The Senators may have made all of us wait far too long, only to get completely outplayed by the Habs, but with two big pieces of the Senators’ future locked into entry-level deals, it’s a good time for the fans.
One of two UND prospects signed in the last few days, Jacob Bernard-Docker projects to be a critical player on the Senators’ back end, and yesterday’s loss is proof that the team can’t get him into the lineup soon enough. Aside a few strong performances early on from Nikita Zaitsev, the only defensemen that have been impressive this season are Artem Zub and Mike Reilly. Can Bernard-Docker, the 26th-overall pick from the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, contribute on an NHL blue line right now? He’s got quite a bit going for him, as he’s played three full seasons in college, earning the nod as the NCHC Defensive Defenceman of the year in 2021. Maybe he’ll be the long-term solution to the team’s search for a partner for Thomas Chabot.
The Two-Headed Monster
If the Senators want to maximize their chances of winning a Cup, they’ll need to greatly improve down the middle. They came close in 2007, with Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher, and in the most recent draft, many fans saw Tim Stützle as the long-term solution to this issue. Should the Senators consider moving him from the left wing, a position of strength that already features Brady Tkachuk, as well as Alex Formenton, Ridly Greig, and Roby Järventie? I’d give him a few games, just to see where he’s most effective, but I don’t think there’s any rush to develop him into a first-line center. In order to be competitive, the team needs two centers that could realistically play on a top line. If not Stutzle, the next best options would be Josh Norris and Shane Pinto. Norris has provided middle-six production in his rookie season while dealing with tougher competition than most of the league, and Pinto’s numbers with UND this season indicate that he could be even better. Neither will carry a top line on their own, but both are consistent enough such that they’ll produce alongside the team’s skilled wingers.
The Two-Headed Monster, Part 2
Playing against the Ottawa Senators during the Erik Karlsson era must have been a unique experience. You just know that opposing players were perilously counting down the seconds until the man himself stepped off the ice, at which point literal tonnes would be lifted off their shoulders. Of course, the issue for Ottawa was that the opposition was free to mercilessly punt them all over the rink whenever that happened. Nowadays, the Senators may not have anyone as dynamic as Karlsson was, but Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson both project as top-pairing defensemen who can eat ~25 minutes a game, and Sanderson, in particular, could become an elite driver of play at both ends of the ice comparable to Colorado’s Cale Makar. If all goes well, you’ve got almost a whole game’s worth of high-level play from your back end, and their partners on defense don’t need to be exceptional, only competent.
Dumb Mistakes, Small Consequences
One thing Pierre Dorion’s taken some flack for this season has been the management of certain players, i.e. putting them on waivers and losing them for nothing. Rudolfs Balcers comes to mind; he was claimed by the San Jose Sharks at the start of the year, and now has 9 points in 20 games. Not great, but definitely an improvement on some of the veterans Ottawa deployed earlier in the season. While it does highlight the issue of the team’s lacklustre evaluation of pro talent, people who continuously throw shade at Dorion for this should be aware that it’s also a byproduct of the team having a ridiculous number of young players in their system. Not that the team shouldn’t be criticized for making mistakes, but the consequences shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. Expect Vitaly Abramov to be in a similar situation next season. In fact, it may eventually come to pass that the whole return from the Matt Duchene trade amounts to nothing at all, and while that trade in a vacuum becomes a disaster, the effect it has on the Senators’ rebuild is minimal, because they have other prospects to compensate. And even if the Senators end up with nothing for Duchene, it’s still better than what the Predators chose to do with him.
<Insert Filip Gustavsson Joke Here>
Yesterday, Filip Gustavsson posted a save percentage under .900 for the first time this season, but that doesn’t do his performance justice. Despite the tiny sample size, he’s been a stabilizing presence in Ottawa’s crease. Watching some of Ottawa’s goalies earlier in the season has been a perilous experience. Too many times have we seen a bad goal completely deflate the team. Despite the lack of improvement in the team’s defensive play, goaltending was the biggest issue at the start of the year, and it’s been a bright spot recently. It’s one of the advantages of having the goalie depth the Senators do, you never know who could emerge as a long-term starter.