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NKB’s Notebook: Kid Line, Colin White’s Return and Stützle’s Success and Struggles

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A tough week

NHL: JAN 31 Senators at Oilers Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The idea behind the creation of this feature was to allow for some space to riff on in-game strategy, shares some thoughts about tactics, and just generally work through the minutiae of the week that was for the Ottawa Senators. The trouble with this past week’s games is that the Sens’ struggles were so profound, it became a bit of an issue to pick out what was and what wasn’t working because almost nothing worked!

The most obvious problem is the sheer number of goals against: Ottawa gave up 7, 5, 4, and 8 goals this past week for an average of 6 (!) goals conceded per matchup. The team could stand to score a few more, their last game against Edmonton notwithstanding, but you won’t even be competitive with that kind of defensive ineptitude.

On the topic of goals allowed, I’ve already written about the struggles of the penalty kill in this very column so I won’t re-visit that here. Beyond the defensive play when down a man, however, the team is both allowing a harrowing number of high grade chances and getting porous goaltending. It’s a bad combination, and it makes it hard to comment on defensive deployment, or systemic choices when the whole thing is on fire. Nitpicking the Sens’ defensive zone coverage would feel like that dog in one of the most famous internet memes out there:

So, acknowledging that, yes, the whole defensive enterprise is a bit fraught right now, here are a few littler things I noticed from the forward group that I thought merited at least a bit space:

  • I’ve liked what I’ve seen from the newly formed trio of Colin White, Evgenii Dadonov, and Nick Paul. White’s speed has been noticeable since his return to the line-up; especially as compared to Derek Stepan who had previously been centering Dadonov. I’ve particularly been impressed with the line’s ability to generate sustained offensive zone time. Dadonov has had his struggles this year, but he’s got the pucks skills and the vision to find the small windows for five foot passes that can keep possession going and White and Paul are working well to find that extra space. Paul’s work retrieving pucks on the forecheck and through the neutral zone has been a boon here as well. I’d like to see more of what this line can do.
  • Speaking of line-up choices, I’m not as big fan of DJ Smith breaking up the top line; the Norris, Tkachuk, Batherson trio has been the only consistently good line all year. To some degree I get why he’s taken this approach the last couple of games: no other line has had sustained success (though others have obviously had flashes) and Smith is hoping that Batherson can jump-start another trio. The problem as I see it here is that Connor Brown, for all the good things he does defensively, has a long track record of blunting his team’s offense when he’s on the ice. It doesn’t take a lot of viewings to understand why: he’s a good skater, a real workhorse, and he also fumbles the puck at an alarming rate for an NHLer. He got an assist on Tkachuk’s goal Sunday night, but in the long run I just don’t see this as the play. Get the kid line back together, and start leaning on them heavily — maybe as much as twenty minutes a night. The team’s 1-7-1, what could it hurt to see if the kids can swing it as a top unit?
  • The other notable young forward is, of course, Tim Stützle, and though he’s off to something of an uneven start, I have been quite encouraged by the occasional flash of world-class skill. The goal he scored on Sunday night against Edmonton was the kind of seemingly effortless snipe that you get from special players. Stützle’s best work has been carrying the puck through the neutral zone, where he’s able to use his speed, stickhandling, and deceptive shot to create scoring chances. He’s been able to put some of the best NHL defenders on their backheel as he attacks, which is a very promising sign. With a bit more experience, and linemates who can match his speed and skill, look for a breakout offensive performance in his not-too-distant future.
  • It’s also worth pointing out that Stützle’s had his struggles working along the boards on the cycle: he’s simply been muscled off the puck a few times, probably in a way that’s never happened to him before. As he gets stronger and he figures out what does and doesn’t work in the NHL, that will happen less often. A final note on the topic of his physical play: Stützle has either been told, or he’s come to believe on his own, that he needs to hit everything that moves on the forecheck. The amount of times that he’s simply lost his balance and taken himself out of the play in doing so should put the lie to the effectiveness of that strategy. This isn’t to say that he shouldn’t ever be throwing a check, but he’s got to learn to pick his spots — and also to recognize that, at least for now, physical play isn’t his strong suit. That’ll come in time, and with Stützle there’s good reason there’s lots of time to work with.