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NKB’s Notebook: Back that Pass Up

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Some thoughts on last week’s games

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to a new feature where I share some thoughts on the Sens’ games from the week that was. The concept is to share some ideas about specific moments in the games, the coaching tactics at play, as well as some general observations about Ottawa Senators hockey. Typically these will be short riffs, but if the subject is worth exploring we’ll dive into it in a bit more depth.

Since this is a new feature, I’m also looking for some feedback from the readers: is this something you like? Are there changes to the format that you think might improve the content? If there’s an appetite for it, I will likely make it into a weekly feature.

So, let’s dive into the first edition of NKB’s Notebook:

  • In the category of things that everyone’s noticed, the Sens have opened the season using the drop pass/slingshot strategy for generating zone entries on the power play. Setting aside how it seems to drive a lot of fans up the wall, the effectiveness of this approach is dependent on two things: 1) forcing the defenders to slow down lose their gap control and 2) an elite puck carrier who can then utilize that advantage and consistently make the correct reads. It also helps if there’s an element of surprise — something the Sens definitely had on the first few power plays, but did not have by the time the second game started. The first unit went about setting this up by having Chabot carry the puck and then banking it off the sideboards or just leaving it for a trailing forward.

The times that this worked best were when Drake Batherson was the one leading the charge; one of the most impressive things about Batherson so far in this young season has been his decision-making on the power play. A particularly stellar example was at the tail end of the team’s first powerplay on Saturday when Batherson correctly assessed that he needed to attack the Leafs’ defense with his own speed, subsequently drew in two defenders, and then flipped a nice touch pass to Austin Watson who had an uncontested shot from the slot.

The times where the strategy has worked less well are when almost anyone else has been carrying the puck. I thought Tim Stützle had a couple of decent moments in that role, but Dadonov’s early struggles made him weirdly ineffectual, and for all of their other gifts neither Brady Tkachuk nor Josh Norris are really equipped to run those zone entries. I can think of worse things to do to gain the zone, trying to dump and chase being one of them, but the Sens need Dadonov to break out of his doldrums (and preferably have one more guy step up) so that other teams aren’t able to just jump the route and attack Batherson. It’s a good setup to make use of his skillset, but the Sens will need some variety to ensure continued effectiveness. Something to monitor as the season progresses.

  • After talking a big game about using Erik Gudbranson with Chabot, DJ Smith reunited his top defenseman with Nikita Zaitsev after just two periods of the first game of the season —and the two played virtually all of their minutes together again on Saturday. In a surprising development, the move has paid dividends so far with the pair wracking up impressive scoring chances and shot metrics in their time together:

Will this last? I am skeptical, but if they are able to just break even after last year’s performance, that would be a massive win.

  • A small tactical wrinkle I’ve noticed from Smith in the first couple of games: on several occasions he swapped out Stützle and Norris for more defensively capable forwards when their lines were starting with defensive zone draws. Nick Paul slotted in for Tim Stützle, and Stepan took some draws for Norris on a couple of occasions each and if the team won control of the puck then the young offensive stars jumped back on the ice.
  • Speaking of Paul, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight his stellar play through the first two games. Setting aside the two points, probably the thing that most impressed me about Paul was just how often he disrupted the Leafs’ breakouts by simply getting his stick in the lane, or gloving down a pass, or just simply by being in the right position. Paul’s always been blessed with a lot of the physical tools necessary to succeed at the highest level, but to my eye he’s been reading the game much better. It would be tempting for a guy his size to always go full bore on the forecheck and to always finish his checks, but by picking his spots and hanging back in the right areas he can be even more useful defensively. Some of his steals on Saturday, in particular, were Mark Stone-esque.
  • Finally, the main change I’d like to see from Smith in the coming games is to start rotating some players onto the fourth line as both Cedric Paquette and Watson have struggled quite badly to my eye. The team is getting killed on the shot clock when they are on the ice, and they were subjected to several sequences in each game where the Leafs hemmed the line in for entire shifts. If Smith really wants to maintain at least one bruiser/veteran grinder on his fourth line, fine enough I suppose, but so far the results with the two together have been bad enough that I don’t see any reason at least one shouldn’t be switched out.

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