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Senators Long-Term Outlook: Defense

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Taking a look at how the Senators shape up on defense in the present and in the future

Ottawa Senators v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

The Ottawa Senators future is all of a sudden incredibly interesting and exciting, and it is fun to look at each of their positions to see how well they line up moving forward.

So far, I have analyzed left wing, centre, and right wing, and today I will be focusing on defense (both sides). As in past editions of the series, I will look first at the 2020-21 group, then I will move onto a projection of the Sens’ future.

Let’s get into it then!

2020-21:

Below is how the Senators depth chart could shake out for the 2020-21 season, although there could obviously be some things that shift around:

2020-21 Defense Pairings

Pairing Left Right
Pairing Left Right
1st Thomas Chabot Nikita Zaitsev
2nd Christian Wolanin Erik Gudbranson
3rd Mike Reilly Josh Brown
Extra N/A Artem Zub
Minors Erik Brannstrom Christian Jaros
Minors Max Lajoie

Thomas Chabot is entrenched in that #1 spot and DJ Smith loves Nikita Zaitsev, so I’m expecting those two to get the most ice time. Christian Wolanin will finally get a chance to prove himself in the top-4 and I am very excited to see him for a full season since I believe he was good enough even back in 2018-19. Mike Reilly was actually quite solid in his 30 games for the Senators last year and I think he’s a decent option on the third pairing.

The other right spots are very up in the air, as Erik Gudbranson, Josh Brown, and Artem Zub will be fighting for ice time. I put Gudbranson there because I think he will get priority based on seniority, but Brown and Zub will likely get chances on that second pairing as well. The right side is one of the worst in the league, so there will be no shortage of opportunities for players looking to prove themselves.

Erik Brannstrom will of course be battling for a spot as well, but I don’t see how there is any room for him unless there is an injury like there was last year. I believe he is good enough, and better than many of the aforementioned players, but it probably can’t hurt to have him in Belleville for a bit this year. By 2021-22 though, he should be a full-time NHLer.

Christian Jaros and Max Lajoie are included in here, but let’s face it: I can’t see either of them getting much playing time this year — if any. Both have shown occasional flashes of being capable NHLers, but they’ve been passed on the depth chart and this might be their last chance regain the Senators confidence.

This group has a bona fide #1 with Chabot, an interesting 2nd pairing player with upside in Wolanin, but not much else currently. Reilly is a potentially underrated depth player, but probably not a long-term solution. Brown has actually had decent results in Florida and draws a lot of penalties, so there is potential that he could end up being a solid player on the third pairing as well. Overall, the upside with this group is very limited due to Zaitsev and Gudbranson likely to chew up big minutes. For a team that’s not projected to contend next season, that might not be such bad thing — as long as it isn’t a long-term issue.

In the Future:

The future of the defense corps is a million times more interesting. Here are the players that could be a part of the team’s future, as well as my subjective assessment of their potential:

Future Defense Projections

Potential Pairing Left Potential Pairing Right
Potential Pairing Left Potential Pairing Right
1st Thomas Chabot 1st/2nd Jacob Bernard-Docker
1st/2nd Erik Brannstrom 1st/2nd Lassi Thomson
1st/2nd Jake Sanderson 2nd Maxence Guénette
2nd Christian Wolanin 3rd Christian Jaros
3rd Max Lajoie Wildcards Nikita Zaitsev, Josh Brown, Artem Zub
3rd Tyler Kleven
3rd Jonny Tychonick
3rd Olle Alsing

As you can see, they have almost too many options on the left side. We know that Chabot is locked in for another eight years, so they have that set. After that, Erik Brannstrom and Jake Sanderson have elite upside and might eventually be able to play on a first pairing on a different team. At least one of them will likely end up on the second pairing behind Chabot instead. That leaves Wolanin, who projects as a great option on a third pairing.

Even beyond that, there are four other options for players who could be on the third pairing with Max Lajoie, Tyler Kleven, Jonny Tychonick, and Olle Alsing. As I said earlier, it seems like Lajoie is getting pushed out so I wouldn’t count on him being part of the team. Kleven is of course teammates with UND’s Sanderson, Shane Pinto, and Jacob Bernard-Docker, and considering Ottawa’s affinity with having a few bruisers on the back-end, I could certainly see Kleven patrolling that third pairing in the future.

Tychonick and Alsing are certainly much less sure things, but they have some talent and are at least worth monitoring.

With Chabot being a lock, Ottawa really only needs one of Brannstrom, Sanderson, Wolanin, Kleven, Lajoie, Tychonick, or Alsing to turn into a legitimate top-4 defenseman in order for them to be in a good spot on the left side. And in reality, I’d be shocked if they don’t get at least two quality defensemen from that group considering I already think Wolanin is at that level.

Moving to the right side, things are much less encouraging.

Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson aren’t really in the same tier as other top right-shot prospects such as Jamie Drysdale, Moritz Seider, and Nils Lundkvist, but they have decent upside in the top-4. That would be fantastic if Ottawa had a comparable to Chabot on the right side, but they are unfortunately barren at the NHL level.

Maxence Guénette had gotten off to a phenomenal start in the QMJHL (as I outlined here), and although he is not someone to count on panning out, he is at best an option on the 2nd or 3rd pairing. Similarly to Lajoie, Christian Jaros at least has some utility and could be used on the third pairing in the future, but time is running out for him.

I put Zaitsev, Zub, and Brown as wildcards because none of them have much upside, but any of them could be with the team for multiple years. Zaitsev still has four years left on his contract, but if Ottawa wants to be a contender, there is no way they can afford to keep him in the top-4. Brown is a UFA in 2022 so he may not stay, but he could be someone physical they like to have in a depth role. Zub is a complete unknown and is only signed for one year, but if he impresses this year, he could be used on the second or third pairing as well. I wouldn’t expect too much though, and any added value from him is a complete bonus.

Overall, the Sens have very good options throughout. Even in the situation where a few prospects don’t pan out, the left side should be set considering how much depth is on hand. The right side will almost certainly need to be added to because hoping every one of Bernard-Docker, Thomson, and Guenette hit their ceilings isn’t realistic. Things are much better than they were a few year ago, although Ottawa still need to develop these players well because almost all of their hope on the blueline is invested in prospects currently outside of the NHL.

I do wish that Ottawa was more willing to move Brannstrom to the right side, especially considering he has stated it is his preferred side. I think that would kill two birds with one stone by filling out the right side much easier while also making sure that everyone on the left side gets enough ice time. However, Pierre Dorion (as well as DJ Smith and Troy Mann) has his own preferences:

“We both think playing on the left side will be more beneficial for his development, to be the best NHL player he can be. I think once you establish yourself you can go to your weaker side.”

So perhaps down the road things will change in terms of where he plays, but we shall see.

How are you feeling about the Senators defense this year, but also more importantly, in the future?