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Ottawa Senators Season Preview: Defence and Goaltending

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Part II of our series focuses on the back end

NHL: Calgary Flames at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome, friends and neighbours, to the second installment of our season preview series. Yesterday, nkb tried his hand at the hefty task of unpacking and projecting the Senators’ mightily jumbled forward corps. Today, I’ll tackle the somewhat less formidable task of disassembling and re-constructing Ottawa’s collection of defenders and netminders as training camp proceeds and the regular season looms.

DJ Smith and company will have some tough decisions to make when it comes time to release the final roster for opening night. Management promised a rookie-heavy roster but Pierre Dorion has continued to bring in veteran reinforcements so I struggle to predict with any confidence what direction the staff expect the team to take during this unusual season. Ideally, the Senators can approach the schedule like an MLB team that rotates players as needed to keep everyone healthy and rested while some deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises. I expect maybe one or two of these players to see action in all 56 games. On that note:

Locks on defence: Thomas Chabot, Erik Gudbranson

That’s it. There are a couple other names I’ll get to who I’m not quite sold on as locks. Thomas Chabot, however, along with Brady Tkachuk is the Ottawa Senators. After Tommy Boy, the drop-off on D is steep. I wouldn’t have necessarily added Gudbranson to my list of locks until he got that ‘A’ added to his uniform. While Gudbranson isn’t the only veteran defender in Ottawa who leaves something to be desired with his nerd stats, Erik has a history of getting dragged statistically by competent defensive partners and his local/60 is off the charts.

Very in the mix: Nikita Zaitsev, Joshua Brown, Mike Reilly, Braydon Coburn, Christian Wolanin, Chrisitan Jaros, Erik Brännström, Artem Zub

Slightly less in the mix: Lassi Thomson, Max Lajoie, Jonathan Aspirot, Olle Alsing

Based on his contract and his history with coach Smith, Zaitsev is as close to a lock as you can get. It’s a testament to just how abysmal his performance was last season that I just can’t for the life of me commit to having him in the opening night roster. Brown and Reilly find themselves in the mix as they’re still young, healthy, and have had decent results in limited exposure. They’re ideal defenders to plug in to the lineup one night and swap out another without missing a beat. A little older and almost a decade removed from his last 20-point season, Coburn is the exact type of defender you don’t want blocking the paths of your prospects. Barring injuries to all of Gudbranson, Zaitsev, Reilly, and Brown; Coburn should probably be in the press box.

In terms of homegrown talent, Wolanin, now healthy and ready to prove himself, should have the clearest path into the opening night lineup while Jaros, without the benefit of a one-way contract (but still requiring waivers) will really have to make an impression at camp to nab that third spot on the right, after Gudbranson and Zaitsev from someone like Brown. Skill-wise, Brännström should be automatic to crack the roster but management seems committed to keeping the young defender on his natural left-side and with all of Chabot, Reilly, Wolanin, and Coburn ahead of him in seniority, the young defender looks primed to tear up the AHL once again. While the staff aren’t wrong in stating that Brännström is only 21, he’s proven he has too much talent to continue toiling in the minors. Lining up on a thinner right side, and at age-25, Zub remains the ultimate wild card in this group.

Projection: From what we’ve seen at camp and what we know about this group:

Chabot-Gudbranson

Reilly-Zaitsev

Wolanin-Brown

Coburn-Zub

Brännström-Jaros

The Good News:

  • The left side. Coburn is the only real drag there.
  • The youth. Other than Coburn, Gudbranson, and Zaitsev, this is a young, mobile group.
  • It can only get better. With any luck, the veterans will play their way out of the lineup.

The Bad News:

  • The right side. When you start with two of the biggest analytics punchlines—yikes.
  • The old guys. On a bad night, they’ll make up half of that group.
  • This team loves grit and character. It’ll be a long 56 games in the Canadian division.

Who to watch: The Belleville Senators. Since Dorion acquired Gudbranson, Brown, and Coburn to join a group that already included Zaitsev and Reilly, odds are Belleville will have some combination of Brännström, Jaros, Thomson, and Lajoie and that sounds way more entertaining. Good luck, Thomas and Christian(s).

That concludes the messy part of our projections and leads us to the most clear-cut element of the Senators’ roster: goaltending. While the acquisition of Matt Murray this past summer still seems a little unusual, the necessity to carry three netminders this forthcoming season coupled with Anders Nilsson’s ongoing recovery from post-concussion syndrome (and his recent trade) make Murray’s position on the team somewhat more logical,

Locks in net: Matt Murray, Marcus Högberg

Both at the ripe age of 26, albeit with very different NHL resumes, this tandem could be a lot worse. If Murray can’t find his old form, it creates and opportunity for the younger ‘tenders. And if Murray regains his once-respectable stature then Dorion looks like a genius. I’ve hoped from day-one that the Senators acquired Murray the same way that MLB teams will acquire a rival pitcher who has tipped his pitches or has shown some evident mechanical flaw. I have always considered the Senators’ goalie coaches a strength of the organization so they get the benefit of the doubt from me here. Högberg meanwhile remains the most obvious heir to Craig Anderson’s throne long-term and should get plenty of opportunity this year with so many back-to-backs in the schedule.

In the mix: Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson

At 24-years-of-age and coming of back-to-back breakout seasons in the NCAA and AHL, I would argue the third spot is Joey’s to lose. The teams knows he has sound mechanics and fundamentals and that he can shake off the rust if he spends an extended period on the taxi squad whereas Gustavsson has had erratic numbers since coming to North America and needs all the AHL minutes he can get.

The expansion of the NHL roster also bodes well for Kevin Mandolese who should get to back up either Gustavsson or Daccord depending how things develop in the NHL. Mandolese will naturally face a bit of a learning curve adjusting to the professional game but he’ll come into the season with an extra dose of confidence after his dominant performance in the Q the past two years. Local product and former 2012 Senators draftee Francois Brassard remains a longshot after some mediocre time in the ECHL.

Projection:

Matt Murray

Marcus Högberg

Joey Daccord

The Good News:

  • The ‘veteran’ of this group is just 26 and is basically playing to salvage his NHL future.
  • This structure almost guarantees enough reps at the NHL and AHL level for everyone.

The Bad News:

  • This group comes with basically no guarantees. Things could get ugly for the kids.
  • Someone has to remain with the taxi squad. It’s not ideal if it’s manageable.

Who to watch: Kevin Mandolese. What? Yeah. While Murray’s attempt to regain his old form and the development of Högberg and Daccord intrigue me, Mando will make the biggest leap from junior to the pros and that transition can really separate true prospects from depth guys. I still see this team as a development project and the Ottawa Senators could lose thirty games out of 56 for all we know so I’ll keep my focus on the future.

So there you have it! Some will find my outlook rather bleak and I hope you all get to say that you told me so when this team squeaks into the post-season miraculously. With too many cast-off defenders who couldn’t cut it on other teams and a lot of unproven goaltending (with a reclamation project thrown in for good measure), it will take a lot of offence for the Senators to offset what they give up to the opposition and the offence has as many holes to patch as the defence so I implore you to enjoy the development of the younger players and disregard wins and losses this year.

We’ll have the third and final volume of our preview tomorrow and I don’t think it will stir up any controversary whatsoever. None at all. I have to go now.