Combine the warmer weather with the sheer frequency of games over the next two months, and I think we’re going to reach the end of the season in a flash.
Every year, the Silver Seven team gets together and makes predictions for the season. Over the last week, you’ve seen us check-in with our predictions (Part I, II, III), and today, we’ll end with a staff roundtable as we take stock of the season so far and look forward to the games to come.
What has been the biggest surprise about this year’s Ottawa Senators?
Ross: I’m going to pick Drake Batherson. I’m always skeptical of drafting overagers, and wasn’t sure if his dominance in the AHL would translate to the NHL. From Game 1 this year, he’s been the Sens’ most confident player with the puck. Sure, Tim Stützle tries the fancy moves, but Batherson looks confident to skate with it, make a short or long pass, whip in a shot from the slot, drive the net, or anything else. Batherson’s development to me is a huge bright spot. It goes to show that a couple years in the AHL can do wonders for a player. It also goes to show that maybe after a couple years of AHL domination, especially under the age of 22, a player should get their NHL shot.
Trevor: Just how much the young players on this team can carry everyone. We already knew that Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk were the heart and soul of the team, but Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Colin White, and Tim Stützle have shown that they don’t need the veterans to carry them. If anything, it’s the other way around — where the veterans players the team brought in are usually the ones bogging them down. It was no guarantee that Batherson, Norris, and Stützle were going to be successful this season, but it’s worked out quite nicely for them in the first half of the season. Given their weak supporting cast, I’m hopeful that there’s nowhere to go but up.
Brandon: I think it’s the way in which the team has begun to truly embrace the rabid fan culture. The Sens Sickos movement in particular is something that, in my wildest dreams, I never would have expected the team to jump on. And last night, there were cardboard cutouts of the iconic Sicko’s behind the opposing penalty box. Seriously magical stuff.
Beata: All the kids panning out. I wanted to believe that Stützle, Norris and Batherson would all take the next step and establish themselves as NHL forwards, but I’ve also been watching hockey for long enough to know that prospects sometimes take a long time to develop, and don’t always pan out as well as you’d like. I could have predicted that Stützle, Norris and Batherson would improve this year, but the fact that all three of them have secured a position in the top 6 and are basically carrying the team at this point in their careers is just incredible. Batherson, especially, has been a treat to watch, and the chemistry between him and Stützle is making me feel very optimistic about the future of this forward group.
Nada: Just how good Tim Stützle is turning out to be. I knew Tkachuk and Batherson would deliver but expected a longer adjustment period for Timmy. For the organization, I’m just shocked at the way they’re embracing their fans this season.
Spencer: I was listening to Drake Batherson before he was mainstream so I can’t say his play has been as much of a surprise for me. I have to go with Zub on this one. Overseas signings are almost always mediocre, at best. Most of them don’t work out. Zub appears to be... really good? Possibly Ottawa’s most consistent defender as the season has progressed. He’s strong on the puck, he moves it well, he’s a strong skater and he’s rarely out of position. Plus, the way fans have rallied behind him has been awesome.
Shaan: What could be more surprising than that comeback victory against the Leafs? It’s a shame Evgenii Dadonov has been ineffective outside of that game, but he’s already cemented his place in Senators history as one of the greats.
Owen: It’s gotta be Zub, right? Zaitsev flew out of the gates and looked like an early candidate for comeback player of the year and then he fell back down to earth while Zub just keeps on chugging along. I had elevated expectations for all of Batherson, Stützle, and Norris, while Zub really qualifies as a surprise for me. Other than that: Högberg’s struggles, Reilly playing out of his damn mind (for a ticket out of town?), and Nick Paul looking like an all-timer of a defensive forward.
Ary: I’m pleasantly surprised, outside of the one stinker against the Leafs, that the team has played their hated rivals pretty well despite their struggles this season. The actually good Ottawa Senators used to dust the Leafs in their heyday during the mid-00s, and I was worried that this season might’ve been a revenge tour. I’m glad it hasn’t been so far! If these Senators could somehow squeak into being the North Division’s fourth seed, I have no doubt in my mind that they’d upset Toronto. Otherwise, I’m going to agree with Owen and Spencer and go with the emergence of Artem Zub. When he was signed, I wrote about how, out of all Russian-born defencemen to play in the NHL who were undrafted and played a majority of their career in the KHL before signing with a North American team, only one player — Arizona’s Ilya Lyubushkin — played with their NHL team for more than one season. It’s looking likely that Zub will be the second. With the trade of Dylan DeMelo, the team had a giant gap on the right-side as they look to see what Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson will become in a few years. Zub’s timeline fits in nicely with that transition.
What’s disappointed you the most about this year’s Ottawa Senators?
Ross: If you don’t like reading the words “Logan Brown”, maybe stop reading now. I’m disappointed the Sens have handled his situation so weirdly. With no obvious top centre on the team, I was hoping Josh Norris, Logan Brown, Colin White, even Jimmy Stü would get rotations in that spot. But for some reason, two seasons of stellar AHL numbers don’t matter to the team, and they’re giving him this year to succeed in a handful of games with a much worse Belleville squad. It doesn’t help his cause he keeps getting injured, but he also shouldn’t have been down with the AHL squad. I’m not saying L’Brown James (nobody calls him this) is a shoo-in to be great in the NHL, but at some point you need to evaluate your assets. His trade value would be at an all-time low. With the Sens not a threat to make the playoffs, this seems a great time to run NHL auditions. Probably a better statement here would be “asset management” has been the biggest disappointment — losing Rudolfs Balcers for nothing was also a strange move. Brown is just the most glaring strange move in a season I’ve often been puzzled by personnel decisions.
Trevor: The fact that almost all of Pierre Dorion’s off-season acquisitions haven’t worked out at all. We know they do well in amateur scouting, but pro scouting is still easily their biggest weakness. Austin Watson has been fine on the fourth line and Evgenii Dadonov is at least good enough (although not nearly as good we had hoped), but Braydon Coburn, Derek Stepan, Alex Galchenyuk, Cedric Paquette, Josh Brown, Matt Murray, and Erik Gudbranson have all been massive anchors on this team. Artem Zub is a big plus in this category, so that’s essentially one very good addition, two fine ones, and seven bad ones. It’s tough to be a good GM with a batting average like that.
Brandon: I mean, can there be any answer other than the goaltending? Watching this team on that God-awful Western swing to begin the year was akin to being waterboarded for a variety of reasons, but at times it didn’t look like Matt Murray or Marcus Högberg could stop a beach ball.
I think things will get better; Murray is still an exceptionally talented goaltender that oozes talent and experience, and Joey Daccord is showing signs of serious promise, but the play in net needs to be much better for this team to improve.
Beata: The goaltending. There’s some hope for the future, but watching Murray and Högberg’s bad games really makes you realize how spoiled we were with Craig Anderson. The goaltending has ranged from “good enough to give us the win with support from the skaters” to “probably the main reason we lost.” I can’t think of a single game where you could say that our goalie stole us a win, and I know you don’t exactly want that to be happening every night, but it would be nice if it could happen every once in a while.
Nada: The “veterans”, I just wish Dorion would have utilized more of our prospects or current young players over bringing in guys like Gudbranson or Coburn.
Spencer: Goaltending, in general. Matt Murray has been wildly inconsistent while Marcus Högberg, as much as I like the player, has been consistent and not in a good way. It doesn’t help either of them that the team in front of them spent the first 10+ games of the season playing some of the worst hockey we’ve ever seen. It’s been better of late, but goaltending is by far the most disappointing part about this season so far.
Shaan: It’s between Dorion’s offseason and the goaltending — nothing else comes particularly close. While Dorion was at least able to make a few decent moves, snagging a second rounder from Tampa, bringing in Austin Watson as a physical presence and penalty-kill specialist, and of course Artem Zub, Erik Gudbranson and others have not panned out, and his acquisition and signing of Matt Murray has been a disaster so far. So, while the goaltending has been horrible, a big part of that has to do with Dorion, so I think the GM has been the biggest disappointment halfway through the season.
Owen: I’m gonna sound like a broken record here but definitely Dorion bringing in all of those veterans, having them make the team out of camp, and then losing Balcers/Chlapik/Jaros/Lajoie while White, Wolanin, Zub, Brännström, Logan Brown etc. have had to fight tooth and nail to crack the lineup. I believe that if you have a younger lineup then you get better team defence then you get better goaltending resulting in more wins.
Ary: Asset management and goaltending seem to be the unanimous picks here, and it’s hard not to agree. What bothers me is that Dorion’s moves looked questionable even among amateurs — the calibre of the players brought in weren’t going to be enough to move the dial, and many had underlying metrics that were among the worst in the league. While I hope that management has learned their lesson, Ottawa’s had poor defence for over a decade now so I’m not holding my breath. It really speaks to the team having a lack of alternate voices among their already-slim management group, and the dire need to reform their decision-making processes — especially on the pro side — before they lose even more ground to their counterparts.
If you could realistically change one thing before the season ended, what would you change and why?
Ross: I would put Chabot and Zub together on the top pairing for the rest of the year. Zub is not a top-pairing defenceman in the NHL, but he’s the closest to a right-handed top-pairing guy the Sens have. Chabot has looked a little shaky at times, especially on defence and with regards to taking penalties, and pairing him with an NHL-level defenceman should hopefully fix some of those issues.
Trevor: I’m not sure how “out there” people will go on this one, but I’d make a change to put Erik Brännström on the right side and then have Christian Wolanin in the lineup. I think it’s silly to not once have Chabot, Brännström, and Wolanin in the same lineup, plus we know that Brännström is more comfortable on the right side. I know DJ has his philosophy on this, but what’s the worst that can happen if they just test it out?
Brandon: This seems like it will be another popular answer, but it hurts me on an emotional level that we have yet to see Erik Brännström, Christian Wolanin, and Artem Zub in the lineup at the same time. While the former two have faltered at times, they’ve still been among the better of Ottawa’s defenders this season, and even though it would likely take Brännström playing the right side, I think an optimized defence core includes those three.
Beata: As others have said, Chabot and Zub together would be a really nice change, plus Brännström on the second pairing. It wouldn’t fix all the Sens’ defensive problems, but it’s not like things can get much worse.
Nada: Give Wolanin a permanent spot on the team. Trade Tierney and give Logan Brown a serious look. I’m a huge Matt Murray fan but at this point, I’d ride
Daccord Gustavsson for the majority of the games until Murray gains his confidence back.
Spencer: Seems like lots of people are going with the Brännström/Wolanin answer so I’m going to go with Logan Brown getting a fair shake down the middle. A fair shake means playing half decent minutes with half decent linemates — so, no, playing 8 minutes with Michael Haley and Austin Watson as your wingers isn’t what I’m looking for here. Even if Brown doesn’t end up panning out, he’s not going to give you less production than someone like Anisimov will. At least try to figure out what you have in the player.
Shaan: Without a doubt, switch Artem Zub with Nikita Zaitsev. The Chabot-Zaitsev pairing has really struggled for the better part of the season and Chabot can greatly benefit from playing with the team’s best defender. You’d naturally worry about how Mike Reilly would fare away from Zub, but he actually has a 5v5 Corsi For% of over 61% this season when paired with Zaitsev.
Owen: There’s no realistic way that Dorion trades Murray any time soon and I won’t hold my breath for a Gudbranson trade so if Ottawa ships off any of Tierney, Watson, Reilly etc. to clear the path for some younger players.
Ary: Don’t get stuck trying to paper over some of the poor moves from the offseason — identify that the veterans have been a problem and move on from them.