Building a Playoff Team, Part 2: The Case for Keeping It Together

Fixing the Sens, through (very) rose-coloured glasses

Building a Playoff Team, Part 2: The Case for Keeping It Together
Photo by Shane Rounce / Unsplash

A lot of things seemingly went wrong for the Senators last season, but really, it was only a couple things that went really, really wrong. The truth is that the Sens have a lot of excellent young talent, and season-over-season growth should still be expected. Tearing down a young, promising team with players still entering their prime would be a mistake, and would likely set back years of good work stockpiling assets who are currently NHL ready for future hopes. It's safe to say that Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, and Jake Sanderson have all already outplayed their pre-draft expectations, and beating projections on three top-five picks in such a short span is something that can't easily be replicated. Trying to rebuild through the draft would almost certainly go worse next time.

Let's get the first things out of the way right away: the goaltending sucks. As expertly explained about Korpisalo and Forsberg by Spencer and Owen, respectively, the Sens were really hurt by their goalies not doing their jobs. In particular, shots from middle- and low-danger areas were the goalies' kryptonite. I'm not sure how you game plan to not allow these shots, so really, the team needs to move on. Forsberg was always a stopgap while Søgaard/Meriläinen/Mandolese developed in the minors, and Korpisalo was signed as Pierre Dorion's last hurrah to try to save his job. Moving on from this tandem, whether by trade, buyout, or something else, isn't painless, but also shouldn't be impossible. The great thing about struggling goalies is that they don't play with regular partner or linemates: it's less drastic of a rework to pull one out of the lineup. I've got sick of saying it, but it bears repeating: plugging a league-average goalie into the Sens' lineup for 2023–24 would've made them a playoff team, if everything else stayed the same.

A lot has been made of the team's defence, but the biggest issue was that they weren't healthy. Sanderson–Zub was an excellent pairing, and Chabot–Chychrun were better than everyone seems to remember (plus Chabot–Brännström were even better). The problem is that the Sens only had their top four healthy for 40 games. The solution to injuries isn't to blow it up, it's to insulate them with better depth. It isn't likely you'll have such bad luck with injuries again next year, but if you do, you want the replacements to be better than Travis Hamonic or Jacob Bernard-Docker playing 20+ minutes per night. If Chychrun is traded, as many have predicted, that only gets better with a right-handed defenceman taking his spot. Again, you don't need to blow it up, you need to add meaningful depth. Have your pro scouts do their job, and identify a couple of bottom-pairing guys who can move up. Even having a guy like Kleven available to jump up has to be better, as long as the team keeps the cap space to call him up.

On the forward front, let's first remember that there was some bad luck and/or playing through injury in Stützle's game. Sure, he probably isn't a 17% shooter like in 2022–23, but he also likely isn't a 9.4% shooter like in 2023–24. He still put up 70 points in 75 games, playing more than half of those games with an undisclosed mild injury. Pinto looks ready to go in a top-six role, Greig looks poised to take another big step, Giroux isn't slowing down yet, Batherson had a career year, Tkachuk set a career-high with 37 goals... Just like on defence, it isn't the top of the lineup that's the problem, it's the depth (and Josh Norris, but I'm not sure what you do there). Sure, even good teams have a Mark Kastelic or a Zack MacEwen, but you don't want both of them playing most nights. Picking up Boris Katchouk was a step in the right direction. So this summer, go after a couple more guys who move the needle playing 10 minutes a night. Mathieu Joseph is fine as an occasional replacement in the top six, but I think we can agree someone like Parker Kelly isn't. And just like on defence, leave enough cap space for guys like Angus Crookshank to be up with the big club regularly. It would be a mistake to respond to a mix of bad injury luck and just plain old bad luck by making changes just for the sake of them.

In 2023, Vegas won the Stanley Cup, but in 2022, they didn't even make the playoffs, even after trading for Jack Eichel (also, they were hampered quit a bit because of unstable goaltending). Rather than ditching guys like Stone, Marchessault, Smith, Karlsson, and Theodore, they took another shot with them and won it all (notably, still without a name-brand goalie). In 2020, the Dallas Stars made it to the Cup Finals; the next season, they missed the playoffs. Instead of blowing it up, they let their young players mature, and grew into a playoff team, and then a two-time Conference Finalist. Imagine if they'd responded to missing the playoffs by shopping Miro Heiskanen. Sure, they still made moves, but they didn't tinker with their young talent nor with their core leadership. There's a case to be made about not tinkering with the young talent when it's super talented — and most would agree that Ottawa's young players are still super talented.

If you asked me to pinpoint what sunk the Sens in 2023–24, I'd point out three things: (1) goaltending; (2) injuries; (3) lack of depth. Solving (1) and (3) will be huge steps in becoming a playoff team. And though you can't guarantee (2), depth helps in two ways, by both allowing your stars to play fewer minutes and by helping to mitigate the impact of injuries that keep your stars out of the lineup. This past season was awful, but for reasons that should be fixable. With a new coach, a little more vision, and improved goaltending, this team should be poised to be strong next year. Just please, for the love of all that is sacred, stabilize the goaltending.

This is Part 2 in a two-part series about making the playoffs next year. The above piece was the overly optimistic piece; you can read last week's deeply pessimistic piece here. The answer lies somewhere between these two angles.

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