The arrival of Brady Tkachuk pushed a lot of other Ottawa Senators' storylines to the sidelines.
It may be time to discuss one of them.
Such as -- has anyone seen Matt Murray?
You may remember Murray, he arrived in camp in great shape, by all accounts, had put on weight, but not, you know, in a bad way. He was talking about how much more comfortable he felt heading into a season with a chance to have a training camp and pre-season, unlike last year’s launch directly into the season due to pandemic issues.
The sense was that Murray was going to be determined to erase all memory of last year’s horrific start to the season -- losses in six of his first seven games with Ottawa, after signing a four-year, $25-million contract.
This time would be different. He would grab the ball and run with it. Head coach D.J. Smith talked about Murray making three, if not four pre-season starts to prepare for opening night. He appeared in three games, had a 1-2 record and .899 save percentage. In the days leading up to the Senators opener, Murray missed some practice time and we were told he was battling a flu-cold type of virus that was going around the room. Smith said the illness was not Covid-related.
No one else missed any time because of a cold, but when the Senators faced the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs last Thursday, Murray wasn’t even dressed for the game. Anton Forsberg started and earned the win, while Filip Gustavsson backed up. On Saturday, Forsberg started again, playing well in a 3-1 loss. Murray, meanwhile, was placed on IR but did skate on Saturday morning in Toronto.
On Sunday, with the Dallas Stars in town, Gustavsson made his season debut and delivered the type of calm, cool performance fans grew to know last season with ‘Gus.’ Despite allowing a goal on the first shot he faced, Gustavsson stopped 32 of 34 Dallas shots in a 3-2 Senators win while Forsberg backed up.
The Senators will return to the practice ice on Tuesday. Will Murray finally start on Thursday versus the San Jose Sharks? Presumably, but who knows. We know this much. The team is very comfortable, and winning, with a Forsberg-Gustavsson tandem that no one expected would start the season, a season they vowed would not start the way Murray and the Senators started the 2020-21 campaign.
Last season it took the Senators 11 games to record their second win. This year, they got their second in game three.
“I was just joking with Brady (Tkachuk) . . . about how many games that took last year,” said head coach D.J. Smith. “I still have nightmares about how long it took us to get our second one.”
Relentless Pinto-Paul-Brown line
After losing in Toronto Saturday, Smith called out some of his veterans, though not publicly by name, for a slow start that resulted in an early 2-0 lead for the Leafs. And it was the Senators veterans who carried the play on Sunday, with Chris Tierney scoring twice (pucks keep bouncing in off him) and Nick Paul and Connor Brown skating miles for the cause.
Brown had three assists to reach the 100 assist mark on his career and Paul, who tied the game 1-1 with a beautiful backhand up and over Anton Khudobin, is playing with a confidence he couldn’t have imagined when he was a young player getting demoted repeatedly. Between Brown and Paul, who were world championship overtime heroes for Canada last summer, is rookie centre Shane Pinto, playing like a veteran.
The trio recorded five points on the day, although Pinto and Brown recorded assists on a power play with Paul not on the ice.
The Senators had two power play goals from Tierney and have now scored PP goals in all three of their games. They’re 4-for-9 and 44.4 per cent, a massive upgrade from last season when they were 27th in the NHL at 12.6 per cent.
Smith loved the effort of Brown on the power play and even strength and feels he gets scoring chances the harder he checks.
“We’re all hard workers, but there’s also a lot of skill on that line as well,” Paul says. “It’s just a solid line. There’s no easy way around us. You’re going to have to work if you want to play against us and if not, we’re going to work you.”
The question is -- when Tkachuk returns to the lineup on Thursday, does the Pinto-Paul-Brown line get busted up? Tkachuk figures to slide in with Josh Norris and Drake Batherson on the top line, but that means moving Tim Stützle off the left side.
As much as Smith loves his “shutdown” line of Pinto-Paul-Brown, and will continue to use them in a defensive role, he may move the versatile Paul off of there to keep Stützle in a top six role.
“My job, too, is to make sure Timmy is continuing his development,” Smith says. “He’s a huge part of this process, a huge part of this organization. So I’ve got to make sure he’s getting proper minutes and continues to develop.”
Stützle, by the way, has shown flashes of brilliance in every game and looks ready to break out offensively. He also continues to confront a lot of stickwork. After a wicked two-hand slash from Radek Faksa on the same wrist that required surgery in 2020, Stützle had to leave the game in the second period for an x-ray, but was cleared to return. There was no penalty called on the play, but Faksa was fined $5,000, the most he could be under the CBA, for the vicious slash.
No Brady on Sunday
The Tkachuk watch continued through the weekend as the Senators' newest long-term winger worked out to prepare for his return to the Senators lineup after missing all of training camp and the pre-season during contract negotiations.
Smith admitted he had to protect Tkachuk from a coach’s urge to ice his top lineup. On Friday, the day after Tkachuk signed a $57.5 million deal, Smith compared keeping Tkachuk sidelined to having to wait patiently to open a big, shiny, Christmas gift.
Because Smith was an assistant coach in Toronto when Maple Leafs forward William Nylander missed all of the pre-season and the first two months of the regular season in a contract impasse, he says he learned about the pitfalls of rushing a player into action without a prelude. Nylander scored just seven goals in 54 games in 2018-19 before returning to star form a year later.
“We want Brady at his best and my job is to put him in the best spot,” Smith said, prior to the Dallas game. “Do I want him in the lineup (Sunday)? Yes I do. But as I’ve said before, if he’s in the lineup -- physically he’s probably ready to play 12 to 14 minutes and the likelihood is I would play him more than that.
“Brady signed a seven-year contract and hopefully could be here longer than that. So, to hurry him in for one game when I know he is going to be the guy here for seven years, to lead us up front, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Smith decided that risking an early return for the benefit of one game could impact ten games or more down the road. As a staff, they opted for having Tkachuk have two days of practice with his linemates before playing Thursday against the visiting Sharks.
Revolving door on backend?
Like anyone watching Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Toronto, Smith had to do something about the defence pairing of Nikita Zaitsev and Victor Mete, who earned their dash-3 notation on the official scoresheet, having been on the ice for all three Maple Leafs goals.
While absolving the pairing for a goal scored off a faceoff, Smith was as critical as he cared to be of the pair by saying, “we didn’t love it.”
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t alternate captain Zaitsev who was pulled, but Mete, in favour of Michael Del Zotto, a free agent signing who was a healthy scratch in Ottawa’s first two games.
How fast can things change where the Sens blueline is concerned? During camp, Smith referred to Zaitsev and Del Zotto as his new “shutdown pair.” By opening night, it was Del Zotto who was shut down, following a poor showing in the pre-season.
“I need Del Zotto to move the puck for us, get in the rush,” Smith says. “I’ve seen him have the ability to do so as well as defend real hard.”
The other pairings have played pretty well. Thomas Chabot is free to move up ice as he slots in alongside Artem Zub. Nick Holden and Josh Brown, a big, physical duo, have so far held their own, including a strong kill while two men short against the Leafs.
Del Zotto got off to a rough start Sunday, including an egregious giveaway that led to a Stars opportunity, but he settled in to play 17 minutes. He was minus-1, had two shots and a team-leading five hits.
To be sure, the Senators will be keeping an eye on their AHL roster as this season moves along. Playing in Belleville are defensive prospects Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. For now, though, with 7D on the NHL roster, Smith will let his young prospects play big minutes with the B-Sens until one of them finds himself called up because the club needs him and feels he’s ready.
“There’s moving pieces here,” Smith says, “and we will continue to change partners and personnel as we see fit.”
The official attendance at the CTC on Sunday was 8,067, a far cry from the opening night gate of 15,159.
As we’ve mentioned here before, with a low season’s ticket base, the Senators are vulnerable on non-traditional home dates against non-rivals. The Senators do not have a history against Dallas and Sunday evening, even with a 5 p.m. start, has never been as strong a draw in Ottawa as a Thursday or Saturday.
Former club president and CEO Roy Mlakar used to say that the day of the week matters more in Ottawa than the opponent (outside of the Canadiens and Leafs) as far as drawing a crowd.
There is a lot of interest in this young Senators team and if it continues to improve, the crowds will come. But attendance will be an issue with certain dates/opponents for a while.