In last week’s edition of NKB’s Notebook, I explained that the Sens had struggled so badly in the prior week that it was a bit of a challenge to pick out what to talk about. Everything was broken! Fortunately, that wasn’t the case this week even though the team did finish 1-2; two of the team’s young stars-in-the-making gave the squad a much needed shot in the arm as Tim Stützle and Erik Brännström provided some real positive play for us to sink our teeth into.
So let’s start with a few encouraging things that I saw from the kids last week:
- Even a prospect as highly regarded as Stützle was bound to have some struggles adapting to the NHL, and besides his highlight reel goal against the Leafs, the German wunderkind was indeed mortal for long stretches early in the campaign. Stützle is a player that relies on his skill, and speed, to create opportunities and it seemed in the early going that he wasn’t quite finding the right timing on his attacking plays. A window of opportunity that might have been there in the DEL, or at the World Junior Championships, closes much, much faster at the NHL level. Starting with the game on Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers, however, Stützle started to show signs that he’d caught up to the speed of what was going on around him. Where before I noticed his passes hitting skates, or simply getting picked off, several times a game, he seems to be doing a better job of understanding what is and isn’t possible.
The area where this is the most noticeable is on the rush, after he uses his speed to back up defenders. Stützle loves to cutback against the grain when the defender turns their hips to prevent him from driving straight through to the net. He’ll use the extra space to walk into a wrist shot, or maybe try to find a pass to the back door or to the trailer. Against Edmonton, some of his finest work was on those kind of off-the-rush plays, and unlike the prior games the passes virtually always made it through. You could almost see the learning happening in real time; very encouraging stuff from our favourite German son.
- Speaking of Stützle’s work on the rush, his timing through the neutral zone was much better in recent games as well. As I might have mentioned before, playing in the NHL is hard, and one of the ways that it’s hardest is that absolutely everyone is a good skater nowadays. Even the Stützles of the world can’t simply put their head down and hope to burn rubber; to generate the head of steam required to back up NHL defenders, you need to have good timing and chemistry with your line-mates. Especially in the games against the Habs, I thought Stützle’s play in this area was much improved. There was one sequence late in Saturday’s game where he took a pass in stride from Connor Brown, gained the blueline, and totally turned Jeff Petry around to get a good scoring chance. I don’t think that same play happens a couple of weeks ago; yet another good sign.
- Though Brännström only made it into two of the three games this past week, his impact on the Sens was sizable. All of the scouting reports on Brännström mention his ability to move the puck, and within minutes of his first shift I was immediately reminded of why that is the case: the young Swede is a wizard at finding open teammates. I liked a lot about his two games, I thought he was probably the team’s second best defenseman, but the thing that caught my eye the most was his slick distribution while quarterbacking the second power play unit. There are two essential components to being a great passer: choosing the right option, and then delivering the puck quickly, and accurately. Brännström’s vision is excellent, but I was struck by just how hard and flat his passes were — right on the tape every single time. NHLers absolutely sling the puck around, but even by those standards his passes are crisp.
- Lastly, though I’m sure this one is sure to be something of a controversial opinion, I must say that I think the Sens really need to cool it with trying to finish every single check. There is a time and a place for throwing a hit to separate a player from the puck, and physicality can of course play a role in puck retrieval on the forecheck — but Ottawa does itself no favours by chasing hits that take them out of position to defend through the neutral zone. It’s a question of moderation and better judgement on the part of the forecheckers: is the puck on the way out of the zone cleanly? If yes, then you are much better off cutting hard and getting back in the play to help on the backcheck. I thought the Sens spent less of the last two games against Montreal needlessly seeking to put every defenseman through the end boards, and the defensive benefits were obvious.