Senators mid-season report: Not as bad as advertised, and trending upwards

Watch as Anthony Duclair scored his 20th of the season as he netted the overtime winner for the Ottawa Senators.

When the bar is set low, it’s a little easier to impress the marketplace.

As their new head coach, D.J. Smith, said prior to the season, everyone and his dog has the Ottawa Senators pegged for last place in the NHL this season.

So, to be something other than dead last at the midway point is not too shabby. Also, the Senators are still likely destined for two lottery picks in June (theirs and San Jose’s), their younger players are showing signs of development, almost to a man, and the team is playing an entertaining, never-quit style of hockey that is winning over some fans.

Add it all up and the first half of 2019-20 is pretty much what the doctor ordered for the rebuilding Senators.

Had it not been for a decimated blueline in late December — injuries took out three veteran defencemen — Ottawa could actually be sitting slightly higher in the standings. As it is, all three of the missing — Dylan DeMelo, Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev — are expected back this week. That will stabilize things — until trades destabilize them again.

In recent games, the Senators have given up too many chances and too many goals — 16 in their past three games, against Tampa Bay, Florida and Pittsburgh. Combine that with the NHL’s 23rd-ranked offence and losses come naturally.

Still, Ottawa caught teams off-guard with their work ethic, counting victories over the likes of Tampa Bay, Boston, Nashville and Carolina in the fall of 2019.

“I think we’ve probably surprised a few people, at least with our effort level,” says defencemen Mark Borowiecki, one of 10 pending unrestricted free agents on the roster. “Our compete on most nights has been good. And I think we have success when we out-work teams. When we try to get into that track meet, up and down the ice, things don’t really go our way.”

Of course, trends and assessments of the Senators will take a sharp turn in the second half, as general manager Pierre Dorion eases into sell-off mode and moves veterans for future prospects and picks.

Team record: 16-21-5 (14th Eastern Conference)

Goals for: 117 (23rd in NHL)

Goals against: 143 (28th in NHL)

Power play: 11.4 per cent (31st in NHL)

Penalty kill: 80.8 per cent (18th in NHL)

Biggest surprise:

Anthony Duclair.

No one expected Jean-Gabriel Pageau to have 19 goals at the break or that Thomas Chabot would be leading the NHL in minutes played per game but winger Anthony Duclair’s wonderful Ottawa adventure has to take the cake.

Duclair, who was practically run out of Columbus while being told he was a lost soul out on the ice, has been the Senators’ offensive catalyst with 21 goals and 32 points in 41 games. He leads the team in both categories and will represent the franchise at the NHL All-Star Game.

Duclair’s offence has been less of a surprise than his overall game. He’s been used in all situations, including on the penalty kill.

Biggest disappointment:

The power play.

It’s understood the Senators don’t have the most skilled roster, but surely there is enough talent here to score on the power play better than a league-worst 11.4 per cent of the time?

Ottawa has 15 goals on 132 opportunities. One might expect bounces off a skate or a rear end to pick up a few more goals. Other than the occasional goal off a one-timer by Duclair, usually from a Chabot pass, the Senators have looked horribly dysfunctional with the extra man. Interestingly, with emergency replacement Drake Batherson called up Saturday to replace the injured Duclair, there was better movement along the half wall once they got set up on the power play.

“He made some plays — probably the most plays anyone has made (on the half wall) all year,” Smith said.

That bodes well for the future, when a Senators power play features more skill.

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Forwards

They haven’t been horrible, considering the lack of top-end talent. Regardless of their linemates on a given night, Duclair, Pageau and Brady Tkachuk have led the way with their energy and scoring touch.

Others have provided relentless effort, including ex-Leafs Connor Brown and Tyler Ennis. They have been solid at even strength and on the penalty kill, which has earned them some power-play time — especially Ennis, who has 11 goals and 24 points after a slow start.

Nick Paul was called up from AHL Belleville in mid-October and has been a workhorse. Smith has called him the conscience of every line he is on. High praise. With six goals and 13 points, he has started to chip in offensively.

Vladislav Namestnikov made an early impact after being picked up in a trade, but has faded with two points in his past 11 games. Colin White, who signed a significant contract in the off-season, is desperate for some production and confidence. He has three goals, seven assists and is minus-nine.

Some of the most intriguing forward prospects are still in Belleville, plugging along and putting up points for the B-Sens.

Overall grade: C+

Defence

When healthy, and combined with above-average goaltending (which came and went) to bail them out, the Senators’ six defencemen have held their own. But they still give up too many chances. It’s all relative. When DeMelo, Zaitsev and Hainsey all went down with injuries in late December, the roof fell in.

Ottawa’s young star, Thomas Chabot, tried to pick up the slack, playing more than 31 minutes per game in four straight appearances. After signing a long-term contract before the season, Chabot was pressing a bit early on but has settled into becoming the franchise defenceman he was forecast to be.

DeMelo has been solid in an expanded role from his first years in San Jose. Zaitsev, playing 22:31 on average, and Hainsey (19:41) are also doing heavier lifting than they were asked to with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.

Borowiecki, the classic stay-home-and-pound kind of D-man, has shocked everyone with his five goals and 11 assists in 42 games. Those are career-high offensive numbers for the 30-year-old journeyman.

Rookie Erik Brannstrom, who spent most of the fall in Ottawa, was sent back to Belleville in early December and returned as an injury replacement much improved from his extra time in the AHL. Brannstrom is now back in Belleville.

Considering Borowiecki, DeMelo and Hainsey are all pending free agents, Ottawa’s defence could soon look very different and Brannstrom could be getting lots of work again. Mike Reilly was picked up via trade with Montreal last week for depth.

Overall grade: C

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Goaltending

There were stretches in the first half that saw Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson play out of their minds while getting pelted with 40-plus shots.

In an Oct. 17 game against the Las Vegas Knights, Nilsson faced 54 shots and lost 3-2 in a shootout. Nilsson’s early numbers were strong, but he faded in December before going down with a concussion and may not be back before the all-star break. He is 9-9-2 with a .908 save percentage and 3.18 goals-against average in 20 games played, pretty decent numbers behind a limited lineup.

The Senators’ perennial starter, Anderson, 38, is a pending free agent and could move before the deadline. Anderson is 6-10-1 with a .900 save percentage and 3.12 goals-against average, also in 20 games.

Marcus Hogberg showed pretty well in parts of six games (1-2-2).

Overall grade: C+

Coaching

Smith’s first months on the job have made Dorion look smart in picking him over other, more likely candidates. The former Maple Leafs assistant under Mike Babcock has provided exactly what the Senators needed — a change in atmosphere from the Guy Boucher era and a shot in the arm to developing prospects.

Most of Ottawa’s young players are better today than they were in October. Young and old Senators rave about the human element Smith brings to the rink. Importantly, for someone presiding over a young-ish roster, Smith has an outstanding bench demeanour, never loses his mind and has a way of keeping things in perspective.

“I would say we’re in a really good spot for the franchise, for me, this first 41 games,” Smith says. “I think a lot of players got to play minutes, a lot of guys have gotten better. If you look at Tkachuk and Chabot, they’re playing important minutes and they’re a big piece of this.

“I think our culture is very good, I think players know what to expect. And I think everything is trending in the right direction.”

Associate coach Jack Capuano has done a nice job with Ottawa’s penalty killing.

Overall grade: B

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