The next two weeks are going to be fascinating to watch as a fan of the Ottawa Senators. I think you could also use the word nerve-wracking there instead.
Let’s recap where we are with a 10,000-foot view:
- By all accounts, this is an Ottawa Senators team ready to take the next step. They’ve spent the last three seasons finishing as one of the league’s bottom two teams.
- Young leaders Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot are entering their third and fourth seasons in the league respectively, and there’s a buzz around the excitement of young talent in the system.
- Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team hasn’t played a meaningful hockey game in nine months, and there are limited opportunities to play this season. The NHL is operating a reduced 56-game schedule that could change at any moment (sorry, Dallas, Columbus), and the American Hockey League schedule has been drastically modified.
- Those pandemic restrictions will also contribute to a limited trade deadline this year. Pierre Dorion has already spoken about how pre-season moves for Braydon Coburn, Cedric Paquette, and Derek Stepan were in-part because he expects trades with the league’s 24 U.S.-based teams will be tough once the season gets underway.
- In July 2021, an expansion draft will happen, where the Seattle Kraken will look to draft a talented player from the Sens. There will be surplus at forward and in net, and there are many players (especially at forward) who the organization haven’t gotten a good look at against everyday NHL competition.
Pierre Dorion and co. consistently trumpet that they have a plan in place, and while they have had months to adjust that plan accordingly to factor in the pandemic’s influence (flat cap, development timelines, etc.), it’s making me extra antsy to get some clarity on how they see the young players the team has stockpiled over the past few years.
The only messaging from D.J. Smith has been the very coach-like: “players will have to earn their spot” — which, other than “duh!”, only makes me worry that we’ll see a similar hesitance about playing “young” players in limited roles. Remember, the only players under the age of 24 who played regular roles for the Sens last season were the aforementioned Chabot and Tkachuk, plus Colin White. There were a collection of U24 players who played ~30-50% of the season in Ottawa — Drake Batherson (23), Logan Brown (23), Filip Chlapik (31), Erik Brännström (31), Rudolfs Balcers (15), Christian Jaros (13), Andreas Englund (24), and JC Beaudin (22) — and given the influx of veterans, it looks like a similar situation awaits many of the prospects belonging to this “generation” of Sens prospects. I put “young” in quotes earlier because Smith recently talked about 25-year-old Christian Wolanin as a young kid, which he is in terms of NHL experience, but not in terms of where he’s at in his career. Wolanin, Brown, Chlapik, Balcers, and Batherson are a group that’s about to enter their prime. Shaan recently talked about this more in his Wednesday long-form.
It’s no wonder that Elliotte Friedman speculated this about the Senators in his latest edition of 31 Thoughts:
Ottawa’s moves are interesting. There’s zero doubt they will be harder to play against and more competitive. They didn’t want to hand roster spots to their prospects, because that’s too easy. What I’m curious to see is if any of them see their routes blocked and express unhappiness about it. The Senators want those players to respond to the challenge.
There’s certainly something to be said about handing a player a spot; but my opinion — and it’s just that, my opinion — is that I wonder if the team has been so preoccupied by that logic when, by virtue of being a bad team for the past few years, there’s a lot of natural internal competition among the many young players fighting for limited NHL roles. Role clarity, that is, being able to know who your linemates are, get into a rhythm, and play to your strengths, is something that’s sacrificed when you’re playing Lord of the Flies with your prospects. The upshot for the Senators? The young players who make it out are going to be the kings of the castle. The downside? You’re going to have a bunch of sunken assets that you might not be able to do anything with to improve your on-ice product now.
This brings us to the taxi squad:
The team has been talking about the squad as if it’s for young players who can easily pass through waivers and are in that bubble of being too-good-for-the-AHL but not-good-enough-for-full-time-NHL-roles. But given the circumstances this team is in, I wonder if we should instead be thinking about the taxi squad as a place for veterans to rotate in-and-out.
The upshot? You create meaningful space for young players to play in every day roles, while knowing through practices that a slip-up means you could easily come out for a game or two — the competition Smith likes. The downside? Any player on a one-way contract will have to pass through waivers, but given the reality of the quarantine, you’re likely only competing with the six other Canadian teams who feature more regular NHL-talent on their roster already.
At forward, this could mean that only one of Artem Anisimov or Cedric Paquette plays in a given game; and one of Austin Watson or Alex Galchenyuk. On defence, let teams gamble on Nikita Zaitsev or Josh Brown, and instead, swap in Christian Jaros and Artem Zub for some games on the right-side; on the left, only one of Mike Reilly and Braydon Coburn will be in at a time, making permanent space for Christian Wolanin, and allowing a player like Erik Brännström to rotate in.
How would you set up the taxi squad this season? Do you think the reduced-AHL will result in meaningful competition? Are the Senators taking the right approach and I’m overthinking it?
Let us know in the comments!