The 2020-21 Ottawa Senators were an incredibly young team. With an average age of 26 and a core that skewed even younger than that, the team came out of nowhere and surprised everyone by stirring up trouble in the North Division. All three rookies who played a significant role on the team - Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle and Artem Zub - earned calder votes, although none of them ended up being finalists. Shane Pinto and Alex Formenton both impressed in their short stints with the team. Drake Batherson also had a breakout season, although it was technically his third in the NHL, not his first.
With all these players are yet to hit their prime, the future certainly looks bright. However, whenever a team has a lot of breakout seasons all at once, people start to bring up the dreaded “sophomore slump.”
In the NHL, the “sophomore slump” is a phenomenon wherein promising young players burst onto the scene in their first season, wow everyone with their skills, and then regress significantly in their second season.
There are several explanations for why this sometimes happens. The general consensus is that young players tend to be quite sheltered when they first make the NHL. They face easier competition, generally get a lot of offensive zone starts, and are often paired with players who can carry the weight for them when it comes to defensive play. In their second season, these players are often saddled with more responsibility. This is a difficult adjustment, and a lot of players struggle with it.
Some also chalk it up to players not having the maturity level to maintain a consistent level of play. It could also be that opposing teams simply figure out how to play against these players. No one really knows what causes a “sophomore slump,” and it’s hard to predict with players will succumb to it. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try, though!
In an end-of-season roundtable earlier this year, the Silver Seven writers briefly discussed the likelihood of a few Sens players hitting a bit of a “sophomore slump,” after so many of them had breakout seasons in 2021. I was maybe a bit too dismissive of the idea at the time, arguing that most young Sens players had been afforded plenty of responsibility in the shortened season. I still kind of stand by my assessment, but I do think that question deserves a lot more consideration. So here’s my attempt at doing that.
I’m going to look at four Sens players who could be due for a “sophomore slump.” This includes the three Calder nominees, and I threw in Drake Batherson just because he didn’t do much in his first two seasons, so this is the first one that I feel really counts. I didn’t include Pinto, Formenton, or anyone else who played a few games but didn’t secure a full-time spot on the roster. For each one, I’m going to look at the reasons why they might regress, and the reasons why they might not, and make a prediction. I invite the readers to weigh in as well.
The bad news: Zub spent most of last season on the second and third pairings. This year, that changes. He’s going to start the season paired with Thomas Chabot, who makes quite a lot of defensive mistakes. That means more responsibility for our boy.
The good news: The sophomore slump is usually observed in offensive-minded players, who end up struggling a lot with the defensive aspects of the game once they’re given more responsibility. Artem Zub does not fit that description. Like, at all. He can score goals, sure, but he’s easily the Sens’ best shutdown defenseman. Last year, DJ Smith already trusted him against top lines. He started most of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Playing with Thomas Chabot might actually be better for Zub. He’s already proven that he can contribute offensively when given the chance, and he might get a lot of those chances with Chabot next to him. He’s smart enough to pick his moments, though, so I doubt we’ll have to worry about Zub suddenly becoming a defensive liability. 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.
Zub is also older than most rookies, at 26, and has already spent 6 seasons in the KHL. He’s an experienced player, with the maturity level required to build on a good rookie season.
The verdict: Zub? Regressing? Never. He will only become more powerful.
The bad news: Whether or not Josh Norris can continue to produce offensively will depend on his linemates. He’s good at creating offense, but he’s not amazing at it. If Tkachuk isn’t signed before the start of the season, or takes a bit of time to find his stride, Norris might struggle to rack up the points. As for Batherson, we’ll get to him later.
The good news: Much like Zub, Norris was already playing against tough competition in 2020-21. He’s also a defensively minded player. As the first line centre, he faced top lines in 2021, including Edmonton’s deadly duo of McDavid and Draisaitl, and Toronto’s noted Sens killer, Auston Matthews. Hockeyviz has him mostly playing against top line players. He started a decent number of his shifts in the defensive zone. His PDO was pretty unremarkable, too. Tkachuk is a big question mark, but Norris is definitely going to have Batherson on his right wing, and the two have great chemistry.
I’ll also bring out the same argument I used with Zub, which is that Norris is older than most NHL rookies, at 22. Moreover, while he doesn’t have Zub’s KHL experience, he did tear up the AHL for a few years before making the jump to the NHL. He clearly has the maturity level of a much more experienced player.
The verdict: This may be a hot take, but I’m sticking with it: I think we’re safe from a real sophomore slump from this one. We might see a dip in points production, but Norris’s defensive contributions will continue to be very good.
The bad news: At last, we have a real candidate for a sophomore slump.
Jimothy was probably the most sheltered player on last year’s Ottawa Senators squad. He started 76.69 of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is the most of any Sens players who played more than one game. He spent exactly one second on the penalty kill, and got to pad his stats with lots of power play time. His defensive numbers were quite bad. He gave the puck away 44 times - that’s third on the team, after Chabot and Zaitsev. He’s the youngest player in a very young lineup, at only 19.
The good news: Development takes time, and the Sens seem to understand this. Stützle was gradually afforded more ice time as the season wore on last year, and there was a noticeable improvement in his game.
A lot will probably depend on Stützle’s linemates. He spent most of last season playing with veterans who couldn’t always keep up with him offensively. He was most impressive when he got to play with guys like Norris and Batherson, who could actually match him in terms of creativity and skill. This year, he’s almost definitely going to be playing with Connor Brown. Here, the big question is whether 2020-21 Connor Brown was the real Connor Brown, or just benefitting from dumb luck.
At centre, we’re probably either going to see Chris Tierney or Shane Pinto. I know a lot of fans - myself included - would like to see Pinto on Stützle’s line. Still, Pinto is very unproven.
The best case scenario is that Pinto bursts onto the scene with a Calder-worthy performance, Connor Brown keeps his 2021 pace going, and Stützle finally has linemates that can keep up with him.
The verdict: Could go either way, and a lot hinges on Shane Pinto’s performance. I’d say there’s a pretty good chance we see some regression here. I would urge Sens fans not to panic too much if Stützle struggles a bit this season. I am well aware that no one is going to heed my advice.
The good news: Didn’t you hear? Sophomore slumps are only for second year players. This will be Batherson’s fourth season. We’re good.
Seriously though, Batherson has had a bit more time to adjust to the NHL, and last season’s performance felt more like the natural next step forward in his career than an anomaly. His career progression reminds me a bit of Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, who both followed up great rookie campaigns with solid second seasons. As Owen pointed out in his year in review piece, Batherson doesn’t take many penalties or give the puck away much, which we could take as a sign of maturity. He’s really had to work for his spot in this lineup, and it has to mean something that he’s finally been able to secure a full-time spot.
The bad news: Batherson was the second most sheltered player on the team this year, after Tim Stützle. That’s not his fault, but it does mean we don’t know how he’ll fare against tougher competition.
The verdict: We might see some regression, but I think there’s a good chance Batherson builds on last year’s season.
Wow, I can’t believe every single Sens player is going to get better this year and all the new players are going to have great rookie seasons. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan. Go Sens Go.