Doomed by a dreadful opening month, the Ottawa Senators won’t be playing hockey past May 12, the date of their final regular season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t some terrific individual performances on a team that didn’t give up on its season, despite a low place in the standings and no realistic shot at a postseason berth. Ottawa’s best players led a late season push that made the Senators one of the hottest teams in the NHL in the final few weeks - 7-2-1 in their last 10 games - is it a tantalizing hint of what is to come?
It’s a shame there is no play-in option for the Senators in 2021. Like the student who improves their marks in the final term, it would be interesting to see Ottawa qualify for some post-grad work - i.e. the playoffs. For their fans, that time, perhaps as early as next year, can’t come soon enough.
As their season draws to a close, here are some late-season award selections for the Senators' curious 2021 campaign, a year that saw them audition more goaltenders than Saturday Night Live has hosts.
MVP: Brady Tkachuk
Naming the Senators' most valuable player is not as much of a slam dunk as some might think. A case could easily be made that no one is more valuable than defenceman Thomas Chabot. Chabot plays 26 minutes per game, faces the opposition’s best forwards, quarterbacks the power play, leads the Senators in assists (25) and was fourth in points when he was shut down for the rest of the season with an upper body injury after Monday’s win over Winnipeg.
Still, there is no denying winger Brady Tkachuk, as usual.
Tkachuk, who is among the league leaders in hits and shots on goal, is Ottawa’s heart and soul. We have stopped counting the number of times head coach D.J. Smith has credited his big, 21-year-old forward for carrying his team into battle. On top of all the intangibles, his net presence and his persistent pain-in-the-butt quality, Tkachuk happens to lead the Senators in points with 35 and is tied for second in goals with 17.
Connor Brown gets an honourable mention for his relentless two-way game and surprising goal scoring touch this season -- a team leading 19 goals; Josh Norris and Drake Batherson also deserve mention for their production and the overall growth of their game.
Top defenceman: Thomas Chabot
Honourable mention: Nikita Zaitsev, Artem Zub
How long will it be before Chabot begins to get consideration for the Norris Trophy as one of the NHL’s best D-men? Probably not long, but a few things need to happen. Chabot needs to continue to improve the defensive side of his game, which was a feature of the second half of his season. And, as much as Chabot helps drive offence with the Senators, he will need to continue to raise his production to a place among the league leaders offensively. That’s the first place voters look, right or wrong. At the time he was injured, Chabot ranked 18th among NHL defensive scoring leaders with 31 points in 49 games.
It also wouldn’t hurt Chabot’s cause to be part of a Senators club that evolves into a contender -- when it happens, individual players will draw more attention from national media.
A tip of the cap here to Nikita Zaitsev, Chabot’s playing partner, whose under-appreciated defensive play allows Chabot to do his thing. Zaitsev ranks 9th among NHL D-men in shot blocks with 101, plays close to 23 minutes per game including three shorthanded minutes on average. In sum, Zaitsev doesn’t necessarily please the fan base and he is holding down an outsized role until the likes of Jake Sanderson and Jacob Bernard-Docker are ready. But he is a coach pleaser.
Ditto for Zub, the most pleasant surprise of Ottawa’s season, having arrived from the KHL as an unknown quantity. Zub is a superb defender, consistent and extremely poised under pressure. Zaitsev and Zub have chipped in with a combined 28 points (15 and 13), which is a bonus from defensive-minded D-men.
Top rookie: Josh Norris
Honourable mention: Tim Stützle, Artem Zub
Even a condensed season can have a lot of ups and downs, especially for a newbie to the NHL. A couple of months ago, there wasn’t much doubt about Ottawa’s top rookie -- it was their 19-year-old German prospect Tim Stützle, selected by the Senators with the third overall pick last October. Following a professional camp in Germany, then a world junior tournament in Alberta, Stützle has known his share of uniforms and quarantines in 2020-21, but turned in a terrific first year in the NHL, even if he was surpassed by teammate Josh Norris in the conversation about Calder Trophy candidates.
Norris, 22, a centre who established himself as a first line player, has finished strong -- 14 points in the month of April to Stützle’s 6. In no way does that mean Stützle was a disappointment. He’s giving up two-plus years to Norris (whose birthday was Wednesday) and showed flashes of the brilliance that mark him as a standout prospect for the organization. Zub, 25, falls into that category of rookie who is no raw professional. Zub came here with five full years of KHL experience and it shows.
‘Selke’ Defensive Forward: Connor Brown
Honourable mention: Nick Paul, Chris Tierney
Can we just state off the top that Connor Brown should be a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate? He won’t get a lot of attention because he plays in Ottawa, but Brown has some serious credentials as a defensive forward. Tied for the league lead with four shorthanded goals, Brown is second in NHL takeaways with 52 (tied with Leon Draisaitl), behind Jack Hughes’ 56. That’s right, Brown has MORE takeaways than the beloved ex-Sen Mark Stone, who has 51 with Vegas. Stone is renowned for stealing pucks.
Brown is under-appreciated in any number of categories, including his offensive prowess. Brown is third among NHL forwards in penalty kill time with 2:54 per game and still manages to lead his team in goals with 19 in 53 games. Remarkable. The Selke Trophy almost always goes to a centre, for his faceoff work and defensive responsibilities, but there has been a push to anoint a puck-hawk winger like Stone as top defensive forward. And Connor Brown is right there as well.
Top goalie: Filip Gustavsson
Honourable mention: Anton Forsberg, Matt Murray (the Part II guy)
It says a lot when a goalie with six games played gets the nomination, but that’s the kind of year it has been in Ottawa, where Goalies-R-Us. Gustavsson, 3-1-0, has brilliant numbers in his limited appearances. His save percentage of .944 and goals-against of 1.87 are both second in the rookie category to Boston’s Jeremy Swayman, although ‘Gus’ doesn’t have the starts of some of the other rookie goalies. Forsberg was picked up off the waiver wire and came in to get seven starts with Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg injured. Forsberg was rewarded with a one year extension on Wednesday and promptly beat the Habs 3-1 for his third win of the season.
While Murray had a terrible start to the season, he did pick up ten wins in 25 starts to lead the team in both categories. Murray rebounded from a time away to recover and reset under new goalie coach Zac Bierk. Murray won three of his last four starts, two by shutout, before getting injured again. Bierk told reporters on Thursday that Murray made some small technical adjustments in his game.
It will be interesting to see how Ottawa’s expansion draft protection list shapes up -- the Senators are deep in goalie prospects. Murray could be left unprotected in the Seattle expansion draft because Murray’s big contract is protection in itself.
Because the official voting has already been done in this category, we won’t select a winner here that could spoil the surprise of the actual nominee for Ottawa. That announcement will come soon. The Masterton Trophy, named for the late Bill Masterton, who died of brain trauma suffered while playing for the Minnesota North Stars, is awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.
The Senators have been well represented with Masterton winners in the past several years. Bobby Ryan won the award in 2020 and goaltender Craig Anderson won in 2017. Former Senators goalie Robin Lehner won in 2019. The Masterton is the one NHL trophy voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA).