Josh Norris the centre of Senators' bright future down the middle

Watch as Ottawa Senators' Josh Norris and D.J. Smith discuss the swagger the team has and how they are using it to finish out the season.

Nobody talks about the NHL’s best teams without looking at their strength at centre.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won multiple Cups with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Edmonton Oilers can roll Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The Toronto Maple Leafs go 1-2 with Auston Matthews and John Tavares.

Do the Ottawa Senators have the potential to compete against elite talent as their rebuild eventually evolves into a finished product?

The potential is there but it will take some time.

From the emergence of Calder Trophy candidate Josh Norris as a No. 1 centre to the recent arrival of Hobey Baker finalist Shane Pinto, the Senators don’t just have depth at centre, they have talent.

It’s been discussed how Ottawa’s defence evolved after moving veterans like Erik Gudbranson and Braydon Coburn to open up opportunities for the Senators' blue-line prospects Erik Brannstrom and newly acquired Victor Mete.

But the forward situation has also changed dramatically since the start of the season. Remember when Derek Stepan, Cedric Paquette and Artem Anisimov had prominent roles coming out of training camp?

So thin were the Senators at centre, head coach D.J. Smith was delighted to see a Christmas holiday trade to acquire a veteran presence at centre like Stepan, even if he had lost a step. Or two steps.

Paquette, we were told, could play centre or wing, and would add depth to Ottawa’s penalty killing.

While the coaching staff insists the early season veterans played a vital nurturing role before departing, none of the three was involved in the Senators' youthful 6-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, Ottawa’s fifth win in its last six games.

While an injury sidelined Stepan in late February, Paquette was moved at the deadline and Anisimov has been swept aside by the youth movement that is led by an inspiring No. 1 line: Norris, Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson. This under-23 unit was tried and abandoned earlier in the season, but reunited for the past eight games. Ottawa has won six of them. All three excel on the power play, combining for 39 power-play points this season — 15 for Batherson, 14 by Norris and 10 for Tkachuk.

Now, about those centres...

Point per game for Norris

Norris has been a revelation all season, but especially down the stretch. In the month of April, he has not gone two games in a row without a point and has averaged a point per game in 14 games with seven goals and seven assists.

As it stands, the Senators are running four lines with Norris, Colin White, Chris Tierney and Pinto in the middle of them.

White slots in at No. 2 at the moment, between Tim Stützle and Evgenii Dadonov. But it was the Tierney line with Ryan Dzingel and Connor Brown that was giving the Canucks fits on Wednesday with puck control in the Vancouver zone.

Toss in the fourth line of Pinto between the electric speed of Alex Formenton and the push of Nick Paul and it becomes evident the Senators have four strong, balanced lines for the first time all season.

Everything about the Senators — this late-season push and the emergence of the youth corps — is about next season and beyond.

So, how does the centre position shape up?

There is no question that Norris, once considered a future second-line centre for this organization, is going to be their No. 1 pivot next season. With 15 goals and 32 points in 50 games, the rookie has shown he can be a two-way threat, a playmaker with a lethal shot. Norris doesn’t flinch at the challenge of going against the top opposition centres. Because he’s still just 21 (he turns 22 next week), he is only going to get better with his overall game.

Beyond Norris is where things start to get interesting.

There’s a chance things play out next season just as they line up now, with White, Tierney and Pinto holding down the other three jobs.

But when you take a look at the production levels and contracts involved, there’s potential for change, especially with an expansion draft coming up.

White’s contract stands out

White, 24, is a decent player and doesn’t get pushed off the puck the way he did earlier in his career. At $4.75 million per year for the next four seasons, he also leaves you wanting.

By his own admission, this has been a difficult year for him, given that it was supposed to be a bounce-back season. He was a healthy scratch at the start of 2021 and had to claw his way out of Smith’s dog house.

While he did that with a decent month of February (seven points), his numbers are just not there. He had two points in the month of April and four in all of March. White hasn’t recorded an assist since March 8! White’s 16 points (including 10 goals) rank 10th in team scoring, albeit in just 40 games played compared to 50 for the leaders.

His faceoff numbers are horrendous at 40.5 per cent. And all of this is while coming off a rough 2019-20, in which White had seven goals and 23 points in 61 games. He is an example of a promising player given too much, too soon: a six-year, $28.5M contract at the age of 22.

It will be interesting to see if White is exposed in the Seattle draft. Would the new team take a ‘Kraken’ at that contract? The deal itself may protect White from getting selected.

Tierney slow but steady

And what about Tierney? He was thought to be a potential deadline move but even though he just has a year left on his contract, at $3.5 million, it was a barrier to many teams. Tierney’s goal on Wednesday (he should have had a couple) ended a 14-game goalless drought.

Now 26, Tierney is a useful player for the Senators, especially with role winger Austin Watson out. While he won’t win many foot races, Tierney kills penalties and is better on faceoffs than White.

With Stepan gone, Tierney does provide some needed experience at centre. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to have that around next season, even if he’s not likely part of the picture long term.

Pinto’s NHL baptism

Pinto has the makings of a solid second- or third-line centre in the NHL. With a better than 60 per cent faceoff percentage in the NCAA with North Dakota plus other signs of game maturity, Pinto has the potential to be an excellent two-way pivot. He’s big at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, and is just 20 years old.

In college, he won conference honours for his offence and defence. Smith already trusts him on the penalty kill and in late-game situations, which is telling.

Of course, Pinto will need time to develop. His late-season baptism on NHL faceoffs is an example of how big a jump it is to the NHL. On Wednesday, Pinto lost all eight of his draws. That doesn’t mean faceoffs won’t again become a major strength of his, in time.

Greig in the mix

Because he returned to junior hockey, which has been a hodge-podge of cancelled games and non-existent seasons, it’s easy to forget about that other first-round pick by the Senators in 2020, centre Ridly Greig. Selected 28th overall, Greig is the kind of tenacious battler ideal for a third- or fourth-line role on a good team.

With a late-summer birthday, Greig is still only 18, and while he played just 21 WHL games this season with Brandon, he has made the most of them. He had 10 goals and 32 points in those 21 games, which would project to a 100-point season in a regular year. His 39 penalty minutes are indicative of his scrappy nature.

With his WHL season over, Greig is expected to join the AHL's Belleville Senators following a quarantine.

Stützle the wild card

There is always the chance that Tim Stützle, who has played left wing all season, could revert to his natural centre position next year. However, if the Senators had that plan in the works, one might think they would try him out there before the end of this season.

It looks more likely that Stützle, Ottawa’s prized third-overall draft pick in 2020, will continue on the wing, at least for the start of next season. Down the road, think of the potential of a one-two centre combination of Norris and Stützle, a dynamic pair that would bring speed and creativity to the top two lines.

Stützle needs to add strength in the off-season, which would help him in the faceoff circle, but the notion of having this much skill in two natural centres has to be enticing for the organization.

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