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Trust the Process

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They’re doing it the right way the second time around.

Boston Bruins v Ottawa Senators Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

During the first intermission of the Sens-Flyers game on December 7th, I picked up on something Brady Tkachuk said in an interview with TSN’s Gord Miller. When asked about his love for the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, Tkachuk referenced “Trust the process”, which is basically Philly’s version of “The Kids Are Alright”. It was a running gag with Tkachuk’s teammates in the U.S. Development Program, and he even had it embroidered into the suit he wore to the draft.

The Senators, much like the 76ers a few years ago, are going through the “process” of rebuilding their team, relying on draft picks high in both quality and quantity. And so far, the organization really hasn’t given us anything major to complain about since the 2019-20 season began, at least for me. Sure, their record of 13-17-1 is bad, and their power play is dead last in the NHL at a pathetic 9.3%, but both of those were to be expected. After all, the team no longer has Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from last season.

Incredibly, however, the team’s on-ice performance has been much better this season, not just compared to last year but compared to other teams around the league. Head coach D.J. Smith has implemented a system featuring a relentless forecheck and high-event hockey overall, leading to some exciting games against teams up and down the standings. Here’s an example of that forecheck in action against the Boston Bruins, where three Senators took advantage of a miscue behind the net.

Let’s look at some numbers.

Per Natural Stat Trick, the Senators have posted a 5v5 Corsi For% of 48.23%, ranked 23rd in the NHL. It’s a substantial improvement over the horrendous 44.90% they posted in 2018-19, despite the talent they lost over that time. Their xGF%, however, is a whole other story — at 52.21% they rank 11th in the NHL. The Senators, despite going 2-6-0 in their last eight games, have quietly been playing the best 5v5 hockey we’ve seen from them in a long time (the following tweet is accurate as of the Saturday game against the Flyers).

Aside from the obvious effects of a coaching change, GM Pierre Dorion has also made some solid roster additions over the offseason, or at least has added players who are less of a train wreck than what we had last year. A perfect example of this is Nikita Zaitsev. Relied on by Smith to play important minutes in the defensive zone, Zaitsev has been on the ice for a lot of quality chances against, according to HockeyViz.com.

While Zaitsev isn’t the ideal option in this role, he’s proven thus far to be an upgrade on this guy...

It’s incredibly hard to look for concrete examples of good defence as opposed to good offence, but from what I’ve seen from Zaitsev, he doesn’t seem to have the blatant lack of defensive awareness of the Leafs’ new whipping boy; he is holding up thus far with a +/- rating of 0. For what it’s worth, Zaitsev has been deployed against the opposing teams’ best lines and isn’t getting scored on at an alarming rate. Here are the lines he played against the most in his last five games:

vs BOS: Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand

@ PHI: Lindblom-Couturier-Voracek

@ EDM: Neal-McDavid-Draisaitl

@ VAN: Miller-Pettersson-Boeser

@ CGY: Tkachuk-Backlund-Mangiapane

Should he be given those minutes? In most scenarios, no, but in Ottawa’s case they are currently developing a number of prospects on the back end who will eventually learn to handle heavy deployment. Having Zaitsev eat those minutes is sort of a necessary evil for now. Though Smith ought to give some of those minutes to Dylan DeMelo...after we sign him to a bargain contract extension.

Zaitsev’s contract is troubling at 4.5 million for four more seasons after this one, but Connor Brown makes it all worth it with his ability on the penalty kill and on the boards. Tyler Ennis has chipped in offensively and is one of our only decent forwards on the power-play, Ron Hainsey has been a good soldier and mentor on the back end and even Artem Anisimov, probably our worst forward in the regular lineup has contributed four goals in thirteen games. When you consider the fact we had guys like Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Mikkel Boedker and post-2017 Tom Pyatt playing in these roles last year, it’s not hard to see why the team has improved overall, despite the departure of talented superstars.

While the Senators have shown promise at even strength, I sometimes find myself enjoying their sequences on the penalty kill even more. It’s been solid thus far, ranked 12th in the league at 82.3%. They’re alright at holding off opposing power plays, but what makes their kill especially dangerous is that once they get the puck out of the zone, they transition to offence and wreak havoc on the opposing defensemen in the offensive zone. Exhibit A: Anthony Duclair.

Has the team been unlucky? No, their record is more or less what they deserve as the team is currently 14th in both shooting percentage and save percentage at 5v5. Not to mention that an unbearable power-play like Ottawa’s is going to seriously hurt any team’s offence overall. However, for a team whose best forwards would struggle to crack the 2nd line of playoff-caliber NHL teams, it’s still a really good record. This team is only bad in the sense that they’ve had several games end in disappointing fashion, as opposed to their play on the ice. They should be historically terrible on paper, but they’ve been competitive in the overwhelming majority of games they’ve played.

So, what happens when we draft Alexis Lafrenière or Quinton Byfield with our first rounder? When we draft Marco Rossi or Tim Stützle with the pick we got from San Jose? When Logan Brown matures into a 2nd line NHL centre? When Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Vitaly Abramov, Rudolfs Balcers and Alex Formenton translate their scoring from Belleville to Ottawa? When Erik Brännström, Christian Wolanin, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson develop into top-four defencemen? And when a bona fide starter emerges from the group of Marcus Högberg, Filip Gustavsson, Joel Daccord, Kevin Mandolese and Mads Søgaard?

There’s obviously a chance that very little of the above comes to pass, but I think the chance of most of our top prospects not panning out is less than that of the team moving to Québec City. And the team is definitely NOT moving, because fans will rush back to the Canadian Tire Centre soon enough. Or at least I hope they do, or else nothing will prepare the NHL for the sight of Brady Tkachuk lifting the Stanley Cup in front of five-thousand empty seats.

Poll

Will the Ottawa Senators go .500 in their remaining 51 games?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Yes
    (65 votes)
  • 76%
    No
    (211 votes)
276 votes total Vote Now