At the halfway point of the season, we have a pretty good idea of the kind of team the Ottawa Senators are — and it’s more or less what we expected at the start of the campaign. The top six is good, although Josh Norris’s injury has significantly hurt the second line. The right side of the defense is bad, although the left side has been better than expected. The most glaringly obvious problem was also predictable: the bottom six is very bad.
(As an aside, it really is a sign of progress that the bottom six is the big problem instead of everything else, and I am very glad to be talking about this issue instead of the Sens’ draft lottery odds).
According to MoneyPuck, none of Ottawa’s regular bottom six lines have an expected goals share above 50%, with their most common line - Austin Watson, Mark Kastelic and Parker Kelly - sitting at a downright horrific 40%. Basically, if a player’s on-ice expected goals rate is at 50%, it means their team is creating just as many chances as they are giving up when that player is on the ice. If the player is below 50%, then their team is giving up more than they’re creating, and so on. Individually, Natural Stat Trick says the only regular bottom-six player above 50% is Mathieu Joseph. These stats suggest that the Sens are consistently losing the third and fourth line matchups.
Part of the problem is injury-related. Norris being out for the whole first half of the season has forced Pinto out of the bottom six and onto the second line. Motte and Joseph have both missed time as well. I find that excuse pretty weak, though, since these are the types of injuries most teams experience during a normal season and should be able to plan for. The Sens have not been particularly unlucky when it comes to injuries. At a certain point, you should be able to find replacements.
The good news is this: the Sens’ prospect cupboards are full of players who project as good bottom-six players, thanks to years of drafting for high floors instead of high ceilings. I’m thinking notably of Ridly Greig, Angus Crookshank and Egor Sokolov, who have all been having fantastic seasons in the AHL. In the long term, this is a problem that might have an internal solution.
About those prospects…
Here’s the frustrating part, though: why won’t the team try out that internal solution right now?
The Sens now have enough talent up front that they can put these prospects in a position to succeed at the NHL level, either by balancing the lines or by giving them easier matchups. Also, again, their top prospects right now are the kinds of players who could thrive in a bottom-six role, playing limited minutes against easier competition. Why not try it?
Throughout this rebuild, the Sens organization has been big on letting prospects “overripen” in the minor leagues, not calling them up until they can immediately make an impact. Tim Stützle, and Brady Tkachuk, are the only prospects they let figure things out at the NHL level. To the team’s credit there has been some hits and some misses.
But at some point, you do have to wonder if bringing them up is really going to hurt their development that much. If Ottawa is trying to win this year, then shouldn’t they try out any possible improvements? If they’re not that worried about winning until next year, then why not see how close these prospects are to being NHL-ready? Would that not make offseason decisions easier?
This goes for defense prospects, too. Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson would both be improvements over Hamonic and Zaitsev, and the team needs to know what their options are on defense before they have to make big decisions either at the trade deadline or over the summer. I really hope they start giving some of their prospects an opportunity in the NHL.
One player who’s been getting a lot of attention recently, thanks to a bad game on Monday and some scathing comments by the coach, is Erik Brännström. The left shot defenseman has had his role diminished this with Sanderson emerging as a top-4 defenseman. He’s averaging only 15:37 minutes of ice time per game in all situations, and mostly being matched up against weak competition.
It’s easy to look at the ice time and the lack of offensive production and say that Brännström is having a bad year, but he’s been quietly crushing those reduced minutes. His expected goals percentage is second only to Chabot among Sens defenseman - the underlying numbers suggest that he’s been one of the Sens’ best defensemen at limiting chances against and creating chances for his own team. He does take too many penalties and give the puck away more than he should, but he also moves the puck extremely well.
I’m sure the Sens wanted a lot more when they traded for him back in 2019, but we shouldn’t discount the impact Brännström has had, even in such limited minutes. Having three competent pairings makes a really big difference. I’d like to see him trusted with gradually more difficult deployment, even if he stays on the third pairing.
Other than the struggling bottom six, the other issue that’s been very noticeable with Ottawa is their play at 5 on 5. If we look at just goal scoring numbers, the Sens sit fourth last in the league, scoring only 42.28% of the goals in their games. This hasn’t really changed over the course of the season - it’s pretty obvious that their recent winning streak was mostly driven by special teams. This would be a concern, if the underlying numbers didn’t suggest that it’s just pure bad luck.
The Sens are right around the middle of the pack in most possession stats, and almost last in the league in shooting percentage. Basically, either they have no shooting talent, or they’re just not getting the bounces. Given the amount of talent in the top six and even the amount of talented offensive defensemen on the roster, I’m going to go with the latter. The 5v5 goals will come.
The NHL is leaning into fan voting for this year’s All-Star weekend, which honestly sucks for small fanbases like this one. We all know the skaters representing the Atlantic division will be two of Nylander, Matthews, Caufield and Pastrnak.
Still, everyone gets 10 votes per day, and Tim Stützle absolutely deserves them. He’s been good enough that he easily could have been the Sens’ representative over Brady Tkachuk. It would also be fun to see the kid get the chance to go, and I’d love to see a Tkachuk-Stützle-Tkachuk line. Also, Habs and Leafs fans would be mad about it.
It probably won’t happen, but I still think it’s worth trying.