Until this current rebuild, the Ottawa Senators generally relied on veteran stars to lead the team offensively.
With the departures of goal scorers like Stone, Mike Hoffman, Matt Duchene and Anthony Duclair in recent years, general manager Pierre Dorion probably imagined that veteran Evgenii Dadonov, signed as a free agent out of Florida in the off-season, would be the one to replace the 23 goals (in 66 games) lost with the departure of Duclair from last season.
Dadonov has actually played well and been productive with seven goals in 25 games, which projects to 23 goals in a regular 82-game season.
And yet, how stunning and refreshing to see the young names atop the Senators’ list of top scorers.
Drake Batherson, 22, and Brady Tkachuk, 21, lead Ottawa in goals with nine each in 25 games. Not since a young Alexei Yashin, 23, Daniel Alfredsson, 24, and Alexandre Daigle, 22, were one-two-three in scoring in 1996-97 have the Senators had such an array of youthful talent leading the way.
Stützle is just 19 years old, and Norris is 21. Chabot is the old man of the group at 24.
If one of the main goals of this season was to turn Ottawa’s young prospects into productive and confident NHL players, mission accomplished. Especially in the forward ranks.
In the more challenging training ground of the backend, it remains a work in progress as Erik Brannstrom and Christian Wolanin find their way. What a pleasant surprise Artem Zub has been, the 25-year-old who joined the Senators from the KHL. He has become one of Ottawa’s steadiest, if slightly under-used, defencemen.
Head coach D.J. Smith’s concept of “identity” for his team has always centered around being hard-working and difficult to play against. A “tough out.” Even going back to last season, the Senators were developing a reputation as a team that didn’t quit.
The difference this season? They have more quick-strike potential with their forward group, especially their younger players. Now, when they threaten to rally in a game, they have the punch to carry it out. The front-running Toronto Maple Leafs learned that when the Senators rebounded from a 5-1 deficit to beat the Leafs 6-5 in overtime on Feb. 15.
Last season, the Senators produced just 2.7 goals per game on average. In their past seven games, Ottawa has 3.7 goals per game. Remove that one-goal effort versus Montreal and it would be over four goals per game in the previous six. Overall, due to their paltry output in January, the Senators are at roughly 2.7 goals per game on the season. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their increased production of late.
Though his goal-scoring streak was halted at six games in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Canadiens, Batherson tied a franchise record of six consecutive games with a goal shared by Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Bob Kudelski.
Considering Batherson, aka “The Drake,” had just six goals in 43 career NHL games before this season, his surge has been nothing short of an explosion even he cannot explain. If this were an 82-game season, he would be on pace for 29 goals.
“I couldn’t tell you what’s going on,” Batherson said, after scoring twice in Monday’s 5-1 win over the Calgary Flames. “I said to the boys, ‘I think the last time I scored six (straight) like that was maybe peewee.’”
During the Senators’ early season struggles, Batherson had just one goal and five points in the month of January. In February, a switch went on and he scored six goals and 10 points. Since mid-February, Batherson has truly basked in the glow of the red-light district: eight goals and 12 points in nine games. Though his goal-scoring streak ended, he maintains a seven-game point streak.
For anyone paying a modicum of attention, Batherson’s prowess is not as big a mystery as he lets on. The six-foot-one, 205-pound Batherson is the complete package for a top-line winger. He will use his size along the wall, has the hands to make moves around defencemen that put him in alone, then has a ridiculous deke move to the backhand that has served him well. From the outside, his wrist shot is lethal and accurate. He has learned well from training alongside Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand and Nathan MacKinnon in Nova Scotia during the off-season.
What has the potential to make him special, perhaps even Mark Stone special, is that Batherson is as good a playmaker as he is a shooter. While he has two goals on the power play, he has eight points with the extra man, leading all Senators in power-play assists and points. That is evidence of how Ottawa’s power-play attack, much more active in the past two weeks or so, runs through the stick of No. 19.
“He’s dangerous every night,” Smith says of Batherson. “And where he is really good is on the power play . . . he and Stützle are making it hard on other teams.”
At even strength, Batherson has teamed up with centre Norris and left winger Stützle, a 22-and-under line that wreaks havoc with its speed and puck movement.
“They make so many plays and they’re all over the ice,” said Tkachuk, who shares a house with Norris and Stützle. “It’s great for the fans to see that . . . the future of our team right there. Every single game they’ve played together, it’s chance after chance.”
Rookie honours for Stützle
Stützle was rewarded for a tremendous February by being named NHL rookie of the month, sharing the award with off-ice hero Michèle Taché of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Stützle led all NHL rookies with 10 points in 14 games for the month, including seven assists. He beat out Kirill Kaprizov of the Minnesota Wild, who had four goals and five assists in February.
Incredibly, Stützle is the first Ottawa Senators player to be named NHL rookie of the month since the late Ray Emery in March 2006.
The Senators winger has elevated his chances in the Calder Trophy race. Though his 14 points trail Kaprizov’s 17, Kaprizov’s age (23) and pro experience in the KHL may make him look less of a rookie in the eyes of some awards voters. For a 19-year-old to hold his own against a forward four years older is telling.
Right behind Stützle in the rookie scoring race is linemate Norris with 13 points.
In October, Stützle joined his hero, Leon Draisaitl, as the highest German-born-and-trained selection in the NHL draft. Stützle was drafted third overall by Ottawa, which is where the Edmonton Oilers selected Draisaitl in 2014.
As soon as fans are again allowed to enter the Canadian Tire Centre to take their seats, they will be lifted out of them by the likes of Stützle, Batherson, Norris and Tkachuk.