You know, aside from the first 15 games, this season’s been pretty fun. Here are five stories with varying degrees of relevance to that sentiment:
Holding on by a Thread
You’d think a team that went 2-12-1 to start the season would be long eliminated from playoff contention by now, but thanks to a 6-2 stretch since the trade deadline as well as a ridiculously top-heavy North Division, your Ottawa Senators, somehow, still have a 0.02% chance to qualify, according to Micah Blake McCurdy. They need to win each of their remaining games, and they need tons of help from their rivals, but it’s still possible! What’s incredibly encouraging is that the entire team is now consistently playing with structure; even players who’ve struggled for most of the season, such as Chris Tierney and Nikita Zaitsev, have recently been solid. If they can win the majority of their games down the stretch, it will go a long way towards becoming a contender for the
2021 2022 postseason.
Help Down the Middle
Josh Norris is a top-six center. That’s an absolute fact. Though I’d still look at the center position as one that could use a short-term upgrade in the offseason. Shane Pinto’s ceiling is up in the air, Colin White’s a third-liner and there’s nothing to suggest Ottawa plans to move Tim Stützle from the left wing, which is perfectly fine. Their play as of late is proof they could be a solid team with the center depth they have now, but if the money’s available, there’s no better time to make a move than during a flat cap, where other teams’ mobility is restricted. Nothing too crazy, I’m not suggesting they go after the holy grail that is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but there may be an opportunity to acquire a veteran on a one-year deal, such as Paul Stastny.
Waiver Claim to Fame
Have the Senators ever had a waiver claim make as much of an impact early on as Victor Mete? It seems Pierre Dorion made the right decision to bring him into the organization; the team had an open spot on the left point after Mike Reilly and Braydon Coburn were traded, so why not? And Mete’s been good. According to NaturalStatTrick, his pairing with Josh Brown has been among the league’s best at suppressing opponents’ shot quality, with a 5v5 xGA/60 of just 1.18, which ranks 4th among defense pairings with over 50 minutes of ice time. Not only can he move the puck out of his own end without issue, but he can also break into the occasional highlight reel with a play like this one:
I’ll emphasize the word “occasional” because the most points Mete’s scored in a single season is 13. However, he’s just twenty-two, playing in his fourth NHL season, and if he’s given a chance to carve out a stable role with Ottawa, he could become a 20-point defenseman down the line and a big part of the team’s future.
Goalies of the Future
Despite the improved play of Matt Murray (before suffering another injury), the future of the Senators’ crease is still in question. Five goalies have played for the Senators this season; Murray is signed for three more years at $6.25M, Joey Daccord has two more years at $750k, Marcus Högberg and Filip Gustavsson are pending RFAs, and Anton Forsberg is a pending UFA after this season. Then, you’ve got Mads Søgaard and Kevin Mandolese playing in the AHL. Ideally, you’d have either Daccord or Gustavsson as the number-one in Belleville, with the other backing Murray up. The good news is that both can be sent to the minors without the risk of being claimed off waivers by another team, so you can rotate them back-and-forth, and effectively ice a three-headed monster in the NHL crease. If taxi squads are a thing next season, that makes the rotation much easier. Forsberg could also be brought back as a solid backup, but I’d prefer to see what we have in the two younger options.
The Ones in Charge
With the team headed in the right direction, you start to wonder if the current brass has what it takes to turn that promise into consistent on-ice success. Trent and Troy Mann seem to have a good thing going with their combination of drafting and development, and as alluded to earlier, D.J. Smith has the Senators playing some very inspired hockey right now. You have to hope Pierre Dorion doesn’t tinker with that group too much, as the lack of familiarity between the players at the start of the year was seen as a big factor in the team’s early struggles. The big question, of course, revolves around contract negotiations. How long can they keep the core intact? The key will be delaying any UFA negotiations for as much as possible, avoiding an Erik Karlsson/Matt Duchene situation. Signing players in their late-20s to long-term contracts will keep your team competitive in the short term, but long-term flexibility is sacrificed. Ideally, they’ll have players reach UFA status in their 30s when they’re expected to sign shorter-term deals. That’s a challenge they’ll have to navigate on the road to becoming a winning team.