What we’ll learn about the Senators in a busy December schedule

Ottawa Senators Jake Sanderson, 85, Brady Tkachuk, 7, and Tim Stützle, 18, wait for the puck during the NHL Global Series Sweden ice hockey match between Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators at Avicii Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency via AP)

You remember the Ottawa Senators, right?

They’re the team that plays hockey games occasionally. 

Game here, two days off, game there, three days off . . . 

Well, that was then. That was October and that was November, when the Senators played fewer games than any team in the NHL. Ottawa has played 17 times. Washington is the only other team to have fewer than 20 GP. 

Incredibly, the Senators have engaged in seven fewer games than their Friday opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

That Dec. 1 game in Columbus also marks a page turned on the calendar and a dramatic shift away from Ottawa’s lifestyle of the early weeks of the schedule. 

Of those 17 games, 13 have been at home, although two of the “home” contests were in Sweden. 

Finally, in December, the Senators play often and for the first time this season, have more games on the road than at home. And they can forget about those two or three or four practice sessions per week as they had during their lax schedule. 

Starting Friday, Ottawa plays 15 times in 31 December days, including eight away games. 

Players seem keen to get playing regularly and to have less time to dwell on the tough losses, none worse than Monday’s 5-0 pasting by the Florida Panthers. 

“I think if you get on a roll and you’re playing every second night, it’s awesome,” said Senators winger Drake Batherson. “Especially as a player, if you’re playing good you want to play as much as you can, every second day.”

The key word in those remarks – IF you get on a roll, IF you are playing well. 

Monday’s game was dreadful, making fans forget the team has actually won three of its last five games, including the two in Stockholm. 

It’s the way they lost to Florida, the fact the team has fallen to 8-9 overall and last place in the Atlantic Division despite all those home games. It’s the single victory, against Calgary, in the past seven played at the CTC. 

Above all, it’s the crushing disappointment that a summer filled with expectations has spun out a mediocre start to the season despite the relatively soft schedule and plethora of home games. 

December is shaping up to be a month where we find out a lot about this team. 

What will we learn about the Senators?

Can they get back in the race?

The one benefit of playing fewer games is that you have games in hand against teams you are trying to catch. The flip side? There is added pressure to win those games. A .500 record is not going to cut it after a sub-.500 start. 

As Batherson said, the Senators need to get on a roll. String some wins together, starting Friday night in Columbus against a Jackets team holding down last place in the Metro Division. 

With so little margin for error, Ottawa might have to go something like 10-5-0 in December to put them in reasonable position for a stretch run. That would give them 36 points in 32 games. A legitimate building block. 

How good are they?

We probably all need to admit, myself included, that we let expectations run a bit wild this past summer. With another year for the young core, all of them locked into deals, plus the return of RFA centre Shane Pinto (delayed and then . . . really delayed), the additions of goalie Joonas Korpisalo, forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Dominik Kubalik and a full year of defenceman Jakob Chychrun – there was a collective act in Ottawa of penciling the Sens into playoff contention. 

Pre-season expectations are always dangerous (see files on Edmonton, New Jersey and Carolina etc., all off to slow starts). But how good are the Senators, really?

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I think we will find out this month. And not just us casual observers. The new president of hockey operations and interim GM Steve Staios needs to know what he has and what moves might need to be made between now and the trade deadline. 

With defenceman Thomas Chabot and forward Ridly Greig set to return – Chabot is back Friday, Greig needs longer – Staios is going to get a chance to see this team relatively healthy for the first time in a while. 

Anything Staios might do by way of roster addition or subtraction is complicated by the fact the Sens are right up against the salary cap, a situation Staios inherited from recently fired GM Pierre Dorion. 

By the end of this month, we will have a very good idea of what kind of team the Senators are – the players say they are united and confident. Time to show it. 

Mid-month road trip is big

While the Senators face a broad range of teams this month, from the struggling Jackets to the defending Stanley Cup champions of Las Vegas, there is a stretch of road games in the middle of the month that stands out. 

In an eight-day span from Dec. 14-21, the Senators have a five-game road trip, their longest of the season to date: St. Louis, then Dallas (back-to-back), Vegas, Arizona and Colorado. No easy games in there. Even the Coyotes have a winning record. 

If they are to turn things around in December, the Senators will have to survive this five-game stretch on the road. 

How hot is the coach’s seat?

So bad was the mood after Monday’s defeat, and with a stretch of practice days prior to the game in Columbus, there was lots of speculation that Staios might make a coaching change after the shutout loss to Florida. By now you know that is not on and that head coach D.J. Smith’s job is safe for now. 

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Ottawa fans have nothing personal against Smith. But after six years of no playoff games, and a five-year run of losing under Smith while the roster was rebuilt, it is not hard to understand fan frustration over the Senators’ mediocre start in a season that is supposed to be about getting to the “next level.”

Smith and his staff can draw a breath as they head for Ohio. All things considered, Staios would prefer to keep the coach he has under contract and let the next, new full-time GM make the decision on the next coach. 

Like everything else, the level of heat on the coach’s seat is up for review in the month of December. 

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