A sports team doesn’t win mass appeal until it has A-list talent.
Fans of the Ottawa Senators are starting to recognize that some of that talent is here, and ripening right before our eyes.
On Saturday afternoon, when captain Brady Tkachuk punctuated a watershed 4-0 victory over the reigning Stanley Cup champs from Tampa Bay with his first career hat trick, we just might have been witnessing a new era of Senators hockey.
Set aside, for now, the franchise finances, attendance challenges, or management’s tendency to swing and miss on veterans in the off-season.
Focus, for a moment, on the five core players who have the skill and presence to carry the team and its fan base for years to come.
We are speaking of the top line of Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson, teenage forward Tim Stützle and star defenceman Thomas Chabot, who deserves a chance to play for Canada at the Olympics, if the NHL players go. Add in the surprise anchor in net, Anton Forsberg, a 29-year-old who bounced around on waivers last year from Edmonton-Carolina-Winnipeg to Ottawa, and you have the basis of Ottawa’s current hot streak – four wins in their past five games.
That Tkachuk, Norris and Batherson have combined for 24 points in the past six games is just part of the story with this line. Tkachuk, with seven goals and 10 points in those six games, has been the driving force, a tour de force. He says he is getting his feet under him after missing all of training camp while in a contract negotiation. I guess so.
If anything, Tkachuk has gained a step from skating with those USA prospects in Michigan in October. Tkachuk is on pace for a 40-goal season, Norris in the high 30s and Batherson, the team leader in points with 24 despite missing five games with COVID-19, is tracking 80-plus points.
Batherson has emerged as an elite RW playmaker, with a nightly display of vision and passing. At times, Batherson seems to have eyes in the back of his head – we’re thinking of a no-look pass to Stützle a couple of games ago. On Saturday, he sauced a pass to Norris in the slot for the finish to get Ottawa on the board with the only goal it would need. No. 19 is close to an assist per game, with 16 points in 20 games played.
There is a saying in the press box that as soon as a line gets good enough to earn a nickname, the coach breaks it up. That could happen down the road with 7-9-19, in the interest of balance.
For now, we will treasure a trio that has the potential to be the best Senators line since Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson more than a decade ago.
“You never know how long – sometimes lines break up here and there,” said head coach D.J. Smith. “But that’s a line that can be good for the next 10, 12 years. You look at the (Patrice) Bergeron line (with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in Boston), those three guys have played together forever.”
Smith at least entertains the thought of Tkachuk, Norris and Batherson being a unit for the long haul. Perhaps leading the way to something truly special in Ottawa.
“These three guys are all best friends, they’re all big,” Smith said. “They’re all capable of hitting, banging other people and making plays. They can check, they can score. And at this point we’re trying to play them against everyone’s best lines – and they’re getting better every day.
“So if I’m an Ottawa Senators fan I’m excited about getting to watch these three play together for a long time.”
‘Play like it’s our last game together’
I asked Tkachuk if he and his linemates talk about the potential to be an elite line for years to come, and he expressed hope that “one day they could get to be one of those top lines in the NHL.” But for now, they are pushing each other to be the best they can be for each other.
Tkachuk talked about “being your best individually,” and not disappointing any of the linemates.
“We want to be able to kind of prepare like we’re in the last game together and just give our all,” Tkachuk said. “So that’s kind of our motivation, to do the best for one another . . . I think we’ve all grown tremendously over the last couple of years.”
In Tkachuk, that growth shows itself in subtle ways. At 22, the captain has maturity well beyond his years. Imagine a player of that age who chooses to instantly deflect a focus on his first career hat trick, to instead shine the light on a journeyman goaltender who happened to record his first NHL shutout in the same game.
“I didn’t know (until afterwards) that it was Forsy’s first career shutout, so that’s probably more exciting (than the hat trick),” Tkachuk said. “He’s been great for us during the streak, this stretch of wins we’ve had. He’s been holding down the fort.”
Forsberg finds a home
Goaltenders have been known to take circuitous routes to stability, and Forsberg is a supreme example of that. The Senators are his sixth NHL organization, and last year he was a bouncing ball on waivers as teams plugged holes during a pandemic year.
Forsberg ultimately played eight games with Ottawa and was pretty decent, winning three times with a 3.21 goals-against and .909 save percentage
This season Forsberg was expected to back up Matt Murray while Filip Gustavsson played in AHL Belleville, but Murray’s struggles, injuries and a COVID-19 diagnosis have turned that scenario on its head. Murray played his first game for the B-Sens on Sunday, a 26-save, 3-2 win over Bridgeport. How bizarre that Murray’s first victory this season would come at the AHL level.
Forsberg, meanwhile, has five wins (5-4-0, 3.34, .904), including every one of those four wins in Ottawa’s past five games. He has been a rock, and full value for Saturday’s 25-save shutout. His first in the league.
“It brings a lot of confidence,” Forsberg said, of the shutout. “It’s just a great memory to have. I’ve been waiting for a while. I don’t know how many games I have (66), but getting a shutout, it just feels good.”
Forsberg had some important company at the podium, his two-year-old son, Ben. That Forsberg was able to get the shutout at home, in a matinee game with his family present, made the event all the more special.