Even more than usual, forecasting has become a fool’s business.
Who can predict the outcome of events these days, when the events themselves are so often delayed, postponed or cancelled outright?
Nevertheless, into the breach we go with three bold predictions for the Ottawa Senators in 2022 -- assuming the entire year doesn't just get put over to 2023.
Matt Murray rebounds
I know, this sounds like a prediction made out on the thinnest limb of a questionable tree, with the sound of the branch giving way. But if you think about it, everything is in place for Ottawa’s erstwhile starting goaltender to get back to doing what he was hired to do.
Murray has been everything but reliable this season. He’s been slow off the mark, sick, injured, then sicker (with COVID-19), then waived to the minors.
Murray has played well in his two AHL starts with Belleville (1-1, 2.55 GAA and .918 goals-against) and should get a chance to return to Ottawa to be part of a tandem with Forsberg. The big Swede has been terrific, giving his young team a chance to win nearly every game he has started in December.
But he is bound to need a break, or stumble, and Murray will get his chance at some measure of redemption. Keep in mind Murray did have a strong rebound last spring, returning from injury and a technical reboot to go 3-1-0 with a 1.37 GAA and .953% in five April games. Two of those three wins came by shutout. So, Murray has it in him, let’s see if the Sens can bring it out of him.
Winning hockey the rest of the way
After winning just one game in November, the Senators were a different team in December. The top line of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson emerged as a force. Tim Stützle broke out of his early scoring slump. Forsberg provided stability in goal and the defensive pairings were sorted out, with Thomas Chabot/Nikita Zaitsev and Artem Zub/Nick Holden as a reliable top four.
Before the pause, Zaitsev was injured, leaving rookie Jacob Bernard-Docker to fill in. While JBD doesn’t have Zaitsev’s experience, there is no reason that JBD and/or Lassi Thomson can’t fill in until Zaitsev returns.
A playoff spot is a distant dream, but who needs to think about that as the new year begins? If Ottawa can play the same way in January that it did in December, there is no reason to think the Senators can’t go.500 or better the rest of the way. Whether that puts the Sens in the mix as the playoff picture gets sorted out is secondary to the concept of playing well enough to salvage some pride in a season that got off the rails in October and November.
Jake Sanderson makes impressive jump
Let the USA hockey program kick around its Olympic roster, with the possibility that Ottawa prospect Jake Sanderson could make the grade. In Ottawa, fans prefer to look forward to the day, as early as this coming March, when the fine young defenceman finishes his NCAA season with the University of North Dakota and comes directly to Ottawa to begin his NHL career. It says here that Sanderson not only jumps directly into a spot on the Senators blueline but steps in and doesn’t miss a step. This spring or certainly by next fall, it is possible to imagine a top four defence that includes Sanderson, perhaps in a tandem with Zub.
“Jake Sanderson could be playing for the Ottawa Senators right now,” said USA general manager John Vanbiesbrouck on the eve of the World Junior Championship. Sanderson, who is wearing the ‘C’ for Team USA, is the complete package as a defensive prospect. He plays a sound defensive game, skates like a dream (his father was the smooth-skating Geoff Sanderson), and at better than one-point-per game this season is showing that he has more offensive upside than some realized.
Chabot, Ottawa’s other franchise D-man, was a first-round draft pick in 2015 (18th overall) and barely had a cup of coffee in the AHL, playing just 13 games in the fall of 2017-18 before jumping into the NHL as a 20-year-old and proving himself to be a special player and an outstanding pick at No. 18 overall. Most draft ‘do-overs’ from 2015 have Chabot slide in at sixth overall.
Sanderson,the No. 5 pick in 2020, could play as a 19-year-old this spring and be an NHL regular next fall at age 20. He is another huge piece in the core of Ottawa’s future as a contending team.