The 2023-24 season is just two days away after what has at times felt like an extremely long off-season. Despite a lot of uncertainty with regards to Josh Norris and Shane Pinto, there is a ton of optimism surrounding the team, and there is a legitimate chance for the Ottawa Senators to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Before the season begins, Silver Seven will be delivering a comprehensive preview of the team, and part one begins today with the forwards.
The Likely Lineup
The lineup is somewhat in flux because of Josh Norris' shoulder worries and Shane Pinto being unsigned, so the lines we will likely see on Wednesday will hopefully not be representative of most of the season. For game one, it could be:
There's a very good chance that despite being sent to Belleville yesterday, that Jiri Smejkal slides in instead of MacEwen or Kelly after a strong showing in camp. Smejkal was practicing on the second power play unit yesterday, and MacEwen is doubtful due to injury. Pinto could also be signed quickly if Norris lands on LTIR. If everyone is healthy, which is a big if, they would most likely have to move Mathieu Joseph, and their lineup could look like:
It's not going to be easy to keep this team under the cap without sacrificing something of value, but this is the reality of Pierre Dorion's cap situation.
The Big Picture
If the Senators were able to keep everybody, and they were healthy, they project to have a strong forwaed group. They have a real superstar in Tim Stützle, other excellent top-line options such as Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris. There are also some other valuable contributors in Shane Pinto, Vladimir Tarasenko, Dominik Kubalik, and Ridly Greig – the types of players that you expect to see in the top nine of a play-off team. There are further decent depth players in Mathieu Joseph and Jiri Smejkal. That group might not be the best in the league, but I feel comfortable in saying that they can match up against a lot of strong teams and at least compete with them.
The problem is the Sens don't have the cap space for all of those players. Pinto needs to be signed before December 1st if they want him to play at all this season, and in order to do that, they'll either need to trade someone like Joseph or Kubalik or have somebody on LTIR like Norris for an extended period of time. I wouldn't mind dealing Kubalik because they should be able to get an asset back for him, whereas the Senators would most likely have to attach a pick/prospect with Joseph to move him. Losing Norris for an extended period would be a massive blow just like it was last season. All of those options weaken the forward group, which is a real shame.
It's not an easy situation to be in. At the same time, Ottawa has some elite talent that could keep them afloat for long stretches of time. Stützle, Tkachuk, and Giroux have the ability to change the complexion of a game by themselves, and I'd even add Batherson's name in there if he's able to bounce back from a so-so 2022-23 season. Heck, we don't know what we'll get out of Tarasenko, who could have some flashes of stardom left in him.
Beyond the cap situation (which luckily becomes much easier to handle next season), I'm a bit worried about the deployment of some players on the fourth line. It appears possible that Parker Kelly, Mark Kastelic, and Zack MacEwan could begin the season together, and although they bring some grit and toughness, that line seems very unlikely to be able to hold their own at 5v5 – to put it lightly. We know that DJ Smith likes a certain archetype on the fourth line, and it's worth wondering if pursuing that style without exception is hurting their fourth line. A repeat of last year's major struggles from the fourth line would be a blow.
Furthermore, Rourke Chartier is a fine emergency call-up option, but in my opinion he should not be playing over Jiri Smejkal or Roby Järventie who had excellent camps. Injuries are bound to happen, and I just hope that the depth options are used to the best of their abilities because they do have players in the AHL like the aflrementioned Smejkal and Järventie, plus Egor Sokolov, Angus Crookshank, Zack Ostapchuk, etc. who can help a bit. Stars change games, but when you're playing with such thin margins, depth decisions can be costly as well.
Smejkal would certainly fit this category because nobody knew anything about him coming into camp and he turned a lot of heads. However, he seems destined for a 4th line role or perhaps 3rd line at best, which definitely has value, but only so much. Instead, I think that the player with the biggest potential impact outside of the big names is Ridly Greig. He looked like a capable NHL player in his 20 games last season, and I think at worst he can help on the 4th line in 2023-24.
However, based on his skill set snd pedigree, he can be much more than that. He had 29 points in 39 AHL games last season, and he has shown that he is more than just a grinder who likes to get under the skin of opponents. He might not turn into a top-six player overnight, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if he puts up 40+ points this year, especially if he is asked to take on a larger role with two centres missing from action to begin the season. My belief is Greig will settle in as a middle-six kind of player who stays in that 40-50 point range, but who's to say that's his ceiling?
Even if he is that kind of player in 2023-24, that'll be extremely valuable considering a lack of depth has been Ottawa's issue for years now. I'm hoping Greig can at least give the forwards more stability.
The Question Mark
It's been talked about for weeks now, but what is going to happen to Norris? His shoulder is clearly not 100% yet (physically or maybe mentally), and Ottawa was banking on him being ready to go. I believe they can weather the storm for a bit if Pinto and Greig are able to take on a bigger role, but the Senators won't be nearly as good without their 2C, and he could very well end up being the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
We have no idea how many games Norris will play this season, and it's scary because of his shoulder troubles from the past. All we can do is wait and see.
The Senators had a lot of firepower last season as well and they were 6th in the NHL in expected goals with 287.69. However, they ended up with just 259, ranking 18th. That will surely improve this season, as it's rare to have that much of a discrepancy between goals and expected goals. They have a slightly different look without Alex DeBrincat but they added Tarasenko and Kubalik, plus Greig will have a larger role. I'm confident that with a healthy roster, this team should be top-10 in goals scored, although the key word there is healthy. Even without Norris, they could still be fine, but having a great player like Pinto as a 3C would be a great luxury to have.
There should be lots of goals scored this year from the forwards, but the defensive play from the group remains a question mark. You know what that means: incredibly fun games to watch!
This forward group should (with the big caveat about injuries) be a strength for a team with real playoff aspirations.