The Ottawa Senators will close out their season the same way it began -- with a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A lot has changed since Jan. 15. The optimism and euphoria of that opening night, 5-3 victory over Toronto, led by the goaltending of Matt Murray, was short lived. A 2-12-1 run over the first month was too big a hole to overcome.
And yet, a funny thing happened on the way to playoff elimination. Fans in Ottawa grew MORE optimistic, not less, about their team and its future.
A viral video this week of kids in Ottawa tossing hats into the backyard of rookie winger Tim Stützle to salute his first NHL hat trick (in Winnipeg) was a convenient symbol of the growing affection fans have for the Senators young guns.
An infusion of youth, particularly since the April 12 trade deadline, has energized their roster and this community, all while turning the Senators into one of the hottest teams in the NHL. How much of that late run was Fool’s Gold, in games that held no pressure or significance beyond young players getting established in the league?
That is hard to say. In a way, it doesn’t really matter. Hockey teams barely carry any momentum from one game to the next, let alone one season to another. So, while the Senators might not exactly pick up where they left off, on a 7-2-1 roll heading into the 2020-21 finale, they have given the organization a lot to think about as a wave of new and relatively new prospects have showcased their talent on an NHL stage -- from Shane Pinto and Alex Formenton, to Jacob Bernard-Docker, Erik Brannstrom and Victor Mete.
Ottawa’s season comes to an abrupt halt with Wednesday’s Sportsnet broadcast of the Leafs vs. the Senators, but in truth the fan base has been looking ahead to next season for the past month or so.
Sketching out depth charts has become a popular pandemic activity in the Nation’s Capital.
Hey, what else can we do until the province opens up its golf courses again?
Some potential line combos and defence pairings for training camp, with the proviso that general manager Pierre Dorion is likely to add a piece or two over the summer:
Brady Tkachuk - Josh Norris - Drake Batherson
Tim Stützle - Shane Pinto - Connor Brown
Nick Paul - Colin White - Evgenii Dadonov
Alex Formenton - Chris Tierney - Austin Watson
F Wild Cards: Ridly Greig, Egor Sokolov, Logan Brown
Thomas Chabot - Nikita Zaitsev
Erik Brannstrom - Artem Zub
Victor Mete - Jacob Bernard-Docker
D Wild Cards: Jake Sanderson, Josh Brown
Matt Murray - Anton Forsberg
G Wild Cards: Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord, Mads Sogaard
One of the key developments of the latter half of the season has been the establishment of Ottawa’s top line of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. Two of the three, Tkachuk and Batherson, need new contracts as they are pending restricted free agents. It’s remarkable to see the three of them with virtually the same goal/point totals — 17/35 for Tkachuk, 16/34 Norris and 17/34 Batherson. All three are capable of making plays and pulling the trigger.
Of the potential four lines for next fall, this is the most likely to start the season together. And the most important factors that made it happen? One, the progress of Norris from a maybe-second-or-third line centre into a legitimate No. 1. And two, the explosion of Batherson as a goal scorer at the NHL level. Prior to this season, Batherson was a three-goals-in-20-games kind of guy — he had that scoreline in 2018-19 and then three in 23 games in 2019-20.
For Batherson to jump to 17 goals in 55 games projects to a 25-goal season in a regular 82-game schedule. And because Norris and Tkachuk have similar numbers, they project to similar territory.
Now, add in the fact that Norris and Tkachuk are 22 and Batherson just turned 23 and it’s easy to see why fans are excited about Ottawa’s top forward line and the potential for it to be even better next season than it is today.
Call on Line 2:
Things can change by the fall, but the Senators' top six looks fairly set. Smith seems enamoured, for now, of a second line comprising the two kids — Tim Stützle and Shane Pinto — with Connor Brown, an established veteran who took his game to another level this season and leads the Senators with 20 goals heading into the final game.
Look for Stützle to be physically stronger in his sophomore season after a summer of training. Pinto already plays like a man, but both players need room to grow as pros, and that means there will be learning pains. The Senators seem to have abandoned the idea of moving Stützle back to his natural centre position. That could still happen in a year or two, but with his speed and creativity, even from the wing position, the thinking is to just let him wheel and score -- while the two-way players like Pinto hold down the middle, monitor opposing centres and win faceoffs.
Letting Timmy be Timmy seems like a great way to go.
Bottom six can mix:
Typical of any NHL roster, the bottom six situation is going to be more fluid. Versatile players like Masterton nominee Nick Paul and Colin White can move up and down the lineup as needed and there could be roster changes. White is overpaid at $4.75 million, which means he could be left exposed in the expansion draft. Ditto for centre Chris Tierney at $3.5 million, but for just one more year. Dorion could add a depth forward over the summer.
Mister Breakaway, Alex Formenton, has been a revelation with his speed and penalty-killing ability. He has played just 29 NHL games and has upside to go with those sweet wheels.
Coach Smith will be glad to get tough Austin Watson back from his hand injury in the fall. He blocks shots, answers challenges and stands up for all the kids in the lineup.
A prospect like centre Ridly Greig could get a look as an energy player, although he could use a year in the AHL to develop. Logan Brown, a first-round pick in 2016, and a pending RFA, may have run out of opportunities with this organization and will likely move on. Brown’s only NHL game this season comes in Wednesday’s finale.
Top Belleville scorers this season, wingers Egor Sokolov and Vitaly Abramov, will try to win a spot in camp but will be in tough. Winger Angus Crookshank has also impressed the organization in his 15 games with Belleville.
How things have changed. Belleville used to be chock full of future Senators — Norris, Batherson, Formenton, Brannstrom, etc. Now they are almost all in Ottawa.
Case for the defence:
Is next year the time when Jacob Bernard-Docker steps in as a partner for Thomas Chabot, or does Nikita Zaitsev hold down that role for one more year?
Jake Sanderson, JBD’s teammate at the University of North Dakota, is going to be a huge piece of Ottawa’s future, but is committed to UND for another season. Don’t be surprised to see him with the Senators by next spring.
Where will Victor Mete fit in? There’s a sentence we didn’t expect to write. Yet, Mete came over on waivers from Montreal and has played very well. Mete and Brannstrom have similar styles and both are undersized. Is there room for both? That depends on whether Dorion adds another experienced defenceman in the off-season.
Eyes rolled among the fan base when he picked up veterans like Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson last year, but those D-men served a purpose, giving the younger defencemen a chance to ease into the league before stepping up after the trade deadline.
Will there be peace in goal?
The Senators might be planning for the playoffs right now if they had had the kind of goaltending in January that they found in April and May. Murray did bounce back from injuries and a terrible start to look like a legitimate No. 1 in his five April appearances (.954 save percentage, 1.37 goals-against average, with two shutouts) before getting hurt again.
Stabilizing Murray is the most important need for this team next fall. And yet, his stumbles may have been a blessing in disguise. It enabled the organization to pick up Forsberg on waivers, a useful, experienced backup. Even more importantly, prospects Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson both impressed in their sudden opportunities at the NHL level, when Murray and Marcus Hogberg got hurt. A Daccord injury put the focus squarely on Gustavsson, who has been outstanding.
It will be fascinating to see which goalies are protected in the expansion draft and whether or not Seattle opts for one of Ottawa’s tenders. Murray is expensive ($6.25 million for another three years), such that the contract might be protection enough. Hogberg is a pending RFA and not likely to return.
On the youth front, Sogaard is Sooooo intriguing. Just 20 years old, Sogaard is a massive man at six-foot-seven, but with surprising mobility. Making the most of a late-season opportunity, Sogaard is 4-0-0 with a .921 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average with the B-Sens in four starts. The Danish goalie, who was drafted out of the WHL (Medicine Hat) will likely continue to develop with Belleville next season.