Ottawa Senators season preview: Can new faces help them exceed expectations?

Senators forward Connor Brown expects a highly competitive training camp this season, because the team's depth has improved so much this offseason.

No Canadian team has been off so long, or in camp as long, as the Ottawa Senators.

Finally, 10 months and four days since their last game, the Senators will face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 15 in their 2020-21 regular-season opener.

The Senators have changed half their roster and are far deeper in experienced players and ready prospects than they were at the outset of 2019-20. They hope that added depth will carry them through a season like no other: a compressed 56-game schedule, with injuries and health concerns ripe during an unrelenting pandemic.

2019-20 regular season record: 25-34-12=62 pts
2019-20 season finish: 30th
Top 2020 draft pick: F Tim Stuetzle, third overall
Additions: G Matt Murray, D Braydon Coburn, D Erik Gudbranson, D Josh Brown, D Artem Zub, F Evgenii Dadonov, F Derek Stepan, F Alex Galchenyuk, F Austin Watson, F Cedric Paquette
Subtractions: G Craig Anderson (to Washington), D Dylan DeMelo (to Winnipeg), Anthony Duclair (to Florida), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (to New York Islanders), F Tyler Ennis (to Edmonton), F Bobby Ryan (to Detroit), D Mark Borowiecki (to Nashville), D Ron Hainsey


Outside of Ottawa, few have serious aspirations for a Senators team that has occupied the bottom two places of the league standings for the past three seasons. From that vantage point, anything beyond a seventh place finish would be a strong result by the Senators.

That is certainly not the view inside the organization or in the dressing room. The Senators expect to take a step toward being a competitive team, not just a hard-working club that can catch a contender napping.

“We want to be able to play even with teams or better,” says head coach D.J. Smith, when asked to outline his expectations for the 2020-21 Senators.

“For the most part last year, we were always counter-punching. Even when we won we spent a lot of time in our zone and we had to hang on a lot. We want a little more even play with these teams, regardless of wins and losses.”

It is Smith’s plan to sustain more offensive time, more puck control with better breakouts. He also wants the power play to be better, understandably. Ottawa was dead last in the league in 2019-20 with a 14.2-per cent efficiency. The coaching staff think that will improve with the additions of Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk. It will be interesting to see if some of the young guns who have shown proficiency on the power play at the AHL level — namely Logan Brown, Josh Norris, Christian Wolanin and Erik Brannstrom — get a chance, either with a regular spot or by coming off the taxi squad.

Fresh off an exhilarating performance at the world juniors, Tim Stuetzle will get an opportunity to play and stay with the Senators all season, despite the fact he only turns 19 on Jan. 15, the day of the season opener. A natural centre, Stuetzle is expected to start his NHL career on the wing, on one of the top two lines.

It’s no secret the 30th ranked team in goals allowed will have to tighten up.

“No team can have success and give up as many goals as we did last year,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion told Sportsnet. “So, obviously it starts with the defence, then it’s how you play in your own end.”

While Dorion stops short of calling this a playoff team, he is convinced his roster will be competitive, a team “fans will be proud of.”

Top line winger Brady Tkachuk, already leading the charge for the Senators entering his third NHL season, goes a little further in setting the bar for 2020-21.

“A realistic expectation, what we have in mind is to make the playoffs,” Tkachuk says. “We’ve got so many veteran guys who have won, who have got the experience. They’ve won the Stanley Cup. I think we have the tools. We have young guys eager to learn. It’s seven teams, top four, in a short season. Anything can happen.”

The Senators reaching the playoffs would be stunning, though not out of the realm of possibility considering the different factors in play this weird year. Long term, even a fifth or sixth place finish, with progress made by their emerging talent would register as a success.

X-Factor: Matt Murray

The puck stops here. The Senators certainly hope that is the case with goaltender Matt Murray, having invested four years and $25 million into their biggest off-season acquisition.

Murray won two Stanley Cups with a veteran Pittsburgh Penguins roster and should be motivated coming off what was a mediocre season for him — a save percentage under .900 (.899) for the first time in his NHL career. It would be one thing if Murray were just switching teams, to an established blueline. But he is joining a Senators roster in transition. Three starters are gone (DeMelo, Borowiecki, Hainsey) and the replacements should be an upgrade — Coburn, Brown and Gudbranson, with Zub and Wolanin knocking on the door.

Still, it will take time for the new group to gel, and there is little time to waste when teams are playing every other night. Ottawa will have to find chemistry in a hurry because a bad start could be lethal.

Player who could surprise: Alex Galchenyuk

Galchenyuk could be a pleasant surprise, or he could bomb. But considering the former first-round pick (third overall, Montreal, 2012) could be had for one year at $1,050,000, he is a low-risk signing with potential upside.

Galchenyuk, 26, hasn’t reached the 20-goal mark since the 2015-16 season when he scored 30 goals for the Canadiens. My concern with his status in Ottawa relates to his attention to detail defensively and a declaration from Smith that only his hardest-working players will stay in the lineup. When he’s engaged, Galchenyuk can be a good player, but he has lapses.

Galchenyuk should get opportunities on the power play, where Ottawa is auditioning for upgrades. Galchenyuk was once a productive player. Three times he has scored nine power play goals in a season, as recently as 2018-19 with Arizona.

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