What is Wrong with the Ottawa Senators?

This season is quickly going off the rails.

Eight games into the 2021 NHL season, and the Ottawa Senators are past the point of all sugar-coating, or misplaced optimism: something is very wrong with this team.

Now losers of seven in a row, the team is in the midst of a campaign that is careening off the rails. Ottawa has gone 14 days and counting without a win - being outscored 22-6 in their last four games -  and fans have been left in a furor; wringing their hands in despair, and debating as to just what is the cause of this team’s collapse.

The truth of the matter is that there’s no singular answer as to why the Sens have struggled so mightily. While the top players have looked good for the most part, and Nick Paul and Tim Stützle are emerging as key contributors, far more has gone wrong than has gone right.  The toughest pill to swallow may be that, on some level, everyone is to blame.

The coaching staff has drawn more than their fair share of criticism, and deservedly so. While they surely have their own plan in place, some of the lineup decisions have been puzzling for those outside of the organizational sphere. Take Colin White, for instance. It came to the surprise of many that White would be sitting to start the season, but through four appearances, he’s emerged as an upper tier forward option on this team.

This is especially evident over the past two games, when White has been elevated above the fourth line. His possession metrics have drastically improved with greater minutes, and it stands to reason that he’ll be suiting up for the foreseeable future.

When given the opportunity to play with higher-end talent, White has come through in spades. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for those that he’s been in rotation with. Artem Anisimov, for instance, has struggled when deployed in White’s role. Never posting a Corsi rating higher than 50%, Anisimov has been thoroughly out-chanced when on the ice.

The unfortunate fact is that most of Ottawa’s veteran acquisitions are dealing with similar woes. Only six Senators are boasting a 50% Corsi rating or higher, and with the exception of Nikita Zaitsev, they share an average of age of 21.8. While players like Evgenii Dadonov and Derek Stepan have been solid for the most part, a good portion of Ottawa’s vets rank near the bottom in terms of statistics.

To make matters worse, four of the team’s main defencemen rank at or below the median in terms of possession numbers. Zaitsev, Chabot, and Reilly are putting together some solid performances, but the team has struggled mightily in their own end. Erik Gudbranson, Braydon Coburn, and Josh Brown would all likely admit that they need to be better, and while arguments can be made for and against their respective abilities, the problem appears to be tactical, in many regards.

Each of the Sens’ blue-liners has at least only play like this on the year, but here’s an example from last night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. Coburn gets puck-focused, and loses track of Tyler Motte on the way to the net. It’s his man that buries the opening goal.

The team has consistently struggled with keeping track of the open man, and it’s cost them on more than occasion. Here’s another from the first Winnipeg game, right before a Kyle Connor goal.

Similar issues have plagued the Senators’ penalty kill. A success rate of 75.8% on the year - good enough for 22nd overall - has seen the Senators give up a powerplay goal in every game, save for one. It’s collapsing to the net, and discombobulation in their own end that has led to the team getting shelled while down a man.

Of course, the goaltending hasn’t done Ottawa any favours. While both Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg have shown flashes of some excellent play, their inconsistency has hurt the team.

The advanced stats aren’t any better. Hogberg has saved just -1.98 goals above average, and Murray is even lower, at -6.47, and dead last in the league. The netminders are far from the sole reason that the Senators are on this skid, but they’ve had a difficult time bailing their team out with big saves.

Again, it’s important to stress that they are not the standalone reason for Ottawa’s struggles, but they are both grossly underperforming.

There are, however, reasons for optimism. The Senators played two really good games against Winnipeg, at least in most part, and outplayed the Canucks in stints as well. Players like Stützle and Paul have shown improvement, and it’s important to remember that the young players driving play is a very good thing for this team’s future.

That said, it’s coming to a point where it’s valid to question the construction of this roster. As well as the Sens have drafted, the players that general manager Pierre Dorion brought in during the offseason have yet to live up to their billing, and provide the support that the youngsters need.

Were that not enough, players like Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom, and Alex Formenton are currently sitting at home, waiting for the AHL to start. Why not have them on the taxi squad and practicing with the team, rather than guys like Johnathan Aspirot, Michael Haley and Matthew Peca?

Take it one step further; at what point is it time to give Brown, Brannstrom, Formenton, or Artem Zub a shot? Can it be worse than what we’ve seen? Wouldn’t playing games be better for their development than just practicing, or waiting around for a barebones AHL season to start?

Time will eventually give us the answers to those questions, but the one thing that’s certain for now is that the Ottawa Senators are in a tailspin.

It’s just no mystery as to why.

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