Weekly Question: Achilles’ Heel
What do you consider the Sens’ greatest weakness after watching the team in 2021
You could argue that even within the 2021 mini-season, the Ottawa Senators played two even smaller seasons. In the first half, their respectable shot metrics belied their record due to unsustainably bad goaltending. And in the latter half, they probably played slightly above their mediocre on-ice results and won thanks to some inflated percentages. For these reasons and more, we’ll have a difficult time projecting how well this team will perform next fall and beyond.
With all that considered, we can still attempt to extrapolate from the limited sample size how much success the Senators will have in their division. We talk at length at the site about the strengths of the farm system and the key players on this team, not to mention secret weapons like Nick Paul and Connor Brown. However, a team that finishes tenth from the bottom of the league standings has its weaknesses to address if they want to win in the near future. Last season I asked which positional need the team needed to address most urgently and the readers by and large agreed that Ottawa needs to shore up at the centre position. This time around I want to know, which phase of the game need the Senators address first and foremost if they want to win more games than they lose in 2021-22.
I imagine most folks will look primarily in the crease when determining what went wrong in 2021 for the Senators. Barring some good play down the stretch from Filip Gustavsson, Ottawa’s goalies struggled mightily against the North Division. I also think that the organization can rectify the problem of team goaltending, moreso than the other options, with some quick personnel choices (keeping in mind they already brought in a new goaltending coach and non-tendered Marcus Hogberg (and could possibly lose a netminder in the expansion draft)). The Senators posted a five-on-five save percentage of 90.71 in 2021, good for 29th league-wide. Again, this seemed like the most glaring weakness in 2021 and presents the quickest fix for management.
In 2021, the Senators had a five on five expected goals-against per 60 of 2.38, good (bad) for 24th in the league. Much like goaltending and win-loss record, defence went through distinct phases in Ottawa in 2021 with a largely different six-player unit on opening night from the one we saw in the season finale. Thomas Chabot’s health, the emergence of Artem Zub, and the addition of Victor Mete all played important roles in Ottawa’s varying results on defence. And for those wondering, Ottawa had an actual goals against rate per 60 of 2.94 at five on five (29th in the league). We can see how the discrepancy between actual and expected goals tracks relative to Ottawa’s 29th ranked five on five goaltending. Could the aforementioned players along with a year of extra experience for players like Erik Brännström and Jacob Bernard-Docker get this team from 24th in expected goals against to a respectable rank near the middle of the league? Does Pierre Dorion solicit outside help?
Finally, a category where Ottawa ranks near the middle of the pack. At five on five, the Sens had an expected goals-for per 60 of 2.17 (16th in the NHL (just not enough to off-set that 2.38 against)). It feels like for a couple of years now, the Senators have trended in the right direction in expected goals-for as their promising core of young forwards has developed into NHLers. Some in the community have questioned the extent to which Ottawa “games” their xG to inflate their numbers. Rest assured, this season the Senators had an actual goals-for per 60 of 2.34 at five on five. So while shooting inflates that number the tiniest bit, it bodes well that they rank at 17th either way. You could argue that the actual shooting talent lines up with the fancy numbers and has the team just outside the playoff mix (if only for their goaltending and defence). You could still argue that Ottawa needs to force their way into the conversation via offence to offset their youth and inexperience on the back end.
I find things get interesting here and you can really see the effects that different coaches have on different phases of the game (and possibly the effects of certain personnel decisions). Starting with the penalty kill, Ottawa actually looked mostly competent allowing 70.09 unblocked shot attempts per 60 on the penalty kill (15th) and 6.32 expected goals-against per 60 (16th (very consistent in terms of volume and threat)). Much like five on five defence, goaltending rears its ugly head with actual goals against at 7.23 (20th) on the penalty kill. Credit where its due to DJ Smith and his staff who ran a rather efficient penalty killing unit in 2021 despite the struggles of Ottawa netminders when down a skater.
On the power play, I can forgive fans who felt disappointed with the team’s performance this year. In theory, this team has multiple puck-moving blueliners who should quarterback effectively and a handful of talented shooters who know how to get into high danger areas. Despite that, the team generated volume poorly at 63.74 unblocked shot attempts per 60 on the powerplay (25th) and, consistently, only scored 5.59 actual goals per 60 (26th). We also see where the Sens get their reputation for not living up to their expected numbers as they generate 5.59 expected goals per 60 with the extra attacker (19th) despite those lesser numbers in terms of volume and conversion. The margin seems slight from 5.59 to 5.99 but it adds up when you only have so much powerplay time on an average night.
All stats courtesy of naturalstattrick
As easily as I can point at Ottawa’s struggles in the crease as their undoing this past season, I still think you could argue that team defence needs to improve to become a legitimate playoff threat, or that the offence needs to step it up if they want to offset those weaknesses on the backend. And while the penalty kill performed decently, the powerplay disappointed and that adds up to a net loss on special teams. So what do you think? If you had to start running drills at training camp, where do you focus first? If you have the chance to bring in a player via trade or free agency, do you do so with one of these phases in mind specifically? Which of these elements need the organization address first and foremost to get out of the league basement and into the playoff picture?
What do the Senators need to fix first and foremost?