What exactly should we be expecting from the Ottawa Senators in 2020-21? A fringe play-off team? .500 hockey? I think most would be happy with a substantial improvement in the level of play, regardless of whether the Senators qualify or not. For the record, I don’t think it’s likely that the Senators make the playoffs next season — but a winning record is by no means out of the question. Each of this week’s Five Thoughts will pertain to how the team can meet some worthwhile goals.
It’s no secret that the success of a rebuild hinges on drafting and player development. The most important players in the organization are those who can form a competitive core for the long run. Focusing on those who’ll be in the NHL next year, Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk have yet to reach their primes, while Drake Batherson is projected to have a breakout season in 2021. Colin White will also have the opportunity to contribute if he bounces back from his down year in 2020. There will also be competition between Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Vitaly Abramov, Filip Chlapik, Erik Brannstrom, Christian Jaros, Max Lajoie and multiple 2020 draft picks for any open spots on the roster. Not all of them can make the team but there’s a case to be made for each that they could be NHL-ready; the next step in lots of cases will be meaningful development at the top level of the game since they’ve by and large proven themselves in the AHL.
In many instances, special teams can make or break a team with play-off aspirations. This past season, Ottawa was weak in both categories: their power play ranked dead-last in the NHL while the penalty kill was 28th. The one saving grace was the 13 shorthanded goals scored by the Senators, more than any other team this season. With several players poised to improve next year, Ottawa could be expected to perform better in both categories but some major tactical changes from the coaching staff might be necessary to elevate Ottawa’s special teams. Next year will be back to the drawing board for everyone involved.
I’m going to define “wildcard” here as a player of unknown value. There are three young-ish players currently on the roster that received little to no ice time last year; each of them could make substantial positive contributions in a regular role next season. Post-injury Christian Wolanin will be interesting to watch. If he comes into training camp in good health and good shape, there’ll be cause for excitement. I’m also looking at Jayce Hawryluk as a likely candidate to be on the main roster in 2020-21; he was one of the team’s better forwards since being claimed off of waivers. I honestly think there might be more to Hawryluk than meets the eye, but even if he’s just a solid fourth-liner that will be good value for a waiver-wire find. Of course, the biggest wildcard of them all is KHL defensemen Artem Zub. Here your guess is as good as mine as to what he’ll be for the Ottawa Senators. It does seem like a key role is being reserved for him at this point, which might not be the best idea since he’s unproven, but it is what it is. Carolina was after him so he must be good, right?
This might be the most important task for D.J. Smith going forward, as the defence in particular needs to be properly managed if the Senators want to climb out of the basement next year. Primarily, Nikita Zaitsev playing over 22 minutes a night isn’t the least bit ideal; lowering that number to around 17-18 minutes with the aforementioned Brannstrom, Wolanin, and Zub picking up the slack would benefit the team. While it’s all quiet on the Mark Borowiecki front, I’m perfectly fine with Mike Reilly taking a regular shift on the blueline in his place. And lastly, just because Thomas Chabot can handle being the NHL’s busiest player, doesn’t mean he should.
Keep Eugene Out of the News
I know, I know, nobody wants to hear about the owner, and just for you guys, I won’t mention anything specific here, but you can tell that the aura surrounding the team drastically changes every time Eugene does his thing. You know the story, Ottawa’s keeping pace with a team that’s much better on paper, Norris and Formenton are going wild in Belleville, the Sharks are flopping about at the bottom of the Pacific, everything’s great! Then Eugene does a thing, and in the days, or even weeks that follow, you can’t talk about any of our prospects without a “funny” response about how they’ll just be traded when their ELCs expire. It’s becoming exhausting, but I can’t really blame the pessimists. The drama was supposed to stop after the gutting of the old core, but it hasn’t. This has little to no bearing on the Senators’ on-ice performance, but a long drama-free stretch will go a long way towards improving the image of the team. It’s been a few months since Eugene last did the thing, let’s hope this peace lasts for a while.