It is now just over a week until the Ottawa Senators kick off their 2021-22 regular season with consecutive games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the first time in four years, the Sens will be entering the campaign with something approaching play-off aspirations. While most fans would likely not be too disappointed if the team failed to qualify for the post-season, there is certainly a hope that we will see meaningful progress towards that goal. For Ottawa to transition out of the basement, some of the young prospects that came to the team as a result of all the bad hockey that last few seasons will need to show that they have the chops to contribute at a high level in the NHL. Whether Pierre Dorion’s long-term vision comes together will likely depend on just how good Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, and Shane Pinto really are.
Let’s dig in.
When I wrote last season’s preview for the forwards, there was an awful lot of uncertainty about just who would be dressing up front for the Sens on a night-to-night basis. As it turns out, that unsettled feeling would carry on throughout the year and Ottawa would dress a truly startling number of players (remember Derek Stepan?!) for a 56 game season. This year, besides the uncertainty surrounding Tkachuk, there really isn’t much guesswork about who is going to be playing on a day-to-day basis. The prospects who have been sent to the AHL seem like they are all at least a year from being full-time NHLers, and with Colin White’s apparently serious injury there’s plenty of space for Shane Pinto.
Here’s my best guess at how DJ Smith will arrange the forwards. Note that I’m working off the assumption that Tkachuk is signed ahead of this season and plays a full year with the team:
Stützle - Pinto - C. Brown
Paul - Tierney - Sanford
Formenton - Agozzino - Watson
Extras: Colin White (injured), Tyler Ennis
The first two lines seem virtually set in stone at this point, but there could be some juggling in the bottom two lines depending on how Formenton performs — and whether Smith wants to keep Ennis on the right side. Clark Bishop could potentially find a game or two as the fourth line centre while White recovers as well.
- The Sens’ left wing depth chart is one of the organization’s real strengths. Every player that’s projected to play meaningful minutes on the left side has the potential to be a positive contributor in their role, and if Stützle’s game progresses as the team is hoping the 1-2 combo he could form with Tkachuk would be the stuff of a real contender.
- Beyond the left wing, there is significantly more depth across the other forward positions. Each of the four lines that I’ve projected above should have a fighting chance each and every night — something that you haven’t been able to say about Ottawa for several years now.
- The core pieces up front are for the most part still quite young: Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson, Stützle, Pinto are all 23 or younger. Not everyone will hit their ceiling, of course, but there’s good reason to believe we could still see some improvement from each of them. /
- While the team is much deeper than it’s been in some time, there remains a lack of real gamebreakers at the top of the line-up. Tkachuk led the team in scoring with 36 points in 56 games last season; not exactly the top of the line-up production you’d see on most play-off teams. Of course, there’s some hope that one of the aforementioned core pieces will make the leap but for now the Sens will likely have to do their scoring by committee.
- The flip side of the coin when it comes to the team’s youth is that asking a lot of kids to lead the way can be a bit of a risky proposition when several are unproven at an NHL level. Most Sens fans would tell you that they’d like to see Pinto grab the reins as the second line centre because his potential is tantalizing — but there’s also more risk in going that route than you’d see with an established NHLer
- Ottawa could be a bit short on creativity and skill with the puck up front. The Sens look to have built a team that will be trying to generate a fair amount of their offense off puck retrieval from a solid forecheck; that’s not inherently a bad strategy, but the fact is that there just aren’t too many players that will be creating offense off the rush or by beating defenders one-on-one. /
- The Sens are now seeing the first wave of the young players acquired during the rebuild making their way onto the NHL team on a full-time basis. Owing to the general youthfulness of that group, there is a greater degree of variability in potential performance than you’d see from most other teams trying to make the play-offs. If Pinto and Stützle struggle to take the next step, Ottawa could be in a lot of trouble and all that depth I mentioned above could end up wind looking like a lot of mediocrity. On the other hand, if both take off and Tkachuk, Batherson, and Norris build on their solid season then the Sens could have two legitimate scoring lines and won’t be so dependent on contributions from their third and fourth lines. Ottawa finished 19th in goals for last year, and though their defensive numbers figure to be better this season (they pretty much have to be!) it’s hard to envision the current group as goal-preventing juggernauts. For the Sens to seriously fight for a play-off spot, they’ll likely need their offense to be on the edge of the top ten in goals — finishing something like 12th would go a long way. /