Five Thoughts for Friday: Biggest Takeaways from the 2023-24 Season

The 2023-24 season for the Ottawa Senators has mercifully ended. What are the five biggest takeaways from this year?

Five Thoughts for Friday: Biggest Takeaways from the 2023-24 Season
Photo by Matthew Fournier / Unsplash

The 2023-24 season for the Ottawa Senators was certainly...something. I can't say it was a memorable one, although maybe it was memorable for the wrong reasons. Here are my five biggest takeaways as we move into the playoffs and the off-season:

Fixing the Goaltending Won't be Easy

Sometimes we try to over-analyze how a team plays and throw out terms like "leadership" and "compete," when in reality it can just be summed up by one thing: goaltending. The simple facts are that the Senators finished 11th in overall xGF% (51.92%) but were 2nd last in save percentage (only thanks to a monumental collapse by the Flyers goalies) at .8845% and had the worst, fifth worst, and 17th worst goalies in GSAx. If they simply had league-average goaltending, they would have allowed 236 goals against instead of 281, making them go from a -31 goal differential to a +14 one. The great news is that sometimes all it takes for a team to do well is one player on the team being not terrible.

However, that's easier said than done. For starters, Joonas Korpisalo is still signed for $4M for four more years, and Anton Forsberg has one year left at $2.75M. There is no way they can bring both of them back if they have serious playoff aspirations, so they'll need to somehow move one, if not both of them. That will either have to be via buyout(s) or trades that cost more draft capital (the gift of Dorion keeps on giving). Even if they can buyout or trade one or both of them, there's the question of who will replace them.

Mads Søgaard could be a good goalie down the line, but he was even worse than Korpisalo and Forsberg in his six NHL games. He's played well in Belleville, but I'm still not totally comfortable with him. There could be options out there like Linus Ullmark and Anthony Stolarz, but the market is thin. I'm not going to pretend to know the perfect solution, but what I do know is this: if there are no substantial changes to the goalies on the roster, this team is going nowhere.

The Right Coach Can Get This Team There

It's truly depressing thinking about how differently this season could have gone if Michael Andlauer had control of the team in the Spring instead of September. There was a widespread sentiment that DJ Smith was not the right coach to take this team to the next level, and they were in the exact same spot as they always are in December: too far out of a playoff spot. The team went on an epic tailspin at the end of DJ's tenure and the beginning of Jacques Martin's, and it was fair to question whether or not this core was good enough or if there needed to be a major shakeup. However, I think it's pretty clear now that this team is capable of so much more under the right leadership.

It will make an enormous difference having a new voice from the start of training camp, especially one who will supposedly be here for the long haul. Players must have felt that Martin was not long for the head coaching position, plus the season had been lost already, so it's hard to criticize them too much while they had all this turnover. Even with that turnover, I saw some great flashes of what this team can be. There was absolutely an adjustment period for 3-4 weeks after Martin came in, but from Januar 12th until the end of the season, Ottawa put up solid results.

Their 5v5 xGF% was 12th at 51.13%, and the all-situations xGF% was 7th at 53.69%. Those should be solid enough to get you wins more often than not, but as I mentioned earlier, their SV% during that span was .885%, 30th in the NHL. A head coach really can't do anything about goaltending, but he can certainly improve a team's pace of play and expected output. I look at what Rick Tocchet has done in Vancouver this season and I see no reason why Ottawa can't do the same with an experienced coach who can keep them honest and consistent.

Missing Secondary Scoring

When Ottawa acquired Alex DeBrincat, their top-6 looked stacked. Even when they traded him and acquired Dominik Kubalik and Vladimir Tarasenko, it looked like they'd be able to replace that production from DeBrincat. Now none of those players will be on the team, and thankfully so in the case of Kubalik. The top-6 includes Tim Stützle, Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, Drake Batherson, and one of Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, or Ridly Greig. I'm not counting on Norris at this point, and Greig probably has less offensive upside than Pinto does.

However, that leaves a big hole for someone like Mathieu Joseph, who isn't quite up for the task. Tarasenko had decent offensive production with 41 points in 57 games, and they'll have to replace that while also hopefully finding a player that is more defensively responsible as well. That won't be easy, but it's necessary if they want to compete with some incredibly good teams in the Atlantic. Perhaps you could move Norris to the wing, but again, I can't count on him right now, and other injuries happen too, so they need to bolster the lineup with another offensive threat. Seeing Pinto put up 27 points in 41 games is excellent because now you can pencil him into the top-9, but I have no idea what to expect from him year-to-year.

Not Everyone is Here to Stay

I hope that Steve Staios et al. have a good sense of who should be a part of this team moving forward and who needs to go. In terms of obvious moves, Joonas Korpisalo, Anton Forsberg, Travis Hamonic, and Dominik Kubalik were incredibly detrimental to the team. It's unclear if RFA's Erik Brännström, Parker Kelly, and Boris Katchouk will return. But then with bigger ticket names, essentially everybody has been talked about amongst the fanbase, although to me it's clear who are the must-keeps and who could potentially be moved for the right deal.

They need to build their team around Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, and Jake Sanderson—those should be the only truly untouchables. That should be very obvious. Claude Giroux is a phenomenal veteran to have, and Shane Pinto and Ridly Greig continue to impress and should also be part of the core. Artem Zub needs to stay as a dependable defenseman, and of that ilk, Mathieu Joseph's contract has now become a steal as a great middle-six winger. Drake Batherson had a great season and it'd be difficult to beat a contract like his. I know there has been a lot of talk about moving Thomas Chabot, and I get it, but I also think he's a player you regret moving and end up looking for a replacement Chabot immediately. His responses yesterday to the media make me want him to stick around:

On the flip side, there's Jakob Chychrun, who seems like he might have one foot out the door:

I don't necessarily think they need to trade Chychrun, but he is certainly their best trade chip to switch things up. Furthermore, there is Josh Norris, who I feel bad for at this point. He's had three shoulder surgeries, and it's hard to trust him with six years left on his contract. I'd look at potentially trading him as well, but then again, not if it's purely a salary dump.

Staios does not have an easy job this off-season, and I do think that the makeup of the team has to change at least a little bit to get to the next level.

A Stable Front Office

Speaking of Staios, it's so nice hearing the Senators GM speak and feel a sense of calmness and normality. He's very good at "lawyer talk" by saying things without actually saying much at all, and I like that he keeps things tight-lipped. He isn't one to show his hand, and when I hear him talk about patience and team-building, I have faith that he knows what he's doing. Could I end up being wrong? Of course, but with the front office expanding (probably even more over the off-season too), I feel more confident than ever in the people running this organization.

I know that Andlauer is extremely involved in the best ways possible as well, as he wants to do whatever it takes to win. It might take some time to build up their credibility again, but the Senators front office has a great opportunity to become much more stable and strong than it ever has been. This off-season will be its first true test.

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