Continuing the recent trend of good year-bad year, the 2015-2016 campaign for the Ottawa Senators was nothing short of a letdown. There was no late season charge like last year, there was no divine saviour in human form, and most depressing of all, there was no playoff hockey in the nation’s capital. Thus, changes were made in order to put the team back on track.
Offseason: Longtime General Manager, Bryan Murray, decided it was time to step aside and serve as an adviser in order to focus on his health. The team is now under command of Pierre Dorion, who made his mark almost immediately on the team. Gone is Dave Cameron and his staff; with Guy Boucher, Marc Crawford and their Swiss associates being the new coaches. Dorion then brought in former Senator Chris Kelly to man the 4th line and Penalty Killing unit during Free Agency. Pierre then stunned the hockey world by shipping out potential star Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 2nd Round Pick for a player in his prime; that being Ottawa native Derick Brassard (along with a 2017 7th Round Pick). While the price was steep, it is clear that management feels this team is poised for a playoff berth and ready to unleash its full potential.
Offense: The Ottawa Senators had five 20+ goal scorers, and that list doesn’t include Kyle Turris, Clarke Macarthur, or Erik Karlsson. Both Turris and Macarthur experienced injury riddled seasons, with Macarthur being limited to 4 games and Turris 57. Both players are consistent 20 goal, 40-60 point scorers; so having them back should improve an already potent line-up. Karlsson chose to be a passer last season, thus sacrificing his goals for assists as he led the league in helpers. Leading the way was the lethal Mike Hoffman, who despite battling poor deployment, potted 29 goals. Zack Smith had a career year as he netted 25 goals, while sporting a 20.7 shooting percentage. Another brilliant second half from Mark Stone was cut short due to a thunderous hit by Dustin Byfuglien. Management is once again hoping Bobby Ryan can find his consistency and surpass the 25 goal mark. The edition of Derick Brassard comes at a cost as Zibanejad has improved in every season he’s played. With roughly about the same numbers last year, the swap should not affect the team’s offense. Expect them to be a top 10 scoring team in the league.
Defense: The catalyst of this team is unquestionably Karlsson. He finished the season with 82 points in 82 games, ranking him 5th in the NHL. While many were shocked he didn’t win his 3rd Norris, there can be no doubt that this will fuel him to be even better next season. Speaking of shock, the Senators brought just that to the hockey world by bringing in Dion Phaneuf last February. He was traded from the Maple Leafs to anchor the second defense unit and mentor Cody Ceci. After being “the man” in Toronto, a full season with him taking a lesser role will benefit both the team and himself. The time is now for Cody Ceci to prove to management that he can be a long term investment. He settled for a much less deal, both financially and in term. Also with chips on their shoulders are Mark Borowiecki and sophomore, Chris Wideman. Both performed well in their respected roles and will have to prove that they can be full time NHL players.The defense often gave up the first goal and was constantly barraged with defensive zone time. Guy Boucher’s coaching style should change that drastically as he values forcing turnovers and playing a smart, transition game. With excellent puck movers, the Senators should find success from the back end.
Goaltending: Craig Anderson is the number one goalie, despite what nostalgic fans might believe after getting their hearts robbed from the Hamburglar, Andrew Hammond. The concern with “Andy” is that he is ageing and injuries have plagued his entire career. Ready to contribute will be Hammond. Many believed he had a disappointing season after going virtually perfect the year before. Right out of the gate, the Hamburglar injured himself in camp and was limited in starts to finish with a 7-11-4 record. The team’s poor effort in front of him should not reflect his play as he had an even strength save percentage of .936; ranking him fourth amongst goalies with 20+ starts. With Boucher at the helm, it will without a doubt ease the workload of the goaltenders. Matt O’Connor, the once prized college free agent, had a rather terrible first year of pro. Additional years of development will unlock his full potential. For now, the Senators seem comfortable with the situation, but it should be addressed at the minimum next year. With many goalies on the market, and the expansion draft approaching, a trade could settle the dispute.
Special Teams: Both the powerplay and the penalty kill were complete and utter failures. The PP ranked 26th and it deserved it. Cameron’s system was sloppy and predictable; thus teams could easily identify every play and disrupt the entire operation. Despite scoring the most shorthanded goals in the league, the PK unit was abysmal. Players were misplaced and made it too easy for opponents to slip behind and dig for rebounds. In comes Boucher, leaving fans with optimism as he is famous for his special teams approach. Both of the units are experiencing similar situations as they have the right players, but not the right system. For the PP, Karlsson is the best offensive D-man in the game, Mike Hoffman has a deadly accurate shot and up front is a cluster of offensively gifted forwards. Most notable is Derick Brassard; since he is a PP specialist with 8 goals and 22 points on the unit last year. For the PK, they have shorthanded machine in J.G Pageau, who led the league with 9 “shorties”. Among him is takeaway wizard Mark Stone, as he led the league in that department for consecutive years. The main point is with both of these units playing so terribly last year, there is no where to go but up.
Rookies: The club takes pride in their ability to draft and develop. While finishing mid pack for the past few seasons, the Senators have managed to establish a very good prospect “cupboard”. Leading the way is 19 year old defenseman Thomas Chabot, who looks to make the opening night roster. He is a very smart player with smooth skating capabilities, and excels on both sides of the puck. The decision to send him back to junior the previous year was rather tough as he played well; especially with Karlsson. Another outstanding prospect is fellow 2015 First Rounder Colin White. Many scouts have compared him to Patrice Bergeron; as he is another brilliant two-way forward. He will go back to College, but will likely get a good look at training camp to view his progress. 2016 First Rounder centre Logan Brown is a few years away, but when he arrives, it will certainly be a treat. With a 6’6, 220lb frame, he is a play making machine and scouts love his awareness and strength. It seems the time is now or never for 2011 First Rounder, Matt Puempel. Injuries and inconsistencies have prevented him from living up to his goal scoring potential. With the emergence of Ryan Dzingel and Nick Paul, he will have to compete for a spot on the roster. A prospect to look out for is forward Francis Perron. The reigning QMJHL most valuable player racked up points last year and is being compared to current Senator, Mike Hoffman. He is quick with a deadly shot that can terrorize teams. If he doesn’t make the team, then the baby Senators awaits him as he is too old for Junior. Dzingel, Paul, and Andreas Englund will get a good look in Ottawa as they seem to be the most mature and ready prospects.
X Factor: Where is the Curtis Lazar the team drafted back in 2013? Playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings, he was the ultimate player. He could score big numbers and excel in any position he was put in. His 2 NHL seasons, however, have been rather disappointing. Being a 40 goal, 70 point scorer in the WHL, he’s managed to score 6 goals and 15-20 points in Ottawa. With the centre and right wing positions clogged with talent, he is forced to play a bottom six role. The departure of Alex Chiasson means Lazar will most likely play with Zack Smith and J.G Pageau. Both of those players are excellent role models for the 21 year old, as they are hard hitting and play smart with and without the puck. What he needs to do is work on his mediocre skating and find some degree of consistency to eliminate his often stat line of zeroes across the board. Despite his 6 goal seasons, Lazar possesses a very good shot and likes to create havoc in front of opposing nets. If he can gel on that third line and improve his poor play, the Ottawa Senators will have another deadly weapon in their arsenal. However, Boucher will not hesitate to sit him if expectations aren’t being met. With Dzingel, Paul, and Puempel licking their chops for a chance at a regular NHL shift, the competition should provide Lazar with his best season yet and a renaissance of his junior success.
Concerns: Last season, the team reverted back to their old ways of poor puck management and sloppy defense structure. These faults have costed the jobs of two coaches and the pleasure of playoff hockey for the fans. Ottawa promises change and better results, yet the core largely remains. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Could ownership and management truly believe that this nucleus is Stanley Cup, if not playoff, calibre? Or are they crazy enough to think that other teams will struggle and their own will sneak in? With the Senators being a budget team, they have made their life off of bargain deals and entry level contracts; with very few large agreements. Not being able to spend on the players necessary prevents them from taking the next step. The primary concern with this team is defense. Last year, they were ranked 26th and Craig Anderson faced the most shots out of any goalie with 33.05 per game. If Guy Boucher can’t change the defensive woes, it will be a long season. Another concern is the goaltending of Anderson and Hammond. Anderson tends to go streaking, with injuries in between, and Hammond will never replicate his numbers in his rookie year. With not a lot of depth in net, this could be a problem for the Senators. As the Dallas Stars have shown, scoring alone will not get a trip to the Cup Final.
Expected Finish: The Atlantic Division can be a toss up; boasting few playoff locks. After Tampa Bay and Florida, two very strong teams, virtually any team can finish near the top. Expect the Ottawa Senators to finish 3rd in the Atlantic, or at the very least, a Wild Card spot. Guy Boucher and Marc Crawford should install a system that benefits the finesse of the team. Derick Brassard and Chris Kelly are huge additions that will augment the powerplay and penalty kill, respectively. A full season of Dion Phaneuf will stabilize the defense corp and add some much needed grit. Following the Ottawa Senators pattern, they are sure to have an excellent season and hope to do some damage in the playoffs. It seems the time is now for the club to finally bring back pride and glory to Canadian hockey.