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On Playing with an Edge, Evaluating Defenders, the Final Roster and more

NHL: Preseason-Ottawa Senators at Winnipeg Jets Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Playing with the Right Edge

Much has been made about Ridly Greig and how he plays the game. As fans of the Sens, we’re going to love this player moving forward. He has skill but, like Brady Tkachuk and Alex Formenton, he also plays with an edge. If there’s a scrum or a disagreement on the ice and it’s Greig’s shift, you can bet he’s in the middle of it - and probably caused it.

There is, however, such thing as too much edge. This is the scenario that puts your team at a disadvantage because you haven’t been able to find that fine line between pest and undisciplined. As Greig received a cross checking suspension during his first NHL preseason game - which included one preseason game and one regular season game as his punishment - he now kicks off his third straight season with a play that causes him to miss games.

As a 19 year old who is unlikely to be an NHL regular this season, he has time to sort this out with Brandon of the WHL. I’m not entirely sure what it will take but perhaps he can look at players like Brendan Gallagher and Brad Marchand for some inspiration. Both had reputations for being pests that went too far earlier in their careers but it’s been crickets the last few seasons with both in terms of extra discipline.

Perhaps it’s just something that comes with time, perhaps it’s something that requires outside guidance, but either way the Senators would be much better off with Greig’s skill and edge provided he doesn’t miss an abundance of games because of it.

On the BSens

As the one who covers the Belleville Senators for this site, I’ll admit one of the exciting parts is the mass turnover. It’s also one of the most nerve-wracking parts. At the end of the day, I love covering the team but they’re way more fun to write about when they’re winning.

Last year, Belleville graduated its entire top four forwards either to Ottawa or elsewhere (we miss you Rudolfs) with most of the replacements coming in the form of rookies we’d never seen before. Out with the Drake Batherson, in with the Egor Sokolov, you could say. Last season turned into a pretty good year, all things considering. The team got stable scoring from Sokolov, Vitaly Abramov and Angus Crookshank while also receiving solid defense and goaltending from Lassi Thomson, Jonathan Aspirot, Filip Gustavsson and Mads Søgaard.

Looking at the year ahead, I don’t recall the last time I was this intrigued and excited about the roster. Barring injuries, we’re likely to see Gustavsson and Søgaard between the pipes - an out of this world goaltending tandem for the AHL. It’s also quite likely the right side of the blueline starts with Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson while the left will include Jonathan Aspirot and, quite possibly, Erik Brännström. Up front, the likes of Sokolov, Parker Kelly, Logan Shaw and sophomores like Cole Reinhardt and Mark Kastelic will be joined by a full season of Roby Järventie and two solid veteran acquisitions in Kole Sherwood and Pontus Åberg. This is looking like a really fantastic group for Head Coach Troy Mann to take on a deep run.

If Ottawa can stay relatively healthy, I see no reason why we shouldn’t start planning our trips to CAA Arena for BSens hockey well into spring time.

On the Sophomore Slümp

Is it just me or did Tim Stützle play like a grown adult in his first preseason game? He skated and hit far more like an NHL player playing in the NHL, rather than a rookie trying to prove he was ready.

You expect this kind of physical development from most professional athletes from their draft year into the next but, and I’m sure I’ve got Sens rose coloured glasses on here, Stützle looks like he’s going to take that next step and skip over the dreaded sophomore slump.

While playing in a lineup with mostly AHLers and junior players, Stützle was able to create offense out of nothing and was seemingly the only player consistently capable of doing so. Now, it’s also important to recognize that the Leafs didn’t exactly roster their best players either, so it’ll be interesting to see how Stützle looks as the preseason goes on.

One thing was made abundantly clear on Wednesday, however, and that’s how badly Stützle needs a centre capable of driving offense. The number of missed plays or passes from Chris Tierney on Wednesday was hard to watch. I’d love to blame it on being early in the season but Tierney has been a player with whom offense dies for a long time and is truly suited for the bottom of the lineup now.

DJ Smith would be smartest to slide Shane Pinto between Stützle and Connor Brown for the remainder of the preseason to see what develops there. This was a trio that worked effectively towards the end of last season and Smith shouldn’t be worried that Pinto can’t handle the workload. He’s ready and Stützle, the Sens, and Smith will all be better off if the concern about his lack of experience is short-lived.

On Evaluating Defensemen

The Ottawa Senators, in my opinion, have a storied history of struggling with evaluating NHL level defenders. From Cody Ceci to Nikita Zaitsev and everywhere in between, we have seen far too many bluelines over the years that range from complete disasters to mild mediocrity. There have been exceptions to the rule but, for the most part, the Sens have struggled in their own end and on their blueline for as long as I can remember. And I’m pretty old. You may recall Ary took a stab at trying to quantify the organization’s attempts to field a competent blue line a couple of weeks ago.

This year, we’re staring down the barrel of what appears to be a shut down pairing of Michael Del Zotto and Nikita Zaitsev. There are arguments that Zaitsev’s performances and numbers are so poor because he has tough assignments and there is some truth to that. That being said, there are a lot of defenders who have the same or tougher assignments and post better numbers. Zaitsev is capable of playing this shut down role but is he capable of playing it well? Not so far he hasn’t been.

Del Zotto hasn’t skated in a regular season game for the Sens yet, and many are using that as the reason we shouldn’t yet be terrified of this pairing logging 20+ minutes a night, but the fact is that he’s well into his NHL career and, like Ceci during his final year(s) in Ottawa, it’s not unreasonable to say we know what we’ve got here. He is, after all, 31 years old.

The thing is, this isn’t exclusively a DJ Smith problem. Guy Boucher struggled with it, Dave Cameron struggled with it. A possible answer here is that the Sens hire coaches who buy into the front office’s philosophies on defenders and that very philosophy is likely flawed.

The best this blueline has looked in years was at the end of last season when we saw Brännström and Mete logging top four minutes. I understand the reservation with having multiple small defenders on your team. I understand the NHL is a physical league with a lot of 6’2”+ forwards crashing and banging in the corners and the idea of spending 35 to 40 minutes with one or both of these smaller defenders on the ice every game is scary. I’m not oblivious to this fact, I promise.

At the end of the day, though, you’re sacrificing both offense and defense by playing MDZ and Zaitsev together in top four minutes. They’re not going to contribute much offensively and they’re going to inevitably get shelled in their own zone because neither is particularly gifted with the transition. By dressing both Brännström and Mete and playing at least one of them in the top four, you may be sacrificing some defense but you will be getting a strong, fast transition game that will allow the forwards they’re lined up with more of an opportunity to create something at the other end of the ice.

Yes, when smaller defenders are on the ice, it’s likely you’ll struggle more with the physical play in their own zone. But with MDZ and Zaitsev on the ice, you’re likely to spend more time in your own zone.

Which would you prefer?

On the Final Roster

Yesterday, DJ Smith said the Sens will be close to their final roster following Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. Usually, what that looks like is somewhere around 16 forwards, 8 defenders and maybe 3 goalies.

The roster for tonight’s game in Montreal has eight defenders listed - Thomas Chabot, Artem Zub, Michael Del Zotto, Nikita Zaitsev, Josh Brown, Victor Mete and Brännström. That’s a pretty clear indication that these are the names we’ll see on the “almost” final roster after Saturday’s match. Between the pipes, it’s a virtual guarantee that if the Sens don’t go straight down to Matt Murray and Anton Forsberg, Gustavsson will be the other goaltender left on the roster. The interesting and less predictable selections will come up front.

At forward, you’ve got nine locks - ten if Brady Tkachuk is signed. That leaves somewhere around five or six players who could be left on the roster following this soft deadline Smith has set. One player, Formenton, I’d consider to be an almost-lock. Things are a bit tight on the left side but both Zach Sanford and Nick Paul have lined up on the right wing before, so Smith will be able to make room for Formenton no problem. After that, it gets interesting.

Pinto has shown that he’s definitely ready to compete at the NHL level but the question becomes whether or not the Sens want to give him the Norris-treatment, i.e send him to the AHL for the year, let him cook and come up as a stud next season. Personally, I think he can hang at the NHL level and it wouldn’t negatively impact his development. So, with Pinto and Formenton, that brings us to 11 (12 with Tkachuk). If Ottawa keeps upwards of 16 forwards on the roster for their “almost” lineup, that leaves players like Ridly Greig, Clark Bishop, Tyler Ennis, Kelly, Sherwood and Sokolov. Bishop, out with an injury that may end being long term, probably doesn’t make it beyond Saturday unless his injury ends up being less serious. I liked what I saw on Wednesday night from Bishop, but he’s likely in Belleville to start.

Greig, while he has to serve a suspension for the first game of the NHL season, has an outside shot of making the opening night roster so I think he makes it beyond Saturday. That’s 13.

Kelly is a workhorse who provides a specific skillset to a fourth line that does make him valuable. I’m not convinced he’s still in Ottawa for opening night but I can absolutely see Smith keeping him to continue the battle for the bottom of the roster. That’s 14.

Sokolov has been a bit up and down in camp so far. His first rookie game, he seemed off. The second rookie game, he was the only person you could notice on the ice. In preseason play thus far, Sokolov has been alright but he’s got another level to play at for sure. That being said, the Sens are relatively week in terms of scoring threats on the right side so I think he sticks around. That’s 15.

The final forward spot in my arbitrary 16 player list feels like it’s down to Ennis turning his PTO into a contract and Sherwood. Sherwood was a pleasant surprise on Wednesday night, being one of the few non-regulars who was noticeable in a good way throughout an otherwise lacklustre performance against the Leafs. Ennis, however, would be a player who the Sens probably need to see more from throughout camp before deciding on the PTO. For that reason, I think Ennis is the final player making it beyond Saturday, while Sherwood will be assigned to the Belleville group for now.

I look forward to hearing exactly how wrong I’ve got all this in the comments below!