Where did the season go?
The 2021 NHL schedule was condensed, uniquely national, and prone to last-minute changes.
Now it is something else -- nearly over, for a team like the Ottawa Senators that has no playoff hope.
They do have ten games left in the regular season -- ten games to put some touches on a program aspiring to grow a playoff contender as early as 2021-22.
Here’s a somewhat arbitrary ten-point to-do list for Ottawa’s final ten games:
1. Continued bromance between Zac Bierk and Matt Murray
The buck stops here ($6.25M worth for the next three-plus seasons) for Matt Murray. The puck should stop here, too.
Head coach D.J. Smith has repeatedly said that job No. 1 for the balance of this season is to get his No. 1 goaltender sorted out. So adamant were the Senators about helping Murray, they reassigned longtime goalie coach Pierre Groulx two weeks ago and replaced him with Zac Bierk.
So far, so good. Murray has had three strong outings since returning from injury time -- which included an extended practice period to work on his game. One of those outings was a shutout of the Montreal Canadiens, Murray’s first goose egg in Ottawa and the first shutout since Smith became head coach two years ago.
“Pucks are hitting him again,” Smith said this week. High praise for a positional goalie.
Can Murray keep it up? He is expected to carry the bulk of the load, if not play all the games left on the schedule.
2. Formenton and Pinto -- long may they run
One of the great joys for Senators fans in what might otherwise have been just another losing season has been the growth in responsibility for young players.
Formenton has speed to burn. And Pinto, fresh out of his sophomore college season, is so savvy with his positioning and ability to pick off passes, he is a wonder.
Kudos to Smith for using these two in roles traditionally given to veterans. But in an interesting radio interview this week, Smith explained that he only gives out these responsibilities when players prove the ability to handle them.
Smith described Pinto as being “way ahead of most 20-year-olds,” both physically and in terms of his hockey sense. Formenton already has a shorthanded goal to his credit. There will be many more to come.
3. What about JBD?
The regular use of Pinto in the lineup (Thursday’s game in Vancouver will be his third consecutive start) begs the question about Pinto’s University of North Dakota teammate Jacob Bernard-Docker.
JBD did make his NHL and Senators debut on April 14 against the Winnipeg Jets, and played pretty well. But while Pinto can slot into a fourth-line centre role with some PK duty, Bernard-Docker has to make it one of the three defensive pairings, and for the time being Smith wants Josh Brown in that final D spot.
Why? Largely because of the lack of grit in Ottawa’s lineup with the injury to forward Austin Watson and the departure of defenceman Erik Gudbranson at the trade deadline.
Smith needs Brown to make life easier for the Senators many prospects. “I don’t want our young guys getting intimidated,” Smith says.
JBD will get back into the lineup at some point, but for now, Smith feels the young defenceman is learning a lot by practising with the team.
It will be important for Bernard-Docker to play a few more pro games this spring, to set him up for next season. Smith’s philosophy is to let young players beat out veterans for their spots in the lineup.
Nobody thinks that Brown is better than Bernard-Docker long term. And it’s hard to question Smith when he has had a lot of success in bringing young players along.
4. One of those young players is Branny
Look no further than 21-year-old Erik Brannstrom for an example of Smith bringing a young player along -- at a pace that seemed glacial for many fans.
Would Brannstrom have shone earlier if older defencemen like Gudbranson or Braydon Coburn weren’t taking up roster spots? Perhaps, but there is no denying that Brannstrom gained confidence by playing some games in the AHL, even if he also had to bide his time on the taxi squad.
Brannstrom has looked comfortable in his new starting role since the trade deadline, including second unit duty on the power play. Smith points to a recent game where Brannstrom had a tough middle period but bounced back in the third, something he wasn’t doing early this season or last year.
An ability to turn the page is invaluable for young players in the NHL. That sense that Smith was simply not a “Branny guy,” seems to have fallen by the wayside.
5. Last call for Logan Brown
Ah yes, Logan Brown.
He was a big topic in training camp, and early in the season . . . and now it feels as though he has fallen off a cliff.
Incredibly, the big 6-6 centre, drafted 11th overall by Ottawa in 2016, has played just seven games this season, all in the AHL with Belleville. He has two assists.
Brown has been dogged by myriad injuries almost from the day he was drafted. At times he and his agent have been miffed about his progress in the organization, but that feeling is mutual.
Tellingly, in a recent interview when he was asked about Brown, general manager Pierre Dorion quickly addressed the fact that Brown was still sidelined with injury and then changed the subject to prospects doing well.
Brown is finally back playing, with two recent games for the B-Sens, including an assist in his last outing.
There is still a chance he could excel with Belleville and get in a game or two with the NHL club, but time is running out, if not yet on Brown’s future, certainly on this season. Brown is a pending RFA and everyone would love to see something from him before he’s trying to impress a different organization.
6. There’s no ‘I’ in team but there is in ‘identity’
No self-respecting hockey list would be complete without the ever-popular identity question.
Seems to me that Smith’s team has always had an identity of working hard, getting along as a group and never quitting late in games. But there is no time like the present to hammer home these points.
These ten games are like an extended training camp or exhibition schedule -- a chance to hone a style and an ethic. That emphasis includes training young players how to play away from the puck. Every coach’s dream.
Personally, I look forward to the day when the Senators have enough mature talent and skill to run and gun and let other teams worry about mucking up the neutral zone.
7. Get that Norris-for-Calder promo done
Josh Norris, 21, might be running out of racetrack in the Calder Trophy pursuit, but it shouldn’t escape notice that he has vaulted himself into the conversation. Norris is a solid third in rookie points (29) and goals (13).
It doesn’t look like anyone is going to catch Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov, who has 38 points and 19 goals. Some fans treat Kaprizov’s candidacy with derision because of his lengthy KHL experience and age -- he will turn 24 on Monday.
It’s possible some voters may view Kaprizov’s rookie status as questionable, but he is an NHL rookie as far as the league is concerned and there is no questioning the special season he has had.
That doesn’t take anything away from Norris, who continues to grow in confidence in his elevated role as Ottawa’s No. 1 centre. Norris is red hot, too, with 11 points in April and eight in his past five games. His 13 power play points lead all NHL rookies.
By the way, don’t you secretly enjoy seeing Filip Gustavson ranked first in rookie save percentage at .946? Never mind that Gustavsson has played just four games.
8. Zone entries on the power play
The Senators' power play, as we have seen recently, is not as horrible as their season-long numbers might suggest. They just need to get into the offensive zone more efficiently.
Once a team is able to get a clear off a faceoff or pass intercept, they dump the puck and wait while Ottawa kills the penalty for them, by advancing the puck and then dropping passes to the neutral zone, or even back to their own blue line. That system left the Senators' wingers flat-footed and too many times the surge died in an awkward sequence at the enemy blue line.
Lately, though, the Senators are letting puck handlers like Thomas Chabot or Drake Batherson skate the puck over the line, or advance with a blue line pass, and then they are able to set up.
Once they do, the Senators are producing. Ottawa has power-play goals in its past five games (5/15 or .333) and while that has hardly put a dent in the overall rank of 26th and a 16.7 conversion rate, it bodes well for next year if they can continue to get this power play working.
Meanwhile, the young, skilled shooters like Norris, Batherson and Tim Stützle are finding their mark and growing in confidence.
9. Finish out of the North basement
This isn’t something you hear talked about, but if the Senators continue to play as they have in the past few games, they could escape last place in the division, a place they have occupied virtually all season.
I think it would mean something to the group to crawl out of the basement over the final couple of weeks, even if it is a long shot.
Too bad Ottawa only has one game left with Calgary, a team it has owned this season. The Flames are five points ahead of the Senators and have a game in hand.
The Vancouver Canucks are just three points up on Ottawa, but objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. The pandemic-addled Canucks have a crazy seven games in hand. That schedule and fatigue is bound to catch up to Vancouver, but the Canucks efforts against the Leafs this week were nothing short of heroic.
10. Continued spoiler role
Let’s face it. Most of the heavy lifting has been done as far as Ottawa making life miserable for Canadian teams ahead of them in this one-off North Division.
By beating the Flames six times in eight meetings, the Senators got a Calgary coach fired and single-handedly ruined Calgary’s shot at making the playoffs.
They also played a role in the firing of Montreal’s head coach Claude Julien, a native Ottawa son, while beating the Habs five times in eight meetings, including wins after Julien left.
Alas, the Senators only have one game left against the Flames and two against Montreal, so most of their spoiler work is already in the books. That is not likely to change Ottawa’s approach of playing every team tough down the stretch, including matchups against Toronto and Winnipeg, fighting for first place in the division.