Senators quarter-mark review: Ottawa somehow moving from bad to worse

Ottawa Senators head coach DJ Smith, top left, gives instructions to his players in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings. (Kyusung Gong/AP)

The Ottawa Senators have managed the near-impossible.

They have gone from bad to worse. Just when it seemed there was nowhere to go but up, the Sens have lowered the bar yet again.

No longer just the worst team in Canada, the Sens are the worst NHL team in North America, at the quarter mark of their schedule.

In training camp, the Senators, to a man, vowed to get out of the gate smartly. Lesson learned from the 2-12-1 opening that doomed their pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, the Senators set out to be more like the club that was 10-3-1 down the stretch, inspired by the play of their young prospects.

We wish we could tell you that the Senators heeded their own words and became a tougher team to play against, more defensively sound, than the one that got beat up in the North Division a year ago.

On Wednesday, the Senators played game No. 20 on the season, a thoroughly depressing 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, to check in with a 4-15-1 record. The "lowlite" was watching mere mortal J.T. Miller skate through an entire Sens five-man unit to score as though he were Connor McDavid.

Already, the Sens are hopelessly out of reach of the contending teams in the restored Atlantic Division. Ottawa was 5-14-1 after 20 games last season. In this death spiral, the Sens have lost six straight and 15 of their last 17 games.

It is true that, like Murphy’s Law, whatever could go wrong, has gone wrong in Ottawa: Long-term injuries to starting centres Shane Pinto and Colin White. A rash of Covid-19 cases that ripped through the room and put ten players plus an associate coach on the COVID-19 protocol list, ultimately shutting the team down for a week in mid-November. Ongoing uncertainty surrounding the starting goaltender position, with highly-paid starter Matt Murray being ill, injured, hit with COVID, and ultimately sent to the minors this week. But the issues extend far beyond goaltending.

It’s deja vu all over again. The Senators are a bottom-feeder team already eyeing the 2022 NHL draft while angry fans demand change.

Questions? Oh, we have questions.

Why is the D-zone an enemy fun zone?

The Senators continue to be a team that fattens scoring stats. They have given up a league-worst 3.65 goals per game while routinely getting outshot and out-chanced. As much as they’ve talked about being a difficult team to play against, they continue to be pushovers in their own zone. Everything is on the table here, from deployment of personnel on the blue line, to decision-making, coaching and settling on a goaltender.

For now, Filip Gustavsson, pencilled in as the starter in Belleville, is instead Ottawa’s most reliable tender, although he is now withering under relentless opposition pressure and his team’s errant zone coverage. Gustavsson is backed up by journeyman Anton Forsberg while the $6.25M man Matt Murray takes another run at finding his game, this time at the AHL level.

In the system, the Senators have a lot of defensive and goalie prospects. The future is bright (have you heard this before?). Huge (six-foot-seven) Mads Sogaard is 6-3-0 with Belleville with a .913 save percentage and 2.70 goals-against average. Lassi Thomson, 21, brought up ahead of schedule because of the COVID crisis in Ottawa, has stepped in bravely. Jake Sanderson, who might be the best player in the NCAA this year, could join the Senators as early as next spring. Jacob-Bernard Docker and Tyler Kleven are two others from UND who could be part of the Senators’ future six on defence. Eventually, these defensive issues will be fixed. Eventually.

Is there a limit to patience?

The Senators have a devoted fan base, but it has been through a lot. After Wednesday’s rout, head coach D.J. Smith pleaded with fans to “stay by your guys.” Easier said than done. With the Senators all but certain to miss the playoffs again next spring, it will mark five straight years without a post-season. That’s a franchise record for futility. Even the 1992 expansion Senators, starting from scratch with historically slim draft pickings, only missed the first four years of playoffs.

From 1997-2008, the Sens were can’t-miss-kids, playoff sureties with three legitimate Cup contenders in that span. Since that time it has been hit and miss -- the 2017 run to the Eastern Conference Final was an unexpected blip. And then pretty much a full-on rebuild. Management declared this fall that the rebuild was over, but the team is again headed for a high lottery pick.

Maybe Ottawa got spoiled. The once dynastic Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs for ten straight years from 2007-16, and are only now resembling a contender from the foundation of high draft picks. The Senators can get there, too, but along with a belief in this young core of Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Jake Sanderson, etc. there has to be a belief in ownership, management and coaching staff. For most fans in Ottawa, that belief is not there. This was supposed to be the year that promise evolved into substance. Now, the wait is on again. Patience is that elusive virtue.

What is their identity?

Smith has often said he wants a team that “outworks” opponents. That’s a fail, even as a concept. Every team works hard. The good ones play better, smarter, faster than the opposition, on a regular enough basis to earn the distinction of being a good team. These Senators have no identity, other than having a roster with a few interesting prospects. As the losses pile up, the kids are looking ever more discouraged. Coaching and strategy do make a difference. If the Senators could defend better, they would hang around in more games and score enough to win their share. But they give up bad goals early, and then chase all night.

Consider the transformation of the Calgary Flames. En route to a playoff miss last season, Darryl Sutter came in to mop up, then rebuilt the Flames this fall into a defensive stronghold with a dangerous counter-attack. He was asked about the turnaround this week.

“You have to have an identity,” Sutter said. “We’re trying to get the respect back from the league and an identity back. I watched this team on TV enough, they had to change the way they played. The way the league had changed, they played too slow. It wasn’t how fast they skated -- they didn’t want to play at the pace necessary, the way the league is. Especially out here (in the west). The best teams are Edmonton and Las Vegas. They’re big, fast teams. It’s not based on one player, it’s based on how your team has to play.”

The Senators have the potential to turn things around, but it won’t happen without a change in approach, personnel and tactics. Whether that comes with management and coaching changes as well will be something to watch for in the weeks ahead.

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