After a delightful run of four consecutive victories, the Minnesota Wild kept the Ottawa Senators from sweeping their five game homestand last night. I’ve got Five Thoughts on that game, as well as some other storylines that have emerged in the early part of the season:
Pulling the Goalie
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, there was a lot of chatter around whether DJ Smith had perhaps erred in pulling Anton Forsberg with so much time left on the clock and the Sens just embarking on a power play. To ascertain whether it was the correct call, or not, we need to decide two things: 1) Was the decision correct in the context of the game situation? and, if yes, then 2) Did the Sens have sufficient control of the puck when Forsberg left the net?
The answer to 1), to me, is clearly yes. There has been a lot of research done on the benefits of pulling the goalie, and the general consensus is that when the trailing team is awarded a power play, they should attempt to pull their goalie as quickly as possible. The upshot of all the math is that your increased chances of scoring 6-on-4 vs. 5-on-4 far outweigh the negative impact of the increased frequency of goals scored against you. You are taking a greater risk, and this time it backfired on the Sens, but in these high leverage situations the enhanced possibility of scoring the tying goal is worth the trade-off.
I’ve watched the play in question a couple of times now, and to me the answer to 2) is also clearly yes. Drake Batherson made an ill-advised pass, but the Sens had full control of the puck at the time of said error. In fact, the player Batherson was aiming for was the extra attacker streaking off the bench. Thomas Chabot could also have handled the partially deflected pass better, but ultimately the empty-net goal against was simply execution errors by two of Ottawa’s best players. Smith’s job as the coach is to put his team in a position to win as consistently as possible and last night’s goalie pull was the correct tactical call in that context.
Alex DeBrincat’s “Struggles”
One of the hallmarks of the league’s best players is their ability to consistently generate offensive chances for themselves and their teammates — even when the chances aren’t necessarily leading to individual points. I’m here to say that while, yes, I wish DeBrincat had buried one or two more of his opportunities last night, the notion he might be struggling is greatly overstated. As of this writing, DeBrincat leads the entire league in shots/60 at 5v5. He’s 12th in ixG (i.e individual scoring chances), so he’s not just firing them from outside either. And lest you think that DeBrincat is a one man show, the 3.72 xGF/60 the Sens are getting at 5v5 with DeBrincat on the ice have him ranked 30th among all skaters; they are generating a tonne of offense.
It’s not just the numbers, though: DeBrincat has the confidence and the skill with the puck to make something out of nothing. His goal last night is of the type that only a rare few can score. He looks good attacking, he’s making a lot happen.
The last thing that I will point out here is that there’s a common misconception about what being a “consistent” scorer looks like. Last year when DeBrincat scored 41 goals, he had a seven game goalless drought, and two other separate six game sequences with two goals. That’s four goals in nineteen games. Droughts can last a long time, even for the best players. Part of what makes them the best is how long the hot streaks last, and if things keep going like this I have to believe DeBrincat’s breakout is going to be a doozie.
Getting off to a good start
One of the main storylines at the outset of the season was whether the Sens could avoid the early struggles that had plagued their previous campaigns under Smith. Although last night’s defeat perhaps marked the first “poor” game of the season, it’s safe to say that at 4-3 the Sens have so far been more than up to the task. Perhaps most encouragingly is that the record is far from smoke and mirrors. The Sens sit 8th in the league with a score-and-venue adjusted 5v5 xGF% of 56.03; a far cry from the bad old days of bleeding shots and chances while hoping that the goalies played just well enough to sneak out an odd win or two. Sens-ing ‘em I believe we called it.
One of the things to remember about team performance over the course of the season is that 82 games is enough of a sample that the cream usually rises to the top. You can only scrape out so many games you didn’t deserve, or conversely lose so many you did deserve, before things even themselves out. The Sens’ 4-3 record so far is encouraging, but the impressive process by which they got to those results is even more important.
PK’s Actual Struggles
One area where it can be said that the team is struggling, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, is on the Penalty Kill. The team is currently ranked 22nd with a 76% success rate, but it’s also worth noting that even here there is a silver lining: Ottawa’s shot chart while short-handed actually looks quite good:
If I were a betting man, I’d say that the Sens goalies will start making a few more saves and the PK% will tick up as we go along.
I will note here, though, that if there is one area of weakness it’s that the PK has been absolutely flammable with Jake Sanderson on the ice. The sample is tiny, like ten minutes tiny, but the results are clear. I’m not worried in the long-term, his defensive skillset is just too good for him not to have a positive impact while down a man, but I do wonder if that’s something the coaches have been looking at as well. Even phenoms have room for improvement.
Depth will be Tested
Lastly, though much of what I’ve written above is what I’d describe as positive, there are a couple of dark clouds on the horizon. Josh Norris is set to miss an extended period of time, perhaps the entire season, and it was announced this morning that the Sens will be without the services of Artem Zub for 1-2 weeks. Every team goes through its share of injuries over the course of the season, and surviving without your top players requires a combination of depth and luck. So far Ottawa is opting to use Derick Brassard as the Norris stand-in, and though it hasn’t been a total failure it’s hard for me to imagine this as a long-term solution. Simply put, Brassard doesn’t look like he’s up to playing at the same pace for the heavy minutes of Claude Giroux and DeBrincat. Without knowing the timeline for Norris’ return it’s impossible to say what, exactly, Dorion should do. But if it turns out that Norris is lost for the season, it would behoove the Sens (whether it’s coaching or management) to find a better solution than Brassard for the long haul. He was signed off a PTO to provide depth, not to be the full-time 2C.
As for Zub, his injury appears to be minor but it does once again bring to the fore the Sens’ principal weakness: the right side of their defense. Smith indicated in his morning availability that a defenseman would be recalled, but that leaves the question of who should saddle up beside Chabot on the top pairing. I’m not sure there’s a great answer. At this stage we know that Nikita Zaitsev and Nick Holden are not capable of filling the role, but I also doubt that Smith will be comfortable handing the reins to whoever is recalled. I would be tempted to try a Chabot-Brännström pairing knowing that the potential defensive limitations might require some adjustment to my deployment strategies, but that would also leave the third pair in dire need of someone to move the puck.
There are no easy answers here, but adapting and overcoming these types of challenges is part of what separates the good teams from the bad. The Sens have said they want to be a good team, they’re going to get the chance to prove they can be.