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Five Thoughts for Friday: The Problem(s) with the Ottawa Senators

What, exactly, is going wrong?

Ottawa Senators v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A little over three weeks ago, I wrote a piece entitled “The Ottawa Senators Will Be OK”. At the time of the writing, the Sens were coming off three straight defeats and some of the sheen of the early season enthusiasm was already starting to wear off. The gist of the piece was that, yes, things looked bad right at that moment but that the overall composition of the team was still good. There was lots to look forward to. In effect: don’t worry.

Since then, the Sens have gone 2-7-1 and quite possibly already taken themselves out of the conversation for a play-off spot. To get to 95 points, a defensible target for the last wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, Ottawa needs to get 65% of the remaining available points — or a 107 point pace for an 82 game season. In other words, things have continued to go badly.

It would be a bit foolish, then, to write the same kind of piece at this time as I did three weeks ago. While I do believe the Sens deserve a better record than what they’ve got, it’s also the case that there are real problems that need to be addressed. Today’s Five Thoughts is dedicated to understanding exactly what those problems are:

The Sens are Getting Crushed with the Score Tied

One of the recurring themes of our coverage of this year’s edition of the Sens is that they seem to keep losing games that they at least could have won, if not should have won. Yes, they’re 6-12-1 but they’re only -2 at 5v5, and their shot and goal share are both positive. The underlying numbers, at a high level, are at the very least decent and not at all what you’d expect from a team that sits 31st in the standings.

Except that, if you look a bit closer, Ottawa has been terrible at 5v5 when the score is tied. With the score tied, the Sens’ 5v5 CF% falls to 47.00 and xGF% is a meagre 43.86; the latter measure is 26th in the league. Here’s an illustration of their play in the most important score states, courtesy of Hockeyviz.com:

So both when they trail by one, and when they lead by one, the Sens are crushing it; their performance Up 1 is particularly encouraging — and frankly makes their performance when tied all the more baffling. If DJ Smith’s tactical decisions were forcing the team into being too passive, a popular theory in some corners, then you would certainly expect that to show up in their numbers when they were up one and clinging to a lead. Instead, the Sens are not only limiting chances against, they are generating a tonne of offense when they’re ahead.

This is one of those things where I don’t have a cogent explanation for what’s going on. I’ve watched all the games, I’ve re-watched some parts to try to understand but if there’s a tactical explanation for what’s happening when the Sens are tied I haven’t found it yet. But whatever’s causing the problem, it’s one of the biggest issues facing the team.

Shane Pinto is Having a Tough Time at 5v5:

Before the season started, one of the biggest reasons that most skeptics would bring up in their case against the Sens making the play-offs is that they were asking a lot of some unproven players — chiefly Jake Sanderson and Shane Pinto. Rookies do not often make the type of impact Ottawa needed from the two star prospects. On the Sanderson front, his spectacular success has been dissected on many occasions so it bears not repeating here, but the results from Pinto have been more mixed. While it would be unfair to call his season a disappointment considering he’s the team’s leading goal-scorer, it is the case that the Sens are being out-shot, out-chanced, and out-scored at 5v5 with Pinto on the ice. When Josh Norris went down, Pinto has been given a crack at the top six but his lack of success there has meant Smith has been forced to try Derrick Brassard, which is not somewhere you really ever want to be.

His early struggles are by no means a guarantee that he won’t be an impact player at 5v5, and possibly soon, but if Ottawa wants to get the ball rolling in the right direction they’ll need more from Pinto at even strength.

Too Many Empty Net Goals Against:

While it’s become a bit of a joke, it’s also difficult to over-state just how many empty net goals the Sens have given up this year. Perhaps you saw this clip from Wednesday night’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights in the immediate aftermath of the latest empty-net goal against:

To put the failings in context, the Sens have given up nine empty net goals already this season (with only one scored while the goalie is pulled) — the most in the league. At this pace, they’ll give up a stunning 39 empty net goals. The team that conceded the most times with the goalie pulled last year was the Detroit Red Wings and they only gave up 28. Six teams went all of last season without giving up more than the current nine the Sens have allowed. It’s a truly catastrophic performance to-date with the goalie pulled.

The Fourth Line Has Struggled:

Owing to the injury to Norris, the Sens’ top three lines have been in something of a perpetual flux as coach Smith searches for a way to make the two lines that aren’t centered by Stützle work. The question of what to do with the fourth line, though, is maybe even thornier. The most commonly used trio in this role has been Parker Kelly, Austin Watson and Mark Kastelic and they have struggled badly; at 5v5, the Sens have a CF% of 45.45, and an xGF% of 40.95 with the group on the ice. The goal differential doesn’t look any better, as the group has only generated two goals on the year and have given up five. While it must be acknowledged that DJ basically never lets them have offensive zone starts, those are for the guys who score the goals, he studiously makes sure they see the majority of their shifts on the fly and against the other team’s fourth line. They are not being burdened with a particularly difficult deployment.

To my eye, the issues stem from an ability to move the puck out of the defensive end with any kind of consistency. You cannot fault any of Kelly, Watson, or Kastelic for effort but all three are limited in what they can do offensively and that is not something that I can really see changing. The possibility of a weak fourth line was very real at the outset of camp, and it unfortunately has come to pass.

If you’re looking for some good news on this front, the grouping of Kelly, Watson and Dylan Gambrell has actually had some passable results in its limited time together. It’s tough for DJ to get too creative given the contract status of several of these players so really we’re stuck hoping that one of the available combos sticks.

Bad Luck:

Despite all of the very real problems above, it is also simply the case that the Sens have been the victim of more than their share of bad luck. Two things can be true at once: Ottawa is a flawed team but they also don’t deserve to be 6-12-1. By most measures, they profile as a team in the 16th-20th range. If they had won just three of one goal games that they lost, we’d be talking about a 9-9-1 record and the overall tenor of all these conversation would be much different by my estimation. I don’t have any proposed solutions for how to change one’s luck, maybe they need to bring back the crystals, but a few good bounces sure would go a long way.