The Ottawa Senators went into the 2022-23 season with high hopes. The Eugene Melnyk era was over, the team was finally spending money again, and general manager Pierre Dorion had made a splash by trading a seventh overall pick as well as two later picks for star goal-scorer Alex DeBrincat. Excitement continued to mount when the team signed Ottawa area native Claude Giroux to a three-year contract in free agency. Those two moves, in addition to the acquisition of Cam Talbot and the Tyler Motte signing, made a lot of Senators fans believe that their time had finally come to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2016-17.
No one had a doubt that the Sens had one of the best young cores in the NHL, and with the aforementioned moves it seemed they had evened out the edges enough to contend for a playoff spot. Dorion also spent much of the 2022 offseason trying to fix prior mistakes. He bought out Colin White and Michael Del Zotto and paid two draft picks to get rid of 75 percent of Matt Murray’s contract. Later on in the season Dorion also paid another two picks to offload Nikita Zaitsev and his behemoth contract in order to make room for the Jakob Chychrun acquisition.
All the Sens glorious plans went out the window when top-six center Josh Norris went down with a long-term shoulder injury in October 2022. That pushed Shane Pinto into the second-line center slot and drastically damaged the Sens’ bottom-six depth. Like in years previous, the Sens couldn’t figure out a way to start the season on a good note, and only began to climb the standings after the halfway mark of the season. They finished the year with a 39-35-8 record with 86 points in the standings, six points back of the Florida Panthers who clinched the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
KEY ADDITIONS & DEPARTURES
Joonas Korpisalo, G
Dominik Kubalik, LW
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW
Jiri Smejkal, LW
Matthew Highmore, LW
Nikolas Matinpalo, D
Garrett Pilon, C
Josh Currie, RW
Donovan Sebrango, D
Zack MacEwen, RW
Bokondji Imama, LW
Alex DeBrincat, LW (Det)
Cam Talbot, G (LA)
Dylan Gambrell, C (Tor)
Austin Watson, RW (TB)
Derick Brassard, C (UFA)
Julien Gauthier, RW (NYI)
Nick Holden, D (retired)
Patrick Brown, C (Bos)
Jakov Novak, F (Mon)
The Sens’ offense is just about set going into the 2023-24 season. The only question marks that remain are that Pinto is still unsigned as an RFA, and the fact that the team is right up against the cap. The core of the offense is set, with Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Claude Giroux, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson all signed to contracts beyond this year. They also have supporting pieces Vladimir Tarasenko, Dominik Kubalik, and Mathieu Joseph to round out the top nine. The only problem is that to get the team under the cap one of those players will most likely have to be traded. The most likely victim will be Joseph, as he had limited offensive production last year and is probably the odd one out.
Assuming none of those aforementioned players goes down with a long-term injury like Norris did last year, this top nine is legitimately one of the deepest in the NHL. Tkachuk and Stutzle are poised to yet again create one of the best forward lines in the NHL, with whoever their third linemate ends up being. Last year the Tkachuk-Stutzle-Giroux line created a ton of offence for the Sens and dictated the play almost every night. The team could choose to go with that option again, which would work in its own right. However, that would leave a probable second line of Batherson-Norris-Tarasenko which has a lot of skill but Norris has missed an entire season with injury, Tarasenko is coming to a brand new team, and Batherson struggled a lot last year. The team might decide it’s better to place Tarasenko on the top line and solidify the second line with Giroux.
The bottom six was one of Ottawa’s biggest deficiencies last year and will need to improve for the team to make the playoffs this year. The Senators signed Czech veteran Jiri Smejkal to an entry-level deal, Zack MacEwen to a three-year deal, as well as depth pieces Matthew Highmore and Bokondji Imama in an attempt to shore up their depth at the bottom of the lineup. Either way, for the bottom six to be successful they need Pinto signed and ready to go by the start of the season. It’s also possible that a younger player like Ridly Greig or Egor Sokolov could crack the lineup and play a role on the third or fourth line.
The Senators’ defense going into last year was improved over the previous seasons but still needed work. What the Sens can offer today versus this time last year is a vastly improved defense corps with a real chance to compete against any team in the NHL. Midway through last season, the Senators pulled off a trade that landed top-four defenseman Chychrun and in a side deal they offloaded Zaitsev to Chicago. Thus in two separate trades, Dorion turned the Sens’ defense into one of the better groups in the league.
Thomas Chabot is still a fairly large question mark as to whether he still has it in him to be a quality offensive defenseman. Luckily, the team now has a couple of other players who can take the load off him in Jake Sanderson and Chychrun. They now have plenty of options for pairings, usage, and power-play time on the back end. Any of the those three can reliably quarterback the power play and in a pinch they could even use Erik Brannstrom who has had good showings with the man advantage over the last couple of seasons when Chabot was out with injury.
Right now the Senators have seven defensemen who will be in the mix for the starting six on opening night. The top four is set right now, but the big battle will be for who ends up playing on the bottom pairing this season. Brannstrom and Travis Hamonic probably have the inside track because of their experience but Jacob Bernard-Docker, Tyler Kleven, Nikolas Matinpalo, and Lassi Thomson all have a shot at making the big club this year.
There is still a lot to prove for this group, though. They need to prove that they can handle the rigours of an 82-game season and, above all, they need to prove they can stay healthy over the course of an entire season. But on paper, there is nothing to be worried about when this group hits the ice in October.
The signing of Joonas Korpisalo to a five-year, $20 million contract should solidify the Sens’ goaltending situation for the next couple of years. But like everything to do with goalies, it’s impossible to know what’s ultimately going to happen. Korpisalo has had the curse of playing behind some very poor defense groups the last few years, so it’s hard to see how he’ll respond to the Senators’ defense. He had a strong 2022-23 season, posting a .913 save percentage on an all-around weak Columbus Blue Jackets team and an ever better .921 SV% on the Los Angeles Kings toward the end of the season. The bubble burst in the playoffs, when he was shaky against the Edmonton Oilers, posting an .892 SV% in a six-game defeat.
Over the eight seasons in Korpisalo’s career he posted a better than .900% in four of them, but two of those were the first two seasons of his career. That means in four out of the last six seasons he had a worse than .900 SV%. But again, he was on some weak Blue Jackets team in many of those seasons. The Senators definitely see something in the Finn, handing out their biggest goalie contract to him since…Matt Murray’s.
An underrated story to watch in Ottawa’s net is whether Anton Forsberg can bounce back from last year and his awful double MCL injury that ended the 2022-2023 season for him. He is just one year removed from the 2021-22 season when he stole the starter’s crease from Murray and posted sterling underlying numbers and a .917 SV%. It’s what earned Forsberg a three-year contract at $2.75 million annually. Last year doesn’t look quite as good. In 2022-23, he had a 3.26 GAA and .902 SV% – not quite disastrous numbers, but the team needs more from him. So which Forsberg will we see in 2023-24?
The only way this tandem will work out is if both goalies support each other and provide a true 1A/1B dynamic.
Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith has probably the hottest seat in the NHL right now. New owner Michael Andlauer is set to take control of the team over the next week and has given the impression that he won’t swoop in and make any changes off the bat. But make no mistake, if things go south early in the season, Smith is the first one out the door. On the other hand, if the Sens make the playoffs this year, there’s a good chance Smith could be a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy. Such is the norm for NHL coaches.
Smith will be entering his fifth season behind the bench in Ottawa. Remarkably, he is tied as the sixth-longest tenured coach in the NHL along with Todd McLellan from the Kings. The five coaches ahead of him combined for six Stanley Cups and the only one among them who didn’t win one as a coach is Rod Brind’Amour and he’s, well, Rod Brind’Amour. Then there’s the likeable Smith sitting there without a single playoff game on his resume. By most accounts he’s had a generally positive effect on the team but the 2023-24 seasons is absolutely go-time for him. There will be no “Lets hope for meaningful games” this year. It’s playoffs or bust for D.J. Smith.
At some points over the rebuild the Senators had one of the best prospect pools in the NHL. Many of those players graduated to the NHL and became the cornerstones of the team, while others graduated by age or just left the team entirely. At this point the Senators’ prospect pool is at its driest point of the last six years. And thanks to the DeBrincat trade which cost three draft picks, the Chychrun trade which cost another three picks, and the offloading of Murray and Zaitsev which cost more picks, the Sens haven’t had the opportunity to improve their pipeline at all.
The Senators have a couple of rookies that could crack the NHL lineup this year and make a difference at that level. Greig played 20 games last year and put up nine points, spending significant time alongside Giroux. Greig has an inside track to making the team and could put up decent numbers as a rookie, perhaps in the 30-35 points range if he plays enough games.
Sokolov could make the team as well, assuming he gets signed to a contract before the season. But a lot of scouts are skeptical that he has the tools to stay in the NHL long-term. Aside from those two, there really aren’t many options. Roby Jarventie, Angus Crookshank, and Tyler Boucher all have an outside chance of making the lineup in 2023-24 but they almost certainly won’t see any significant NHL time this year.
1. Can the big boys stay healthy? One could come up with dozens of reasons why the Senators failed to make the playoffs in 2022-23, but it comes down to one word: health. The injures to Norris, Chabot, Forsberg, Artem Zub, Talbot, and Joseph killed any shot of making the playoffs. If the team wants to make the postseason in 2023-24, they’ll need healthy players. Chychrun has a long and extensive injury history and the spotlight will be on him to stay healthy.
2. Will the goaltending be good enough? Korpisalo and Forsberg are both goalies who can be very good but they can also be very bad at times too. The second most important variable going into the season behind health is goaltending, and yes the two intersect. If both goalies stay healthy they should be able to be good enough to lead the strong skater group into the playoffs, but if one or both go down with long-term injuries, can Mads Sogaard carry the load for a period of time?
3. Can they resolve the salary cap situation? As of the time of this writing, RFAs Pinto and Sokolov remained unsigned and the team finds itself right up against the cap. In order to sign Pinto they’ll need to move money out to make room for him. One of Kubalik/Brannstrom/Joseph will likely need to be moved out in the next few weeks to create enough room for Pinto. It is imperative that they ship out the right player with the right deal to ensure that they limit the damage as much as possible and get Pinto back with the team.
After so much talk about the moves the Senators made over the last few months and years, they’ve successfully built a playoff-caliber team. Are the Senators ready to contend for the Stanley Cup? Probably not. But they are absolutely good enough to make the playoffs and I predict they will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17 this year. It’s unlikely that they’ll be at the top of their division or win any rounds in the playoffs but barring any unforeseen injures to key players, this is a team that is built to consistently make the postseason year in, year out.
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