I’ll admit it: I am getting so tired of talking about the exact same thing every February.
I don’t know how much longer I can handle this cycle of reaching the halfway point of the season with the Sens firmly out of the playoff race but looking better with each game. Please, can we do this the other way around sometime? Just to mix it up? Can they be good to start the season then collapse at the end so that we can have fun for a few months then head into the offseason nervous instead of cautiously optimistic about the future? These re-runs are getting so boring.
With 50 games played and the All-Star break behind them, the Sens sit eight points out of a playoff spot with a points percentage just over .500. They’re also better than that place in the standings might suggest, with the league’s worst shooting percentage by a long shot and their possession numbers placing them solidly in the middle of the standings. They’re much closer to a wildcard spot than to the bottom 5 in the league standings, and a bit of regression to the mean in terms of shooting percentage could push them right into the playoff bubble.
Nevertheless, Sens fans know better than anyone that these types of gaps in the standings are a lot harder to overcome than it might seem at first glance. Eight points doesn’t just mean four wins; it means four more wins than each of the four teams they’re chasing, and every loser point picked up by one of those teams is another point the Sens will need to make up. Even if their shooting luck turns around and they improve in the last 32 games of the season, they’re still most likely to finish just outside of the playoff picture, having never truly been in it all season.
On the bright side, there are a lot of positives to take from this situation. The team is clearly better than they were last year, and if they’re going to underperform relative to their underlying numbers, this would be the year to do it. The 2023 draft class isn’t just stacked at the top; it’s a deep draft, with potential future stars available later in the first round. The Sens won’t be bad enough to get Connor Bedard, so let’s put that thought out of our minds. But picking a few spots earlier could still help the organization a lot.
I can’t help but feel like we were a bit spoiled in some ways with the overperforming teams of the Karlsson era. Those rosters were obviously flawed once you got past Karlsson and Anderson, and anyone who knows anything about analytics could tell you they had no business being anywhere near the playoffs, but you could always count on them doing a little bit better than they should. In the long term, it’s probably better that this year’s Sens aren’t deluding the front office into thinking they’re better than they are the way those other iterations of the team did, but I still miss the excitement of those unlikely playoff runs.
So where does that leave us?
Pretty much right where we end up at this point every season: with individual storylines.
Last year, the Sens’ star players put up some of the best numbers the team has seen in years. Brady Tkachuk finished with 67 points, the highest point total by a Sens player since Erik Karlsson’s departure. Tkachuk and Josh Norris both scored 30 goals - the first players to hit that milestone in a Sens uniform since Spezza and Michalek both did it in 2012. The progress has been agonizingly slow, but we’re getting there.
Here are a few individual storylines to watch in the last 32 games of the season.
Tim Stützle’s goalscoring
Tim Stützle was briefly on pace for 40 goals - a ridiculous number for a 21 year old - and has since cooled off to a measly 37-goal pace, with 22 in 46 games.
Brady Tkachuk: point-per-game player
The last point-per-game Ottawa Senator (over the course of a full season) was Erik Karlsson, who scored exactly 82 points in 82 games in 2015-16. Before that, it was the Pizza line, and before that only Yashin had done it. Brady Tkachuk could find himself in elite company if he keeps up his current pace - which is just over a point per game.
Other players who have a shot at the 82 point mark: Claude Giroux, who’s only a few points behind pace, and Tim Stützle, who lost a bit of ground when he missed a few games with an injury earlier this season, but looks poised to make up the difference anyways.
Will Erik Brännström score a goal?
We’re at 120 games, and counting. I’m actually kind of curious to see how long this can go on.
Jake Sanderson’s incredible rookie season
The Sens went into this season with two possible Calder candidates: Shane Pinto and Jake Sanderson. As was discussed in our predictions revisited piece, neither player is likely to win the Calder at this point. However, we still shouldn’t discount the amazing rookie season Sanderson in particular is having. The defensive defenseman is closing in on Thomas Chabot and Erik Karlsson’s point totals from their respective rookie seasons. He’s going places.
Climbing the franchise record lists
Here’s a really fun thing about cheering for a team that hasn’t been around very long and hasn’t had much success during that time: the franchise records are really breakable.
I always find it fun to click through some of the Sens’ skater records, and see some current players already creeping toward the top of some pretty important lists. It’s depressing, yes, a reminder of how many players left after a short career in Ottawa, but I mostly think it’s exciting to see current players already cementing themselves in team history. Here are a few cool things I’ve found:
- Brady Tkachuk is currently 16th all-time in career points as an Ottawa Senator. If he keeps up his current pace, he’s likely to pass Chris Neil, Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris by the end of the season. He needs 68 points to pass Mark Stone and move into 10th all-time. (This list is actually kind of incredible, because you only need to get about 35 players deep to find Tim Stützle among some truly random names).
- If Thomas Chabot avoids injury for the rest of the season, he’ll pass Mark Stone and Mark Borowiecki in games played. Wait, why am I doing this? That one is really depressing.
- Brady Tkachuk needs one more overtime goal to tie Mike Fisher for the franchise record.
- Thomas Chabot needs 1 more goal to tie Zdeno Chara for 4th all-time in goals by a defenseman./
Brady Tkachuk’s quest to score a between-the-legs goal
It’s the biggest storyline in the NHL this season, as far as I’m concerned. He’s 0/6 this season, and this after failing on a few attempts last year. Maybe he’s saving it for the playoffs one day. Maybe he’ll pull it off on an empty net in a 6-0 win. All I know is that he’s going to find the funniest moment to finally succeed at scoring with this move.
I believe in him.