6 ways Senators could surprise critics in all-Canadian division

David Amber is joined by Sportsnet.ca writer Wayne Scanlan to discuss the biggest moves made by the Ottawa Senators in the off-season & if this team is ready to compete sooner rather than later.

So, the NHL is about to embark on a bold new adventure -- a condensed season of restricted travel and geographical divisions in an attempt to keep players and communities safe during a thriving pandemic.

Not a problem! Can’t be much worse than tightrope walking across Hells Canyon while juggling 31 bowling pins... and while being exposed to sniper fire.

We will get through this, at least according to Gary Bettman’s most private, fervent prayers.

If the NHL is able to start its season in the New Year as planned, it will be fun to contemplate this rare Canadian Division, unless, perhaps, you are the Ottawa Senators facing six Canadian rivals that are not deep in a rebuild as Ottawa is at the moment.

“We’re going to be playing a lot of Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg plus the other Canadian teams and that’s fine,” Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said during a podcast interview last month.

“It's just that, from a hockey point of view, it’s a tough, tough division. We don’t get to play the weaker teams. They’re all good. It’s good for Canada and maybe this is the year a Canadian team gets there and wins.”

In normal times, the business side of the Senators operation would have loved the idea of archrivals like Montreal and Toronto traipsing through the Canadian Tire Centre on a regular basis. The potential for ticket sales would have been tremendous.

Instead, it may be a while before any fans are allowed in NHL arenas, let alone a full house.

On the hockey side of things, everyone and his or her pandemic pet is predicting various Canadian Division contenders but only one cellar-dweller -- Ottawa.

What would it take for the Senators to finish out of the basement in the Canadian division?

Young stars must blossom

Yes, we know, the Senators' young prospects won’t hit their prime for a few years. Ottawa’s two highest draft picks in a single draft -- No. 3 Tim Stuetzle and No. 5 Jake Sanderson, are both 18. This is another season of waiting, of getting better by increments.

But it is time for one or more of Ottawa’s promising players -- those not named Tkachuk or Chabot -- to produce at the highest level. Forwards Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton dominated at the AHL level last season, and Batherson showed flashes of his talent in 23 games with Ottawa (three goals, 10 points). But it’s time for a breakthrough in the NHL and they'll ideally get that opportunity this season.

Defence must be better

Only the Detroit Red Wings gave up more goals than Ottawa’s 243 in 71 games (3.4 per game) last season. Gone are Mark Borowiecki and the ancient Ron Hainsey, replaced by Erik Gudbranson and Josh Brown, a relative youth movement and a massive size upgrade.

The rest of the cast is more or less the same, led by Thomas Chabot. It still has the feel of a corps held together by duct tape and glue until Sanderson, Erik Brannstrom and Jacob Bernard-Docker, among others, are ready.

Offence from Dadonov, Galchenyuk

General manager Pierre Dorion lost some offensive firepower at the trade deadline and the off-season with the departures of Anthony Duclair, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Tyler Ennis (33 points, though known for his penalty-killing and depth role). Rather than hand those jobs directly to prospects, Dorion brought in veterans Evgenii Dadonov (a consistent 25-goal scorer), Alex Galchenyuk and grinder Austin Watson to replace the experience that went out the door.

How these new pieces meld with Brady Tkachuk, Colin White, Chris Tierney and Co. will determine whether Ottawa has enough goal-scoring to stay afloat. Scoring wasn’t their biggest issue in 2019-20. Six teams fell below the Senators’ 2.6 goals per game average.

Murray needs a bounce-back year -- and a strong backup

Goaltender Matt Murray was Ottawa’s biggest off-season move. They acquired the former Pittsburgh Penguins starter in exchange for forward Jonathan Gruden and a 2020 second-round pick -- used by Pittsburgh for goaltender Joel Blomqvist. The Senators then signed Murray to a four-year, $25-million contract, their biggest of the off-season.

The 26-year-old replaces veteran Craig Anderson and will need to “loom large” as the immortal Danny Gallivan used to say, for Ottawa to be competitive. In a compressed schedule, Murray will need a good backup. Unfortunately, Anders Nilsson, once pencilled in for the starters’ gig, suffered a concussion last December and is still not 100 per cent. Unless Nilsson’s status changes, backup duty will likely fall to Marcus Hogberg. Joey Daccord will also get a look, and Filip Gustavsson is playing well in Sweden at the moment.

Outside help

Which of Ottawa’s Canadian rivals might hit a surprise downturn? Let’s face it, in a condensed season during a raging pandemic with a rescuing vaccine only beginning its long, slow rollout, a lot can go wrong in a one-off season. Injuries and health issues are bound to crop up and some teams will get hit harder than others.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames look great on paper, and should thrive -- at least until the playoffs start. The Winnipeg Jets survived an injury-riddled 2019-20 and will again count on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to be a difference-maker.

The Vancouver Canucks have been hit hard by the loss of their saviour in goal, Jacob Markstrom, to the Flames as a free agent.

The Montreal Canadiens had a good off-season -- Jake Allen is a nice complement to the overworked Carey Price in goal. Josh Anderson brings needed grit. But the Habs are no powerhouse.

The Edmonton Oilers have two superstars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but are suspect in goal, as usual. Tyson Barrie and Kyle Turris were two nice additions in the off-season.

All in all, this is a strong division. The Senators won’t have a weak sister or brother for an easy two points. They have to hope to catch some teams napping, taking Ottawa lightly.

Expectations are lower than low

With reason, hockey analysts uniformly have Ottawa in the basement of this Canadian Division. And it will take a small miracle to jump up a spot or two.

When you’ve been at or near the bottom of the standings for three straight seasons, you find motivation where you can. Nobody respects the Senators' talent level. They dismiss the roster (though never publicly). Often throw backup goalies against them.

The Senators surprised more than a few teams last season by playing through to the final whistle. Head coach D.J. Smith had his team hustling with energy and conviction night after night. Morale in the dressing room was high. Nobody expects the Senators to be competitive, and that is bound to get their competitive juices going.

It would be a shocker for Ottawa to finish anywhere but seventh, but the Senators will take their shot.

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