February 11th, 2021. The Ottawa Senators had just lost to the Winnipeg Jets 5-1, putting their record at a paltry 2-12-1.
Despite almost an entire year without Senators hockey, the fanbase had already descended into chaos as there were calls by some for Pierre Dorion and DJ Smith to be fired. Erik Brännström and Logan Brown weren’t playing, Christian Wolanin and Colin White were in and out of the lineup, and others such as Alex Formenton, Filip Chlapik, and Vitaly Abramov were essentially in no man’s land. Veterans such as Braydon Coburn, Cedric Paquette, Erik Gudbranson, Derek Stepan, and Alex Galchenyuk were getting playing time despite their poor play, and neither Matt Murray nor Marcus Högberg could stop a puck to save their life. Even their most exciting acquisition of the off-season, Evgenii Dadonov, looked like a shell of himself.
So it’s no wonder that after 15 games into the season, it looked as if the rebuild was in an even worse position than before. Not only that, the fanbase was so dejected because there was excitement heading into the season that was immediately dashed. The team was not fun to watch besides an occasional goal from rookie Tim Stützle.
There is nothing particularly special about the 15-game mark, but from game 16 to 56, the Senators were a completely different team. The roster turnover from the first few games until the final few weeks was incredible, and the post-trade deadline roster was the best we have seen in a while. I want to go over the stats from the first 15 games and the final 41, as well as the stats after the trade deadline because it should give us some real hope moving forward.
First of all, this was one of the worst lineups the Senators used this season:
There were other bad lineups that included Micheal Haley, but this defense corps was especially terrible. But then by the end of the season, the team was completely different:
Game day Skate lines:— TSN 1200 (@TSN1200) May 3, 2021
Tkachuk Norris Batherson
Stützle White Dadonov
Dzingel Pinto CBrown
Formenton Tierney Paul
Bishop Anisimov Amadio
Gustavsson-in starters end.
Jacob Bernard-Docker would not get into the lineup with a healthy Thomas Chabot, so a truly ideal lineup wasn’t quite achieved. Nevertheless, in total, they subtracted Filip Chlapik, Cedric Paquette, Alex Galchenyuk, Mike Reilly, Braydon Coburn, Erik Gudbranson, Christian Wolanin, plus they lost Matt Murray, Marcus Högberg, and Austin Watson to injury. On the other side, they added Alex Formenton, Ryan Dzingel, Shane Pinto, Artem Zub, Erik Brännström, Victor Mete, Anton Forsberg, and Filip Gustavsson, plus JBD and Michael Amadio who got into a few games each.
That is quite the shift, getting rid of seven players and adding eight (10 if you include JBD and Amadio). Considering Reilly was the only one providing positive value, it’s no wonder why the Senators looked better later in the season.
Not only did the roster look much different for the final 41 games, but the stats also do as well. I wanted to look at different game segments: 1-15, 16-56, but also 43-56 which came after the trade deadline. Here they are:
What’s interesting about the first 15 games is that they were actually about average in terms of shots and expected goals. However, a lot of that is due to score effects because essentially every game, they’d be losing 2-0 in the 1st period. So with score-adjusted numbers, their corsi and xGF% fall back to 19th and 21st, respectively.
The most noticeable difference here is the 10-3-1 record post-deadline, which isn’t just good for a rebuilding team, that is elite. They obviously had luck on their side with the 2nd best SH% and 3rd-best SV%, but overall they were well below average in both categories, so it’s not as if this entire season included good luck for the Senators. Furthermore, I don’t view the good goaltending down the stretch as “lucky”, I see it as someone like Gustavsson showing real potential. A .933 SV% in 9 games is something to build off of, and hopefully he will be protected in the expansion draft.
The corsi across the board is lacklustre, but the expected goals in the final 14 games are impressive. I think a lot of that has to do with Gudbranson and Coburn being swapped for guys like Mete, JBD, and even Josh Brown and Olle Alsing. Then there’s the powerplay, which improved a bit over the course of the season, but what really made a difference was the penalty kill, rising from 25th to 11th. As Ian Mendes pointed out, the Senators have essentially never had an above-average PP and PK, so that will be something to look out for next season.
Another positive development is their xGF%, which wasn’t amazing in the final 41 games, but after the trade deadline, it was above average at 51.72%. Does Ottawa look like a cup contender now? No, but the trendlines are very positive, especially considering most of the anchors are out of the lineup. The biggest hurdle to success now becomes Pierre Dorion—if he can avoid making the same mistakes about adding sub-par veterans, then they could be in good shape next season. They’ll be in even better shape if he’s able to add quality veterans too.
Something that should also be pointed out is that Smith was trying to establish his team identity early on, and that is difficult to do with new additions, tons of young players, and most guys hadn't played a professional game in 10 months. So in a crazy year like this, it makes some sense that the early going was extremely rough.
After the tire fire of the first month of the season, we have somehow gotten to the end of the 2020-21 season and Senators fans are feeling more confident in the direction of the team than ever. Pound for pound, this fanbase is one of the strongest out there, and it’s because of this community with an amazingly talented and funny group of people that this season was as fun as it was. Things are far from perfect in Ottawa, but the team finished off on a high note and it’s easy to see how they can carry that momentum forward.
The core is being established: Tkachuk, Norris, Chabot, Stützle, Batherson, Sanderson, Pinto, Formenton, JBD, and so many others can help get this team to the next stage. The first 15 games showed us that hockey can be incredibly frustrating to watch, but the final 41 showed us what this team of young players is actually made of and why we should be excited about the future.
For the first time in years, I genuinely cannot wait for the next season to begin.