Sigh. Here are five thoughts after a great 6-3 win in Toronto, followed by a demoralizing 5-2 loss against the Vancouver Canucks.
Too Many Excuses
There is only so much time in the season when you can say, "it's still early." Technically yes, there are still a whopping 70 games left to be played. But for the fifth season in a row under DJ Smith, the Ottawa Senators have had a poor first month of the season, dropping to 5-7-0 after last night's loss (one that will have me hearing about it at work in Vancouver). Michael Andlauer and Steve Staios have preached patience and said that DJ Smith is the coach they support, but at what point do things finally have to change?
It seems like this is the second or third straight season where the same excuses are being made by Smith, the players, management, and some segments of the fanbase: too many injuries, bad bounces, bad reffing, etc. That's not to say every person in the organization is at fault or always making excuses, but it's more just the general vibe around the team—it seems like everything has to be perfect in order to do well. But you know what? The best teams overcome adversity.
Are you really telling me the Boston Bruins forward corps is better than Ottawa's? No, but Jim Montgomery has coached them extremely well and is making the most of what they've got. Even as Ian Mendes said recently, the 2013 "Pesky Sens" played without Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Craig Anderson, and Milan Michalek for most of the shortened season but were able to have an identity and at times play very well. All teams go through injuries, but the best teams have good depth to replace them and systems in place that can sustain those injuries.
I'm not naïve enough to think that the Senators are where they need to be to win the Cup this season, but they absolutely should be making the playoffs with the talent they have. I'm sick of the excuses for why things aren't going their way, just get the job done. Ugly wins count the same as easy wins.
Boo All You Want
I get why Brady Tkachuk and Claude Giroux wanted to stick up for their coach. Especially for Brady, he's had him for the past four-plus seasons and feels a strong connection to him. In case you missed it, here is what the two of them had to say over the past week in regards to fans who were booing and chanting "Fire DJ":
Claude Giroux spoke about the noise surrounding DJ Smith following practice:— Claire Hanna (@clahanna) November 7, 2023
“It’s getting pretty old. The fans & the media talking about DJ. It’s frustrating actually. He’s our coach, he’s not going anywhere. We want to play for him. It’s a distraction that we don’t need right…
It's not surprising at all to see them back DJ, because it would be incredibly awkward in the locker room to do anything but that. Hearing the boos and "Fire DJ" chants would upset them too, although it was off-putting to see the criticism towards fans. There was then a lot of discourse in the fanbase about it, with some fans saying that booing your own team or chanting to fire an employee is "classless" or "childish." People can feel how they want to feel, but I think fans have every right to boo a team they support through thick and thin but aren't getting anything in return. You don't have to boo, but people are spending their hard-earned money, and this should be a playoff team right now. Showing frustration is normal.
I'm not going to say "Fire DJ" chants are classy, but a) literally every team in every sport has examples of similar chants, and b) fans are allowed to share anger with what they're seeing. It seems like every fan recognizes how great of a person DJ is, and I truly want the best for him—but that does not mean he is the right person for the job. So yes, I don't blame people for chanting to have him fired because they're sick and tired of losing. Don't boo if you don't want to boo, but let's not act holier than thou if you don't.
"Bad" Stützle is Still Amazing
Looking on the bright side of things, Tim Stützle has 15 points in 12 games, on pace for 103 points on the season. His best performance came on Wednesday in Toronto where he had one goal and three assists. However, it seems like the prevailing consensus has been that he hasn't quite been as game-changing as he can be. Some of that is just our gut and eye test, and some of that is probably because only three of his points are from goals.
He's definitely getting involved in a lot of plays in the offensive zone, but besides Wednesday, it hasn't felt like he's truly taken a game over. He ranks 4th on the Senators in Goals Above Replacement at 4.3, which is very good but he should probably be first or second. Is this too high of a bar for a superstar talent? Almost certainly, because we went years without having a point-per-game player before this. At the same time, we know he can impact the game more, which is really saying something. It's just a good reminder to appreciate what we have with him because even with people thinking he's "bad" or "not good enough" right now, he's still putting up a ton of points and impacting the game.
Crisis Averted (for once)
Let's go back to September. Shane Pinto remained unsigned, and people knew that the only way to get him signed under the cap would be to trade one of Mathieu Joseph, Erik Brännström, or Dominik Kubalik, with Joseph making the most sense due to his lackluster 2022-23 campaign. Teams knew the pickle that Pierre Dorion was in, and there was talk of the Senators potentially having to trade a 1st round pick or a prospect such as Tyler Boucher along with Joseph just to get rid of the contract. The Philadelphia Flyers were a rumoured destination, and although fans wanted Pinto signed, nobody wanted to move such a high pick just to get rid of Joseph.
Can you imagine if Dorion actually went ahead with that trade? This is one crisis that was thankfully averted, as opposed to other things. Firstly, Joseph has been one of the best players on the Senators so far, with 11 points in 12 games, and he ranks second on the team in GAR so far. He brings an element that others don't have on the team with his all-world speed and his solid defensive play has been a boon. Losing that player and a first-round pick would have not only hurt the team this season but also in the future.
Secondly, Pinto wouldn't have been playing anyway due to the suspension, which would have exacerbated their depth issues even further. It seems that Dorion was actually close to making a deal before he knew in late September about the investigation, and I'm so thankful nothing went through. One crisis averted at least.
Can't Trust the Goaltending
Anton Forsberg had another very rough night yesterday, allowing five goals on just 16 shots. He has an .833 SV% in five games, which isn't even good enough for an emergency call-up. Coming into last night, he was 58th/67 goalies in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) at -3.78, which definitely went down after last night. Joonas Korpisalo is also 40th at -0.83, which translates to a better but not great .902 SV%.
It's true that Korpisalo has been better of late, with four out of his past five games having a SV% above .900%, and three of them being above .921%. However, he's still been "league average" at best based on the GSAx definition, and that's not what the Senators need from a goalie signed to a five-year deal. I'm not going to say that the goaltending has been atrocious, and I do think it can be better. But I've never felt like either one was going to steal the game. They've only allowed fewer than two goals once so far, a 6-1 win over Washington. With Forsberg and Korpisalo both being 1A/1B type goalies (with not amazing track records), they don't need to be lights out, but they cannot have one of them being as bad as Forsberg has if Korpisalo is simply alright.
The team's defensive structure is more important in the grand scheme of things, but the goaltenders have let in too many back-breaking goals this season as well. It would be great to get a stolen win on the backs of one of them.