The last time I posted a Weekly Question here on Silver Seven, the votes came back with a 53 / 47 split in one of the closest polls I’ve seen on this site. Suffice to say, fans of the Senators want the deepest possible pool of prospects but also to watch winning NHL hockey. Also water is wet. As I mentioned in that article, the Senators as an organization now walk that razor’s edge between the continued accumulation of futures and the opportunity to start cashing in. Windows of competition keep get smaller in a salary cap league, especially for budget teams. And after three years of abysmal play in Ottawa, I can forgive even the most pragmatic fans for getting impatient with rebuilding.
If you’ve followed our ongoing T25U25 coverage then you know that the young talent in this organization verges on the unparalleled. And if you haven’t followed our prospect coverage, then what are you even doing here, really? No one of us really question whether the Senators have an enviable amount of young talent but rather, do the Senators have enough young talent? 30 teams end the season in disappointment and to go home a winner good enough isn’t good enough. Drafting highly is all well and good but if you pull the trigger too quickly on trades and free agent signings then you end up with the Senators of the last decade all over again: thin, expensive, and inconsistent.
Thus, before even discussing the hypotheticals of future trades and free agent acquisitions or even beginning to project next year’s draft strategy, the internal inventory continues. Around these parts, we love to dissect depth charts, project rosters, and estimate how Ottawa will stack up against their division rivals. In this spirit of constructive discourse, I try to keep my weekly questions as objective as possible and ask questions that I don’t have a personal answer for. This week I ask, short- and long-term what is the Senators biggest positional need? For obvious reasons, I won’t get into front office roles here. Looking at the team on the ice and considering all of the Senators young players and recent draft picks, where is the team the thinnest? Like I said, I struggle with this one. I have no idea how I would answer this question. I’ll attempt to break it down nonetheless.
Behind the newly-minted Matt Murray and the still-sidelined Anders Nilsson, the Senators have some six netminders in the pipeline. Like the positions to follow, this all depends on how much stock you put in the concept of having a singular Vezina-calibre goalie as opposed to a 1A-1B tandem to succeed in the NHL. Ottawa does not have a goalie-prospect of Yaroslov Askarov’s or Spencer Knight’s pedigree nor do they have a franchise centrepiece like Carey Price to build around. The older school of thinking would suggest that successful NHL teams need a Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy to guarantee long-term success while the modern, salary cap era of roster-assembly doesn’t necessarily lend itself to earmarking an eighth of your cap space to a player whose numbers could crater on any given calendar year without rhyme or reason. The vast majority of general managers, Pierre Dorion likely among them, simply have no desire in gambling a pick in the first round on such a statistically-volatile position. All that to say, Ottawa needs only one of their six young netminders to pan out as at least playoff-calibre so while I say I don’t personally have an answer for this poll, I probably wouldn’t vote for goaltending as Ottawa’s most glaring positional need.
This is where things get interesting. On the one hand, Ottawa has three-plus blue-chip defenders in the system with Thomas Chabot, Erik Brännström, and Jake Sanderson at the top. That being said, this team had Erik freakin’ Karlsson last decade and defensive depth probably failed the 2010s Senators more than any other factor. In a perfect world, the big three all reach their potential while some combination of Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, Chistian Jaros, Christian Wolanin, and Max Lajoie all hit their strides to round out the group. The traditional thinking, of course, argues that teams without a bona fide top-four of big-minute NHL defenders can’t succeed in the post-season. Fans in Ottawa know this all too well. Even after investing premium picks in defenders like Jared Cowen, David Rundblad, and Cody Ceci, the Senators were as thin as tissue paper behind Karlsson. As I mentioned in a Five Thoughts after the draft, I get the impression that Pierre Dorion would much rather over-invest in defense before rounding out the forward corps than get caught with an offensively-deep yet defensively-thin roster.
Centres and wingers make this poll a little bit trickier because you can make arguments for a player like Tim Stützle as either a centre or winger. That being said, someone who considers Stützle a winger is more likely to vote that Ottawa needs more depth down the middle or vice versa. Some players, like Josh Norris, Logan Brown, and Filip Chlapik have had the centre label more or less from draft day while I find myself personally inclined to slide forwards like Colin White and Shane Pinto over to the wing as natural right-handed shots. Again, I think a lot of votes here will come down to your views on the tradition of NHL roster construction. The old school mentality maintains that teams like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh don’t win multiple championships without Toews, Kopitar, and Crosby respectively. Some may remain skeptical about the Senators’ chances without their own O’Reilly, Backstrom, or Bergeron at the helm to navigate the post-season. You could, however, argue that with enough talent down the wings (and depending on who you have labeled as a centre or a winger) the Senators could make do with the likes of Norris, Brown, and Ridly Greig.
If I absolutely had to pick from the options I present here, I think I would vote for winger. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the belief that you need a perennial all-star at a certain position. I do believe in volume though and ultimately you need more wingers on an NHL roster than any other position. Again depending on how you divide Ottawa’s centres and wingers, some of the Senators’ best prospects line up on the flanks. Brady Tkachuk, Tim Sützle, and Drake Batherson lead a really intriguing group of young wingers in the nation’s capital and even if all three live up to their full potential, the Senators still need five more NHL-quality wingers. Fortunately for Sens fans, Pierre Dorion and his staff seem to excel at identifying talented, undervalued wingers whether at the draft (Batherson, Alex Formenton, Roby Järventie) or through trades (Vitaly Abramov, Rudolfs Balcers, Connor Brown). Once again, however, the question remains: does Ottawa have elite talent on the wings or just a lot of pretty good wingers?
In the end, and no matter how you look at it, teams need always strive for improvement at every position or accept regression. The Senators have talent at every position but I remain uncertain if they’re ready to seriously compete in the NHL based on the strength of any one of those positions and I struggle to identify which position needs the most improvement and which the most urgently. So much more will change between now and the next draft for the Senators. The World Juniors, the trade deadline, and the general course of the regular season will likely reshape our perception of Ottawa’s organizational depth and we won’t know for a few months just how close or far this team truly is from progressing to the next phase from rebuilding to Establishing a Winning Culture (TM). As things stand today, with 2020 wrapping up and an NHL season on the horizon, organizationally speaking, which on-ice position need the Senators address first and foremost?
What is Ottawa’s biggest positional need?