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Five Thoughts for Friday: Test Run for the Final 12 Games

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Different thoughts on how the final 12 games can be a test run for various players, how well Sokolov, Crookshank, and Abramov have played, and more!

NHL: APR 14 Jets at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are just 12 games to go in the 2020-21 season for the Ottawa Senators, which has flown by recently. Here are my five thoughts this week, with a focus on this stretch run:

Pinto & JBD Should be Playing

Jacob Bernard-Docker made his NHL debut on Thursday, and he didn’t look too out of place. He finished the night with 15:33 of time-on-ice, one hit, two blocked shots, and no shot attempts. It was a pretty low-event night for him, which could have been worse. He only made it into the lineup though because Nikita Zaitsev was out with an injury. With just Zaitsev, Artem Zub, and Josh Brown on the right side, I don’t see any reason why JBD shouldn’t be playing every one of these last 12 games.

Zub is a lock, and although Zaitsev’s play is subpar, we know he isn’t coming out if he’s healthy. Brown has brought the physical aspect to the lineup and recently fought, but I don’t see much point in dressing him, especially since this is a perfect opportunity for JBD to showcase himself for next season. If he’s capable during this stretch, then you can pencil him in for a spot next season. If not, then try to target another defenseman in the off-season. But these games should be about development, and although Brown is signed for one more season, he isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) in the team’s long-term plans.

A similar message can be said for Shane Pinto, who has yet to make his debut. I understand that they want him to get acclimated to the team, and there’s a chance that he suits up tomorrow night against the Montreal Canadiens. Pinto may not be ready for a full-time role next season, but they should give him a look to see what they have first. Michael Amadio is a fine depth player, but he doesn’t need to play over Pinto in a crucial development season. Are Pinto and JBD fully ready? Probably not, but there is no point in signing them to ELCs if they aren’t going to play. I’m thinking they’ll be a constant in the lineup for at least these last games.

Sokolov, Crookshank, and Abramov Looking Great

The Belleville Senators are only 9-12-1 this season, and early on, there weren’t many bright spots. However, Egor Sokolov, Angus Crookshank, and Vitaly Abramov have been phenomenal (especially of late). Sokolov is now up to 15 points (including 11 goals) in 22 games, which is quite the pace for the rookie. He looks like a player that is ready to take the next step and potentially play in the NHL next season:

Crookshank has stepped in and immediately produced, putting up 1 goal and 7 assists in 7 games. The 21-year-old has always been a favourite of mine, and he could also enter the equation as soon as next season if he’s able to keep up this momentum. Vitaly Abramov also leads the team in scoring with 17 points in 21 games, but what’s most impressive about that is that he has 5 goals and 11 assists in his last 13 games. When he’s hot, he’s hot.

All three of these wingers having fantastic AHL seasons is big for the Senators because they need some more game-changing talent there, especially on the right side where Sokolov and Abramov can play. It’ll be fun to keep an eye on these three next season.

Test Run

As I alluded to earlier, the last 12 games of the season should be viewed as a test run, especially for the entire team. In the first 15 games of the season, Ottawa was a paltry 2-12-1. Since then, they have gone 12-14-3, which obviously isn’t good, but it is much more respectable (76-point pace). Unsurprisingly, after those 15 games, they have been mostly without anchors such as Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn, Derek Stepan, Micheal Haley, Josh Brown, Alex Galchenyuk, and now recently Erik Gudbranson (I could even throw Matt Murray into there too).

Let’s compare the opening night roster to what Saturday’s could be:

Saturday’s lines could be something like:

Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson

Paul-White-Dadonov

Stützle-Pinto-Dzingel

Formenton-Tierney-C. Brown

Chabot-Zaitsev

Brännström-Zub

Mete-JBD

Murray

Högberg

That’s swapping Stepan, Anisimov, Paquette, Watson, Gudbranson, Wolanin, Coburn, and J. Brown out with Pinto, White, Dzingel, Formenton, Zub, Brännström, Mete, and JBD. I can’t overstate how much better that looks based on the amount of young talent, and the truth is, we can’t evaluate this team based on the first 15 games. If they are able to show some real progress over the next 12 games and the young players can lead this team to some even better performances, there’ll be a glimmer of hope that they can take a giant leap forward next season.

But if they continue to stumble, we’ll have to preach patience. It’ll be fun to watch regardless because this lineup is almost exactly what we wanted.

Goaltending Carousel

Another aspect of this “test run” is in regards to the goaltending situation. Here are the five goaltenders who have suited up for the Senators this season and their basic stats:

https://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/leagues/seasons/teams/0000542021.html

It’s sad that there’s almost an inverse relationship between more games played and a higher save percentage. Now that Matt Murray and Marcus Högberg are both healthy, they might be the only ones splitting time the rest of the way, as Joey Daccord is injured, Filip Gustavsson is in Belleville, and Anton Forsberg is just their taxi squad goalie who probably won’t be staying anyway.

It would go an incredibly long way to see Murray succeed down the stretch because it’s been multiple years now since he was even average. He stopped 32 of 35 shots on Wednesday (.914 SV%) which is a decent start, but he needs to go on a run where he looks like a starter, otherwise goaltending will be in a massive flux heading into 2021-22. Högberg needs to also have the performances of his life in any games that he plays because he’s already 27 in November, has an .893 SV% in 39 career games, and is going to be competing with Daccord for the backup spot. With Gustavsson, Mandolese, and now Mads Søgaard also in the minors, there might not be any room for Högberg—and it could be time to move on from him.

These 12 games will have a huge impact on how the team decides to set up their goaltending next season.

Team Culture

This last thought is difficult to quantify, but I’m loving the feel around this team right now. It seems like the young players like Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Drake Batherson, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Colin White, and others are having the time of their lives, even when things aren’t always going their way. I’ve talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating because we’ve seen first-hand how badly a toxic dressing room can affect a team. It seems as if these players are “growing up” as NHLers together, and I think that bodes extremely well for the future in terms of on-ice cohesion, off-ice relationships, and contracts.

Just look at Tkachuk’s celebration and tell me he isn’t enjoying every minute of being on this Senators team:

So to all of the folks who are worried about him wanting to leave (a small minority)...You really think he’d want to leave the team with the culture they are creating right now? No chance.