Ottawa Senators Season Preview: Forwards

We kick off our season preview series with a look at the forwards

Welcome to the first installment of the 2022-23 Ottawa Senators’ Season Preview here at Silver Seven. Over the course of the next few days, we’ll be previewing the forwards, then the defense, and lastly the goalies and the coaching staff. We’ll dig into our classic Sterling Predictions next week, and before you know it the regular season will be upon us.

One of the themes of our off-season coverage that’s carried over into the pre-season is hope; for the first time in a long time, there is a feeling of real hope about the possibilities of the season ahead. Whether the Sens are true play-off contenders or not hinges on a few things going right, but there can be no doubt that they will be a much improved team. It feels good to be hopeful, doesn’t it?

Without further ado, then, let’s dig into the forwards:

The Likely Line-up:

Here’s my best guess as to how DJ Smith will line the forwards up to start the season:

Line 1: Brady Tkachuk - Josh Norris -Drake Batherson

Line 2: Claude Giroux - Tim Stützle  - Alex DeBrincat

Line 3: Tyler Motte - Shane Pinto - Mathieu Joseph

Line 4: Parker Kelly - Mark Kastelic  - Austin Watson

At this juncture, barring an injury, the top three lines seem virtually set in stone. I’d also be surprised if either Parker Kelly or Austin Watson were not in Smith’s preferred alignment given their past deployment and his comments about the two players. That means there is really only one spot up for grabs: the fourth line centre role. At this juncture both Dylan Gambrell and Mark Kastelic seem like decent bets, but I’ll give a slight edge to Kastelic because of his face-off prowess and his physical style of play. He also fits very nicely into your stereotypical fourth line grinder mold, and Smith has historically been vocal about his appreciation for depth players that know their roles.

The Big Picture:

Perhaps the biggest source of hope for an improved performance for this year’s iteration of the Sens is their overhauled forward group. The additions of Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat have been been well documented, and will be hugely impactful, but Ottawa is also effectively adding Shane Pinto after he missed virtually the entire season last year. Add in Tyler Motte for the third line and gone are the days of Chris Tierney playing crucial minutes (sorry to that man).

The Sens now boast a top six that can immediately compete with many of the premier teams in the league, and there is also potential for some improvement along the way yet — remember, Stützle won’t turn 21 until the calendar flips to 2023. It would not be a shock to me if all six forwards each finished with upwards of 60 points provided reasonable health.

We’ve yet to see the two top trios work in a regular season setting when checking will no doubt be a bit tighter, but it’s been a breath of fresh air to marvel at the skill on display nonetheless. The connection between Giroux and DeBrincat has been almost immediate and the existing chemistry on the Norris line hasn’t gone anywhere over the summer. These are all top notch NHLers that have the ability to execute plays at the highest level. It’s been a joy to watch.

Defensively, the group is capable if unspectacular. The top two lines aren’t exactly known for stout defensive play but I wouldn’t classify any of them as liabilities. At the very least all are capable of passable two-way play. For the bottom six the M.O is the opposite: defend, defend, defend, and hope to capitalize on a couple of opportunities. The third line is intriguing in this regard: Motte and Joseph aren’t what anyone would call offensive dynamos but both have well-earned reputations as responsible defensively. I’d be cautious in declaring Pinto the next Jordan Staal before we’ve seen a bit more of a sample size but his draft pedigree and everything that’s led up to this moment suggests he’ll at the very lest be competent defensively. Certainly having Joseph and Motte on his wings will help with what promises to be some challenging defensive assignments.

That’s not to say the story is all roses, as the team’s forward group is not without its weaknesses. For all of their prowess with the man advantage, the Sens’ nominal top line were not exactly dominant last year at 5v5 as they were both out-shot and out-chanced. The optimists will point to a goal share north of 60% for the campaign but you can almost never out-shoot and out-chance your underlying numbers forever; if the Sens want to get back to the play-offs, the Norris line will need to get on the right side of the ledger when it comes to carrying the play. Fortunately, it says here that they’ve got more than a decent chance of doing just that with a full, healthy season for all participants.

The other issue is the potential lack of offensive depth. No one in the bottom six has ever scored more than 26 points in a season, and the fourth line especially looks like it could struggle at times to generate much of any offense at all. If you build a fourth line whose defining identity is energy and physical play, you might not get much by the way of offense. Perhaps that doesn’t concern Smith given the potential for offensive from his other trios. The good news for Sens fans here is that a lot of those depth concerns could quickly fade away if a certain star prospect blossoms on the third line.

The Wild Card:

After Jake Sanderson, who we’ll get to in tomorrow’s feature on the defense, there is no Sens player as intriguing as Pinto. Ever since his breakout 2019-20 NCAA season with the University of North Dakota, Sens fans have been salivating at the prospect of Pinto manning the middle of the ice. Last year’s injury debacle deprived us of our first full, real glimpse of the youngster playing meaningful NHL games. When healthy, he’s been close to the total package: a strong skater with drive, good hockey sense, and a deft finishing touch. There’s a lot to like, frankly.

Pinto’s shown a lot over the last couple of years of NCAA hockey (and so far this pre-season) but we should not forget he has played less than twenty NHL games for his career. Though Sens fans likely don’t agree with his conclusion, there’s a reason that Dom Luszczyszyn’s model over at the Athletic only grades the forwards as a C+: the depth players are either unproven or have uninspiring offensive track records. The good news is that unproven doesn’t mean incapable, and a lot of the team’s potential upside depends on just how good Pinto can be right out of the gate. If he lives up to even a fraction of the currently dizzying expectations, Ottawa could be well on their way to a play-off birth — and an end of season grade for their forward group well in excess of “C+”.

The Question Mark:

As has now been written in this space on a couple of occasions, there is still very much a question mark surrounding Drake Batherson (and to a lesser extent, Alex Formenton given his contract status). Anything is possible at this juncture and it would be irresponsible to speculate on guilt or innocence but the question of what, if anything, will come of the numerous investigations into the 2018 sexual assault looms large over the team, and Batherson and Formenton in particular. There’s not much more to be said about the topic at this time, but it also needs to be said.

The Conclusion:

The Sens have a lot, and I mean a lot, more firepower than they had last year, and really at any time since the glory days of the early-to-mid 2000s. Especially with the man advantage, I expect this forward group to rack up the points. There are some open questions about the team’s ability to drive play 5v5, and whether their depth will be up to the task against the league’s top squads, but on the whole you don’t have to squint too hard to see the outline of a play-off calibre forward group. If the key players are healthy, and Pinto in particular takes a step forward, they should deliver the best performance we’ve seen around these parts in a long, long time.

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