Five Thoughts For Friday: Defensive Woes, Expectations for the Season & More
This week’s Five Thoughts talk about the Sens’ defensive troubles and how they might be fixed, plus expectations for the season and hockey culture being broken
Happy Friday everyone, and happy November 5th to all who observe. The Ottawa Senators have just passed the 10 game mark, and there is a lot to talk about in the hockey world. Here are the five thoughts I have had this week.
The Left Wing
I know we’re all talking about the Sens’ defense right now, and don’t worry - I’m going to talk about that later - but for now I feel like starting a line combination controversy.
I think Stützle should be on the first line.
Now, hear me out! I have nothing against Tkachuk. I know that first line has been buzzing and I understand why DJ Smith wouldn’t want to mess with it. However, Stützle has looked amazing this season even without scoring any goals, and I really think he’s being wasted on the third line.
It feels like the Sens have four top-six forwards, and because the other three are always playing on the same line, Stützle ends up being the odd man out. This means that he’s able to provide a bit more offensive flair to other lines, but it also means that he doesn’t have a lot of highly skilled players on the ice with him.
Put Stützle with Norris and Batherson for a little bit. Send Brady down to the second line. Hopefully Pinto comes back soon, but until that happens, send out Tkachuk-Paul-Brown as a chaos line. Formenton can go on the third line. I just think that would be fun to try.
It’s still far too early in the season to start making any pronouncements about the Sens’ playoff chances, and we all know that. Still, the ten game mark isn’t nothing. We’re starting to get a good idea of the kind of team we’re dealing with right now. Naturally, our expectations are shifting.
Back in the spring, I was one of the optimists who hoped that last year’s momentum would carry over to this year, and at least put the team in contention for a playoff spot. My opinion has since changed.
I think we should approach this season the same way we approached last season, which is to say that we should be evaluating success based on factors other than where the team finishes in the standings. It looks like this will probably be another year of developing young players and filling out the roster. I will be happy if the Sens finish the season looking better than they did on opening night, with a few new young players having established themselves as NHL-calibre players (looking at you, Shane Pinto).
I know people are going to call me a pessimist for counting them out of the playoff race this early on, but that’s not what’s happening at all! I will be thrilled if they do make the playoffs, but what I’m saying is that I don’t think we should be too disappointed if they don’t.
Right now, I see the Sens as a team with one really good defense pairing (Chabot-Zub), four top-six forwards (the first line and Stützle), three middle-six forwards (Paul, Brown and Formenton), and not much else. I, quite frankly, do not care about the depth players who will probably be gone once our prospects make the jump to the NHL. If the good players continue to improve and a few other players emerge as key contributors, I will count this as a successful season. Patience, everyone.
I think the Sens might be bad at defense
It’s no secret that the defense has been struggling this season, to put it mildly. Seriously. Look at this chart:
Looking at shot-share/possession metrics, the large majority of forwards are carrying their weight. The four musketeers on defence, not so much. https://t.co/VlfXwIK4vs pic.twitter.com/Ixij6Ir0Tg— Paul Gb (@PaulGb_) November 3, 2021
You can click through the thread, too. It doesn’t get any better. Go on any stats website, and it will tell you exactly what the eye test has been saying: as soon as Chabot and Zub leave the ice, this team goes flying off the rails. Even by Sens standards, this is rough.
I do think coaches should bear some responsibility for these kinds of team-wide defensive issues. Defense can be taught, and it certainly doesn’t look good that Reilly and Gudbranson - arguably the two biggest problems on defense last year - have both bounced back on their new teams.
With that being said, though, this looks to me like a personnel issue.
DJ Smith is also coaching the forwards, and if you click through that Twitter thread I plugged, you’ll see that the forwards are actually holding their own on defense. Zub is being coached by the same staff as everyone else, and he’s been great. I think a lot of these guys could become NHL-calibre defensemen if they were playing with better defense partners, but with all of them together, it’s just a disaster.
That brings me to…
But is there hope?
There’s been a bit of debate in the fanbase recently about whether the Sens should look for immediate help on defense, or just stick it out and wait for their prospects to be ready. I’m honestly not sure where I stand here.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that every single prospect is going to pan out. Every hockey fan knows that it’s never that easy. But right now, there are five names being thrown around as potential top-4 defensemen: Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Tyler Kleven, Lassi Thompson, and Erik Brännström.
We don’t even have space for all those guys! Maybe some of them will be busts, but you have to think at least two of them will pan out. We only really need two.
The Sens have been bad on defense for a long time, but they’ve never had this much hope in the pipeline. I’m trying to think back to all the times we thought a defensive prospect was going to save the team, and the most recent examples I can come up with are Thomas Chabot and Cody Ceci. Maybe Fredrik Claesson, although to be honest I think I was the only one who expected him to save the team.
So, things are looking up, but now the question is when we can expect these guys to be ready to help out, and I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that. I am generally on the side of “let the kids figure things out in the NHL,” especially in a season like this one where the stakes aren’t that high. However, I am aware that defensemen tend to take longer to develop than forwards do. I’m also not sure that throwing the kids into this absolute tire-fire of a defense corps(e) would be particularly good for their confidence.
But we could at least try it, right?
Looking back to those comparables, it’s easy to point to Ceci as the prime example of why you shouldn’t rush a prospect into the NHL, but Chabot gives us some hope. Chabot was drafted in 2015, played one NHL game in 2016-17, and then secured a full-time spot on the roster in 2017-18, although he was playing behind Karlsson at the time. By 2018-19, the team obviously trusted him to take over as the #1 defenseman. If Jake Sanderson follows that same career trajectory, he could be ready to take over that second pairing spot next year.
Basically, if the Sens are looking for immediate help on defense, they’re probably better off looking to other teams. But if they still think they’re a few years away from being truly competitive, it kind of makes sense to plug the roster with random dudes while they wait for their defensive prospects to be NHL-ready. So don’t get too upset watching those bottom two pairings; just close your eyes and remember that help is on the way.
It just might take a few years.
Hockey culture sucks
It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the NHL, as more information about the Blackhawks’ 2010 sexual assault case have surfaced and we’ve started to see players and NHL executives weigh in on the situation. Personally, I’ve had to disengage a few times after seeing just how little compassion some of these people seem to have for survivors. It’s one thing to know that these things happen in hockey, but quite another to watch people who were in the organization and knew what was happening shrug their shoulders and absolve themselves of responsibility.
Nobody in the hockey world seems to understand how to recognize or address sexual assault. This goes well beyond Chicago: look at this article where junior hockey execs confidently excuse horrific hazing practices. Look through this spreadsheet detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against NHL players, and take note of every player who is often hailed as a character guy, a leader, or just good in the dressing room. What does it say about hockey culture that these players are so well-liked when they have these allegations hanging over their heads? Read the latest bit of information about Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, whose company still has the support of many players, executives, and media members. Heck, look at how the Sens protected Randy Lee a few years ago. What happened to Kyle Beach was not an isolated incident, and no organization gets to pretend that they’re above this.
If I can get personal for a moment, it’s sometimes really difficult for me to enjoy NHL hockey knowing that if any of my favourite players had assaulted someone, or had a history of acting inappropriately toward women, I probably would not know about it. The hockey world is terrible at handling these situations, and that ineptitude discourages victims from coming forward in the first place. To be clear, it’s not that I actually suspect any of these players of wrongdoing; it’s the not knowing that gets to me. If you’re still not entirely clear on how this works, I’d recommend checking out Jessica Luther’s guide on how to cover sexual assault in sports, or, if you have more time, reading Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name, where she discusses her life after being assaulted by an athlete.
The NHL needs to do better at protecting survivors. There needs to be a policy in place, and there need to be people on each team who know how to handle sexual assault cases. Until that happens, these things are going to keep happening.