Ottawa’s Sophomores are Definitely Not Slumping
Revisiting a piece from preseason on sophomore slumps and the Ottawa Senators
At the beginning of this season, I wrote an article about a few Sens players who had good rookie seasons in 2020-21 and might be due to regress in 2021-22. With this season now almost at the halfway mark and two of those players likely to miss a lot of time in the second half, I thought now would be a good time to check in on those sophomore players and see how they’ve performed relative to expectations.
In the preseason article, I wrote about Zub, Norris, Stützle and Batherson (who was not a rookie last year, but did have a breakout season, so I decided he could count). Spoiler alert: all four of those players have put together really solid sophomore campaigns so far. In a disappointing season, it has been incredibly encouraging to see so many young players continue to take steps forward.
Because of Zub’s age, KHL experience, and defensive style of play, I expected Zub to continue to improve. Interestingly, my prediction was in part based on the assumption that he would spend a lot of time next to Chabot. I said that “if he and Chabot can find some chemistry, Zub could slot pretty easily into a role as a Methot-type player, maybe with a bit more offensive flair.”
To say that Chabot and Zub “found some chemistry” would be a massive understatement; the two were so spectacularly good together that D.J. Smith had to split them up just to balance out the defense pairings, and hasn’t gone back to Chabot-Zub since the beginning of the season. Instead, Zub has anchored a shutdown pairing with Nick Holden, often going up against stars like McDavid, Crosby and Matthews.
I want to revisit that Marc Methot comparison, actually, because I’m not even sure it’s especially accurate. Zub’s biggest strength is his defensive play, but he also currently leads all Sens defensemen in goals. It takes a lot of confidence to stand across from Thomas Chabot and say “I’m going to drive to the net now,” but that’s exactly what Zub was doing at the beginning of the season, and he kept pulling it off. He’s having a great sophomore season, and I think he’s a much better player than people realize. No slump for this fan favourite.
I was pretty optimistic about Norris as well, given how seamlessly he made the transition to the NHL, and how well-rounded his game looked in his first season. In 2021-22, he has actually been one of the more difficult players to evaluate.
At a glance, he’s having a career year. Before the injury, his 18 goals in 36 games had him on pace to become the Sens’ first 40 goal scorer since Dany Heatley. He’s been shooting at 19.6%, which is probably unsustainable but not that far off his numbers from his rookie year, and winning more than 50% of his faceoffs. His line with Tkachuk and Batherson has been one of the best in the entire league.
But there are a few red flags.
18 goals and 8 assists is a weird statline for a centerman. It suggests that he’s maybe not driving play all that much, and potentially benefiting from good linemates. Surprisingly, though, the biggest concern about Norris this season has actually been his defensive play.
A good way to measure defense is to look at how many shots and scoring chances the team is giving up when a particular player is on the ice. According to Natural Stat Trick, Norris ranks among the worst Sens players in all of these metrics. His offensive numbers are great, but the defensive ones are very bad. Just at a glance, here are some of Norris’s defensive numbers relative to the team’s numbers without him on the ice. Higher numbers are bad (because they mean more shots/chances against), and lower numbers are good. Good players should be in the negative, because that means that the team is giving up chances at a lower rate when they are on the ice than when they are not on the ice. For reference, I also threw in Tim Stützle’s numbers, because they’re some of the best among Sens forwards, just so that you can see the difference between the two centremen.
Norris vs Stützle (5v5)
|Player||Corsi Against /60 Rel||Fenwick Against /60 Rel||Shots Against /60 Rel||Expected Goals Against /60 Rel||Scoring Chances Against /60 Rel|
Basically, even though the Sens are getting lots of offensive chances when Norris is on the ice, they’re also getting absolutely killed defensively. Many things are happening.
It’s weird, because Norris used to be pretty good defensively, and the competition he’s facing this year isn’t that different from the competition he went up against last year. The most plausible explanation for this change in Norris’s style of play is that he’s just focusing a lot more on offense right now, which, fair enough. It’s a contract year. It’s kind of fascinating, though, because it’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a second year player. Usually the offense comes first, and the defense improves with time.
Don’t get me wrong, though: all in all, Josh Norris is having a fantastic season. I’m not going to call this a “sophomore slump” just because he’s struggling a little bit in his own zone. He rules, and he’s going to be fine.
Stützle was the one player I fully expected to see regress this year. In his rookie year, he was sheltered and bad defensively. I said in my earlier piece that a lot would depend on the quality of his linemates.
Clearly, I failed to consider that Tim Stützle is quite simply an unstoppable force.
The first few weeks of the season were rocky for Timmy. He wasn’t scoring goals, partly because of bad luck and partly because his linemates were not good enough to carry him. He was, however, easily the team’s best defensive player, having completely turned that aspect of his game around during the offseason. See also: the above table.
Things changed once he moved to centre. The scoring took a little while to come back, but Stützle was driving play to a frankly ridiculous extent for a player of his age. The real breakout happened in 2022, when Alex Formenton replaced Paul on Stützle’s wing. I don’t know which one helped the other more, but Stützle and Formenton have been dynamic together recently. Timmy has also looked great in his limited time on the first line beside Brady Tkachuk. He’s proving to us that he’s a real first line centre, and an incredibly well-rounded player.
This season has been the furthest thing from a sophomore slump you could have imagined for Batherson. Since day one, he’s been far and away the team’s best forward by almost every metric. He’s been making everyone around him better and establishing himself as a legitimate star in this league. Before his injury, he was scoring at more than a point-per-game pace. His defensive game could use some work, but he’s at least better than his linemates in that regard.
He’s the real deal, and he’s only going to get better.
Bonus: Alex Formenton
I didn’t include Formenton in that preseason piece because I didn’t feel like he had played a big enough role in 2020-21, but he also fits into the category of players who built on solid rookie seasons. After a slow start to the year, Formenton has found excellent chemistry with Stützle’s line, and established himself as a real top six forward.
I ended that first piece by sarcastically declaring that everyone would improve this season, and nothing would go wrong. I honestly thought I was being too optimistic at the time, but it looks like I wasn’t optimistic enough. Norris’s defensive play is the one thing that could be cause for concern, but he’s still scoring way more goals than we could have predicted. Everyone has thrived in their increased roles this season. That doesn’t always happen.
Development takes time, and I don’t blame any Sens fans for being out of patience after so many years of the rebuild, but some things are working. The young core is, at least, on the right track.