The preseason is almost over, so you know what that means: time to draw wild conclusions from meaningless games that we’ll completely forget about within a few weeks.
Here are some thoughts. Five of them.
It seems wild to think about now, but a year ago we were wondering if the Sens needed to go out and trade for another centre, since we didn’t know if Shane Pinto and Josh Norris would turn into real top-6 centremen. Stützle’s midseason switch to the middle of the ice put an end to that argument, and now the question about Pinto is simply how good the third line is going to be.
It’s only preseason, but Pinto has been one of the biggest standouts so far. His line with Motte and Joseph has been the team’s most productive line at 5v5, and he’s been one of the top producers on the powerplay. Maybe it is time to revisit that “is Shane Pinto a top 6 forward?” conversation.
The Sanderson Factor
With so many new players in the organization, it feels like there isn’t quite as much pressure on Jake Sanderson as there was a few months ago. Still, if I had to pick one player whose performance in 2022-23 could make the difference between this team missing the playoffs and just barely squeaking in, I would pick Sanderson.
It’s neither realistic nor fair to Sanderson to expect a Moritz Seider-like rookie season out of the young defenseman, but it’s hard not to think about how big anything close to that would be for this team. Preseason has given us a first look at him playing against (some) NHL competition, and the good news is that in a very small sample, he hasn’t looked out of place at all.
His pairing with Hamonic had very good possession numbers in Montreal on Tuesday. Individually, he’s been making smart defensive plays and holding on to the puck well, especially in the offensive zone. I’ve been really impressed with how poised and calm he looks on the ice. He’s not actually that noticeable most of the time, but provides a level of stability that is sorely lacking on Ottawa’s blueline.
It’s encouraging to see, and if he can keep this up in the regular season, it could significantly change the Sens’ outlook for the year.
What’s the plan with Zaitsev?
With the top nine and the top four mostly decided, the only roster spots available right now are on the fourth line and the third pairing. Over the last few preseason games, the battle for the third pairing has become a fascinating one to watch.
With all due respect to Jacob Bernard-Docker, we all know that contracts will force him back to the AHL for the start of the season. The team has already pretty much confirmed that Holden will be on the left side, and Brännström has had a fantastic preseason, so it’s looking more and more likely that Zaitsev will be the odd man out on opening night. He had a rough couple of games before being healthy scratched, and didn’t play especially well in last night’s game in Gander, either.
I’m guessing the team would rather have him sitting in the press box than one of their young prospects, but I am curious to see how often he gets scratched, and what happens if and when there are injuries. He was pretty much untouchable last year, so we’ll see if D.J. has finally changed his mind.
Mixing up the top 6
D.J. Smith has said that he’d be open to switching up the lines a bit in the top 6, but I’m not sure I expected it to happen this soon. After a few games of DeBrincat and Giroux looking amazing and everyone else looking merely okay, D.J. opted to switch up the centremen on those two lines for the game in Gander. The result? The first line dominated, with each player scoring a goal, and DeBrincat and Giroux still looked magical but Norris didn’t really stand out.
Does this new arrangement work? I actually kind of think it does. We already know that Stützle has chemistry with Tkachuk and Batherson, so that part is no surprise. Norris and DeBrincat makes less sense, because it feels like you’d want one sniper on each line, but then again Giroux has shown us that he’s still such a good playmaker that having two scoring threats on the ice with him could be a great idea. Plus, DeBrincat’s not a bad passer himself.
I’d still like to see how the original lines work in a regular-season game with everyone actually putting in effort, but I liked these lines too, and it’s nice to know that the coach has options. Preseason is the time to try this stuff out.
Norris does belong next to his best friend, however.
Are we getting a DeBrincat contract?
I’ll wrap this up with some wild speculation on this Kevin Weekes tweet from a few days ago:
** Keep an eye on**— Kevin Weekes (@KevinWeekes) October 5, 2022
I’m told the @Senators are actively working to sign F DeBrincat to a Contract Extension. Situation remains fluid. @espn @NHL @NHLNetwork @TSNHockey @DKSportsbook #HockeyTwitter pic.twitter.com/Zij3uvbmou
Now, to be clear, this only says that the Sens are trying to get something done. We don’t know if the two sides are close to a contract. Nevertheless, it’s very encouraging to hear that negotiations are happening, considering that up until now the message has been “we’re not thinking about that yet.” I guess DeBrincat has had time to get used to the idea of the trade and meet his teammates, and the Sens have seen enough of him in action to know that he wasn’t just riding Patrick Kane’s coattails in Chicago.
Given how the team has handled their other young stars, you have to assume they’re pushing for a long term deal, but I guess we’ll see. It would just be nice to have him locked up after they gave up all those picks.