Hockey is fun again! Here are some thoughts on another very fun week.
Tim Stützle: Ottawa’s Best Defensive Player??
There’s been a lot of talk about the Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson line as of late, and with good reason. But I’d like to briefly turn everyone’s attention to Tim Stützle, and the fascinating turn his development has taken this season.
In his first season in the NHL, Stützle looked like your typical very talented teenage forward, which is to say that he had lots of offensive potential but was probably the team’s worst player defensively. In 2021-22, though, he has done a complete 180 and I don’t know why we’re not talking about this more because it’s incredibly impressive.
Stützle is currently the single best Ottawa Senator at limiting chances against, and it’s not particularly close. Here’s a chart from hockeyviz that shows how the sens do in terms of expected goals with and without each player on the ice:
The names closest to the top of the chart are the players with the best defensive impact. Stützle is way ahead of everyone else on the team in that regard, and has been there all season. Also, if you look at the red “18,” that represents how the team does when Stützle is not on the ice, and, oh look, it’s the closest red number to the bottom of the chart. That means that this team is at its worst defensively when Stützle is not on the ice.
And sure enough, here’s how the Sens are doing in the defensive zone with him:
And here’s how they’re doing without him:
When we’re looking at heat maps for the defensive zone, more red is bad, and more blue is good. These maps show that, with Stützle on the ice, the Sens are actually doing an excellent job of limiting chances around the net and on the left side - which is where Stützle plays when he’s on the wing. When he’s not on the ice, they’re getting absolutely shelled everywhere. This reflects very, very well on our boy. No other Sens player has this kind of impact on the team defensively. Only Chabot and Zub come close.
And one final hockeyviz chart: here’s how different players are doing with and without him.
That’s ridiculous! How does he do this? He’s a teenager!
This season, we’ve talked a lot about what Stützle isn’t doing - putting up as many points as we’d like, mostly - but I think we should be talking about what he is doing, which is taking on a role usually reserved for much more experienced players. He’s carrying that second line, making everyone around him better, and doing an excellent job of shutting down top forwards. We can still see flashes of offensive potential with him, too, and he really gets to show off on the powerplay. It might be a frustrating year if he doesn’t get good linemates soon or figure out how to do things himself, but I think he’s building a really solid foundation.
Stützle is turning into a very well-rounded and trustworthy player. I think once he gets really talented linemates, he’s going to completely take off offensively and we’re all going to wonder why we ever doubted him.
Pizza Line 2.0
Alright, fine, I guess I will talk about this line.
I will readily admit that I was initially skeptical about DJ Smith’s decision to keep the top line together. And I will admit that I was wrong.
Maybe Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson will get split up eventually, but for now it’s been very satisfying to watch them click like this. It’s easy to see why these three work so well together: Batherson is turning into an elite playmaker, Norris is a pure sniper as well as a good two-way centre, and Tkachuk is a valuable netfront presence who knows exactly where to be on the ice. It’s eerily reminiscent of the Pizza line, actually - the captain, an elite playmaker who wears #19, and a pure goalscorer.
These three, plus Stützle? That could turn into one hell of a forward group. I can’t wait to see how they all do down the stretch this season.
It’s also just so nice that we’re finally getting a sense of the kinds of players we have here. A few months ago, I knew Norris had a good shot, but I’m not sure I would have described him as a “sniper.” I knew Batherson was skilled, but I’m not sure I would have projected him to be an elite playmaker specifically. The pieces are coming together.
The best response to getting sent down
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Lassi Thomson is playing extremely well in Belleville right now.
He has two goals and an assist since getting sent down, and reports say that he’s playing with more confidence than ever before. This is just so encouraging to see. He was good in Ottawa, but this way he’ll get to dominate the AHL for a little bit, work on whatever he needs to work on to get back to the NHL, and then hopefully return to Ottawa an even better player than before.
I’m rooting for this kid. I can’t wait to see him back in the NHL later this season, and I hope he manages to grab a spot out of training camp next year.
A switch to development… or not?
It’s a cycle we’re all too used to seeing in Ottawa.
Team acquires veterans to fill roster spots because they need to win and don’t trust their prospects yet. Team does badly with veterans in the lineup. Team realizes they’re not going to win, and decides to play the kids, because why not. The kids help the team win. Team is afraid to bring in more prospects because the team is winning. Rinse. Repeat.
When Micheal Del Zotto was waived, DJ Smith declared that the team was now focusing on development instead of wins, which meant that we were going to see lots of young players in the lineup. Good. That’s what they should have been doing since the start of the season.
And then the team won a few more games.
Since being called up, Jacob Bernard-Docker has watched three consecutive games from the press box. After a few rough games, Filip Gustavsson has spent most nights sitting on the bench. That’s… a little weird, right?
I’m sure that both players are getting something out of practicing with the NHL squad. I also think that winning is good for morale, and if this young squad is finally clicking, DJ Smith should let them ride the high and not mess with too much. But I do hope the younger players get into the lineup soon, and I hope the skaters that come up to Ottawa later get significant playing time. I’d hate to see JBD reduced to 10 minutes a night for weeks on end because the coach doesn’t want to mess with the magic of Chabot-Zaitsev. (Edit: I had a feeling I'd curse something by writing this post before last night's game, so I'm just going to go ahead and take the blame for that Zaitsev injury. Sorry, Z. Guess we'll see JBD after all, but my point about icetime still stands.)
Ottawa: home of the most underrated players in the league
I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure feels like it.
It’s still a small sample size, but the Sens’ best players are hanging with the best in the league right now, and that means that we’re seeing the re-emergence of a controversy that hasn’t reared its head in a few years. That’s right: we’re back to wondering when the media outside of Ottawa is actually going to start paying attention to the Sens’ best players.
Chabot hasn’t been getting nearly enough love for how dominant he’s looked on the ice. Batherson is creeping up toward the top of the league in points, but no one seems to care. Norris is on pace for over 40 goals, but nobody is talking about him. And for reasons outlined in the first thought of this Friday, if I have to read one more article about how Tim Stützle is “slumping” or how “the Sens want more out of him,” I’m going to throw my phone across the room.
In a way, it’s kind of nice, though. It’s good to be back here. It means things are going well.
It’s a long-standing Ottawa tradition.
2017 - Erik Karlsson puts together the performance of a lifetime in the playoffs, and suddenly the narrative is that he’s “arrived onto the scene” and “finally established himself as the best defenseman in the world.” Sens fans are sitting at home thinking, sure, this is the best he’s ever looked, but… you do know he’s been this good for years right?
2019 - Mark Stone gets traded to the Vegas Golden Knights. It doesn’t take long for the media to discover him. Mark Stone has really taken off since the trade. Did you know Mark Stone is good at takeaways? Mark Stone has turned into one of the best wingers in the game. Ottawa must be kicking themselves for trading him. You fools. We knew exactly what we had in him. He’s been this good since 2015.
Heck, let’s throw in 2021 - Jason Spezza signs with the Maple Leafs, and suddenly he’s a beloved figure and a potential hall of famer. Hm. Okay.
Welcome to the Ottawa Senators, kids. Enjoy being criminally underrated. We’ll make sure to complain about it online.