Why Senators haven't taken their expected step forward

The Ottawa Senators looked to be one of the NHL's most improved teams on paper this offseason, adding Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux, bringing in Cam Talbot, and through the anticipated development of their many young stars.

But it has yet to work out that way. In fact, the Senators have seen their win percentage drop significantly (.445 to .382), and sit second last in the NHL. Ottawa finished 26th last year, which is nothing to boast about, but an offseason that earned the team praise was predicted to see a jump — not a fall — in the win column. Couple it all with a proposed team sale, and the franchise looks less stable today, with a better roster, than it did in the offseason.

Ottawa’s lack of success is actually a little skewed. The team’s goal differential sits near that of many fringe playoff teams, and its power play and penalty kill percentages are both middle of the pack. So what has gone wrong? What’s next for the Senators? And has anything gone right?

Alex DeBrincat's first season with the Senators has been a disappointment. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alex DeBrincat's first season with the Senators has been a disappointment. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What Has Gone Wrong in Ottawa?

Injuries. Talbot has good numbers (.924 save percentage, 2.42 GAA) in his first six appearances with the Senators, but he suffered an upper-body injury when a puck eluded his padding in early October, keeping him out until Nov. 5. In his absence, Anton Forsberg had dismal numbers, registering a save percentage and goals-against average both well outside the top half of NHL netminders.

Similarly, the injury to Josh Norris hurt Ottawa’s offensive attack. Ottawa still has two formidable scoring lines, but Norris led the Senators in goals in 2021-22 with 35 in 66 games. He missed 15 games last season with a shoulder injury before signing a massive eight-year contract extension in the offseason. Unfortunately, his new shoulder injury, suffered in late October, has the potential to keep him out for the entire season. Although surgery was deemed unnecessary, the team will not even reassess his progress until January.

Another issue with the Senators is DeBrincat has failed to find the scoring touch that was his calling card in Chicago. After scoring 41 goals last season with a 15.2% shooting percentage, which was actually below his career average, DeBrincat has only five goals in 17 games this season and is shooting at a measly 7.9% clip, the lowest rate of his career.

Finally, Ottawa’s blue line is beleaguered and in need of an upgrade. A concussion to Thomas Chabot, the team’s top defender, and an upper-body injury to Artum Zub were crushing. Ottawa also decided to send veteran Nikita Zaitsev to the AHL in hopes he will find his game after the Russian reportedly nixed a trade to Vancouver that would have seen Tyler Myers join the Senators in return.

What Has Gone Right in Ottawa?

With the exception of the stellar play from Giroux, who is producing at more than a point-per-game pace, little has gone right for the Senators this season. Tim Stutzle and Drake Batherson are both performing as expected, but beyond Ottawa’s top six, there has been little to no secondary scoring. With Shane Pinto taking over for Norris in the top six, no Senators forward outside this group has more than two goals.

If there is any bright spot on the Senators’ blue line, it’s the fact that youngsters including Jake Sanderson and Erik Brannstrom have appeared in every game for the team this season, and Sanderson is playing more than 20 minutes per night, third among all Senators. Jacob Bernard-Docker has also looked good at times after his recall from the AHL.

Claude Giroux has been excellent for the Senators in 2022-23. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Claude Giroux has been excellent for the Senators in 2022-23. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

What’s next for the Senators?

In this scenario, patience is likely a virtue. The Senators definitely don’t want to sacrifice young prospects and players that will aid their future success for temporary relief from a losing season. In fact, with a 2023 NHL Draft class stacked at the top with Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, and Matvei Michkov, one more losing season might not be in the franchise’s worst interest. Establish a winning culture? Yes. Need to win now? No.

Despite this, a trade to shore up or stir up their defence corps is something that will remain on the table in Ottawa, a point that GM Pierre Dorion confirmed when he said this week that the Senators would “keep looking” for a defender.

If the Senators do keep losing, despite Dorion’s assertion that “coaching is not the problem,” D.J. Smith will undoubtedly come under fire from the organization and fans. In four seasons behind the Ottawa bench, albeit with under-skilled rosters, Smith has yet to lead his team to a winning record. Before the culture shifts in Ottawa, a new voice might be necessary.

In the meantime, Smith and his staff will need to find a way to re-ignite DeBrincat, continue to foster the development of their young core, and turn a more competitive goal differential and special teams percentages into actual wins.

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