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Five Thoughts: On Tkachuk’s Leadership, DJ Smith’s Choices, and Impressions of Stützle

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It’s the first in-season edition of Five Thoughts for Friday

NHL: JAN 21 Jets at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve had four (!) whole games’ worth of Ottawa Senators hockey since the last edition of Five Thoughts. With such a rich vein of content to mine from, you’ll have to forgive the length of some of these thoughts. At long last, we have much to reflect upon:

On Brady Tkachuk’s leadership:

The question of whether or not Tkachuk or Thomas Chabot should be the next captain of the Ottawa Senators has been a favourite parlour game of the fanbase and local media for the last 12+ months. Both have reasonable claims to the title, and each person’s personal preference probably says more about them than it does the leadership qualities of either young star; the Sens would be in good hands with either at the helm in this writer’s opinion. There can be no doubt, however, that Tkachuk is the more vocal of the two, and he gave what I thought was one of the most interesting quotes of his young career earlier this week (forgive the spelling):

You may have heard that there was a bit of controversy at the conclusion of Tuesday night’s game against the Jets, a match-up the Sens deserved to win but squandered away thanks to some sloppy play at the end of the game and in overtime. Without re-litigating DJ Smith’s deployment choices, it’s clear from the above quote that Tkachuk sees himself (and his line mates) as ready to take on the challenge of defending a one-goal lead late in the third period. This type of assignment is typically the responsibility of the veterans on a team unless the young players are so exceptional that they force the coach’s hand. I’m sure this has also been discussed internally, and to be clear I don’t see this as Tkachuk calling the coach out, but that quote also makes Tkachuk’s intent crystal clear: we’re ready. I see that as one of the finest examples of leadership from the young man yet.

On the youth vs. the vets

Speaking of DJ Smith and line-up choices, the second year bench boss finds himself in something of a unique position. As a result of the team’s rebuilding efforts, the team is in the rare situation where virtually all of their best players are under the age of 25. There’s a truism in hockey that you need veterans to win games, to show the kids the ropes, and I have some sympathy for that argument; experience playing at the highest level can only help you. That said, adhering to this particular philosophy doesn’t usually involve making such a stark choice between playing your “best” players and playing the most experienced. It’s also worth noting that we’re only four games into the season, and the optics of a three-game losing streak aside, I think that the team has mostly played pretty well (last night’s affair notwithstanding). Maybe Smith is still just trying to figure out who fits where, and giving his vets the first shot at closing out games isn’t exactly unorthodox. In fact, you’d likely have a hard time finding another NHL coach who wouldn’t have done the same. But I also think there’s a lot of reason to believe the Sens will be best served to really lean into the youth aspect of this team; if someone’s going to play 20 minutes a game, and be on the ice at the end to preserve the win, it should be the Tkachuk, Batherson, Norris, and Stützles of the world. So far Smith’s succeeded mostly by being a very conventional coach; it will be interesting to see how he adapts to this new challenge that might yet require some unconventional thinking

On expectations:

One of the reasons that we’re even talking about these things at all, that we’re nitpicking deployment choices, is that for the first time in a long time there are actual expectations on this team. I’m not totally sure where they came from, the Sens have been at or near the bottom of the league for the last three seasons, but after the opening night victory a lot of folks seemed to get the idea in their head that this squad might actually compete for something. One of the consequences of this shift in perception seems to have been the abrupt end of Smith’s honeymoon phase. The coach’s first season was deemed by almost all involved to be a success: the team didn’t win too many games, but they played with better structure, and he seemed to be genuinely liked and respected by his players. There’s a lot to be said for a coach that can instill discipline without being confrontational. Still, there was a hell of an uproar when Smith was quoted as saying the team had made some “young mistakes” after the game. I don’t think we would have heard this same volume of complaint if he’d said the exact same thing after a mid-February defeat last season.

Fans are, of course, free to feel however they want; that’s part of being a fan. I might just humbly suggest that it might be worth waiting to see how Smith handles this before we throw the baby with the bathwater. Smith’s not dumb and he sees the same thing we see. With what he’s done so far, he’s at least earned the right to show what he can do over the course of this full season. Let’s re-visit these after at least a few more weeks have passed.

On what this season turns out to be:

Much as I’d like to pretend that Ottawa Senators hockey exists outside the on-going global pandemic, that just simply isn’t the case. This week the NHL was forced to postpone two Carolina Hurricanes games, four Washington Capitals were found to be in violation of league rules (one of them, Ilya Samsonov, tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday night), and the Dallas Stars still have yet to play a game after an outbreak during their training camp. There was always going to be an increased risk of these types of incidents when the league and players agreed to play a season outside of a bubble.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to approach this because the Sens season could come to a screeching halt tomorrow and there’s just no way of knowing. Despite my on-going excitement for the team’s return, for all of the exciting young players, I’d also be lying if I said that the grim background hadn’t had something of a negative impact on my enjoyment of the games. There’s no deeper truth or thought here, but as the season progresses, I just wonder how much of a dark cloud this will really become.

On Tim Stützle

I do want to end on a high note, because it’s hard for me to overstate how excited I was for Stützle’s debut and then how impressed I was with his play. Did the youngster occasionally struggle with the NHL pace? Of course! But the flashes of skill, and vision, oh my. We’ve all watched his first goal on replay a hundred times by now, but there so many other little plays with the puck that just gave me…joy. As a hockey fan, nothing gives me more joy than a skilled forward flying towards the offensive end, looking to solve the defense by attacking. Whenever Stützle had the puck, he looked to attack. It’s so easy to just survive out there, to not try to make a great play but in doing so avoid making a bad play. I’m not ready to make any definitive statements about how the young German’s career is going to turn out, but I am certain he’s going to be thrilling to watch. I’m positively giddy.