Heading into the 2020-21 season, almost nobody expected the Ottawa Senators to make the playoffs. There were some who thought “hmm...maybe?? Stranger things have happened” due to the nature of the shortened 56-game season, and it’s not as if everyone was fully on board with another tank year.
However, this was meant to be a development year, hopefully one where the team and/or players took a step forward. Because by next season, expectations are going to quickly rise considering Eugene Melnyk’s so-called “5-year run of unparalleled success” between 2021 and 2025. If Melnyk is actually going to spend, they better be good while they’re doing it.
When we talk about “development,” there are many different aspects to it, but to me, the most important part of it for the 2020-21 season was always going to be how many prospects they could turn into full-time NHLers. I couldn’t care less about how many wins they end up with, but the number of young guys they can add to their core was always going to be the measure of success. They have had a plethora of promising prospects for a few years now, but that doesn’t mean anything until they actually turn into contributors in Ottawa.
Let’s take a look at what the Senators depth chart was coming into the season, only taking into account those who were fully established and were projected to be a part of the team beyond 2022:
They were built around Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, then they had some decent role players such as Evgenii Dadonov, Colin White, Nick Paul, and Connor Brown, plus a wildcard in Matt Murray. They had no real top forward talent and only Chabot on the backend, so they really needed their top prospects to pan out.
Thankfully, this season has gone quite well for most of their prospects who were on the verge of turning into full-time NHLers:
Batherson looked ready by the end of the 2019-20 season, and he has completely proven himself by now. He has 31 points in 49 games and would be on pace for 52 in a full season. That isn’t quite elite territory, but at worst he’s a second line scoring winger. And to be honest, I think he has another gear left where he can become a 60-70 point player. Considering how thin right-wing is, Batherson’s development is enormous.
Norris has been a bit of an unsung hero on the Senators this season despite being one of their best players. Just like Batherson, he has 31 points in 49 games and is on pace for 52 in a full season, plus it appears that his offensive creativity is getting better, so I don’t think this is it for him either. What’s even more impressive is that Norris has had a phenomenal impact defensively:
(the percentages are percentiles, so he is in the 92nd percentile at 5v5 defense, which is elite).
Ottawa can now safely pencil him in as at least a second line-centre, and perhaps even a low-end first-liner.
Stützle has had an odd campaign, as he has 25 points in 46 games (on pace for 47 in a full season) and is one of the most electric players when he’s on the ice due to his skill level. At the same time, he has gotten crushed possession-wise when he’s out there, so his overall impact has been limited:
I swear you guys are trying to get me killed... Stützle's production hasn't been matched by scoring chance-driving and his defensive impact ranks among the lowest in the league. I wouldn't worry about it though, the talent is clearly there. #GoSensGo https://t.co/ukQxJLmtwM pic.twitter.com/3sjXpF16fj— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) April 22, 2021
I wouldn’t fret about that though, because just being in the NHL at 19 is incredibly impressive. Furthermore, plenty of great players have had negative shot impacts as a teenager, and this should be the worst we see of him. We know he’s good enough to put up points to be a 2nd line player at worst, and at best, he can still be an elite first liner. Knowing he will be a top-6 contributor is comforting.
Zub Mania is the only way I can describe it. Zub became a fan favourite very early on in the season, which peaked when he scored a breakaway goal against Toronto:
He has been such a pleasant surprise, and although I don’t expect him to be an answer on the top pairing with Chabot, I do think he’s good enough to be on the second pairing for quite a while. The 25-year-old fills one of the huge holes on the right side.
Formenton has 3 goals in 15 games, which can definitely be improved upon. He has looked great on the penalty kill and if he can score on more of his constant breakaways, he could be a very valuable player. Although I wouldn’t put him in the same category as the first four, he has been told to stay in Ottawa, and you can safely keep him in the bottom-6 to begin next season. Long-term, he should be a great fit for a 3rd-line/PK role.
I wouldn’t say Brännström has fully arrived, but again, he’s making a case as to why he can at least be an NHLer. Similarly to Formenton, I’m not fully on board with his performance, but I think you can certainly expect him to be good enough moving forward. Whether that’s on the left side 2nd or 3rd pairing or on the top two pairings on the right side remains to be seen.
So he doesn’t quite fit the description I’m looking for, but he deserves a mention here.
Sadly, not every prospect on the bubble for a full-time role was able to make a name for themself in Ottawa. And that’s the nature of things, there were never going to be enough spots. So Christian Wolanin, Rudolfs Balcers, Filip Chlapík, Christián Jaroš, Max Lajoie left the organization, with Balcers being the only one who has made a good impression since then.
Then there are other bubble prospects in Ottawa or Belleville such as Victor Mete (since he’s only 22), Shane Pinto, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Vitaly Abramov, Logan Brown, Joey Daccord, and Filip Gustavsson who are all close but haven’t broken into the lineup just yet. Of course, those aren’t the only prospects Ottawa has, but those are the ones who have been battling most recently for a spot. If a couple of them can be integrated into next year’s team, that will be an added bonus.
Where are we now?
Now with five new players broken into the lineup, you can see Ottawa’s depth chart actually taking shape rather than being purely hypothetical:
There are still some pretty big question marks (and you can quibble with some spots in the lineup) including the starting goaltender, whether or not Stützle can be an effective 1C, and if someone like JBD can handle the top pairing. But what’s great about the Senators is that this isn’t all of their reinforcements. Beyond this depth chart of established players, they have plenty of options with Jake Sanderson, Shane Pinto, JBD, Vitaly Abramov, Victor Mete, Angus Crookshank, Egor Sokolov, Ridly Greig, Roby Järventie, Lassi Thomson, Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord, and many others.
No, not all of them will turn out like we hope they do, but now that the Senators actually have good young NHL players in their lineup, they don’t need everyone to pan out. So although this season will end up being a low point total for the team, Ottawa can look at this season as a success because of how many players they can now view as NHL talent rather than prospects with potential.
And the best news is that there is a lot more to come.