The Ottawa Senators Cannot Afford Another Slow Start

Over the last few years, the Ottawa Senators have had notoriously slow starts to their seasons. Where do they need to be after the first month?

Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen the Ottawa Senators go from Eastern Conference finalists to total, tear-it-to-the-studs rebuild, all the way to the place they are today — potential (hopeful?) play-off contenders. It’s been a journey

While the Sens have had many things happen on and off the ice, one thing that has stayed consistent is the team’s inability to get their season off to a good start. Fans have grown accustomed to an interesting, sometimes exciting post-trade deadline run at the end of one campaign fueling off-season optimism. This enthusiasm then morphs into yet another slow start where it feels like the team is already playing for a lottery pick well before the December holidays.

The Ottawa Senators of 2022 have a vastly improved top-six forward group and many young players who are growing into stars in front of our eyes; what happens this time if the team can’t get off to the start they need to? The answer is likely a coaching change within a month or two.

So: what, exactly, does a “bad start” look?  By what date, at what winning (or losing) percentage will they have already played themselves out of a playoff spot? I wanted to put some numbers behind the gut feeling.

The Data

I went back to 2017-18 — the year after Ottawa’s appearance Eastern Conference Finals — and looked at the NHL’s standings at the one month mark. I use points percentage to control for the variability in number of games played. Finally, I highlighted where each of the teams who eventually made the playoffs were at that point to come to an answer to this question:

If a team starts their first month of the season below 0.500, how likely are they to make the playoffs?

Since 2017-18, as we know, the Senators haven’t made an appearance in the post season. In that year, before the team truly imploded, Ottawa ranked 11th in points percentage one month into the season but ended up missing the post season.

In the subsequent years, the Senators have ranked 26th, 31st (x2) and 30th in points percentage through that first month.

The Sweet Sixteen

In the NHL, the magic number for the playoffs is 16. The teams from each conference battle for 82 games to figure out which 8 make it and which 8 (or 7) start booking tee times.

Through five seasons worth of data, one thing came through loud and clear: if you’re in the top 16 through one month, you’re more likely to make the playoffs than not. In fact, on average, 68.75% of teams who were in the top 16 of the league by this mark, in the end, punched a ticket to the big dance. Over the last two years, that average actually jumped to 78.1%, likely due to the impact of the shortened 2021 season.

What’s equally unsurprising is that if you aren’t ranked 16th or better through one month, you’re probably going to miss. Only 1 in 3 teams who were outside of the playoff picture by mid-November(ish) were able to claw their way back in. And, once again, over the past two seasons, that average jumped to 77.5% of the teams outside of a playoff spot one month in have missed.

So, not only was it already difficult to dig yourself out of a hole at the beginning of the year but that level of difficult has jumped by 10% for both aforementioned statistics in the last two years.

At the 0.500 Mark

During this same time frame, over the course of five different seasons, there are only six teams who have a record below 0.500 at the one month mark who ended up making the playoffs. Three of those six occurrences are thanks to the COVID play-in that enabled teams like Chicago, Columbus and Dallas to have a second chance at playoff contention despite finishing the season outside of the official picture.

With the COVID play-in season included, that means that 92.5% of the teams that made the playoffs were above 0.500 through the first month. Removing the COVID play-in season, it hops to 95.3% of eventual playoff teams having a 0.500+ record a month in.

Basically, the data says that if the Senators are below 0.500 by November 13th, 2022, they would have to be one hell of a statistical anomaly to find themselves in the postseason come May. It may not seem like a lot, so early in the season but twelve games (the typical low end of a team’s first month’s worth of games) is nearly fifteen percent of the schedule. Being below .500 on 15% of your games is going to make it awfully hard!

Looking Ahead

The 2022-23 season kicks off on October 13th. By that same date in November, Ottawa will have played a total of 14 games - 6 of which will be on the road. Here’s how the opponents shake out:

  • Buffalo Sabres
  • Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Boston Bruins
  • Washington Capitals
  • Arizona Coyotes
  • Dallas Stars
  • Minnesota Wild
  • Florida Panthers
  • Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Vegas Golden Knights
  • Philadelphia Flyers (x2)
  • Vancouver Canucks
  • New Jersey Devils/

It’s a fresh start for every franchise, so we can’t take what occurred in the 2021-22 season and make accurate assumptions about the difficulty of this schedule — but let’s do it anyways! It’s August, who cares?

On the above list, exactly half of the teams made the playoffs last year. However, Florida and Tampa Bay are the only two who managed to move beyond the first round. It’s also been widely noted — primarily by Sens fans looking for a reason to be optimistic — that Florida’s roster is arguably worse today than it was when the puck dropped for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.

On the other end, we have the Philadelphia Flyers (x2), Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and Vegas Golden Knights. Of these teams, I think it’s safe to say New Jersey made big strides this offseason while Philadelphia, Arizona and Buffalo are looking similar to their 2021-22 selves. Vegas experienced a ton of injuries last year which likely contributed to their lack of involvement in the postseason, but already they also have already learned they’ll be without Robin Lehner for the entire upcoming season. Vancouver feels like one of those teams that could be anything.

Given the team’s offseason overhaul, I’d personally put Ottawa up against any of the non-playoff teams from this list, with the exception of maybe New Jersey as they’ve done wonders for their blueline, the very place where Ottawa is still likely to struggle. I’d also argue that Ottawa has significantly closed the gap — although aren’t in the same tier — on teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay. Finally, I don’t think Boston, Washington or Florida are as scary as they once were, while Minnesota’s cap issues forced them to move a point per game top line winger without doing much to replace that offence.

All this is to say, this looks like a schedule that should allow the Senators to start the 2022-23 season at or above 0.500. You’re going to see a team that hopes to have made strides with an improved forward group and steady goaltending. The work ethic they have demonstrated under DJ Smith should give them a chance to play up to the level of their highest competition. Where Ottawa has struggled, in my opinion, is in those games against “lesser” teams. Last year it felt like we were watching a different Sens team play against Florida, Tampa Bay or Toronto than the ones we saw against Buffalo, Detroit and Montreal.

At the end of the day, the expectations are sky high for this team. With Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux joining the team, Cam Talbot adding veteran stability in net, and players like Tim Stützle and Jake Sanderson taking those next steps, this team is likely to be heavily measured on how they do in their first 10-15 games.

If they’re above 0.500, you can expect them to continue with the status quo. If they’re under 0.500, changes could very well be coming in an attempt to be one of those very rare teams to go from under 0.500 in November to the postseason in May. We’re going to learn a lot about this team very quickly.

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