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The Ups and Downs of a Crowded Roster

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The Senators have tons of options this year, but could that have a negative effect on player development?

New Jersey Devils v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

With the Ottawa Senators’ training camp well underway, fans may have questions pertaining to the new veterans that GM Pierre Dorion recently traded for. The acquisitions of Derek Stepan, Cedric Paquette, and Braydon Coburn have brought the number of one-way deals up to seventeen, on top of established players on two-way deals like Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson.

This doesn’t seem ideal for a rebuilding team with prospects like Logan Brown, Josh Norris, and Alex Formenton looking to make the jump to the NHL. There obviously should be at least some concern regarding the number of spots available and I think the roster is too congested at the moment, but I can still see the logic in the approach the Sens are taking here.

In this shortened 56-game NHL season, teams will not only carry the usual 23-man roster but also a taxi squad. Think of this as an extension of the AHL, in that eligible players must clear waivers in order to be assigned, and those on two-way deals earn their AHL salary. It must consist of 4-6 players including a goaltender, and they can practice and travel with the main roster and also participate in other team-related activities.

The issue for Ottawa is that Rudolfs Balcers and Filip Chlapik both require waivers, so if they were to be assigned to the minors or taxi squad, they risk being claimed by another team. Neither is a key prospect, but both project to be viable options in the bottom-six, they’re both young and with RFA rights they’re easier to retain for an affordable price, instead of overpaying players like Zack Smith and Nate Thompson to fill those roles. Even if the two are occasionally scratches, it makes more sense than losing them for nothing.

The Senators should be willing to place one-way contracts on the taxi squad, particularly veterans like Artem Anisimov and Braydon Coburn, who have practically no chance of being claimed off of waivers. The advantage here is that the experience both have can be a valuable asset for a young team, and they won’t be blocking younger players from an NHL job, should they earn the opportunity. While many disagree with the criteria D.J. Smith uses to determine who gets into the lineup, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say he has a strict preference for veterans. Mikkel Boedker spent most of last season in the press box, and Bobby Ryan was made a healthy scratch early on in favor of both Chlapik and Nick Paul.

With seven defensemen on one-way contracts, that makes things tough for Erik Brannstrom, Artem Zub, and Christian Jaros, but Smith has given high praise to Brannstrom early in his career, and Zub could also find his way into the lineup if he outplays one of Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zaitsev, and Josh Brown. Ultimately, Zub could start on the taxi squad and he could be rotated in and out of the lineup with Zaitsev, as the former is on an ELC and the latter has no chance of being claimed. Having a lot of defensemen who can play isn’t a bad thing, especially in a season surrounded by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of injuries.

The same can be said about the forward corps. Cedric Paquette is a defensively sound option in the bottom-six but he’s someone that Chlapik or Balcers can squeeze out of the main roster if necessary. The roster may be bloated right now, but at least the team has plenty of bodies available, and some may be used as trade bait somewhere down the road.

I didn’t actually mind the organization’s strategy with respect to player development last season, for the most part. While Max Lajoie didn’t get nearly enough minutes during his stint last year, Drake Batherson definitely benefitted from being sent down to the AHL after his first two games. Not that keeping him up with the big club would have been the wrong decision. The important thing here is that there are multiple correct approaches to developing players, and with respect to Batherson, the Sens’ approach worked.

That being said, the upcoming AHL season isn’t projected to begin until February, so in the beginning, a lot of players will be sitting out of any particular game. It’s vital that young players aren’t spending too much time out of the lineup. Being scratched after a bad game is one thing. What I don’t want to see is a prospect being stapled to the press box for an extended period of time. I’d prefer the younger players to be able to play as much as possible, and my hope is for Smith to implement a true rotation, with players sitting out for no more than 2-3 games at a time.

It’s to be expected that Smith ices the ideal lineup for winning games each night. However, this team is still developing and has a ton of work to do if they’re going to eventually become competitive. For this to happen, young players need to be given a chance to earn a spot on that ideal team. Finding the right balance between present and future success will be just one of the many challenges the organization will face in the years to come.