Well, that deteriorated rather quickly.
After a rousing start to the season, an opening-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Ottawa Senators saved their worst for last – closing out a four-game home stand with a 4-1 stinker against the Winnipeg Jets.
Considering that coaching staffs like to see their rebuilding teams get better each game and not regress, it’s no wonder head coach D. J. Smith looked like he wanted to throw some cross-fit equipment at somebody post-game.
After four games, the Senators are 1-2-1 for three points with a goal differential of minus-3, 11 goals for and 14 against. Though they are last in the seven-team North Division, the Senators have played fewer games than most of the teams ahead of them. Vancouver and Edmonton, on Ottawa’s horizon in the near future, are also out to slow starts.
Starting with yet another game against Winnipeg on Saturday, the Senators strike out for seven straight road games, which could have a lot to say about the Senators aspirations in the all-Canadian division.
Smith says the plan is to "stay in the fight," stay healthy and be vigilant about observing COVID-19 protocols – which could help his group against teams that might lose players due to exposure issues.
And if Ottawa should fall further behind in the playoff race after these seven games and the emphasis returns to player development, it will be imperative to get more and more prospects into the lineup.
So, what did we learn from Ottawa’s first homestand? Plenty.
1) The Kids are more than alright
The Kids Are Alright was last year’s Sens anthem, but it is only now that winger Brady Tkachuk has some company in the breakthrough department. In fact, his entire line, with centre Josh Norris and right winger Drake Batherson (the eldest of the three at 22), has been Ottawa’s legitimate No. 1 unit so far. As a group they have a combined 41 shots and nine points, seven of them from the 5-3 opening-night win over Toronto.
It didn’t go without notice that head coach D.J. Smith let more veteran players close out Tuesday’s game against the Jets, which didn’t end well for Ottawa. Asked about it, Smith said he has players who "kill penalties for a living," and are thus better suited than the Kid Line to closing out games. Smith did allow that coaches are learning all the time about their teams and that the kids "will be able to do it" in time.
According to Tkachuk, the time is nigh, as Erik Karlsson might have put it.
"You want to play in those situations where the game is on your stick," Tkachuk said. "I think our line is comfortable with doing that. Of course, people say we’re under 22, all three of us, but I feel we play the right way, we’re responsible … I feel like we’re ready for that, mature enough to take on that responsibility."
They may get more responsibility on this road trip.
2) Stützle adds sparkle
He just turned 19 and has faced a lot of challenges, the latest a minor injury that kept him out of the two Winnipeg games, but Tim Stützle has such a presence in Ottawa’s lineup he is already missed when he’s absent. How much greater would Stützle’s impact be if he hadn’t faced a quarantine after the world juniors and could have participated in all of the Senators training camp? As it is, the kid turned heads in those two Toronto games and already has a spectacular goal on his NHL resume. This infusion of energy, skill and speed marked by Stützle’s imminent return to the lineup can’t happen soon enough.
Stützle, by the way, says he suffered the injury at the world junior championships. Whether Stützle plays on Saturday in Winnipeg is up to the trainers, says Stützle, who did practice on Friday.
"It’s getting better day by day," Stützle said on a Zoom call Friday.
3) Colin White needs (ice) time
He looks about as happy as Eeyore, which is understandable. After a challenging, injury-plagued sophomore season, Colin White, 23, Ottawa’s third-highest paid forward at $4.75 million, played just 8:37 in a fourth-line centre role Thursday, only his second start of the season. White has one shot on goal and has averaged 10 minutes of ice time.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The lack of confidence from White or the lack of playing time which led to the lack of confidence? The two games he has played were five days apart, Saturday and Thursday. If he looks sluggish, he also hasn’t had much chance to get his legs under him. Considering he has been replaced in the lineup by Artem Anisimov, a pending UFA who doesn’t figure in Ottawa’s long-term plans, it doesn’t make sense to have White sitting on the sidelines for any period of time. Nor should he be so low in the lineup.
4) Nick Paul is the new team “Duct Tape”
Roy MacGregor used to describe former Senators winger Andreas Dackell as “Duct Tape,” because he had so many uses. He could be plugged anywhere in the lineup and be counted on. Winger Nick Paul is looking like that kind of player for Ottawa. At Friday’s skate, Smith had Paul on an offensive line with Evgenii Dadonov (centre Derek Stepan was off for a maintenance day). Paul has been playing on a checking line with Chris Tierney and Austin Watson. Paul’s speed and physical play, his relentless presence, have been in evidence night after night.
"Arguably, Nick Paul might be our most consistent player through four games," Smith said on Friday. Asked about using him higher up in the lineup, Smith said: "He might be a guy to spark a line for us."
5) Youth must be served
The Senators are bringing their entire taxi squad with them on this two-week roadie, and Smith says everyone will get to play. That means you, defencemen Christian Wolanin and Artem Zub.
Wolanin has been on the 23-man roster but hasn’t played since opening night. Zub is a taxi squad guy. Forward Filip Chlapik is another on the TS who could be activated. Fans are clamoring to see their prospects in action and this trip should at least be a start in that direction.
It may take a while before defenceman Erik Brannstrom, 21, gets in. He is not on the taxi squad and is currently skating with the AHL group.
6) Matt Murray needs help
Not psychological help. Not yet. But Ottawa’s new starting goaltender needs better support if he is going to have success. He also needs to help himself by stopping shots like the distant five-hole wrister by Nicolaj Ehlers that let the air out of the tires early in Thursday’s loss.
To his credit, Murray accepted blame for that shot. "That one’s on me, that’s unacceptable." He also feels he is "very close" to feeling comfortable with his game, in what needs to be a turnaround season for him after a mediocre year in Pittsburgh. At 1-2-1 with a goals-against of 3.79 and save percentage of .880, Murray hasn’t had a lot to write home about. But he was excellent in the opening night win, while enjoying all kinds of support from his defence.
Backup Marcus Hogberg played the third period against Winnipeg Thursday and will be needed during this lengthy road trip. Murray was given Friday off to spend some time with his wife and new baby before the trip to Winnipeg.
7) When they don’t compete, ugliness ensues
The Senators can’t match the experienced, high-end talent of some of their rivals, so when they don’t outwork an opponent or check effectively things can go sideways in a hurry. Game 4 of the homestand, a 4-1 loss to the Jets (the score flattered Ottawa), was a prime example. On Tuesday, the Senators let one get away against Winnipeg, giving up a late power-play goal and then losing in overtime.
At least the Senators took it to the Jets for most of that game, outshooting Winnipeg 18-9 in the first period. Two nights later, there was none of that push. The Senators were chasing the puck all night and took several bad penalties. That their penalty kill was 7/7 proved to be the highlight of a bad night.
It’s worth noting that Ottawa won the opener of both series, against Toronto and Winnipeg, and got outplayed in the second game as their opponents made adjustments and stopped taking the Senators lightly. Thursday’s game could not be rescued by Ottawa players running around trying to flatten everyone in sight. "We just gave them goals," Smith said, after reviewing the tape.
8) Special teams are almost special
Admittedly, the bar was set pretty low here. There was almost nowhere to go but up.
In 2019-20, the Senators were ranked 30th in the power play with a conversion rate of 14.6 per cent. Off a small study sample, four games, all at home, the Senators are sitting 19th overall on the PP at 16.7 per cent. Interestingly, while Dadonov was brought in to improve the power play, he hasn’t yet scored at even strength or with the man advantage. Norris, Alex Galchenyuk and Thomas Chabot have Ottawa’s power play goals. Norris and Batherson have two power-play assists and one could argue those two players have made the biggest impact on the power play so far. They are both playmakers and shooters, and are giving Ottawa fans a glimpse of what they did together in Belleville with the extra man over the past couple of years.
Penalty killing is also better. Thursday was a huge night for the penalty killers, knocking off all seven Winnipeg power plays and scoring a short-handed goal late in the game. Ottawa looks more aggressive in their killing and didn’t give the Jets a lot of time to set up. Over the two games, the Senators killed 11 of 12 Winnipeg power plays. Smith feels the addition of veteran wingers Cedric Paquette and Watson have helped the PK.
9) Zaitsev: judge not lest ye be judged
Nikita Zaitsev became a bit of a whipping boy for fans last season, after replacing another whipping boy, Codi Ceci. Well, don’t look now but Zaitsev leads the Senators in scoring with five points, all assists, is plus-5 and has been pretty dependable defensively, mostly alongside Mike Reilly and sometimes with Chabot. Zaitsev is playing a little more than 21 minutes per game. Chabot is at 24:10.
Regarding puck possession when he’s on the ice, Zaitsev has a Corsi For % at even strength of 55.2, way above his career mark of 48. One of the fun aspects of observing hockey? Seeing players escape the pigeon hole in which they’ve been slotted. If nothing else, Zaitsev is off to a very good start to the season.
Smith believes Zaitsev always had that offensive upside, but didn’t get the chance for offensive zone touches with the Leafs because they had Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner in the O zone, while Zaitsev tended to start in the D zone. "Zee has always had it in him," Smith says, of the added offence.
10) Coaches learn, too
I put the question to Smith: what did he learn in these four games?
"It’s different because there’s a lot of new players playing with new linemates, coming from different teams," Smith said.
"So, you’re learning all the different personalities, how guys play in certain situations. You always hear, ‘He’s a good penalty killer,’ but you’ve got to see him live. Or, he’s good on this and that. As a group, we have a great group of guys. They like each other. They work hard every day. But we still make some mistakes that teams that aren’t there just yet make. We’re going to continue to get better. When you see the teams that are winning now, they don’t make a ton of mistakes. The games we have played well, we didn’t make a ton of mistakes. The games where we didn’t play well, we made lots."