Players and coaches alike took turns trying to describe this bizarre, unmatching bookends of a 2020-21 campaign by the Ottawa Senators.
“It was the tale of two seasons,” said head coach D.J. Smith.
“NIght and day,” was how veteran forward Nick Paul, Ottawa’s Masterton Trophy nominee, described the horrendous 2-12-1 start for Ottawa before a turnaround that sparked a 10-3-1 finish.
“We just wish we could keep going here,” Brady Tkachuk said, the day after completing the season with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ottawa finished 23-28-5, for 51 points in 56 games, eight points behind the Montreal Canadiens holding down fourth place and the final playoff spot in the North Division.
Thursday was clean out time, “garbage bag day,” as it is often described — players putting their dressing room belongings into green bags to pack up for the summer. In non-pandemic times, media would be in that room, witnessing the farewell handshakes and last-minute signing of team merchandise for the marketing department.
This being the season like no other, media instead were on Zoom calls with players and Smith, from 8 a.m. until noon, each describing the season that was and looking ahead to a more normal 82-game, 2021-22 season.
Had there been 82 games this year, who knows what might have been for Ottawa. There isn’t any racetrack left, so we cannot say if a longer season could have witnessed the Senators surging into a playoff spot. Based on games since Feb. 20, the Senators have the third-best record in the North.
I do know this. As someone who has been around Ottawa teams since the first game in 1992, I have not seen a more excited group that is NOT going on to the playoffs. The Senators are so young, especially at forward and defence, and so enamoured of their play over the past month or so, their enthusiasm for next season is off the charts.
“All the players and the city of Ottawa have a lot to look forward to next year,” said winger Connor Brown, the ex-Maple Leaf who had a career-year with 21 goals, including an NHL-leading five shorthanded goals. That the fifth came against Toronto put a nifty exclamation mark on Brown’s remarkable year.
Brown is just one of many Senators who exceeded expectations this season. Rookies Josh Norris and Tim Stützle were both in Calder Trophy conversations — Stützle early on and Norris in the second half. Norris finished the year tied for second in rookie goals, with 17, and third in points, with 35. All that while taking on the two-way responsibilities of a No. 1 centre. Stützle became a fan darling.
Drake Batherson rose up to be a first-line winger, alongside Norris and the team’s lifeblood, Brady Tkachuk.
Newcomers Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker settled in nicely after joining the Senators from their college hockey season at UND.
Young defencemen Victor Mete, plucked off the waiver wire from Montreal, and Erik Brannstrom, who came over in the Mark Stone trade with San Jose, blossomed down the stretch when injuries and departures thrust them into the spotlight.
Matt Murray, the team’s No. 1 goaltender, had his own “tale of two seasons.” He was a big part of the early wreckage, but rebounded to play well in his last five games before getting injured.
“We had some struggles early on as a team, and I didn’t play well enough to keep us in games,” said Murray, bluntly. “But the way we finished, that’s all you can ask for in a response. It was really inspiring to see. Obviously it gives everybody a really good feeling going into the summer and it gives everybody the motivation to come back and make some noise next year.”
Smith and his Senators coaching staff deserve credit for keeping this thing on the rails. With so many young players struggling as a collective early on, it would have been easy for them to lose all confidence and sink further. The coaches did not browbeat their young core.
Brown says that Smith and the staff “instilled a belief in us. They saw what we could be as a team before we saw it.”
At the same time, the accountability shown by young leaders like Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, Brown and Paul helped stabilize the kids. Players encouraged each other on the bench and in the room. They didn’t want to let each other down.
“We were sick and tired of losing,” Norris said.
Smith, who marked his 44th birthday Thursday, finished the season enormously proud of what his team did, not merely in beating a Leafs team that was more or less just trying to remain healthy for their upcoming playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s great to go out on that note and get rewarded, not just for (Wednesday’s) effort but for the effort these guys have put in over the last eight, nine weeks. They barely took a period off . . . didn’t let up one time.”
Smith envisioned a hard-working physical team here and that’s what he got in the second half of the season.
“We play hard and finish checks,” Norris said. “Teams really don’t like playing against us.”
Asked to describe this team’s personality, defenceman Josh Brown was succinct: “We’re pesky and we’re mean.”
We’re not sure if Brown is aware that ‘Pesky Sens’ was the handle given to the 2012-13 Senators who snuck into the playoffs with a late charge behind goalie Andrew ‘The Hamburglar’ Hammond.
Smith cites goaltending and team culture as factors behind the 2021 turnaround. When Murray and then Marcus Hogberg got injured, goalie prospects Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson stepped in with some big wins. Daccord suffered a high ankle sprain, but is back on the ice and says he may get a start with AHL Belleville before the season is out. Anton Forsberg, another waiver wire pickup, also stabilized things.
Regarding the culture around this young group, they are so close we would tell them to “get a room” if they didn’t already have one.
“I love these guys,” Batherson said, unabashedly, about his bros. It’s been like that since 2017 at his first development camp in Ottawa, he added. He met players like Parker Kelly, an undrafted forward, just taking a shot with a blue-collar attitude. Talk about a different path, on Wednesday, Kelly finally made his NHL debut and scored his first goal. Batherson, like the rest of this upbeat group, was thrilled for him. Just another young Sen with a career first.
Smith says he’s never been around a closer team, including junior teams Smith took to the Memorial Cup. He likes the possibilities that can emerge from a team that is close in the room and battles together on the ice. It sounds like the worst kind of hockey cliche, but there is truth to it.
“I don’t think there’s enough said about what a good locker room can bring on the ice and the combination of young players growing together and holding each other accountable,” Smith said.
Teams that win have that, Smith said.
“I think we’re right there now,” he said.
For salty veteran winger Austin Watson, who came over from Nashville, this is a new experience, missing out on the NHL playoffs. Watson broke his thumb blocking a shot in late March, but is looking forward to going to war with these kids next fall.
“When I came here, the eagerness and the want to get better impressed me a lot,” Watson said. “When you see that work come to a head and you start to have success, you realize how we need to play on a night-to-night basis. And that’s the task now, to not forget how hard it is to be consistent in this league.”
Watson says this is the youngest group he has been with in the NHL. While he recognizes the league is full of skilled kids, what struck him about the Senators youthful players was their maturity and ability to get along.
“The organization has done such a good job getting quality people,” Watson said. “They’re mature young guys.
“The teams that win buy into the team concept and I’ve seen that from Day 1 here.”
Which one of these guys gets named captain is still to be determined (as the “Brady!” chants go up in the background). Smith says the matter will be discussed this summer with GM Pierre Dorion and owner Eugene Melnyk. It would be easy to muddle along with the status quo and not stress out a young man with the letter ‘C’, but most NHL teams do have a captain.
“At some point, you’ve got to make the hard decision,” Smith said, adding that his young leaders like Tkachuk and Chabot are “almost ready for that, and that’ll be a big part in deciding what we do.”
Smith said that the common theme in his exit meeting talks, especially with the younger players, was to get better and get stronger.
“We’ve got to be ready when the season starts,” Smith said. “We’re not going to sneak up on anyone as much anymore.”
In Ottawa, September and October can’t come soon enough.