Senators have made some strides, but roster still needs plenty of work

Josh Norris and Tim Stützle both had a goal and two assists as the Ottawa Senators took down the St. Louis Blues 4-1.

There is an abundance of Sens reflecting going on in Ottawa this week.

Why? Because the Ottawa Senators happen to be 56 games deep into their 2021-22 NHL schedule, a handy comparison of their 56-game condensed schedule last year, albeit in a Canadian-only North Division. The number 56 hasn’t been talked about this much since Joe DiMaggio established his 56-game hitting streak in 1941.

The Senators’ switch back to life among the sharks in the Atlantic Division, not to mention games against all the best and worst teams east and west, is just one of the reasons it is difficult to make a direct comparison to last year’s Ottawa team.

Without question, the going is tougher back in the regular format, looking up at divisional titans like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

The Senators’ inconsistent play is another challenging factor in gauging their progress. Was that team that gave up eight goals to Arizona really the same one that schooled the St. Louis Blues 4-1 on Tuesday? Impressive. More of that, please.

Overall, the raw numbers from this season to last are quite similar:

2020-21: 23-28-5 (51 points), 157 GF, 190 GA, -33 Dif.

2021-22: 20-31-5 (45 points), 147 GF, 180 GA, -33 Dif.

The Senators have fewer wins and points, have scored less and given up fewer goals on the path to the exact same goal differential, -33.

Does this mean they are mired in quicksand – their rebuild stalled, or even regressing?

Not necessarily. Factor in the disastrous month of November, when the Senators were racked with COVID-19, before the league started postponing games, plus the injuries to top forwards like Drake Batherson (out 20 games with a high ankle sprain, and still sidelined), Josh Norris (just back in the lineup) Shane Pinto (still out with a shoulder injury) and Connor Brown (missed time with a broken jaw) and the Senators have probably done as well as could be expected.

A case could be made that there has been important progress with Ottawa’s young core players, with this caveat: The Senators need to support that core with better proven talent if they are going to contend for a playoff spot as early as next season, after missing the dance for five consecutive years. That means either trading for players that can help the team immediately, or signing free agents in the off season.

Does the franchise have the means to do that?

For now, let’s look at each area of the roster and consider their status with the season more than two-thirds done.

FORWARDS: Big strides, despite injuries

At the moment, the forward position is the area of strength. Consider the strides made this season, even though they haven’t been able to post a full roster for most of it.

Batherson, in just 31 games played, had a massive breakthrough, becoming a better than point-per-game player and was named Ottawa’s All-Star representative (replaced by Brady Tkachuk, due to Batherson’s high ankle sprain). With 11 power-play points and 34 overall, Batherson is a lock as a first-line right winger.

Similarly, top centre Norris proved himself to be a big power-play threat (nine PPG in 40 games, compared to 6 PPG in 56 games last year). Remarkably, Norris hit the 20-goal mark in just 40 games played, which projects to 40-plus on a full season.

Add in captain Tkachuk, who is the team leader and a beast to play against. Tim Stützle has 13 goals and 33 points in 53 games, compared to 12/29 in 53 GP last season. That might seem like small progress, but consider that the 20-year-old has shifted over to centre and took on those added responsibilities while boosting his power-play production to 14 points from nine. As he matures physically, Stützle is going to be an offensive force with his natural drive and creativity.

Speedy Alex Formenton, once considered a future checker/penalty killer specialist, has blossomed into a confident, 13-goal scorer and a threat to score while shorthanded – he has three shorties.

Needs: While the young core is surrounded by some strong complementary players, like Brown, Nick Paul and Zach Sanford (the latter two are pending UFAs and could be moved at the deadline), the Senators need at least one more proven scorer as a top-six piece. Norris, a pending RFA, needs a new deal. A key summer signing.

DEFENCE: Still a work in progress

The Senators blueline continues to be a mish-mash of up-and-comers and placeholders, trying to hold the fort until the day when elite defenceman Thomas Chabot has a proper supporting cast. While Artem Zub continues to be rock solid and Nick Holden has been a nice, steadying influence as a pre-season acquisition (rewarded with an extension through next season at a team-friendly $1.3M), Ottawa won’t reach its potential on defence until NCAA star Jake Sanderson arrives (soon) and prospects like Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Tyler Kleven are ready for prime time.

Fans look for the day when there can be real stability on the blueline with proper, established pairings from game to game. The day is coming, perhaps a year or two from now.

Needs: One established D-man to help shore things up until the kids are ready.

GOALTENDING: Who had Forsberg in their pool?

Where would the Senators be if they hadn’t plucked Anton Forsberg off waivers 12 months ago? Even one month ago, Forsberg was considered a trade-deadline chip, as a 29-year-old pending UFA. Now, it feels critical that Ottawa get Forsberg signed, at least to a two-year deal.

With supposed No. 1 goalie Matt Murray currently hurt and having been on injured reserve seven times since January of 2021, Forsberg has elevated his game. Where he was a steady backup, Forsberg is currently one of the NHL’s hottest goalies, giving up three goals or less in his past eight starts. His season numbers now include a sparkling .921 save percentage and 2.69 goals against.

With 12 victories, Forsberg has recorded more than half of Ottawa’s wins. Never mind that Murray has an expensive long-term deal or that Filip Gustavsson is on a one-way deal next season, the Senators can’t afford to let Forsberg get away.

Needs: Sign Forsberg for the short term and let prospects Mads Sogaard, Gustavsson and Leevi Merilainen progress and develop. One of those three should emerge to be the goalie of the future.

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