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Five Thoughts for Friday: On Slow Starts, Sanderson, Brady & More

In Five Thoughts, we talk about Belleville’s slow start, upgrading the blueline, sophomore slumps, Jake Sanderson’s meteoric rise and Brady Tkachuk’s stellar start.

AHL: OCT 15 Belleville Senators at Laval Rocket Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good morning and happy Friday, my friends! Here are my Five Thoughts that you’ve been waiting all week for. Pour a coffee, grab a muffin and enjoy!

On the BSens Slow Start

As I sat down to map out my first recap of the season for the Belleville Senators, I found myself experiencing a bit of déja vu. It felt like I was writing the same recap I’ve written at the beginning of the last few seasons: slow starts for the players we expected to do well, more losses than wins, tough times for the goaltenders. So, I had to ask myself... Have I played this game before?

Turns out, I have. Every single year.

I’ve been covering the Belleville Senators here at Silver Seven since their inaugural season and every single year, I’ve started writing about a struggling team and, almost every year, I’ve ended writing about an exciting, high flying group.

Under the leadership of Troy Mann, here’s how the first five games have gone relative to the entire season for the Belleville Senators since they moved to (down the highway from) the big apple:

  • In 2017-18, the BSens started 2-3-0, a 60 point pace over the season, before finishing with 63 points.
  • In 2018-19, they once again started 2-3-0 before ending the season with 82 points.
  • In 2019-20, their record dropped to 1-4-0 in their first five, good for an abysmal 31 point pace over a full season before finishing with 81 points (a 98 point pace over a full year).
  • Then, in the shortened year last year, the BSens once again stumbled out of the gate with a 1-4-0 record before finishing the year with an 18-16-1 record which would pace for an 80 point season through 76 games.

If you can count on Belleville for one thing, it’s slow starts. That’s one of the reasons I’m both not worried about how they’ve started this year and not surprised that they dummied Rochester 7-3 in their fifth game of the season featuring two goal nights from both Egor Sokolov and Jacob Bernard-Docker.

Whatever Troy Mann does, it eventually works. Just like his brother’s scouting efforts, we will have to trust the process — even if the results aren’t immediately apparent.

On the Blueline

After watching the shootout between the Sens and the Washington Capitals on Monday night, we were all reminded how far this team has to go in terms of overall play if they want to truly contend for a playoff spot in the near future. The good news is that they didn’t quit and they filled the net; one of the biggest concerns plaguing this team is the ability to score goals. It was amazing to watch Ilya Samsonov somehow simultaneously have an amazing game while also allowing five goals. It didn’t matter if the Sens were down 4-1 or 6-4, they kept pushing and that was fantastic to see.

It was tough to watch happened in their own end. If you could give a primary assist to an opposing player, Josh Brown would have started the game with a pair of apples as two big mistakes ended up behind Anton Forsberg in the first period.

While it was easy to throw J. Brown to the wolves for those mistakes, he was far from alone in poor defensive play from Ottawa’s blueliners. At even strength, J. Brown led the team in CF% (in a bad way) with 0 (!) shots for while allowing 15 against. But right behind him was Victor Mete (+4/-14), Nick Holden (+9/-23) and Nikita Zaitsev (+11/-23). In fact, the only reason Ottawa appeared to even stay in this game is thanks to incredible efforts by Thomas Chabot (+34/-17) and Artem Zub (+28/-16).

Jake Sanderson, quit school challenge.

Needless to say, it’s early in the season and this was one game but there does seem to be a ceiling on what’s possible with this defensive group. While I, a fan, am willing to wait for Sanderson to join the team in the spring, Pierre Dorion shouldn’t be so patient. This is the first year of alleged unparalleled success and the Ottawa Senators have incredibly full cupboards, ready to be spent.

I’m not saying they should empty those cupboards for a top flight defender - the combination of Sanderson, JBD and Lassi Thomson shouldelp in the next few seasons - but finding upgrades for players like Zaitsev, J. Brown and Michael Del Zotto needs to happen if Dorion wants to even be in a position to push for a playoff spot by February.

Also, as always, #FreeTheBrännchise.

On Sophomore Slümps

Anyone who doesn’t watch the team and only checks NHL.com’s stats page would think German heartthrob Tim Stützle was experiencing a sophomore slump. After all, six games into the season, Stützle has zero goals and a mere two assists to his name. But, when you watch the games and look beyond the points column, Stützle has been one of Ottawa’s best forwards.

Just two days ago, Trevor took an interesting early look at the Senators from a statistical perspective and noted that Stützle, a player who had pretty bad underlying numbers last year, has an xGF% of 60.04%. Basically, what this means is the team should be scoring more than they are with him on the ice. He’s creating a ton of high quality chances, he just hasn’t buried.

Early in the season, for forwards who have played a minimum of 75 even strength minutes, Stützle ranks 19th in xGF%. David Pastrnak leads this stat while Drake Batherson is just ahead of young Timothy. Stützle’s xGF% is ahead of literally every excellent player you can think of (other than Pastrnak, of course).

While some may be losing their patience or undervaluing Stützle season so far, it’s clear to me that he’s one goal away from opening the floodgates and I don’t think the Atlantic Division is ready for it.

On Jake Sanderson

I want to start this off by stating that I am never wrong. I’ve never once tweeted that the Senators should avoid drafting a player and, later, learned that I was mistaken. Never once.

Anyways, about Jake Sanderson. This guy is the real deal.

The big issue many had with the Senators taking Sanderson 5th overall at the time was the large number of scouts and prospect analysts who claimed Sanderson was an excellent defensive prospect who lacks offensive ability. He was a player you should target 10th overall or later. If you’re picking a defender with a top 10 pick, they should be the next coming of Erik Karlsson and Sanderson didn’t have any of that ability.

That’s what we were told.

In his freshman season, Sanderson compiled 15 points in 22 games while being a key pillar for Team USA’s gold medal win at the World Juniors. Things were looking good, he was showing some flashes. Many may look at his 0.68 points per game and still stick to their guns about his lack of offensive ability but to them I say, have you considered what happened for the University of North Dakota while Sanderson was on the ice? Because the answer to that is... a lot.

As a freshman, Sanderson enabled the NoDak Sens, I mean Fighting Hawks, to score 23 even strength goals while he was on the ice while allowing only 6. That’s an EV GF% of 79.31%. For comparison’s sake, as a freshman Quinn Hughes hit 60%, Cale Makar hit 55.93%. Now, I’m not out here saying Sanderson is definitively better than Hughes or Makar but these are two NCAA defenders who were lauded for their offensive capabilities, neither of which found as much success as Sanderson in this particular category.

Into his sophomore year, Sanderson is on fire. He’s been a dominant force for UND with 7 points in 6 games so far. The tracking data for this season isn’t available yet but, once it is, I think we’re going to be looking at a really special player.

On Brady’s Start

In case you didn’t know, Brady Tkachuk missed all of training camp and the first three games of the season. Oh, you did know?

Anyways.

When you spend training camp skating with 17 year olds in Michigan instead of participating in an NHL training camp and playing preseason games, you’re bound to be a bit slow to start. For Tkachuk, thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case. While he’s still searching for his first goal of the season, he has a pair of assists through three games, leads all Senators forwards in EV CF% with 58.84%, EV GF% with 62.50 % (tied with his two linemates) and ranks 5th on the team in shots per game with 2.67.

All of this is on top of the clear physical presence he brings to the team while dragging his teammates into battle - all of the kinds of things with which Sens fans have become very familiar.

The problem is, however, that Ottawa is currently winless since Tkachuk joined the team. Is that Tkachuk’s fault? Absolutely not. Anyone who says so needs to cut back on the Halloween candy. But it’ll be great for the team, hopefully tonight in Dallas, to pick up their first W with Tkachuk in the lineup.

I give it 6 weeks, tops, before a C is slapped on his sweater as well.

Win or lose, I think I speak for everyone when I say it’s fantastic to have that goofy smile back in a Senators uniform.