There's no saving this season. The play-offs aren't happening, and Jacques Martin won't be the saviour—at least in 2023-24.
With the playoffs out of the picture, all the Ottawa Senators can do at this point is to evaluate what they have and try to change their game enough so that they are ready for next season. And although the results under Martin looked eerily similar to DJ Smith for the first month of his second tenure in Ottawa, the last nine games have been quite astonishing when you look at the underlying metrics. It's a small sample, but it's encouraging enough to get people excited about the potential of this team.
(Credit for this article idea goes to Graeme Nichols by the way, who showed the recent numbers under Martin before Saturday's game).
Here are the team results under DJ Smith (26 games), Jacques Martin for the first 11 games, and Martin for the last nine (all numbers are at 5v5 unless it says otherwise):
|Martin Until Jan 12
|Martin Since Jan 12
The team under Smith was not that bad, but still not nearly good enough, and the shift from the first 11 games under Martin to the last nine has been night and day. The most encouraging trend is seeing the expected goals for percentages go from 48.52% way down to 43.78% but then skyrocketing up to 58.41%, 2nd in the entire NHL. The Senators have been dominating the shot attempts and high-danger chances, and even their penalty kill ranks 7th during this short span. The powerplay still leaves something to be desired, although that's my area of least concern considering how fickle it can be and the talent on this roster. The only area that has been consistently awful for all three segments of the season has been the goaltending.
You simply cannot win with team save percentages ranking 28th, 26th, and 30th—it's almost impossible. It seems like people are slowly giving up the "well, the goalies are playing behind such bad defense" excuse because Ottawa is 4th in expected goals against per 60 over these nine games yet the team save percentage is a measly .863%. The good news about such poor goaltending is that all it takes is one above average (or even average!) goalie to change everything.
I'm much more optimistic about things of late because of how the skaters have been dominating like they should be. A 5-2-2 record isn't incredible, but again, better goaltending easily gives them a few extra points. Interestingly enough, the Senators have also been on the better end of MoneyPuck's "deserve to win o'meter" in all nine of these games. We talk all the time about this team being more consistent, well here it is: that's supremely impressive.
It's fascinating because there was not a lot to like about Ottawa's numbers under the hood for most of the season, even when Martin took over. Things didn't really shift much for the first month, and I'll admit that I was not loving the work being done to change things at that point. However, it's hard to argue with this recent stretch, because I don't believe Ottawa ever dominated like this for nine games under Smith. Perhaps the players are finally beginning to buy into the messages that he is preaching, which is great because many bad habits needed to be broken. Defensive breakdowns happened way too much, and they still aren't perfect there, but they've been much smarter with the puck.
Now, we need to see this for a longer period of time than just nine games, and this doesn't make them contenders. We've seen the Senators go on hot streaks at the end of the season just for fans to get excited about their potential, so we need to be careful about making any proclamations. However, we've always believed that this team was better than their record, and these recent results back that up very well. I want to see how this team plays the rest of the season because if their skaters are just as magnificent, I'll be feeling much better about heading into next season. Getting a competent goaltender will be challenging, but that's a story for another day.
I'm curious to see how long they can keep this streak going and if Martin will stay next season as head coach or if he will help hire somebody new. My inclination is the latter, in which case, I'd still feel fairly confident that they could do well. This isn't where we wanted to be sitting at the end of January, but I'll take any positives I can get at this point.