Good morning and welcome to the first Five Thoughts of the Ottawa Senators' 2023-24 season. Yesterday, the 56 skaters and goalies hit the ice for the Sens, marking the opening of training camp. A day I certainly have been itching for since, well, June at least.
For today's piece, I'm going to toss five thoughts out into the universe about training camp, what I'd like to see and perhaps a prediction or two. Before we get to it, I have no thoughts on Shane Pinto. So while I'd like to see him in camp, and I'd like to think about my expectations for him, I'm going to leave that alone. He's been talked about enough already.
On the Top Line
Listen, I am all for keeping the first line of Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle and Claude Giroux together. After all, when you've found an incredible brownie recipe, why would you try to bake brownies any other way?
Well, for one thing, you get better balance. The addition of Vladimir Tarasenko to this top six makes for a very interesting option to keep the offense of that first line firing on all cylinders. He may not be the shooter he was five seasons ago, but Tarasenko still produced 18 goals and 32 assists in 69 games last year. Lining up alongside Tkachuk and Stützle will only make the likelihood that he repeats or improves upon that more likely.
This would then allow Giroux to line up with Josh Norris and, likely, Drake Batherson on the second line. Another option could be flipping Batherson to the third line and giving the young stuf Ridly Greig a spin with a shooter like Norris and a responsible veteran like Giroux. with respect to Giroux's presence on the second line, the other added benefit is somebody to help Norris with face-offs. If we're still worried about that shoulder, having someone who can come in and take the load off Norris in the dot would be valuable.
On Ridly Greig
Speaking of the young stud, my hopes for him this season are pretty darn high. Greig served as one of the most used players on the Belleville Senators last season, when he was healthy, posting 29 points in 39 games. His 0.74 points per game pace ranked him fifth on the team, behind only Roby Järventie, Cole Cassels, Egor Sokolov and Jake Lucchini.
Coming into camp, Greig's offseason routine has already been put in the spotlight. From Belleville Head Coach Dave Bell calling out his impressive fitness, to the product of Lethbridge ranking up with much bigger players like Jake Sanderson and Mark Kastelic in some of the fitness testing, Greig has clearly come to camp [wait for it] in the best shape of his career.
If I'm making a prediction here, I think Greig makes the team out of camp and is likely lining up on the third line. Who his linemates end up being is the big question. With all the contract stuff out of the way, it'd likely be Pinto and Dominik Kubalik but, as of right now, we know that both of those players aren't available. If Pinto remains out, I'd expect Greig to spend time at centre, with Kubalik and Mathieu Joseph on his wings.
On Mathieu Joseph
I know I said I wouldn't talk about Pinto but this thought is certainly Pinto adjacent. I just don't see a scenario where Joseph is on Ottawa's roster on October 11th when they head to Raleigh for their season opener against the Hurricanes. With the addition of Tarasenko, Josh Bailey on a PTO, Greig and Sokolov fighting for spots and Parker Kelly under contract, Joseph can be moved without a dire hit to Ottawa's forward depth.
The common theme with this discourse is that nobody is going to want Joseph's contract. On one hand, I see the logic here. He makes $2.95M for the next three years and last season he didn't perform like a $3M player. On the other hand, I think as a fanbase we have greatly exaggerated how "bad" Joseph was last year. Joseph notched 18 points in 56 games, which is a 0.32 pts/gp rate. Prior to last season, he had compiled 82 points in 232 games, which is a 0.35 pts/gp rate. The big difference? Joseph had a career low shooting rate of 4.5%. His next worst season was 11.4%, and his career average has been 13.8%. There's every reason to believe Joseph can bounce back from last year. Unless he happens to have actually fallen off a cliff, last year was the exception -- not the rule.
This is all to say, I don't really buy into the fact that Joseph is immovable. I think it's more likely that Dorion is simply facing cap issues with other teams, rather than a lack of interest in the player. I've seen some folks float out the idea that Ottawa has to add a sweetener. I mean, maybe? But I don't think it's a big one if they do. As of right now, there are around six to eight teams with the cap space to take on Joseph without doing anything to their roster. I say six to eight because a team like Anaheim does have a few key RFAs left to sign, and I'm unsure what the likes of Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale will clock in at.
This is all to say, I predict Joseph will get moved to a team like Arizona, Columbus, Chicago or Anaheim in the near future, for a small return that's more significant than many people seem to think.
On the Third Pair
There's an interesting group of players available to play on the bottom pair for the Ottawa Senators this upcoming season. Of course, Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Jakob Chychrun and Artem Zub have cemented themselves into the top four. This leaves Travis Hamonic, Erik Brännström and Jacob Bernard-Docker to fight for the final two spots. There is, also, the question of Tyler Kleven.
For me, I think the most likely scenario sees Brännström and Hamonic on that third pair opening night. It just makes too much sense. Our Short Swedish King™ really put himself in the NHL conversation last season, playing bigger minutes and proving to DJ Smith that he deserves a role on this blueline. On his right, you've got a veteran defender the organization made a point of locking up before other key players (hi Shane, sorry Shane!) who is known for being tough to play against. I just don't see a world where Smith, who simply has to have a good start to the year, puts Hamonic anywhere but in the lineup for October 11th.
This leaves the former University of North Dakota teammates on the outside looking in. Bernard-Docker is no longer waivers exempt, meaning the club could lose him if they opt to send him back to Belleville. With some untapped potential and a very financially two year contract, if Ottawa places him on waivers I'd be pretty surprised if he cleared. This leaves Kleven in the unfortunate position where he's the only contract they can move between the NHL and AHL without repercussion. While he may be more ready than we thought he'd be to jump into the NHL right away, he's almost certainly going to be a victim of contract circumstances.
While the Twittersphere and Podcasters all love to talk about Kleven in the NHL, it just doesn't logistically make any sense in the immediate future. Training camp opened yesterday and, in my mind, the Sens blueline is already pretty well solidified - barring injury or some astounding training camp performances from the players knocking on the door.
On A Bold Prediction
I don't know if it's because he didn't have a contract or what but it sure feels like Egor Sokolov has been written off by a number of people in the upcoming training camp discussion. When you cruise through Sens Twitter and look at the way-too-early lineups people are posting, the majority of them don't feature the Shark. On one hand, that's ok! I get it. The right shot forward hasn't done anything at the NHL level to deserve being pencilled into the lineup. As someone who has watched him play in all 169 AHL games in which he's featured, I have to tell you to brace yourselves for a surprise.
As far as I'm concerned, there are four, possibly five, players fighting for a spot on the fourth line. At centre, Kastelic is a virtual lock. I'd say Zack MacEwen is in that category as well. You don't bring a veteran winger in on a three year deal if you don't have the intention of playing him. That leaves one spot for Kelly, Sokolov and, likely, Bailey to fight for.
Sokolov's new contract is, like JBD, waivers exempt. If the Sens try to send him to Belleville, it's possible he gets claimed. Kelly's contract is the same. Bailey doesn't have a contract but, of course, if signed to one he would also be eligible to be claimed on waivers. Any way you slice the pie, you could lose someone.
So, when looking at that fourth line, you've got two big players in Kastelic and MacEwen. Both are known for their physicality, neither are super well known for their offensive production. While many subscribe to the idea that the purpose of your fourth line is not to score, but to crash, bang and forecheck, it can't hurt to have players who are capable of both. This line of thinking eliminates Kelly first, leaving Sokolov and Bailey. Bailey doesn't currently have a contract but if he manages to get one, you can forget the rest of this thought because if he gets the contract, he's going to play.
My big hope for the year is that, if the Sens don't bring Bailey in full-time, that Sokolov becomes a fixture on the fourth line. He's scored goals at every level, he's got the size and, despite what you may read from folks on Twitter who don't watch him regularly, his skating is not that big of a problem. From his first AHL game to now, he looks like a completely different skater. His acceleration still needs work but once he's motoring, he's good to go.