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Five Thoughts For Friday: There’s a ‘Ström Approaching...

Erik Brännström hopefully has seen the last of the AHL.

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

After extinguishing the Flames in Calgary, and leaving the Edmonton Oilers feeling more empty than Paul Bisonette’s bank account, the Ottawa Senators proceeded to lose two straight games in which they looked like the better team for the most part. We should obviously be hoping for as many wins as possible, but I’m already more or less satisfied with the huge steps that have been taken by the team’s young players. Still, a major challenge looms ahead.

On navigating a tough schedule

Ottawa’s recently amended schedule, which includes 12 games in February, 15 in March, and 17 in April, will be a tough one going forward, especially since the team has relied so much on a select group of players for whatever success they’ve had this season. Head coach D.J. Smith will need to carefully consider how to deploy an optimal lineup from an on-ice results perspective without wearing down the budding superstars he’s relied on up to this point.

The first step will be making sure Thomas Chabot’s minutes are managed properly. He’s usually playing over 25 minutes a night, sometimes even north of 30. Even though the Senators have been largely outplayed at 5-on-5 whenever Chabot isn’t on the ice, giving more ice time to Erik Brännström could change that. With plenty of AHL experience under his belt, the 15th pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft has played his best hockey to date during his current NHL stint and looks to be leaving Belleville behind for good. He’s Ottawa’s only defenseman to have a positive 5-on-5 expected goals share, and he’s been earning more ice time from Smith, who played him for over 23 minutes yesterday. Furthermore, his first point of the season was an indicator of just how effective he can be at moving the puck in the offensive zone.

On the lack of a number-one goalie

Going into the season, the Senators were hoping a starting goalie would emerge out of the trio of Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg, and Filip Gustavsson. Despite strong performances from all three, none of them have been able to find the consistency necessary to take the reins of an NHL crease. The silver lining here is that Ottawa has three goalies that can play, whereas most teams typically have two. Gustavsson being exempt from waivers gives the team an opportunity to rotate him on and off the taxi squad and split the monstrous workload between him, Murray, and Forsberg. This would also ensure that goalie prospects Kevin Mandolese and Mads Søgaard receive ample development in Belleville.

On Nick Holden being a mood, and a reliable veteran presence

It’s been a while since we’ve seen an older veteran bring as much energy to the locker room as Nick Holden has for Ottawa. Here’s the 34-year-old sporting a bike helmet and sunglasses, as the most valuable player (decided by Forsberg) in the team’s 8-2 victory over Florida back on December 14th:

Smith doesn’t just rely on Holden for his intangibles, though. He’s also sharing duties with the always-reliable Artem Zub on the team’s shutdown pair. Despite the pair’s 43.98 5v5 xGF%, they helped the team hold Connor McDavid pointless on Saturday, and they’re able to limit the quality of competition for players such as Brännström and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Holden having a lot of experience (540 games) without the mileage of Ron Hainsey (over 1,100) or Braydon Coburn (983) might also allow him to better handle the 20 minutes a night he’s relied on to consistently log for the team. And by the time he’s over the hill, Jake Sanderson will be ready to roll.

On the continuation on the youth movement

As I alluded to earlier, we’ve continued to see key roles on the team filled by the organization’s young players. It almost feels too good to be true that solutions to the team’s most pressing on-ice needs seem to pop up immediately. Ottawa was in desperate need of a second-line centre, especially with Shane Pinto and Colin White out with injuries, and Tim Stützle has done a tremendous job in filling that role. Of course this lineup change presented a brand new issue in the form of a hole on the left wing, but Alex Formenton has been up to the task with 12 points in his last 13 games. Not to mention, Shane Pinto is now projected to slot into the 3C role, which he’s much more likely to excel in. Not to give the team credit for anything they did between 2018 and 2019, but the assets they’ve accumulated over the last few years has given their amateur scouting department plenty of chances to develop quality players. This is also factoring in some of the misses they’ve had during that time. Logan Brown, Shane Bowers, Gabriel Gagne, Vitaly Abramov, and Jonny Tychonick are all either first-rounders, second-rounders, or high-end prospects acquired via trade that haven’t panned out. Ottawa’s scouts are far from perfect, but they’ve hit enough times in recent years that the cupboard appears well-stocked.

On being “good defensively”

On the subject of Brännström, his play of late does make you wonder what caused the organization to keep him in the minors for so long despite the clear level of skill. It most likely has to do with perceived defensive struggles, and to be fair, his frame can sometimes be taken advantage of by teams generating sustained offensive zone pressure. Even so, there may be too much of a focus on a single aspect of playing defence — playing without the puck in your own zone, while the other team has possession. A good defenseman should be able to do this, but being a good transitional player is even more important in my opinion, as being proficient at successfully exiting your own zone and entering the opponents’ will significantly limit the time your team will need to play defence in the first place. This could be why there’s such a big disagreement regarding Nikita Zaitsev’s play. In my experience watching him, his biggest weakness isn’t an inability to stop opposing offensive threats, rather, when he has the puck in his own end, he has loads of trouble creating anything positive from it. I’d bet the source of his weak transition metrics is his lack of success in exiting his own zone with possession of the puck.

Ottawa being third-last according to NaturalStatTrick in 5-on-5 Corsi For (shot attempts) % is a sign that they need to spend less time in their own zone, and the key to doing that is through plays like this one: