Welcome back for another edition of Five Thoughts for Friday. Let’s dig in:
On Centre Depth:
After Shane Pinto was forced to leave Thursday night’s game against the San Jose Sharks with an apparent injury, the question of whether Pierre Dorion should be in the market for a centre has come back to the fore. Colin White’s injury earlier this year, while deeply unfortunate for the player and the team, was not in and of itself a critical problem; even White’s staunchest supporters wouldn’t have pegged him to play in the top six. But now that both Pinto and White are down, if Pinto’s injury forces him to miss any time at all Ottawa could be staring at the possibility of Chris Tierney or Nick Paul playing a meaningful stretch of games as the de facto second line centre. Neither option is particularly appetizing for a squad that saw itself with play-off aspirations at the outset of this campaign.
Though the Sens have been rumoured to be in the market for help at centre since last season ended, there doesn’t seem to have been much action on that front. It’s probably the case that management wanted to see how the season shook out with Josh Norris and Pinto carrying the load before making any firm decisions on whether to upgrade. This course of action was not without risks as relying on a rookie (and a second year player) to occupy the top two slots will come with plenty of ups and downs. The injuries, however, might now have forced a decision a lot sooner than the Sens would have liked.
On Thomas Chabot’s Minutes
Much ink, digital and otherwise, has already been spilled on the subject of how many minutes Thomas Chabot has played the last couple of seasons. Last night’s 29:01 was not in and of itself remarkable, but his playing the last four minutes definitely was.
As an aside, if you are interested in shift analysis of NHL games, shiftchart.com is a great resource. For instance, in last night’s game you can see just how often DJ Smith elected to deploy Norris-Tkachuk-Batherson-Zub-Chabot as a five-man unit.
Returning to the point at hand: like so many of the games where Chabot’s minutes get out of whack, the Sens were pushing for a tie late in a close game. Over 13 minutes of Chabot’s 29 minutes of ice-time, nearly half, where in the third period alone. Smith, correctly in my view, has ascertained that the other five defensemen that were playing last night can help protect leads but are not much use when pushing for a goal. If there was ever a case for a an offensive-minded defenseman having a role to play on this team, this is it. Until there’s another option Smith feels can help get a goal, don’t expect the promised reduction of Chabot’s minutes to come any time soon.
On Attendance Issues
If there’s one thing that you will never find me doing, it’s chastising folks for not going to Sens games. Nonetheless, when the team fails to break 10k paying customers in back-to-back games, it will be a topic of conversation for the various sports talking heads. But while the dip in attendance is not being felt in quite the same way in Toronto and Montreal, neither of those teams sold out their last game. On Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, only 16,095 fans were in the stands in Montreal; which seems to be the lowest figure for any game since the Habs moved into the Bell Centre. There are a lot of reasons folks aren’t rushing back to see the Sens, but some of those same issues are affecting teams around the league. All of this to say that it may be a while yet before attendance figures return to their pre-pandemic levels — the problem is not Ottawa-specific.
On Tkachuk’s Return
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly touch on the biggest Sens news of the last week: the return of Brady Tkachuk to the Ottawa line-up. Tkachuk looked a bit rusty for most of the game but also a lot like himself, picking up an assist on Drake Batheron’s opening tally and just generally being a nuisance physically whenever possible. Though I think his offensive skillset has maybe become somewhat underrated, most folks would agree that Tkachuk’s best assets are related to his physicality and his strength — since the rest of the league has been practicing and playing games for nearly a month now, I expect it might be a few weeks yet before the captain-to-be is fully up to speed.
On Stützle’s Role
Speaking of Tkachuk’s return to the line-up, one of the knock-on effects was Stützle’s effective demotion off the top line. While no one would dispute Tkachuk’s claim (at least for now) to the top spot on the left side, the young German’s skills do seem somewhat wasted without similarly skilled linemates. Though someone like Nick Paul or Connor Brown may seem like conceptually good linemates, it hasn’t been an uncommon occurrence this season for Stützle to generate a number of chances that his teammates can’t convert. When I look at the Sens’ depth chart, left wing is the only position that looks like something I would expect from a top team in the league. Everywhere, but especially when it comes to the skill up front, is something of a work in progress. Until some more of the Sens’ prospects pan out, it’s just simply not going to be possible to have both Tkachuk and Stützle playing with high-skill teammates. I’ll be interested to see if Smith changes his mind about who’s playing where as the year goes on.