With the conclusion of the season two weeks ago, it's good to look back and assess how things went. Yesterday, we gave player grades to the forwards, and the readers gave their own grades as well. Today, we'll be looking at defense and goaltending. The staff and readers are mostly aligned on these players, though there are a few notable differences:
Artem Zub: B-, Readers: B+
Zub missed 29 games due to injuries this season, and I don't think he was 100% healthy during all the games he played either. Because of that, I don't believe this season was indicative of his true talent level. There's a worst-case scenario where he just isn't the same moving forward, but I find that unlikely at this juncture, and it seems to me that the better bet is that he bounces back next season -- especially now that Jakob Cychrun can take some of the load off him. Zub was just 18th on the team in Goals Above Replacement at 1.0, although he was second in the defensive aspect (behind Brännström), and his offense held him back. I hope he's worth that extension, because "Zuuuub" is way too fun to yell.
Erik Brännström: A-, Readers: B+
Brännström had been the most polarizing Senator over the past few seasons, although over the past few months, it seemed like a vast majority opinion that he's worth keeping around and that he had a solid season. Not everyone is sold on his ability to play in the playoffs, although I find that a ridiculous argument considering he's never even been in the playoffs. He was a perfect player to have on the 3rd pairing: the team dominated at 5v5 while limiting chances against with Brännström on the ice, and he's demonstrated an ability to contribute on special teams or move to the top-4 if need be. DJ Smith didn't use him that often on special teams, although I think that says more about Smith's preferences (and the Sens' suddenly deep group on the blue line) than it does about Brännström. I really hope Ottawa is able to re-sign him for several years on a cheap cap hit because he brings a lot of value to the bottom of the lineup:
Jacob Bernard-Docker: C, Readers: B-
Bernard-Docker has just kind of been...there. I can't pinpoint anything he does particularly well, and I worry that he'll be lost on waivers next season or forever stuck in the AHL. He played 19 games and didn't really stand out, which isn't always a bad thing as a defenseman, although 2 assists in 32 NHL games and 15 points in 99 AHL games doesn't give me a lot of confidence that he's anything more than a 7th defenseman.
Jake Sanderson: A, Readers: A
What can you even say about Sanderson? There were incredible expectations of him coming into the season, and somehow he surpassed those. He won't win the Calder trophy, but he deserves to be in the conversation for a top 3 spot, and he has the potential to be a premier defenseman in the game. He still needs a little bit of work at both ends of the ice, but his ability to move the puck easily and also be so calm while defending others is something that we haven't seen for a long time in Ottawa.
Jakob Chychrun: B+, Readers: B+
It's hard to get too good of a read on Chychrun based on his time with the Sens alone, and B+ feels like a "he was great in Arizona but not amazing here in 12 games" kind of grade. He had just a 47.26 xGF% after coming to Ottawa, as well as two goals and three assists, which was fine if a bit unremarkable. As long as he's healthy, I can't wait to see what he can do in a full season because he can move the puck but he also stabilizes the Senators defense corps.
Nick Holden: C-, Readers: C
Holden absolutely brings the best vibes, and he seems like a fantastic teammate. However, he's lost a step and probably isn't good enough for an NHL role anymore. He played in 65 games, but when the defense was healthy, he was the easy choice to sit out. Pierre Dorion confirmed he won't be coming back, but I wish him all the best and I'd love to see him around the team in some future capacity.
Nikita Zaitsev: D, Readers: C-
I'm glad that we are finally done with the Zaitsev discourse. This was the first season it seemed unanimous that he needed to go, and he was eating up valuable cap space for the team. He played like somebody on their last lifeline after getting called up from Belleville, so I can appreciate his hustle. But he was still a detriment to the team.
Thomas Chabot: B, Readers: B+
Ho boy, there's so much to say here that I can't do it justice in one paragraph. What it comes down to is this: did Chabot have the best season? No, he can be better defensively, especially with regard to turnovers. However, some of the narratives made it seem like he was a legitimate detriment to the team. The question of the value of his contract is up for debate, certainly, but posting 41 points in 68 games, playing major minutes, driving play at 5v5, and generally facing top competition, well that's a damn good player.
Travis Hamonic: C, Readers: B
The only other Senator who has been as polarizing as Brännström is Hamonic, as people are either badly wanting him back or badly want him off the team. The staff was much lower on Hamonic than the readers, and that tracks with general opinions I've seen from fans. Hamonic offers some off-ice value for the team (mentoring Jake Sanderson specifically) and he plays a hard-nosed style, but it's hard to take too from that when he posted a -0.1 Goals Above Replacement despite playing with Sanderson all season. That's hard to do! He could maybe be useful in a Holden-type role next season, but he was in over his head in the top-4 and his poor on-ice results reflect that.
Tyler Kleven: B+, Readers: B
Kleven was a pleasant surprise for me at the end of the season. I didn't expect much since he was never expected to be in the same category as other top prospects the Senators have broken into the lineup, but Kleven ended up first (minimum 100 minutes) on the team in CF% (62.77%) and xGF% (61.38%). It was a tiny sample of eight games, and he was playing the softest minutes possible, but he looked poised at both ends of the ice, and even showed good skills with the puck. For a non-star propsect rookie fresh out of NCAA hockey, that's about as good as you could expected. He very likely won't start the year in Ottawa barring some changes to the current roster, but I'm excited about him on the third pairing very soon.
Anton Forsberg: B-, Readers: B
Forsberg only managed to play 28 games this season due to his MCL injury, and he posted a slightly below-average .902 SV%. He was 26th in the NHL in GSAx at +2.94, so the defense in front of him didn't exactly help him. If he's able to recover from his MCL tears, I like him as a solid 1B but he didn't make a definitive case to be the true #1.
Cam Talbot: D+, Readers: C
It was a disappointing season for Talbot, as the 2022 All-Star had just an .898 SV% in 36 games for Ottawa. It didn't help that the goalie that Ottawa shipped out for him, Filip Gustavsson, was legitimately one of the best goalies in the league this year. Talbot looked worse throughout the season, as he had a paltry .875 SV% in 14 games from January onward – although perhaps injuries derailed him. Either way, the Sens needed more from Talbot than they got.
Mads Søgaard: C+, Readers: B
Søgaard was put in an impossible position this year. He shouldn't have been getting much NHL time this season, as he's yet to master the AHL—just look at his .893 SV% in Belleville. He won Rookie of the Month honours in February and looked like he could potentially get Ottawa on a hot streak to make the playoffs. But the league figured him out, and he looked rough at times, ending the campaign with an .889 SV%. He showed potential at times, and if we've learned anything, we can't give up on him yet. I wouldn't be comfortable with him as the backup next season, I'd prefer to have him dominate in the AHL first.