Sterling Predictions Revisited, Part 2: Special Teams

Looking back at our predictions so far, for Part 2 of 3: did we think the Sens would continue their special teams success from last season?

Sterling Predictions Revisited, Part 2: Special Teams
Photo by jasper benning / Unsplash

With the Ottawa Senators off on their bye week until Saturday, it's a great time to pause and think about how the season has gone so far and, also to revisit our views of the team from before the season. The staff writers at Silver Seven gave various predictions at the outset of the campaign; yesterday, Trevor examined our guesses about the team's scoring leaders. Today, we'll look back on how wrong we were about the powerplay and penalty kill.

What did we predict?

Last season, special teams were one of the Senators' biggest strengths – the team finished 8th in powerplay efficiency and 14th on the penalty kill.

There were reasons for optimism and pessimism about the powerplay. On the positive side, the team ended 2022-23 with top-10 rankings in both expected goals per 60 and actual goals per 60; the squad's most dangerous sniper, Josh Norris, missed the full year; the end-of-season drought came when Thomas Chabot was injured and he was expected to be fully healthy for 2023-24. On the negative, swapping the dual-threat Alex DeBrincat for snipers Vladimir Tarasenko and Dominik Kubalik might make for unbalanced units; powerplay success has elements of randomness in terms of on-ice shooting and save percentages that make it hard to sustain year-over-year.

Hence, we had a mixed staff: Nada and Ary thought they'd finish somewhere in the 5-9 range, while Ross and Nate thought we'd have a top-five unit. Meanwhile, Beata, Spencer, and Shaan all foresaw a slight regression – predicting a finish in the 11-15 range – while Trevor, ever the realist, predicted somewhere between 14-18.

The Senators currently rank 23rd in the league, with a powerplay efficiency of 15.7%. By all accounts, they deserve it, too – they rank 25th in shot attempts (CF/60) and 20th in expected goals (xGF/60).

The penalty kill had more personnel changes: out were Austin Watson, Dylan Gambrell, Tyler Motte, Nick Holden, and Nikita Zaitsev; in were Ridly Greig, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Rourke Chartier.

Ross, Shaan, Nate, and Ary predicted an average penalty kill ranked around the 12-18 range; Spencer, Nada, and Beata thought they'd improve to a top-10 unit; while Trevor, ever the optimist (lol), predicted a top-5 finish.

The Senators currently rank 28th in the league, with a penalty kill efficiency of 74.3%. By all accounts, they've been unlucky – they allow the 12th fewest unblocked shot attempts against (FA/60), and the 9th least expected goals against (xGA/60). Their 0.818 save-percentage on the penalty kill ranks last in the league, and is the second-worst save-percentage on the penalty kill over the last 10 seasons.

What happened and what's next?

Let's start with the penalty kill – the better half of the Sens' special teams and one that should, by all accounts, climb the standings over the second-half of the season as the goaltending recovers from its historically bad performance.

A look at who's playing the most minutes on the penalty kill, from Micah Blake McCurdy

Newcomers Ridly Greig and Rourke Chartier have been phenomenal on the penalty kill, adding to the great work of Mathieu Joseph and Parker Kelly who are PK mainstays. Tim Stützle continues to impress with his tracking and the units he's on perform well with preventing expected goals against when he's on the ice. With Josh Norris and Shane Pinto both missing time for different reasons during the first-half of the season, Claude Giroux has been asked to take important faceoffs and does so well, but he is the worst-performing forward on the list – potentially a place where age is inhibiting his ability to track as the F1. Norris has been an upgrade on Giroux when in that spot, and Pinto would be an ideal replacement from an ice-time point-of-view given that Greig and Stützle still struggle in the dot.

On defence, Jake Sanderson and Artem Zub play their primary roles well, and Erik Brännström alongside either Jacob Bernard-Docker or Travis Hamonic have all done their job. The penalty kill remains Hamonic's primary strong suit – the team performs the best on the penalty kill when he's on the ice. I don't foresee any swaps here and nor should we with Jack Capuano's penalty kill.

A look at who's playing the most minutes on the penalty kill, from Micah Blake McCurdy

The powerplay remains a bigger issue; given the skill on each unit, it appears to be one of strategy as opposed to personnel for new assistant coach Daniel Alfredsson to figure out. There's been a ton of tinkering with the units since Alfie took the helm from Davis Payne without a ton of time for practice, and it could be one of the reasons why the powerplay has actually looked worse since the coaching change – 29th in shot attempt generation (CF/60) and 27th in expected goals generation (xGF/60).

While Stützle, Tkachuk, Giroux, and Norris all still appear to be dangerous when they're on the ice relative to league-average – which is around where Drake Batherson is at – all of the forwards making up the second unit have been putrid, as have Jakob Chychrun, Thomas Chabot, and Jake Sanderson. The youngest of that trio, Sanderson, has performed the best at the top of the umbrella, owing to his mobility and ability to hold the line compared to the two veterans. I'm surprised that Erik Brännström hasn't been given a spin at all.

With Shane Pinto coming back into the fold, there's a chance to re-integrate him into the second unit in the bumper spot and potentially move Ridly Greig into a more distributor or net-front role to cause chaos. I hope it helps.

All stats from Natural Stat Trick and HockeyViz.

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