As losses pile up for Senators, roster decisions come under microscope

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Keeping a fan base engaged and connected is not all that complicated.

All fans need is hope. Hope and a belief in the management and coaching staff making the decisions and building the program.

In as little as six games, what had been soaring spirits in Senators Land landed with a plunk, as a great start fizzled. There is still hope, of course, it remains very early in a 56-game season, but there is concern of more turbulence ahead. Wins and losses are less of an issue here than the knowledge that promising young players are being developed.

The Senators’ 7-1 embarrassment Monday at the hands of the erstwhile struggling Vancouver Canucks was not a one-off, and not just another chance to question why some young prospects are sitting idle while disappointing veterans play. It was the continuation of a downward trend, played out on an all-Canadian stage — heightening the embarrassment.

Losing 7-1 to Vancouver isn’t the same as getting routed by Tampa or Washington. It simply isn’t. Playing Canadian adversaries is wonderful in theory, heightening rivalries and so on. In reality, it sucks if you can’t measure up, or at least keep up with your opponent’s speed.

Less than two weeks ago, goodwill surrounding this team spilled over the brim — 10 months of pent up demand between games exploded into an inspiring 5-3 win over the favoured Toronto Maple Leafs in Ottawa’s home opener on Jan. 15.

Prior to that game, general manager Pierre Dorion promised fans a “team they will be proud of,” lamenting only that fans wouldn’t be allowed in the building to observe the magic first hand. Fans were mighty proud that night. There needs to be more.

Heart and soul winger Brady Tkachuk said he wouldn’t be satisfied with escaping the cellar of the new seven-team Canadian division. The Senators would strive for the playoffs. Who didn’t want to follow and believe him?

Since that grand opening night, in front of an empty house, the Senators have lost five straight. Sometimes competing for a while, sometimes deserving a better fate (hello, OT loss to Winnipeg), but generally regressing from week one to week two.

There is trouble on all fronts, like a refurbished boat plugged with sealer and glue (also known as slow-moving veterans) that has sprung a myriad of leaks.

This is a team that can’t win a draw to save its life. The Senators are losing 60 per cent of their faceoffs, ranking 30th. Only the New Jersey Devils are worse.

They are chasing the puck most nights as suggested by their 29th place in CF% at 45.38.

Their defensive zone coverage is chaotic, and incoming goaltending saviour Matt Murray has regressed game by game since his impressive debut against Toronto.

Murray’s numbers have ballooned to a goals-against of 4.47 and save percentage of .862. He acknowledged Monday’s loss left a “bitter taste,” but also that he is still adjusting to a new team and new systems.

“We have to take pressure off ourselves and just play,” Murray said. “This is going to turn around… I loved our demeanour today (at practice).”

The Senators certainly hope for a turnaround in his case in particular, considering they signed him to a four-year, $25-million contract. Of course, he also needs more help from his mates.

None of this would be as distressing if there was a sense that the youth corps were getting to play. Somewhere. This, more than anything, is what has riled the masses online. Fans could accept a losing record — even a last place finish in the tough North Division.

But what they can’t accept is the idea that so many of the club’s prospects are sitting idle, withering on the vine with not even the opportunity to play AHL games until the first week of February, at least.

Former first-round draft choices like Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom and Lassi Thomson have no place to play until the AHL gets going. Ditto for speedy winger Alex Formenton, who was a star in the AHL last season. Raw rookie or not, who wouldn’t like to see him flying around right now?

At least he can skate. Incoming vets like Derek Stepan and Braydon Coburn aren’t moving so well, as much as they were brought in to stabilize the youth corps. Stepan can’t really mentor rookie hopeful Tim Stützle if he can’t somewhat keep up with him. Artem Anisimov doesn’t figure into the long term plans, yet has had precious ice time.

As they are not part of the travelling taxi squad, those assigned to the AHL roster can’t just be added instantly and be flown across the country during a pandemic. Changes that drastic can’t happen before the Senators finish their current seven-game road trip, returning home for a game against Montreal Feb. 6. But management could add some young players to the taxi squad soon to start the ball rolling, anticipating a quarantine period if necessary.

The deployment of some particular players is puzzling.

Centre Colin White, 23, was praised for his work early in camp but was clearly in the doghouse before it ended as he has played just bits of two of Ottawa’s six games. The Senators have played 362 minutes and 20 seconds of hockey this season. White has been on the ice for 20 minutes and one second of that time. That’s a little more than five per cent of his team’s game action.

It’s difficult to accomplish much in that cameo act.

The organization saw something in him. White is under contract through 2023-24 at $4.75M, so it is difficult to see the wisdom in sitting him out.

Head coach D.J. Smith did promise changes after that 7-1 debacle. And White will be back in the lineup in Wednesday’s rematch with the Canucks. At Tuesday’s practice White was centre on a third line with Nick Paul and Evgenii Dadonov. Smith said he believes White can help address the team’s need for speed.

“I think he’s in a spot where he can succeed (with Paul and Dadonov),” Smith said. “This will give him a legit opportunity to get some confidence and get running.”

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Anisimov and Alex Galchenyuk were among the extra forwards. Josh Brown was an extra defenceman. Coburn gets back in.

Teenager Stützle, though minus-four on Monday, was moved back up to the second line, with Chris Tierney instead of Stepan. Connor Brown was on their right side.

As much as fans are distressed today about their idle youth, the table was set when the club brought in all those vets in the off-season, along with a strong message that young players “have to earn their spots.”

Dorion, who called Smith’s training camp the “best NHL camp I’ve seen,” assured his head coach that he has total say on his roster.

“Whoever he sits out I know it’s for the betterment of the group,” Dorion said.

Smith, seeking chemistry beyond his young first line of Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson, hopes for a “better” outing Wednesday.

There is lots of time to turn this around, but if it doesn’t and Ottawa finds itself playing meaningless games, the call to get more kids into the lineup will rise from a whimper to a scream.

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