It is striking, the similarities between the start of this NHL season for the Ottawa Senators, and the first weeks of their expansion year, 1992-93.
On Oct. 8, 1992, the newly formed Senators beat Canada’s best team, the Montreal Canadiens, 5-3 on home ice, the old Civic Centre. Expecting a Sens loss – who didn’t? – Ottawa Citizen sports editor Graham Parley had prepared a headline urging patience: Rome wasn’t Built in a Day. Adjusting on the fly, he brilliantly changed it post-game to: Maybe Rome was Built in a Day.
The merriment didn’t last. What followed was a string of losses and a 10-win season (10-70-4). It wasn’t until April 10, 1993 that a Senators team nicknamed “Road Kill,” won its first game away from home, celebrating like Stanley Cup winners.
Similarly, on Jan. 15, 2021, the rebuilding Senators beat one of Canada’s top teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-3 in Ottawa’s home opener. The fun didn’t last. What followed were seven straight losses, the last four on the road. Fans are wondering if this team can win 10 games in a 56-game season, and when the first road win will arrive. The Senators play in Edmonton against the Oilers on Sunday.
Plus ça change plus c'est pareil.
A bit like the buildup before Ottawa’s historic first game, for 10 months during this pandemic Senators fans couldn’t wait another moment for their team to play games again.
Reality set in quickly. Two weeks into the NHL schedule, fans are ready for the suffering to end. That’s how bad the first eight games have been for the Senators – expansion-level bad.
Three points earned out of a possible 16. A 1-6-1 record. Outscored 36-17 for a league-worst minus-19 goal differential.
The Senators ran into a Vancouver Canucks team that was 2-5 and gripping sticks, and provided an elixir for all that was ailing them in a three-game Canucks sweep that concluded Thursday, with a combined score of 16-3.
This is an Ottawa team that can’t score, can’t defend and can’t keep the puck out of its net. Not a winning trifecta.
As bad as they’ve been, there have been moments of bright light, even dominance for stretches of play. Little flickers of hope to which a fan base must cling.
At this point, every single member of the organization has something to answer for – players, coaches, management, pro scouts – and perhaps beyond the staff to fans and media who dared to believe the hype that things were going to improve this season after three years in a row of finishing either 30th or 31st in a 31-team league.
No one expected a playoff team. They did expect a more competitive group, with important growth by the young players who are key to the future.
There will be better days ahead. There has to be. Or massive change will follow, which no one wants to see after the last two years of rebuilding.
Here's a quick look at three phases of the program.
Defence is distressing but future bright
This was to be the main focus of the piece, but when forwards can’t score and flashy defenceman Thomas Chabot provides one of the three measly goals Ottawa scored in Vancouver, there is plenty of blame to go around.
The defence isn’t the Senators’ only issue but this defensive group has struggled mightily and looks better suited to NHL hockey in the 1970s rather than the 2020s. They are big, don’t move particularly well, and when they do get moving, tend to be running around in their own zone while the opposition cycles and feeds the high slot.
Is it possible the Senators defence got worse from last season, when it was plenty bad? It actually is possible. Dylan DeMelo was one of their most reliable defenders in 2019-20, not flashy but steady. Steady would be good right about now. Gone too are veterans Mark Borowiecki, who kept opposing wingers on their toes, and ancient warrior Ron Hainsey. Erik Brannstrom played 31 games last season and was at least a strong skater and puck mover. He could be back in the mix eventually, after having his training camp derailed by COVID protocols. Mike Reilly, who can skate but is a nightmare in his own end, was also here last season. Ditto for Nikita Zaitsev.
The new guys are Erik Gudbranson, Braydon Coburn and Josh Brown. Any one of them could have been a nice addition to a solid corps of an established team but is being asked to take on a bigger role and more minutes in Ottawa and suffer because of it. I’m no coach, but there must be a way to simplify the way this team defends – Brown, Gudbranson and Coburn are all six-foot-five and about 220 pounds. They should be capable of boxing out the front of the net, at least. Keep their jobs simple. Watching Brown, out of position, trying to stick check Brock Boeser, who danced around him for a goal in Thursday’s 4-1 loss, was discouraging.
Here’s the thing. This year’s corps was always going to be a placeholder unit until the prospects mature. The University of North Dakota has potentially three future Senators defencemen, led by Jake Sanderson, drafted fifth overall in October. Another first-round pick, Lassi Thomson, needs some time at the AHL level. Brannstrom should be back. Chabot is already really good and will eventually have a strong supporting cast.
Goaltending is a worry
Perhaps incoming starter Matt Murray didn’t know what he was getting into by coming to Ottawa, but did the Senators know what they were getting when they traded for Murray and signed him for four years at $25 million?
Sure, Murray could use better support from the five players in front of him, but he hasn’t been very good, as the numbers tell: a 4.39 goals against and .859 save percentage, with a propensity for giving up bad goals. Never the most athletic goaltender, he counts on perfect positioning, and the Canucks took advantage of his positioning mistakes in the 7-1 win Tuesday and again on Thursday.
Forwards can be a spark
If a rising tide floats all boats, Ottawa’s forwards would benefit from a general rise in confidence and team play.
At times, the Senators forwards have been decent, especially the kid line of Josh Norris, Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson early in the season. Rookie Tim Stützle has been OK but slowed by an injury that kept him out two games, and also suffers from not having a consistent home on a set line. Nick Paul has probably been the Senators most consistent forward.
In certain stretches, including the full first game against Toronto, most of the first Winnipeg encounter and the first period of the first Vancouver game, Ottawa’s forwards controlled the play and this proved to be the best defence – playing in the other team’s zone.
But in a pattern that extends from the veteran additions on defence and in goal, the new forwards haven’t brought much. Winger Evgenii Dadonov, counted on to boost the power play, has just one goal in eight games, and none on the power play. Derek Stepan, Cedric Paquette and Alex Galchenyuk have been, well, meh, and aren’t even starting every game.
The younger players have carried the load. Norris is tied with Tkachuk and Zaitsev for the team lead in points with five. Batherson belongs but has to score. Stützle will find his way but needs his teammates to play better around him. Centre Colin White looks fine and would be better if he’d been in the lineup every game. More youth, more speed. More hustle. Bring it on.
Find a silver lining
Let’s end this on a positive note. Remember that expansion team of 1992-93?
It blossomed into a playoff team and a contender in the late ‘90s. Because the Senators have been in this rebuild since 2018, fan patience is thin, there is an expectation of gradual improvement by now. But growth is rarely linear. Even high draft picks need time to develop. This current setback is ugly and can be blamed on a myriad of things, including some of the off-season moves, but the coaching staff deserve a chance to turn this around, at least somewhat.
In a tough, fast all-Canadian division, the Senators are going to need their goalie to steal the occasional game. And without a playoff spot on the horizon, the development of key young players is paramount.
The Senators don’t have to beat their rivals in the North Division, but it would be encouraging to see them keep up with their rivals with pace of play, as well as provide a glimpse into what the club might look like when the kids mature.