Will Senators’ defence be good enough to meet heightened team expectations?

David Amber speaks with Anthony Stewart and Elliotte Friedman about the two split-squad preseason games between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, and break down the play of Jake Sanderson and Calle Jarnkrok.

After years of languishing at or near the bottom of the NHL standings, the Ottawa Senators feel they are ready to compete again.

General manager Pierre Dorion was busy this off-season with the goal of making his team more competitive. His first splash came at the draft, where he acquired high-end scoring winger Alex DeBrincat in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Dorion then convinced Ontario native Claude Giroux to come home, signing the veteran playmaker to a three-year deal on the first day of free agency. A top six of DeBrincat, Giroux, Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stützle and Drake Batherson has the potential to be scary good if everything clicks.

The Senators also improved their goaltending, moving on from Matt Murray after two disappointing seasons and bringing in Cam Talbot to work with Anton Forsberg.

For all the work that Dorion did to revamp the Senators over the summer, though, he was unable to upgrade the defence. That weakness could hinder Ottawa’s pursuit of a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

Collectively, the Senators were among the worst 5-on-5 defensive teams in the league last season. They had particular trouble getting the puck out of their own zone, as evidenced by their league-worst 14 per cent defensive zone turnover rate, which measures how much a team loses the puck relative to its total possessions.

As a result, opposing teams were consistently able to sustain pressure in the offensive zone and cash in on second-chance opportunities. The Senators allowed 23 second-chance goals at 5-on-5, tied for fifth-most.

Top defenceman Thomas Chabot was the worst offender in terms of giveaways, committing 4.3 defensive zone turnovers per game. That ranked last among 213 defencemen who played at least 500 minutes.

Of course, players who carry the puck as much as Chabot are more prone to mistakes. Chabot’s 1:43 of 5-on-5 possession time per game was second among qualified defencemen, behind only Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes, and 39 seconds more than the next closest Senators defenceman (Erik Brannstrom).

Even with such a discrepancy in possession time, the Senators’ other regular defencemen were terribly turnover-prone.

The Senators would benefit from finding a defenceman who can take on some of Chabot’s responsibilities.

Jake Sanderson, Ottawa’s 2020 first-round pick, could be that defenceman. Sanderson, 20, has the tools to be an impact player in transition and on the defensive end, but the Senators do not want to overload the rookie.

“Jake’s going to be a heck of a player,” said Senators coach D.J. Smith, who plans to pair Sanderson with Travis Hamonic. “We know that, but there’s a lot of growing pains, and he’s still a young guy.”

Dorion told reporters during his season-opening news conference that he is willing to make a move if needed.

“If we feel we can improve, we’ll do it right now,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of cap space left.”

One option on defence is Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun, who has made it known that he would like to be traded. Chychrun is an excellent skater, finishing 10th in controlled exits per game at 5-on-5 last season, but he has never been known for his defensive prowess.

The early-season performance of the Senators’ defence corps will be worth watching.

Dorion has made clear his expectations for this season: “We want to play meaningful games until the end of the year.” If the defence struggles, then Dorion could be forced to act.

Data via Sportlogiq.

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