It be another early offseason in the nation’s capital, but the Ottawa Senators are entering the summer of 2021 with much more in the way of optimism than they’ve had in recent years. Sure, it will be four years and counting since their last playoff game, but the team is one on the rise, and the young core in place has the makings of a group that could push for the postseason even next year.
All that, and much more in this week’s Five Thoughts for Friday.
Erik Brannström has arrived.
It was an up-and-down start for the 21 year-old defenceman, as he clearly was able to meet the offensive demands of NHL hockey, but left something to be desired defensively. Brannström has put up puts, and performed well as the quarterback of Ottawa’s second powerplay unit, but his defensive lapses saw him spending time with the Belleville Senators, or on the taxi squad.
In the absence of blue line bell cow Thomas Chabot — sidelined for the remainder of the year with an injury — Brannstrom has flourished upon being catapulted into the role of the team’s top depender. Playing an average of 21:34 over the past two games, Brannström has posted an average Corsi rating of 55.21%, and expected goals percentage of 68.19. Oh, and he tallied three assists against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.
It’s still early, but Brannström is blossoming into an upper-tier defender for the Senators. A welcome development when coupled with the steady play of Victor Mete, and Jake Sanderson still being at least a year away.
Anton-other Year to Come
As we covered here, Wednesday was also that day that the Senators signed goaltender Anton Forsberg to a one-year, $900K extension.
The move comes after the 28 year-old was claimed on waivers by Ottawa on March 17th, and has delivered exactly what they needed. With Matt Murray, Marcus Högberg, and Joey Daccord all sidelined for extended stretches at different points in the season, Forsberg has provided some stability in the crease; with a record of 3-3-1, a .917 save percentage, and 2.87 goals against average.
It’s a difficult move to argue with, from an outside perspective. Forsberg has been solid, and has made the best out of some fairly limited opportunities. His cap hit is a meagre one, and the term commitment is minimal. The Senators now have another viable option on what will ideally be a three-man goalie crew next season.
If Murray continues to rebound, Ottawa’s crease will be in good shape in 2022.
Hög Man Out
Of course, the unfortunate consequence of Forsberg’s extension is likely the end of Marcus Högberg’s time in Ottawa. An restricted free agent at the end of this season, the 26 year-old native of Orebro, Sweden, will likely be bounced in favour of Forsberg, and one of Daccord or Filip Gustavsson.
The reality of the situation is that Högberg’s play has simply not been up to par this year. An unfortunate injury prevented him from gaining any momentum, but Högberg has failed to build on an impressive 2020 campaign. He currently stands with a 4-7-0 record, .876 save percentage, and 3.74 goals against average. These are numbers that are likely brought down by a horrid start to the season, but are still ugly nonetheless.
With the aforementioned young netminders waiting in the wings, and Kevin Mandolese, Mads Søgaard, and Leevi Merilainen sure to follow, it just doesn’t make much sense to retain an underperforming 26 year-old in Högberg. Perhaps things change between now and the period after the Seattle Expansion Draft, but it certainly seems as if the big Swede’s days in Ottawa are numbered.
Form the Bell Tolls
Alex Formenton is...uh...pretty fast.
Plenty of folks made fun of former Sens coach Guy Boucher when he compared Formenton’s speed to that of Edmonton Oilers GOAT candidate Connor McDavid, but it’s come to a point where his analysis has proved somewhat prophetic. Formenton only served to further this notion with a goal against the Canadiens that one would have missed, had they blinked.
The book on Formenton, 21, to this point has been that he has all the speed in the world, but struggles to finish chances. Given the fact that he now has four goals and two assists through 18 games — and three goals in his last eight games — it’s safe to sat that Formenton is beginning to put the pieces together.
He’s also been a force to be reckoned with on the penalty kill, and has provided a much-needed boost to the Senators’ bottom six. There seems to be a real possibility that Formenton has cemented himself as a full-time NHLer going forward.
It’s a question that we’ve pondered for a couple of weeks now: in a regular 82-game season, are the Senators a playoff team?
Their recent spate of play has indicated that making next year’s playoffs is a distinct possibility, winning eight of their last ten games, and doing so in impressive fashion. If the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson continue to improve, while staying healthy, this team could be a dangerous one even before any offseason additions.
That said, 2022 will provide much more in the way of competition. Ottawa will again be competing against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers for playoff positioning, on top of their current adversaries in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. The Senators can hang with those teams, but it will be far from easy.
We can only speculate for now, but it’s fun to think about Tkachuk in a playoff atmosphere, at least.