Weekly Question: When will the Senators return to the playoffs?

With so much young talent arriving, could the Sens’ playoff drought end next season?

The 2019-20 season being on hold leaves us with a number of questions unanswered. One question we definitely know the answer to though is whether or not the Ottawa Senators will make the playoffs. Though technically not mathematically eliminated, friend-of-the-blog Micah McCurdy puts the Sens’ playoff chances at less than 0.0001%. For the third season in a row, there won’t be playoff hockey in Ottawa.

For today’s question, I’m asking you, when do you think the Sens will return to the playoffs? After all, owner Eugene Melnyk said the Sens would begin a run of unparallelled success by the 2021-2022 season. If that projection holds, that gives the Sens one more season to progress from basement dweller to Stanley Cup contender. Will that mean the Sens make the postseason in 2020-21 (assuming it starts on time)?

The Case For Making the Playoffs in 2020-21

The Ottawa Senators’ future is bright, with the deepest prospect pool in the NHL. That includes top-flight talent led by Drake Batherson, who is fourth in AHL points-per-game (min. 10 GP). Logan Brown (1.12), Josh Norris (1.09), and Rudolfs Balcers (1.09) are also above 1.00 points-per-game pace. Alex Formenton (0.87), Erik Brannstrom (0.85), and Vitaly Abramov (0.80) are not far behind. Of these, at least Batherson, Balcers, and one of Norris or Brown will be expected to play significant NHL minutes next season.

The Sens also got key performances from young players in the NHL, led in no small part by Thomas Chabot. Chabot may have seen his point pace drop from the previous season, but he lost significant surrounding talent compared to the previous season, and was playing big minutes nearly every night. Chabot was joined by Brady Tkachuk, who was exactly one of his rookie totals in goals and points when the season ended. Anthony Duclair cooled off after a red hot start, but was playing at a 29-goal pace. Other players 25 and under who played key NHL roles this past season include Colin White, Chris Tierney, Nick Paul, Christian Wolanin, Marcus Hogberg, and even Jayce Hawryluk.

D.J. Smith seemed willing to play young talent, giving players like Paul and Hogberg chances to succeed. As a rookie coach, we’d expect Smith to grow into his role as his players all round into their respective peaks. That sets up next season as the chance for things to align. Add in a top-flight prospect or two from the 2020 draft, as well as 24-year-old right-handed defenceman Artyom Zub, and the Sens will have everything rounding into form to be a good team next year. They likely won’t be competing with the Lightning or Bruins at the top of the standings, but they could be challenging for one of the wild card spots.

The Case Against Making the Playoffs in 2020-21

The Sens should be better next season that this season, but that isn’t saying a lot. The future is bright, but that doesn’t mean the future starts in a few months. Prospect development doesn’t always happen linearly, and it would be unreasonable to expect every prospect listed above to put up good NHL seasons next year because they had good seasons this year. Look at a guy like Colin White — he followed up an impressive 2018-19 with a mediocre 2019-20. I’m not worried about the guy at all, but it would be reasonable to expect that someone out of Batherson, Balcers, Paul, Wolanin, Brannstrom, or Hogberg will see some regression. “This team will be great if everyone has a career season” isn’t a plan for success, it’s a pipe dream.

Goaltending-wise, the Sens are in shaky territory. I’m the biggest believer in Marcus Hogberg, and he’s looked good in the NHL, but he hasn’t looked dominant. Don’t get me wrong, an average NHL starting goalie is very, very good, but the Sens for a few seasons have depended on otherworldly goaltending performances. If Anders Nilsson’s concussion remains serious, the Sens could be faced with playing Hogberg along with likely Joey Daccord as a tandem, or signing a free agent goalie for either way too much (Braden Holtby) or who is an ex-Senator (Robin Lehner, Craig Anderson, Brian Elliott, Mike Condon, or Andrew Hammond). Neither situation fills me with confidence, especially considering this season the Sens were still allowing 33.6 shots per game, which was 3rd-last in the NHL. Making the playoffs will depend on the Sens getting solid goaltending, and I’m not sure putting all hope in a guy with 28 NHL games under his belt and a guy who was out with a concussion for three months prior to the stoppage is a recipe for short-term success.

The other problem is that most Sens fans are (rightly) drooling over the upcoming draft. The Sens will have three first-round picks, and right now would do no worse than picking fifth and sixth overall. Though the Sens should get two very good players with those picks, they likely won’t have any impact in the 2019-20 season. Only Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, and Kirby Dach from the 2019 draft have played NHL games so far. 2018 was unusual in having four players step straight into the NHL. Usually, only two or three players from a draft start playing in the NHL right away. All due respect to Brady Tkachuk, but Thomas Chabot is the only real game-breaking talent the Sens have right now, with potential for Erik Brannstrom to get there. The Sens may draft a player like that, but they won’t be setting the NHL on fire at age 18 or 19. It’s fair to expect improvement from the team next year, but that won’t carry them to a playoff spot.

In the end, it’s hard to project how a team will do. The 2011-12 Sens were projected to finish last in the league, and took the Rangers to Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. The 2013-14 Sens were projected by many to win the Eastern Conference, and they missed the playoffs. But there are good reasons to predict both a return to the playoffs for the Sens next season and to be skeptical. Let us know what you think is most likely, and tell us why in the comments.

When will the Senators return to the playoffs?

2022-23 or later74

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