Five Thoughts For Friday: Changes on Defense, Pro Scouting, and More!

Plus, a potential dark horse candidate for the 2022 Olympics.

It is Friday. Here are some thoughts.

Welcome back, JBD!

21-year-old Lassi Thomson has been possibly the biggest bright spot in this bad season ever since he was called up during the COVID outbreak. It’s been really cool to watch him excel at the NHL level, and it seems like coach DJ Smith has been impressed with him as well. After Josh Brown got injured on the California trip, it was starting to look like Thomson might actually force his way into the lineup full-time.

Apparently not. The Sens announced on Wednesday that Thomson had been re-assigned to Belleville. The next day, Jacob Bernard-Docker was called up to replace him.

I’ll discuss whether or not sending Thomson down was a good idea later, but for now I just want to say that this is exactly what I wanted the Sens to do on defense for this season. Leave one roster spot open so you can rotate Belleville players through it. Each young defenseman gets a few games in the NHL, but doesn’t spend so much time there that they get overwhelmed. The Sens have enough promising young defensemen that I think they could keep doing this all season - Brännström should be back pretty soon, and by the time he and JBD have each gotten a shot, Thomson should be ready to come back up.

What I’d really like to see this season is for about three or four of the Sens’ young defensemen to prove that they’re good enough to start 2022-23 in Ottawa. None of them have to play the full season, but if they’re good enough to justify the departures of a few current Sens defensemen during the offseason and inspire confidence in the future of the blueline, I will be happy.

I think we can check off Lassi Thomson as one defenseman who is good enough that I’d be confident in giving him a full-time roster spot next season. I’m not there with Heatherington yet, but I’m excited for JBD to get a few games, and for Brännström to spend some time in the NHL once he recovers from his injury. Sanderson will get a few games at the end of the season too. As long as each of these guys spends a significant amount of time in Ottawa, I can put up with Zaitsev and JBrown and Mete and Del Zotto until the offseason.

Rushing prospects

The decision to send Thomson down has understandably sparked plenty of debate about the merits of sending players down to the minor leagues to develop vs letting them develop at the NHL level. Ever since Cody Ceci and Curtis Lazar, it feels like the Sens have been especially cautious about this - most of their young players have spent maybe a little bit too much time in the minor leagues. But was it the right decision with Thomson?

Thomson’s underlying numbers weren’t amazing in his few games with Ottawa, but he certainly looked like he belonged in the NHL while he was there. He had a few defensive lapses toward the end, but he more than made up for it with really solid defensive play in every game. I certainly don’t think he hurts the team, but I can also see how there might be some aspects of his game that the team would like him to work on. Could he work on those aspects of his game in the NHL? Probably, but I can also see the appeal of giving him a bit of a breather so he can develop in a slightly less stressful environment. Also, as frustrating as it might be to get sent down when you’re playing really well, I almost wonder if it’s better for a player’s confidence to be sent down with the message that they played well and just need to work on a few things, than to really mess up and get sent down because they’re not playing well. Go out on a high note.

It’s also worth noting that Thomson has never played anything close to an 82 game season. That’s something a lot of rookies struggle with - they tend to slow down a bit toward the end as they get tired. Sending him back and forth between teams this season might help ease him into it.

Ultimately, I think each player responds differently to this type of situation. Thomas Chabot and Cody Ceci both had similar journeys to the NHL, and it’s safe to say they turned out differently. I’ll be mad if Lassi still can’t crack the lineup next year, but for now I don’t think a bit of time in the AHL will hurt him.

Team tank?

I hate that I’m already saying this in December, but I regret to inform you all that tanking discourse has started up again.

The Ottawa Senators are not making the playoffs. So, are they better off finishing near the bottom of the standings again, or going on a bit of a run to at least escape the league’s basement?

I’m of two minds about this, as I imagine many of you are. On the one hand, the lack of top six talent on this team is starting to get extremely concerning, and a top pick could help fix that. On the other hand, I am legitimately concerned about what another losing season would do to these players.

At the end of the day, I think winning is the best thing for this team’s long-term success, even if they don’t manage to make the playoffs. I’ll be a lot more optimistic about the future if they end up higher in the standings than they did last year. They can always trade for those top-six forwards.

Pro scouting

Speaking of the need for top-six forwards, the Senators’ failures at the pro scouting level are becoming extremely noticeable.

The latest update is that Micheal Del Zotto is apparently frustrated about being a healthy scratch every night. That contract looks worse every day, and it didn’t look good when the Sens signed it. The fact that it was the only significant acquisition during an offseason where the team promised to bring in a top 6 centre and a top 4 defenseman and failed on both fronts only adds to the misery.

It’s just incredibly discouraging to see the team fail so badly at this level, when they’re supposed to be exiting the rebuild stage. This needs to change before the start of next season.

A dark horse candidate for the Olympics?

Back in September, Spencer listed a few Sens players that we might see at the Olympics if the NHL decides to send its players there, and named Josh Norris as a dark horse candidate, if an unlikely one. A few months later, I have yet to see Norris on a single projected roster, but I kind of think he’s played himself into the conversation.

I made a joke about this on twitter yesterday and then, as you can see if you click on the thread, kind of talked myself into it as a real possibility.

The US isn’t actually all that deep at centre. There’s Auston Matthews on the first line. If Jack Eichel is healthy, he’ll centre the second line. Dylan Larkin is next on the list. J.T. Miller probably gets the call as either the third or fourth line centre, depending on Eichel’s status.

But if - and yes, it is a big if - Eichel is out, then there isn’t actually a clear answer on the fourth line. Joe Pavelski might be the most likely candidate, especially since he’d bring lots of leadership and experience. There’s also Jack Hughes, who missed a bit of this season to injury and hasn’t been especially impressive since his return, but is still one of the most talented American centres in the game. There are a few other guys on the bubble, but no one who really stands out.

And if you look at the numbers for American centres this season, Josh Norris fares pretty well. He’s second only to Matthews in goals, although it should be noted that a lot of Norris’s goals have come on the powerplay, and he would probably not be playing on the powerplay at the Olympics. However, he might be a better fit on the fourth line than some of the other bubble players - as Sens fans know, Norris is a versatile player who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.

The thing that might be the deciding factor for him, though, is his chemistry with Brady Tkachuk. Tkachuk isn’t a lock to make the team either, but if team USA does decide they want him, and if there isn’t an obvious choice for the fourth line centre, it might make sense to bring in Brady’s linemate. Building chemistry is always one of the biggest concerns in a tournament like this one, so it’s fairly common for teams to bring in teammates just because they want guys who already have chemistry with each other.

It’s still a long shot, but if Eichel isn’t available in time, and if team USA wants Brady, and if no other candidate goes on a tear in the next month to grab that spot… I think Norris at least deserves some consideration.

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