With eighteen games left in another season where the Ottawa Senators will not qualify for the play-offs, I’ve been thinking about some of the reasons to keep watching the team down the stretch. We’ve unfortunately become awfully accustomed to this type of end-of-season rationalization, so let’s hear your own thoughts in the comments. And let’s all hope this is the last season that we’re talking about playing out the string for a while.
The Zub-Brännström pairing
Since Thomas Chabot was injured, Artem Zub and Erik Brännström have formed the titular first pair. In reality, the minutes have been distributed far more evenly across the three pairs than is ever the case when the Sens have their talisman at the back. Nonetheless, Zub and Brännström have been quite good in the four games they’ve played together since the Chabot injury. With the duo on the ice, Ottawa is boasting a sensational 62.69 CF%, 66.42 xGF% and have yet to be scored against at 5v5. They’re getting fairly favourable deployment, 15 OZone starts versus 7 DZone starts, but it’s not like they’re playing the softest minutes imaginable and Ottawa is crushing all comers in that time. Small sample size warning, of course, but the early returns pass the eye test as well: Zub and Brännström’s skillsets are highly complementary. In particular, their ability to work to work the top of the offensive zone when the Sens are on the cycle has been a breath of fresh air. I’ll be keeping my eye on their work together, but so far, so good.
Jake Sanderson Signing
With the University of North Dakota’s season now over, it seems a virtual certainty that Jake Sanderson will be signing his entry-level contract in fairly short order. After the last eighteen months of growing hype, it will be sweet to see the super prospect finally signed and (hopefully) lacing them up before the year is out. The reason I have to hedge my bets in this regard is that it appears the injury he suffered after returning from the Olympics was more severe than initially disclosed. Bruce Garrioch reported last night that Sanderson underwent surgery to repair a broken hand:
Jake Sanderson had hand surgery that will keep him out 4-to-6 weeks. Not sure if he'll play this season but the #Sens are hopeful. Need their medical staff to look at him.— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) March 25, 2022
A lot of the Sens’ future success hinges on just how good Sanderson is — and how immediately he can contribute at a high level in the NHL. His signing will be the first step towards figuring that out.
Drake Batherson’s Return:
Part of what’s made the last few weeks feel particularly grueling has been the absences of Chabot and Drake Batherson, two of the biggest offensive creators for the Sens. Chabot obviously won’t return this season, but with Batherson back we can expect to see a bit more attacking prowess — especially on the power play. Though Batherson could very well slot in next to Josh Norris and Brady Tkachuk in his regular spot on the top line, I’d actually be very interested in seeing what he might look like beside Tim Stützle. Since his move to centre, Stützle has been a menace distributing the puck and I would love to see if he could develop some chemistry with Batherson. Batherson would offer the type of finishing that Stützle has mostly been lacking on the wing. I intend this as no slight to either Norris or Tkachuk, but to me the Stützle-Batherson duo could be the basis of a top flight first line.
As mentioned above, Stützle has been a balm to the hockey-watching soul since his move to centre. It almost feels like you can see his confidence growing in real time, especially when it comes to what he can get away with while handling the puck. When Stützle first came into the league, he was trying a lot of things that just weren’t quite working out; the reduction in time and space available in the NHL versus the DEL was clearly throwing him off a bit. The good news is that with the experience of over 100 games in the league, and the extra space afforded to him playing down the middle of the ice, he’s figured out what is and isn’t possible — and for someone of his talent level, there isn’t a lot that isn’t possible. There will be a temptation to scold him for the occasional giveaway when he overhandles the puck, but those are so few and far between that I can’t find myself caring. The giveaways are the price of admission, and asking him to cut them out risks eating into the aggressiveness that makes him so valuable. Stützle is a one-man breakout, and his ability to beat players off the rush, through the neutral zone gives the Sens their best offensive creation outside of Chabot. It’s been a treat and I can’t wait to see how his game will continue to evolve in that regard.
Speed, Speed, Speed
Although it was sad to see Nick Paul go, I can’t say I’m not excited to see Mathieu Joseph absolutely rip it up with his blazing speed. Already in the two games he’s played, Joseph has created issues for the other team’s defenders just by virtue of being a lot faster than they are. With Alex Formenton, Joseph, Stützle, and Norris all playing prominent roles in the top nine the Sens boast a forward lineup that can burn with the best of them. It remains to be seen whether they can effectively translate the speed into scoring chances and goals, but for now I’ll settle for watching the rubber burn.