The Ottawa Senators are in the midst of one of their busiest stretches ever, coming off three games already this week with two more yet to come. Here are some of my Thoughts on a moment with lots of storylines to chew on:
Matt Murray’s Resurgence
The Sens may have fallen to the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0 last night, but it would be impossible to place any blame for the defeat on Matt Murray. In fact, it’s been quite some time since Sens fans have had anything but positive things to say about Murray. Since his recall from Belleville, Murray’s posted a stellar .936 SV% across all situations and has raised his season-long mark to a solid .920. When DJ Smith said that good goaltending “makes you a better coach”, he was only partly joking: the biggest difference between the Sens’ record in recent weeks and the disaster of the first part of the year is the play of their starting goalie. It’s hard to win in the NHL when you aren’t getting the saves.
The natural question is whether the demotion lit the proverbial fire under Murray. Smith certainly thinks so:
“The player looks himself in the mirror and says, ‘I have to be better and I’m going to push myself,’” Smith said this week. “And I think that is what (Murray) did.”
Maybe there’s something to that. On the other hand, later in the same piece, Ian Mendes has the following passage with Murray’s take on the matter:
Last week, I had a chance to ask Murray a direct question: How much of a difference is there between the Matt Murray we’re seeing at the end of January versus the Matt Murray we saw at the end of November?
Murray paused for a second and simply said, “No difference.”
There’s probably a bit of truth to both sides. Smith, as a coach, wants to feel like his motivational tactics are effective. Murray, as a player, wants to feel like he’s in full control of his level of play at all times. Let’s just hope Murray doesn’t need another trip to the AHL any time soon.
Nikita Zaitsev Returns to the Top Pair
I’ll keep this one short and sweet since it’s been discussed before, but Smith’s insistence on playing Nikita Zaitsev on the first pairing with Thomas Chabot remains a bewildering tactical decision. There’s a mountain of evidence, over three seasons’ worth of games, that they do not work together. I’ve had a bit more sympathy for Smith’s plight in the past when the options on the right side where so paltry, but in 2022 there are a variety of players that are much better options than Zaitsev to play with the Sens’ franchise defender. The only explanation I can find is that the pairing is +5 at 5v5 so far this season, but that’s a mirage if I’ve ever seen one: the Sens are sporting a horrific 40.48 CF% and 41.62 xGF% when the two are on the ice together this year. For the three years they’ve played together, they are -10 at 5v5. It’d be awfully difficult to convince me that the +5 is anything but small sample size theatre. Getting out-shot and out-chanced that badly will catch up to you eventually.
Smith’s spoken about the team’s improved defensive play in recent weeks. If he wants to keep the good times rolling in that regard, he would do well to take a long, hard look at breaking up his favoured top pair.
Nick Paul’s Negotiations
On Thursday, Frank Seravalli reported that the Sens had offered Nick Paul a 3 year deal with a $2M AAV and that Paul had, unsurprisingly, rejected the offer. Then, during an intermission segment from last night’s game, Bruce Garrioch reported that the Sens wanted to extend Paul on a three year term and that Paul’s camp was also open to that length of contract. The disagreement, then, boils down to the dollar value of the deal.
I’ve always thought that this could be something of a tricky negotiation because, on a good team, Paul is likely a fourth line winger, maybe a third liner if you’re thin on the left side. However for this year’s edition of the Sens, Paul’s been playing over seventeen minutes a night — sixth among all forwards. Paul’s also 27 next month, and this contract is likely his last best shot at maximizing his NHL earning potential. Hence the tough spot.
If I were a betting man. I’d say that the two sides eventually get a deal down at $2.4 or so for three years, but if we get to the trade deadline and there’s no deal imminent it would be tough to justify not pulling the trigger on a trade. Definitely something to watch as the season wears on.
Mark Kastelic, Face-off Specialist
With the Sens missing Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, and Colin White, there’s been something of an unexpected opportunity for Mark Kastelic to spend an extended period of time with the big club. The Sens’ 2019 5th round pick hasn’t exactly lit the lamp with just one assist in six games played, but he’s excelled in the face-off dot where he boasts a sterling 68.2 winning percentage. He’s been so good, in fact, that Smith leaned on him heavily to take key defensive zone draws against the Penguins on Thursday. Kastelic is very unlikely to maintain that level of success, Patrice Bergeron, the best active face-off man in the world, has a career winning percentage of 57.65% for instance, but there can be no denying that he has all the physical tools to deliver value at the dot. It remains to be seen if Kastelic can do all of the other things necessary to be an every day NHLer, but face-off circle dominance is a good first step towards solidifying a role as a contributing fourth liner. At the very least, it seems likely that Smith will keep giving him the chance to prove himself.
On Coaching Longevity
Lastly, with their Edmonton Oilers firing Dave Tippet this week, Smith is now the longest tenured coach among all of the Canadian NHL franchises. I’ve written on a couple of different occasions that I find it hard to assign a definitive grade to Smith’s work since the roster has been so poor for most of his time in the nation’s capital. To management’s credit, they seem to have realistic expectations of what the coach could accomplish — which does not seem to have been the case in Edmonton (or Montreal, for that matter). A typical NHL coaching tenure doesn’t last more than a couple of seasons because, most of the time, firing the coach is the easiest change to make; even if it doesn’t accomplish much in terms of improving the on-ice product.
Smith’s safe for now because he’s done a decent job and expectations have been low. Barring a total collapse in the second half, I’d be stunned if he’s not back to start next season. After that, though, expectations won’t be quite so low.