but they made some adjustments first.
The team traded away 50-60 point winger Mike Hoffman away. In the 2017 cup run, Hoffman and Karlsson combined for the nicest saucer pass goal any hockey fan has ever seen. Hoffman was still putting up points on the team, but his girlfriend was involved in a very gross off-ice situation with Erik Karlsson’s wife. She had allegedly been bullying Karlsson’s wife Melinda about the recent death of the couple’s unborn child. The Senators wanted to avoid trading Hoffman to another Atlantic Division team, and sent him to the Sharks, but he was traded to Florida the same day. So they completely missed the mark on that one. Dorion moved Hoffman to keep the locker room stable…and then traded Karlsson away too.
Captain Erik Karlsson was traded to the San Jose Sharks. Guy Boucher’s success had effectively been hamstrung before the season began. This was a move that angered many fans and caused a lot of eyebrow raises. Karlsson had a contract expiring at the end of the 2019 season, and wanted an extension. The rumours were that Senators owner Eugene Melnyk did not want to spend the money to keep the team’s best player, captain, and franchise defenseman.
The season was unsurprisingly a rough one and they finished last place in the league. Without Karlsson, the team had to find a new identity…which was a team. Skip forward to February and the team was hot garbage. In late February 2019, General Manager Pierre Dorion told the press that coaching decisions would be made in the offseason and for now, Guy Boucher had the support of management. Eight days later, Boucher was fired and the team made Marc Crawford interim head coach. The team also traded away Mark Stone, Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene at the deadline.
Ottawa has had a tumultuous last couple of seasons. It’s hard to believe they are only two seasons removed from finishing second in the Atlantic Division and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and losing in overtime in game 7 against Pittsburgh. From one goal away from the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017, to where they are now is a remarkable drop off and the team is hardly recognizable. Ottawa has self-implemented a rapid rebuild and got rid of many of their players for picks and prospects, so it’s not surprising they aren’t icing a competitive team right now. What they lack in current success, they make up in a bright future, but the club has to be willing to pay its players.
Fans have been hesitant to trust the vision of owner Eugene Melnyk and general manager Pierre Dorion after a cataclysmic series of events the last few years. I won’t get bogged down in the details, as that would be too long to get into, but essentially what it comes down to is that Melnyk is limited in his ability to spend money on the club, and Dorion is handcuffed to this concept of frugality. Never spending money on players when they are due for a pay increase is a hard way to build a hockey team, and even harder to draw in talent to play there. Most teams in deemed “less attractive markets” do their best to pay players in order to make up for this perception. Not Ottawa. They have gone hard the opposite way. This results in the team dumping off fan favourite talented players when their contracts are coming to an end, and the team taking every opportunity to not include bonuses in their compensation plan. It is pretty commonplace for teams to include signing or performance bonuses into a players contract, but Ottawa has been trying to limit their players to only salary. This could be a very dangerous pitfall as top end players will not want to sign there because they can easily get more money elsewhere, and Ottawa may only be able to sign players who have no other options and want to remain in the NHL.
Last season the Senators iced a lot of rookies and young players. Which can be exciting, and the team actually scored a lot of goals when they had Duchene, Stone and Dzingel in the lineup. They were league worst for goals against per game.
D.J Smith is the new head coach going into this season. He’s spent the last four years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, serving as an assistant to Mike Babcock. This will be Smith’s first professional head coaching job, so he’s it’s currently unknown how he will pan out. Ideally he will be good with developing young players and getting a lot out of a limited roster. He has won three Memorial Cups, so it looks like he should be good with young players at least. Management must continue to get additional prospects and help the coaching staff develop their current young players in order to become successful again. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but they aren’t close to getting there yet.
Ryan Callahan (LTIR)
Forwards will be a real issue. Brady Tkachuk, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel were the offense last year. With three of those guys gone, the team will struggle in both ends of the ice. Mark Stone is one of the premier two way forwards in the game, and a 2019 Frank J. Selke, Top Defensive Forward finalist. His loss is huge.
Tkachuk will stay on the top line. But who will he play with? Beyond him it’s anybody’s guess. This team has a very strange depth chart with a lot of guys seemingly at the same level of talent. At a glance it looks like the Senators will be icing Brady Tkachuk and four third lines. Colin White could play number one centre, in his first full season last year he got 41 points in 71 games. He signed for 6 years at an AAV of $4.75 million this off season. He managed a positive corsi on the tire fire Senators last season so he could do well again this year. Does Bobby Ryan play top line right wing? Or does he play second or third? He had a bit of a bounceback year last season, but with his injury history I’m not sure if he can manage top line minutes for the full season.
Jean Gabriel Pageau could be another candidate for number one centre. Pageau was hurt for a long time last season, and only played 39 games. He has a career high of 43 points, so he could either do well with more ice time but more likely is that he struggles playing above his talent level.
The second line is just as questionable. Whoever between Pageau and White doesn’t play top line, will fill in the 2nd line centre role. On the wings, it could be Anthony Duclair who finished last season with Ottawa, coming over in the Dzingel trade. Duclair is on his 5th team already coming up to his 6th pro season, and last year was a career high for him. He could look to secure his spot in the top six. Who knows what will happen with a new coach on this young team. Could Connor Brown slot in on line two? He was victim to a very deep Leafs team making some room for their big name restricted free agents to sign. He’s definitely more of a two-way player, but again, anything is possible in the land of the Ottawa Senators. Do Mikkel Boedker and Bobby Ryan play second line? Honestly, who knows. The Senators could very well roll all four forward lines this season and have the same record.
The bottom six is another logjam. Artem Anisimov will provide a solid 3rd centre and will provide a much needed veteran presence. He can fill in on a higher line if needed. The 31 year old centre had 37 points last year on a pretty poor Chicago team, so he’ll provide a bit of offense for the club. He and Chris Tierney will round out the bottom two centre slots. On the wings in the bottom six, Rudolf Balcers, Tyler Ennis, Drake Batherson, Filip Chlapik, Max Veronneau, Michael Carcone, Vitali Abramov and Logan Brown could see time with the club or make the team out of camp. The Senators have a lot of options on forwards, and at this point, it doesn’t look like any of these players will make a sizable impact.
This offense is difficult to rate because I don’t have any clue as to where everyone will slot into the roster except Brady Tkachuk.
Last season Eugene Melnyk criticized the Toronto Maple Leafs for forgetting about defense when building a team. So the Senators went out and hired the Leafs defensive coach as their head coach, and acquired two of Toronto’s six starting defensemen. Melnyk sure knows how to negotiate if this was the plan all along, he must have read The Art of the Deal. The trouble is that the Senators picked up the worst Toronto defensemen. They picked up 38 year old Ron Hainsey LHD and Nikita Zaitsev, who is not going to live up to his overpayment contract.
Thomas Chabot, the other other stud in this lineup will play first line defensive pairing minutes this year. He’ll probably play alongside Zaitsev as there are no other real options for right handers in the lineup. Chabot just signed an eight year $8 million AAV contract extension. He is the future of the blueline and its great for the club to lock him up early because he’ll be worth a lot more than that in a few years if he keeps improving like he is now.
Now, behind these two its a real guess, and we will see some different combinations early on until Smith can find some pairings that work. Erik Brannstrom, who was acquired in the Mark Stone trade, is an amazing prospect. Brannstrom and Chabot are the future of this team’s blueline, and can be built around. It’s a shame they are both left handed. Erik Brannstrom saw a couple games last season, and will be a bright spot this year to pay attention to. Brannstrom could see time with right handed defensemen Dylan Demelo. Ron Hainsey saw a lot of action on the right side in Toronto, so he may continue to play his off side, and could even move up to play with Chabot. Back on the left, the Senators have Mark Borowiecki to play on the third pairing. They also have Maxime Lajoie and Christian Wolanin. Wolanin would be a lock to play second pairing, but he suffered an injury this pre-season and will be out four to six months with a torn labrum. Christian Jaros will offer some depth on the right side pairings.
This defense core has some depth. They will give up a lot of scoring opportunities in their own end, and it’ll be a long season for them. However, if they can just keep focused on improving, the young defenders on this team could develop into some elite defenders very soon, which would transform the blueline from an okay defense, into an amazing defense.
Craig Anderson last year had a bit of trouble staying healthy. He’s 38 going into this season and with his numbers last year, he could be playing less games. Anderson started 47 games and had a 0.903 save percentage and a 3.51 goals against average. That’s not good enough, but the team didn’t give him a lot of help. Last season the Senators traded for Anders Nilsson. Nilsson is a decent backup and posted some pretty good numbers in his 22 starts with Ottawa last season. He could earn himself some more starts this season if he continues his good play.
Honestly even if the Senators do have shaky goaltending this year, they aren’t a playoff team so it won’t be a major issue. They can leave their goalie prospects in the AHL to develop with more starts. Poor goaltending could lead to a worse final standings result and a better draft pick.
Ottawa Senators 2019-2020 Prediction
This team is not quite out of rebuild mode. They’ve lost a lot of talent the past two seasons and they need some more time to develop their current young players. They’ve done well to get picks and prospects for the players they’ve sent out, but they need a few more seasons to create a new core. The defense is close to being effective, but on forward the team needs to ensure that rookies aren’t being thrown to the wolves so that they can develop properly. Goaltending could be an issue if Craig Anderson continues to struggle. The team is best served by finishing low in the standings again and hoping for a lottery win.