OTTAWA – When the Senators finished their 2021 season with a flourish, it provided fans with a sense of hope.
Some false hope, perhaps, but hope nonetheless.
"Fools Gold" is how people often refer to a winning streak by a team already eliminated from the playoffs. It can be misleading. Like a September surge by a baseball team out of the running but fueled by young callups.
Ottawa peeled off a 10-3-1 mark to close out the season, sparking a lot of “wait till next season” talk around the Senators. A summer of training ... the young talent getting stronger – and what were the chances they would get off to the horrible start that doomed the pandemic-shortened 2021 season?
Pretty good, as it turned out. The Senators stumbled out of the gate again, hit a COVID wall in November, suffered a string of injuries to key young players – Shane Pinto, Drake Batherson and Josh Norris – and now here they are, mopping up in March, with 19 games left on the schedule.
Does anyone get the feeling the Sens are ready to go on a tear again?
If so, it would make for a bold prediction. Because there is no sign of it.
Tuesday’s sleepy 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders in Belmont Park, N.Y., was Ottawa’s fifth defeat in six games. They have dropped 12 of their past 16. That’s not a rough patch. It’s a free-fall.
Forget the idea of the Senators inching closer to the better teams in the league, they are in contention for the basement.
In their past six games, the Sens have been outscored 24-11, a scoring output of less than two goals per game. That is not going to win a lot of games in the NHL.
Batherson, Ottawa’s most productive player over the first 31 games, cannot return from the injured list fast enough. Whether The Drake can rescue the final weeks remains to be seen, but at least with Norris now back and thriving, especially on the power play, the addition of Batherson will go a long way toward making the Senators more dangerous offensively.
On Monday, the Islanders’ penalty-killing unit smothered Norris at the weak-side circle, preventing that deadly one-timer. With Batherson back, teams won’t have that luxury, due to the concern of also covering Batherson and Brady Tkachuk down low or Tim Stützle from up high.
Otherwise, the current news is rather bleak. Ace defenceman Thomas Chabot is out for the rest of the season with a broken hand. And now, there is a strong chance that Ottawa’s top defensive prospect, Jake Sanderson of the University of North Dakota, won’t be healthy enough to finish the year here. We’ll see where that situation goes, but the Sens will be very careful with Sanderson, as important as he is for the team’s future.
A lot of things are on hold for Ottawa, including the evergreen search for a top-six forward and top-four defenceman. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was careful to avoid suggesting that defenceman Travis Hamonic, 31, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks at the deadline, was that top-four D answer, but rather a guy who could provide experience and help on the blueline. The latest in a long line of defensive mentors, with more misses than hits.
It’s all still such a work in progress.
No wonder Dorion made a point of saying after Monday’s trade deadline, examining his current lineup – don’t judge us now. Wait until training camp and the start of the regular season.
By then, the Sens hope to have a roster that is more complete.
By then, we may have some clarity on the goaltending situation – is Matt Murray still part of the picture, let alone still the No. 1 goaltender? Getting Anton Forsberg extended to a three-year contract might have been Dorion’s most important transaction at the trade deadline.
By then, maybe Dorion will have made a significant move over the summer. Signing local star Claude Giroux would be a home run. Dare we dream?
By then, centre Shane Pinto will be back. Sanderson will be part of the picture. Chabot will be wheeling again and playing 26 minutes a night.
By then, maybe the Senators can stay healthy for a while and avoid coronavirus issues and have a sense of normalcy around the organization.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to just fast-forward past these final 19 games. The Sens have to play them out, find a spark to keep morale from dropping when so many young players could be impacted.
On trade deadline day, with popular forward Nick Paul having just been dealt to Tampa Bay for Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round draft pick, Tkachuk made a point of practicing goal celebrations with his teammates at practice.
“You try to make it as much fun as you can,” Tkachuk said. “I tried to bring a positive, light mood today when it could be a hectic day for others.”
Just 22, Tkachuk already bears the scars of the business side of the game – at the centre of his own long contract negotiation that kept him out of training camp and then as a teammate as veteran pals Mark Stone and Paul headed out the door at the deadline.
“For myself, it’s been four years of it now,” Tkachuk said. “So, you've seen a lot of good people go. And I don’t know if you'd call it a distraction, it’s just a hectic couple of days league-wide. You see a lot of changes. It’s a tough day.”
It was presented to the captain that perhaps in the spring of 2023, Ottawa could be in the position to add, not subtract, players if they can get into contention after five straight years of missing the playoffs.
“That’s a long way away, so I'm not going to focus on that,” Tkachuk said. “But usually it’s when you’re on a losing team that you lose a lot of guys. Obviously, we don’t want to be that type of team anymore. We want to be a team that’s looking to get into the playoffs. Or in the playoffs. That’s going to be our focus next year, but we’re not thinking about that. We're just thinking about playing our best for the last (19) games.”
Call them meaningless, if you like. But the Senators need to pull out of this free-fall.
For the sake of their kids.
For the sake of their fans.