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Ottawa Senators Season Preview: Forwards

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We kick off the season preview series with a look at the group up front

Toronto Maple Leafs v Ottawa Senators Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

With training camp officially underway, and the Ottawa Senators a mere 10 days away from playing regular season hockey, it is once again time to kick off the season preview series here at Silver Seven. We’ll have a whole bevvy of content for you to choose from over the next couple of weeks, including our regular Sterling Predictions, as well as a Q+A series with the writers from the SB Nation sites for the other Canadian teams.

Today, however, our focus is squarely on the Sens themselves, and in particular the forward group. Who do we expect to skate on the top line? Who’s scrapping for the last spot on the fourth line? Where will the offense come from?

It’s time, at long last, to talk about regular season NHL hockey. Let’s get to it.

The first thing you should know about the Sens’ forward group for 2021 is that there are a lot of potential candidates to fill out the twelve roster spots on any given night. The team invited 23 forwards to camp — and that’s before Tim Stuetzle, Cedric Paquette, Derek Stepan, and Ridly Greig are included, leaving 27 potential candidates for 12 openings. Before we can analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the forward group, the first thing we need to do is talk about who we even think is going to play this year!

To my eye, there are eight players with virtually no shot of making the team out of camp: Jean-Christophe Beaudin, Jonathan Davidsson, Michael Haley, Parker Kelly, Matthew Peca, Logan Shaw, Greig, and Egor Sokolov. Some may quibble with a few of those choices, but given the 18 players ahead of them I would be very surprised if any of those eight played a meaningful role with the Sens this season — either because another player is better at the “role” they would be best suited for, or because they are still very fresh prospects.

Here’s how I see the remaining 19 forwards:

Locks (11): Brady Tkachuk, Evegenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, Connor Brown, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Paul, Chris Tierney, Auston Watson, Cedric Paquette, Colin White, Tim Stuetzle

Barring a trade or another unforeseen event, those eleven players will be with the NHL club and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they played the majority of the minutes at forward. It’s possible that Galchenyuk gets himself in DJ Smith’s doghouse, but I also foresee this team being starved for goals (again) and I think he will slide seamlessly into what was formerly Anthony Duclair’s role as a scoring winger. He’s an 8 year vet, just a season removed from a 41 point campaign; the Sens are going to give him a chance to prove himself in real games at the very least before they cut bait.

You could make a case that Cedric Paquette will be a healthy scratch on occasion, but he also fits in Smith’s preferred mold for a bottom six checker: big, hard-working, and he hits everything that moves. Line combinations are anyone’s guess at this stage but a fourth line of Paul-Paquette-Watson seems like a pretty good bet to me.

Lastly, Stuetzle will likely get the Tkachuk treatment: he’s an excellent prospect and the team desperately wants him to play a prominent role in the rebuild. He’s going to get a spot barring injury.

Best of the rest (6): Artem Anisimov, Logan Brown, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, Rudolfs Balcers

Anisimov’s presence on this list may surprise some, but with Stepan and Tierney locked into the top two spots, and the aforementioned Paquette a preferred fit for the fourth line, I do wonder if his spot is up for grabs. The big Russian scored at a decent rate considering the ice time he was afforded last season, but he’s 32, and his role on the team is murky at best. That could mean an opening for one of Norris, Logan Brown, Batherson, Formenton, or Balcers. The merits of each have been debated ad nauseam here and elsewhere, but if I had to wager on just one name I’d go with Batherson. That said, all six listed above are likely to see at least some NHL game time while potentially spending time on the taxi squad.

Not quite there but definitely in the conversation for a few games(2): Vitaly Abramov, Filip Chlapik

Abramov and Chlapik are the two prospects who were probably most hurt by Pierre Dorion’s recent flurry of depth player acquisitions. Both have spent time in the NHL already, but are in the team’s second tier of prospects. Their clearest path to meaningful NHL minutes this season was if the organization decided that their younger, greener, players needed a bit more seasoning and then let them fill the available spots in the bottom six. Both have shown they can contribute at the top level to varying degrees, but neither fits the mold of a grinding checker — the type of game that the newly acquired Watson and Paquette play, for instance. Both will likely spend time on the taxi squad if not on the main roster, but I’d be surprised if either is in the starting twelve on a regular basis unless there is a shake-up.

After all that, here’s my best guess at the starting line-up on the 15th:

Tkachuk - Stepan - Dadonov
Stuetzle - Tierney - C. Brown
Galchenyuk - White - Batherson
Paul - Paquette - Watson

Strengths:

  • The addition of Dadonov means that the Sens have two first line-calibre wingers for the first time since Mark Stone’s departure, and his expected partnership with Tkachuk should be genuinely fun to watch. Whoever lines up as the first line centre, it seems likely Stepan will get the first kick at the can, will be getting the absolute plum assignment. They might not dominate the league’s top lines, but they will hold their own against most and I expect the cycle game to be daunting even against the staunchest of defenders.
  • It is difficult to overstate how much of a breath of fresh air Stuetzle’s skill will be once the season gets underway. No one would accuse last year’s iteration of the Sens of not giving the requisite effort, but the lack of talent, finishing talent in particular, meant that goals were always in short supply. If Stuetzle slots in as the second line left wing, he has the potential to be a real plus and create meaningfully more offense than his predecessors.

Weaknesses:

  • Despite the additions of Dadonov and Stuetzle, the Sens’ forward group remains lacking in skill. Smith will have them play within a strict structure, but generating scoring chances will still be tough. If the Sens are going to win more games, it will have to be 2-1 because it’s still not likely to be 6-5.
  • This will not be news to long-time fans, but the Sens remain without a first-line calibre centre. There are, of course, some young players who might yet flourish and grow into the role but for the 2021 season it will be big hole.

Potential breakout players:

  • I’ve already detailed the sheer number of NHL-ready bodies that could potentially take up the twelve forward spots, but if Batherson makes the team out of camp and locks down a spot on the right wing he could deliver a special season. Batherson has the skillset to contribute offensively, his work on the power play last year in particular highlighted his vision and offensive instincts, and he’s worked hard on his skating and defensive game.

The Bottom Line:

  • The Sens’ forward group is a work in progress, and there’s the potential for a lot of movement as the season goes on, but at least to start the year it’s likely to be a mostly veteran-laden group with a couple of exciting youngsters (Tkachuk, Stuetzle). They are going to be a bit short on skill, but overall are improved from last year. The message from management is clear: the team is expected to improve, and that the record from the last few seasons is unacceptable. That might mean less time for some fresh-faced youngsters than some fans might like, but given the uncertainty of the season ahead there will still be opportunities for the kids. Like much of the rest of the team, the forward group will be approaching the season as plucky underdogs trying to outperform expectations. There are certainly a few reasons to hope that could be the case.

Check back tomorrow for our look at the defense and goalies!