In the second instalment of our Season Preview series, we turn our attention to the blueline. For the past decade, it’s been a struggle for the Ottawa Senators to piece together a solid group from top to bottom. There’s usually one star, like Erik Karlsson or Thomas Chabot, then maybe a solid defensive player like Marc Methot or Artem Zub. After that, it’s been a consistent mix of washed veterans, career bottom pairing players and some bubble AHLers trying to solidify their name on an NHL roster.
I’d argue that this is the position where the most uncertainty exists - and it’s also where I believe the Sens will be able to lay the bulk of the blame, should they not make the post season. After all, with this forward group and goaltenders, I don’t think scoring goals or stopping pucks will be as much of a problem this year as it’s been in previous seasons.
On the blueline, let’s start out by taking a look at Ottawa’s locks. Then we’ll talk about the open battle for that sixth regular spot and run through a couple burning questions for Ottawa’s defenders as we enter a pivotal season for this franchise. Finally, we’ll take a look at what we should expect for 2022-23.
Based on media coverage and clips from the coaching staff, the Ottawa Senators have five players we can claim to be locks.
The Top Pair
Starting out, DJ Smith is going to be turning to Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub as his top pair. These two were incredible together last season but the lack of depth in Ottawa quickly forced Smith to spread the love. Chabot and Zub have easily been Ottawa’s best pair since the latter entered the league in 2020-21. I think I speak for everyone from fans to the front office when I say I hope Ottawa’s improved blueline depth can keep these two together consistently.
After the top pairing, there are two veterans with their names in sharpie. First, Travis Hamonic has, so far, been dubbed the veteran who will assist with Jake Sanderson’s introduction to the NHL. So far in preseason action, the two have looked good. Hamonic will be tasked with playing a defensively responsible game while enabling the young future star to move the puck and tap into his transition game. Second, Nick Holden was always going to be one half of the third pairing. Since coming to Ottawa, he’s been a reliable player and his presence on the bottom pair ensures depth throughout DJ Smith’s lineup. He’s also a leader in the locker room, as evidenced by him suiting up as an alternate captain when Ottawa’s regular leaders happened to be out of the lineup last season.
The Young Stud
The fifth and final certainty is the new, shiny prospect - even if the coaching staff and management have to put on an act with the media and say he’s still fighting for a spot and will head to Belleville “if he needs it”.
Jake Sanderson, welcome to the NHL.
Sanderson might be the most highly anticipated prospect this generation of Sens fans has ever seen. While most aren’t expecting him to hit this level of elite, it’s important to note that Sanderson’s DY+2 season in the NCAA was statistically comparable to Cale Makar at the same time in his development curve. So far during preseason action, Sanderson has been as advertised. He’s protected and moved the puck well, showing a level of patience and confidence you don’t usually see from someone with a blank NHL resume.
Much of Ottawa’s ability to keep Chabot and Zub together relies upon Sanderson to have a relatively steady transition into professional hockey.
No pressure, kid.
With five spots all but solidified, that sixth one comes down to Erik Brännström, Nikita Zaitsev and Jacob Bernard-Docker. As I write this, Jacob Larsson also remains in camp but the Senators will carry no more than eight defenders and I can’t find an argument at this point for Larsson to be one of them.
Last season there were 12 different players who lined up on DJ Smith’s blueline, 10 of whom played at least 15 games. While fans love to put a lot of thought and effort into the debate about who should be given that final spot, the truth is that throughout the season there are likely going to be three, four, five or more players cast for the role of “sixth defender”.
Let’s take a look at the top three contestants for the role for now and what each will bring to the lineup when they see their name on the locker room white board.
In Brännström, DJ Smith gets a smooth, puck moving defender who admittedly struggles in his own zone. A reason he might be the final defender on the game sheet is what he brings that Zaitsev and Bernard-Docker don’t. Smith already has Chabot, Zub, Hamonic, Holden and Sanderson to handle big defensive minutes and he may look to Brännström as that utility player who will play softer minutes at even strength and contribute to a transition game for the third pairing that, without him on it, may not exist at all.
This past weekend, Brännström played one of the best games I’ve ever seen from him at any level. He moved the puck incredibly efficiently and oozed confidence with the biscuit on his stick. When I think about his potential contribution, I look solely at his puck movement. Including Brännström in the lineup ensures there’s a puck moving defender on each pair in Chabot, Sanderson and Brännström. This means that whether it’s the Josh Norris line, the Tim Stützle line or the Shane Pinto line, the puck is more likely to move north than south.
I’d label Brännström as your “boom/bust” option for this blueline. When he’s on his game, moving the puck and feeling confident, he’d help his forwards feast on lesser competition with crisp breakouts and strong puck distribution. When these cylinders aren’t firing for him, though, he ends up being a small, defensive liability.
There are arguments for and against Brännström’s spot in this lineup. If he continues to play like he did on Saturday against Montreal, however, it’ll be a pretty easy decision for Smith to pencil the young Swede in alongside Holden.
In Zaitsev, we know what we have. Unfortunately for the player, it would appear that the Sens front office and coaching staff may be coming around to the idea that the fans have been right this whole time. I don’t anticipate that, with a healthy roster, we see much of Zaitsev this season.
While Brännström is the “boom/bust” option, Zaitsev is the “devil you know”. Zaitsev brings familiarity to DJ Smith. The coach knows exactly what he’ll get from the player and, depending on the day, that may be what it takes to get Smith to insert him into the lineup.
A pleasant surprise throughout training camp has been Bernard-Docker earning high praise from Smith in his defensive capabilities. If you ask me today, I think he will be the player in this list who spends the most time in Ottawa’s lineup this season. For me, Bernard-Docker was always going to be the first of him and Lassi Thomson to make the NHL regularly. You can’t ignore the maturity of his defensive game. It’s something that makes it far easier for an NHL coaching staff to trust you when it matters.
I’d call JBD your “high floor, low ceiling” guy. What you’re going to get is reliable defensive positioning and a cool head under pressure. If JBD dresses for 82 games, I wouldn’t expect him to clear 30 points, though. He’s not going to blow your mind but you can trust him. For the third pair? That’s what I’d want if I were DJ Smith.
With any team, there are some question marks heading into a new season but I’d argue the majority of the important ones for Ottawa lie within this defensive corps.
Is Sanderson Ready?
An incredibly understandable question even for the most optimistic fan.
Is the defenseman who has played a total of zero (0) games in the National Hockey League not only ready to suit up in the best league in the world but in a top four capacity for a team with playoff aspirations?
I think so, yes.
When the closest statistical comparison to you in your own league is Cale Makar, it feels like “fourth best defenseman on the team” is the floor for his rookie campaign. I’m not delusional enough to expect, with zero NHL viewings, for Sanderson to be Makar, let’s make that perfectly clear. However, if Sanderson is half the player Makar is in his rookie year, you aren’t going to find many NHL Coaches who would refuse that in their top four. I think there’s a really good chance that (or better) is the result we see from Sanderson this year.
Does Zaitsev Play?
Another major question is about how much Nikita Zaitsev plays. It feels, at this point, rude to keep piling on this player but addition by subtraction is a very real thing. During Pierre’s Hot Summer™, he spent good money on free agent Claude Giroux, traded a seventh overall pick (and more) for Alex DeBrincat, upgraded the goaltending tandem to include Cam Talbot and locked up Josh Norris and Tim Stützle to long term deals. I’m sure the message from General Manager to Head Coach is pretty simple: I gave you the tools, you put them to good use.
Expectations haven’t been this high in years and DJ Smith, in my opinion, can’t afford to play Zaitsev regularly. By my math there are two NHL ready defenders and two up-and-coming prospects who now sit ahead of him on the depth chart. With the exception of a serious streak of injuries, there really isn’t an excuse to lean on the NHL veteran anymore.
In the end, I think they’re more likely to bury him in the press box than risk icing a less than optimal lineup with sky high expectations.
Is This a Playoff Blueline?
I think a properly deployed group comprised of these players can be just enough to ensure Ottawa is in the playoff hunt by the trade deadline. Would I compare this group to the top of the league? No. If you look at the teams who went deep into the playoffs last year - Colorado, Tampa Bay, New York - they had clearly superior bluelines with a great combination of offense and defense spread throughout each pair. At the same time, I don’t think the groups that brought Washington, Pittsburgh, Nashville or Dallas to the big dance last season are any better, top to bottom, than what this Senators blueline is. This is why I land on this being good enough to be in the conversation.
The key for me is Jake Sanderson. If he is what many fans believe he will be - and is close to being that player now - this team can make the playoffs with this group on the backend.
With a healthy roster, we’re looking at some combination of Chabot, Zub, Hamonic, Zaitsev, and Holden making up this blueline for the bulk of the season. In that final spot, I’d expect Bernard-Docker to play the most, with Brännström getting his fair share, as well.
One of the refreshing things DJ Smith has ahead of him for the first time since he joined as the Senators bench boss is options. Finally. When one player goes down with injury, DJ Smith has actual, real actions he can take to still ice a relatively respectable team. Gone are the days of seeing Thomas Chabot hobble down the hallway mid game and thinking... this means we’re going to see so much more of Brayden Coburn, doesn’t it?
Unless something changes throughout training camp, I’d expect the opening night lineup to look something like this:
Chabot - Zub
Sanderson - Hamonic
Holden - Bernard-Docker
Health Scratches: Brännström, Zaitsev
I do see a very real world where, once both players have earned even more trust from the coaching staff, we could see two former North Dakota rearguards lining up together as part of Ottawa’s top four. I’m not exactly sold on Hamonic as a top four defenseman and I can see Bernard-Docker and Sanderson meshing well given where each blueliners’ strengths lie.
Overall, there are some questions. Can Sanderson step in and contribute at a high level? Who does DJ Smith want on his bottom pair? Where does that leave Zaitsev? In the end, this group is still one bonafide top four defender away from what I’d deem to be ready for a deep playoff run. That being said, with the firepower up front and steady, experienced goaltending, I think Pierre Dorion has put together a group that will be just good enough to make the games in March count far more than they have since 2017.
As a fan, I’m thrilled about that.