Senators mid-season report: Youth movement showing signs of progress

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith speaks to the media following their win over the Calgary Flames and although coughing up the lead, the head coach is proud of his teams performance before the eventual win.

Rating the first half of the Ottawa Senators’ season is a bit like assessing the weather of the past two months.

Which dates should we discuss? Those times when the North winds blew and it was 25-below? Or the calm, sunny days that seemed to herald better days ahead.

Few NHL teams have been as variable as the rebuilding Senators in 2021. There were games in which the Senators were as tough an opponent as any in the North Division -- nights when they toppled the front-running Toronto Maple Leafs and teams thought to be contenders, chiefly the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames.

This same 28-game sequence delivered series sweeps by the Vancouver Canucks (3-0-0) and Edmonton Oilers (5-0-0).

Overall, the Sens are essentially who we thought they were -- occupying the basement of the all-Canadian division with periodic threats of overtaking the Canucks or Flames.

Perhaps most notable of the Senators' first half -- this strange tendency to get coaches fired. Not their own, but opposition coaches. Montreal head coach Claude Julien and Flames bench boss Geoff Ward were both fired after games versus Ottawa (Ward’s team actually won that night).

Canadiens’ assistant Kirk Muller was fired along with Julien. In a weird twist a week later, in the second intermission of a game against the Senators, the Habs fired goalie coach Stephane Waite. Montreal went on to win that game 3-1.

It says something about the expectations of teams facing Ottawa that they grew outraged with the state of their game against the one team that was supposed to be an automatic in the win column. The Habs and Flames have both lost three times to the Sens, losses that have put their playoff hopes in jeopardy, particularly in Calgary’s case.

It’s fair to say the Senators managed to drive their own management group and that of the opposition a little crazy at times. There has been progress on the development front, especially in the forward ranks.

Senators record: 9-18-1 (7th in the North Division)

Goals for: 2.67 per game (25th overall)

Goals against: 3.86 (31st overall)

Power play: 14.43% (27th overall)

Penalty kill: 74.73% (23rd overall)

Best surprise: Defenceman Artem Zub. I can almost hear readers outside of Ottawa saying, “Zub? Who or what is a Zub?” Zub is such an unknown that the Senators’ own website doesn’t even have a mug shot of him. He is the lone silhouette on the roster list where his photo should be. I bet it will be there next season.

Around the community, Zub has quietly become something of a cult figure. While fans have been waiting for younger and more hyped D-men like Erik Brannstrom and Christian Wolanin to blossom, along comes this unknown commodity from the KHL who settles into a top-four role as a steady, defensive-minded presence. Though he has just two goals and six points in 19 games, Zub, 25, has been a rare stabilizing influence on a rather dysfunctional D-corps.

How’s this for a surprise? When Ottawa got into penalty trouble against Calgary on Sunday, ace defenceman Thomas Chabot played 57 seconds on the penalty killing unit. Zub played 5:31. He is plus-two, the only regular on the blueline in the plus territory for Ottawa.

Honorable mentions here to Drake Batherson, Calder Trophy candidate Tim Stützle and Josh Norris, who have all pleasantly surprised by carrying the bulk of the Senators offence.

Biggest disappointment: Lots of candidates here. I’ve already mentioned the D-corps, which has been a bit of a disaster, although much improved recently. Centre Derek Stepan was brought here at considerable expense -- a second-round draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes -- and was finally settling in when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury requiring surgery.

All things considered, though, the Senators' goaltending has been the biggest letdown. Starter Matt Murray was brought in to be a pillar of strength to enable this young group to grow and develop, but it has been a work in progress. The pressure has been on Murray from the outset, checking in with a new four-year, $25-million contract after being acquired via trade from Pittsburgh.

We will explore this more fully in a separate piece, but Murray has run hot and cold. Overall he is 7-11-0 with a 3.66 goals-against average and .885 save percentage. It hasn’t helped that there’s been no consistent backup behind Murray. Marcus Hogberg, now injured, had a 4.34 goals-against average and .859 save percentage in 10 appearances.

Rookie Joey Daccord is the latest to get an opportunity and he has looked sharp in his two starts and four appearances. Though he hasn’t recorded a win, he has kept his team in games and has a goals-against average of 2.71 and save percentage of .913.

Honorable ‘disappointment’ mention to the defence corps, which has struggled to find any consistency. Combine spotty goaltending with an overmatched defence and you get the obvious -- the worst goals-against of any team in the league. Brannstrom had a bounce-back game in Monday’s 3-2 loss in Edmonton, playing nearly 20 minutes with four shots on goal.

Biggest question for the second half: Who stays and who goes? And what will it mean for the development of the kids?

With eight pending unrestricted free agents and precious little chance of being a playoff team, the Senators will be sellers at the April 12 trade deadline. Because of the protocol restrictions, including quarantines, during a global pandemic, teams are likely to do their deals ahead of the deadline as much as possible.

For example, Ottawa picked up winger Ryan Dzingel from Carolina and had to let him sit in a hotel room in Kanata for two weeks before he could join the team. (Note: Dzingel, a UFA, could be flipped out again in a trade). No contender wants to make a move in mid-April and have the player unavailable until the last week or so of the regular season. So, the Senators could be moving some players early, and that should open up opportunities for young defencemen like Brannstrom, Wolanin and down in AHL Belleville, perhaps even Lassi Thomson.

Up front, will injury-prone centre Logan Brown get a call-up when the Senators return from this current western swing? Forwards Egor Sokolov and Alex Formenton could also get a look down the road.

The Senators won’t have to go far to find these players. As part of the COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario, the B-Sens are playing out of the Canadian Tire Centre.

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