Fans losing patience with rebuild as Senators exposed in North Division

DJ Smith talked about the Senators young core struggling early in the season, and why it isn't time to bring negativity into the locker room.

They have been a patient lot, fans of the Ottawa Senators.

But their patience is wearing thin.

Nearly four years since the most recent taste of playoff action, with promises of a deep rebuild and a bright future to emerge from the departures of fan favourites such as Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris and more, the fanbase is riled and cynical, and who can blame them?

At least they haven’t reached the state of apathy, which is the worst a franchise can endure.

They still care. They are angry. They want change. And they do see some promise in the young talent that has been stockpiled over the past three losing seasons.

No one expected the 2020-21 Senators to be world-beaters, but neither were they thought to be doormats, to be trampled upon by the six Canadian rivals in a North Division that is rag-dolling the Ottawa game after game, the most recent an 8-5 drubbing in Edmonton on Sunday. The score was only that close because the Oilers put a raw rookie in net, and he helped keep it somewhat close.

To opponents, every game against the Senators cries out -- Stats Game!

To their fans, every Senators game is a kick to the gut.

This roster was supposed to be competitive, “harder to play against,” but through nine games has been a pretty soft touch, a chance for North Division stars to shine at Ottawa’s expense. We are left to wonder how much better the rebuilding Senators might look in a different, more nuanced, division. But that card has been dealt.

Fans were promised better for 2021 by their owner, by their general manager and by their head coach. Each has something to answer for, nine games into a season that began with a victory on home ice and then eight straight losses.

Time update needed on the ‘unparalleled success’

Let's be honest here. The moment the sentence was delivered by Eugene Melnyk, there wasn’t a person alive who expected “a five-year run of unparalleled success” was going to begin like clockwork in 2021.

The Senators owner made the comment at a corporate event in February 2019. We all knew that line was going to come back to haunt him, and yet, at the same time, no one was really going to hold him to it, in a literal sense. It was the spirit of the comment that was vital to the credibility of the operation -- a promise to become a contending team over the next few years, with all the responsibilities, financial and otherwise, that entails. It means locking up Brady Tkachuk. It means bringing in first-rate support talent, not castoffs, at a time when the young core matures.

How time flies when you’re in last place -- don’t look now, but 2021 is here. And while the Senators did spend some money on veteran players in the off-season, some of it clearly misplaced, they still trail the rest of the league with a payroll of about $71 million.

No one expects the Senators to spend to the cap right now, they are clearly not ready yet. But when? And will it actually happen?

Even in the best-case scenario, if a lot of pieces fall into place and prospects mature quickly, “Peak Senators” time is starting to look much further up the road than the owner and management anticipated in February of 2019 when “2021-25” was spoken of like a golden era beckoning.

With COVID-19 setbacks, and no fan tickets for sale for the foreseeable future, forecasts must be adjusted, including revenue streams, and the timing of financial commitment vows.

Being upfront with the fan base as this progresses is going to be critical if the club is going to have any credibility.

Manage this crisis with a twist of youth

GM Pierre Dorion worked his tail off during the off-season. He made trades, signed free agents, worked on his roster for months. Today, every one of his moves is being questioned, examined with microscopic lenses and analytics data, some of it not as negative as imagined for a 1-7-1 team that is being outscored by a 2-to-1 margin, 44 goals to 22.

Dorion’s biggest move, trading for goaltender Matt Murray and signing him to a four-year, $25-million contract, must be shaking management to its core, given that Murray looks fragile and defeated, the victim of poor defence and his own shaken confidence. To his credit, Murray faced the Zoom cameras Monday and vowed he is working to get better, as is the group.

Mercifully, this 56-game, condensed season is going to move along quickly, though not fast enough for those tuning in to Ottawa games night after night. Eventually, some of the Senators four pending unrestricted free agents at forward and three UFA defenceman can be moved for a spare part or draft pick.

In the meantime, the Senators don’t owe any of their veterans any favours based on performance thus far. It’s soon going to be time to turn the page and change the storyline. As much as possible, work with the coaching staff to get more prospects into games. The AHL is expected to start soon, and when it does, it will provide game action for more young players, a natural feeder system for Ottawa as it plays out the rest of its season. Erik Brannstrom, considered a huge piece in the Mark Stone trade, needs to play. He would lighten some hearts here if he can work his way into the lineup. Ditto for Logan Brown, a big, skilled centre, itching for a chance.

Dorion has to be thinking about making a trade of some kind. While I wouldn’t touch Tony DeAngelo and his baggage, the idea of bringing in someone like defenceman Vince Dunn from the St. Louis Blues, could make sense. He is just 24, has upside and his cap hit is just $1.875 million as a pending RFA.

Coaches adapting but the carnage is ugly

As bad as this team has played, it’s not as bad as it’s showing. 5-on-5, they are not horrible. Giving up goals early in games and taking needless penalties have put a team that can least afford it into deep holes. The here-we-go-again mode. Bulletin: taking penalties against Connor McDavid and friends is career limiting.

The Senators spent Monday’s practice in Edmonton working on “habits and details,” according to head coach D.J. Smith. In the neutral zone and faceoff dots.

“We have to do things right all the time ... to the enth degree,” Smith said.

That includes what he referred to as a 28 per cent faceoff percentage while short-handed. The Oilers scored eight seconds into Sunday’s game, off a clean faceoff win.

These Senators have consistently fallen behind in games, then chased the play. When they have leads, like they did against Toronto opening night, they are a much different group. Of course, there are personnel issues, especially on defence. Minus Thomas Chabot, out with a nagging injury, their D pairings would frighten a child.

Coming out of training camp, Smith had options, especially at forward, considering all the new veterans brought in, plus a deep taxi squad with which to work.

He made it clear that, at least to start the season, he was going to lean toward vets over younger players, even going so far as to bench third-year centre Colin White, who just turned 24, and has a big contract ($4.75-million cap hit) through 2024-25. Heads were scratched as Artem Anisimov, a 32-year-old forward who doesn’t figure into the team’s long range plans, was starting ahead of White.

In recent games, White has gotten back in and has been a difference maker. On Sunday in Edmonton, he scored his first goal of the season. It was a bright moment in a long night.

Tim Stützle, 19, also scored, his second of the season. After an injury setback, Stützle is starting to find his way in the league and this week will reach the eight-game milestone and burn a year of his entry-level deal, assuming the Senators want to keep him here and not send him back to Germany. The sense is he will stay.

Drake Batherson added a power-play goal Sunday, his first of the season, a top-shelf beauty, that will give the 22-year-old confidence. It hasn’t gone without notice that the highlights of Ottawa’s year so far are all centred on young players like Tkachuk, Chabot, Batherson, Josh Norris and Stützle.

Very quickly, any idea of the Senators being a playoff team is evaporating. Getting some players into the line of fire is going to become a priority. After Sunday’s game, Smith said that goalie prospect Joey Daccord is “a guy we have to think about,” given the way offences have exploited Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg.

“At this point, we just need a win to stop the bleeding,” Smith said Monday, adding that whoever starts Tuesday has to “give us a game.”

Job one still has to be to get Murray back in form. Spot starting Daccord is fine, but it would be wise to pick a spot when the team is playing a bit better. They can’t just throw him to the wolves.

Meanwhile, the road trip from hell ensues. One more in Edmonton Tuesday, and then a cross-country flight to Montreal for Thursday’s date against the Canadiens before the Senators face Montreal again at the Canadian Tire Centre Saturday afternoon.

“Everybody is doing a good job of staying positive, of course, it’s a tough time,” Tkachuk said. “We’re going to get out of this eventually.”

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