Welcome to the last Five Thoughts for Friday of the 2021 season. With a couple of days since the season-ending victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, I’ve had some time to think some thoughts about the year that was. Here’s what I’ve been noodling on:
When Josh Norris scored in overtime to end Wednesday night’s game, I did not think to myself “well, thank God that’s over” for the first time in four seasons. As someone who watches something like 95% of Ottawa Senators games each year, I’ve been subjected to a lot of bad hockey recently. 2017-18 and 2018-19 were two of the most unpleasant seasons you could imagine, and even last season was mostly a dull march towards the 2020 Entry Draft. I watched all those games because I’m a hopeless addict, but when the games concluded I can’t say I was too sad to see the start of the off-season. If nothing else, the future had to be better. So when Norris’ shocking tally forced me to confront the reality that the Sens were done for the next four months, I truly realized just how much didn’t want this season to end.
Thankfully, most endings also lead to new beginnings. None of the hope and joy that I described above would have been possible without the sterling play of some promising young players. While it’s true that the aforementioned Norris had appeared in a handful of games last season, this was his first real tour of duty with the team. Like Norris, Alex Formenton had briefly donned a Sens jersey previously but his twenty games this season felt like the beginning of the next stage of his career. Shane Pinto’s twelve game stint in the NHL after a year of crushing NCAA competition gave fans a lot of reason to believe he’ll be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. And Victor Mete, though not a Sens prospect, shone brightly in his fourteen games and appears to have secured himself a place on Ottawa’s blueline for at least the next little while. Part of what made me feel the way I did about this season ending was the belief that we are truly seeing the beginning of something for so many of these young players. Maybe it’s not quite the start of Five Years of Unparalleled Success, but it’s hard not to feel that it’s the start of something good.
I omitted Erik Brännström from the list above because while he undoubtedly assumed a bigger role this year than at any time prior, especially once Thomas Chabot went down, Brännström actually played more games in the NHL last season than this one. So while this wasn’t the beginning of the young Swede’s career in Ottawa, this season could prove to be crucial in determining his future with the organization. By the end of the campaign, he was showing a lot of the potential that the Sens hoped for when they made him the centrepiece of the Mark Stone trade. It’s just one man’s opinion, but one thing that stood out to me in Brännström’s play in the last few games was a level of confidence that hadn’t been there prior. He said as much during Thursday’s final media session:
Erik Brannstrom - Its easier to get your game going and learning if you play all the games. After the trade deadline and I got to play it was good. I have to get stronger in the off season and work on my defensive zone things.— TSN 1200 (@TSN1200) May 13, 2021
Confidence is something that he’s also brought up before:
Erik Brannstrom - The more I play the more confidence I get. I'm pretty happy with my game today and mostly happy about the win.— TSN 1200 (@TSN1200) May 6, 2021
I’m not going to re-litigate the personnel decisions that led to Brännström’s inconsistent icetime for the first half of the season, but it’s a helpful reminder that even professional athletes can go through bouts of shaky confidence. I would also suggest that DJ Smith’s unwavering faith in Connor Brown has played a part in the winger hitting hitherto unseen offensive output. One the trickiest aspects of a coach’s job is determining how best to balance the immediate need to win the game in front of you with keeping as many of your players confident and motivated as possible. Next season, when the pressure will be on to win in a way that it wasn’t this year, will be Smith’s biggest challenge yet in that regard.
No doubt most of those reading this have already seen this video from earlier this week:
When you score your first NHL hat trick with no fans in the stands, the local kids make sure it gets all the recognition it deserves. #GoSensGo #Senators #JimmyStu #Sens @BradyTkachuk71 @joshnorris10 @Senators pic.twitter.com/OkC8JrRGCo— Andy Morrisey (@andymorrisey) May 10, 2021
First of all the video is absolutely adorable for a number of reasons, not least of which is Tim Stützle’s sheepish acknowledgement of what’s unfolding in front of him. But the thing that I kept coming back to is how the Sens have likely gotten some fans for life in many of those kids throwing hats. I think about all of the damage that’s been done to the team’s relationship with the community over the last few years, and then I see something like this and it reminds me that there’s a whole new generation of fans coming up that are forming new bonds with this iteration of the team. These kids likely couldn’t tell you who Daniel Alfredsson was, but they sure as heck know who Norris, Tkachuk and Stützle are. That’s pretty cool.
On Fans in the Stands:
Lastly, that sense of community is something that I’d love to see extended to a return of fans to the Canadian Tire Centre. Don’t get me wrong: it was absolutely the right decision to play this year in an empty arena (save for the sicko cutouts) for public health reasons, and when October rolls around it might yet still be sensible to wait. It might be necessary for us to bide our time a bit more. But I also feel like for the first time in a long time, that there’s a real desire for Sens fans to gather wearing our local heroes’ jerseys. For some of those same young fans I mentioned above, getting to see the arena when it’s really rocking would be an unforgettable experience. I don’t think that’s going away. When we’re finally allowed back in, it’s going to be a real show.