Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Ottawa Senators.
2020-21 Ottawa Senators
The 2020-21 Ottawa Senators have a lot more hope heading into the year vs last season. Everyone knew last year’s team was going to be bad, and they indeed were. The season was all about the future, by finishing near the bottom and getting two top five picks. As well as seeing some of their younger players grow in the NHL and AHL. Despite that, the team managed to be a plucky team that rarely handed out free points. At times, their lack of skill was evident. However, they competed in almost all of their games and if teams beat them, it didn’t come easy.
Ottawa ended up playing in the last regular-season game before the season was cancelled. That was all the way back in March. They finished the year 25-34-12 which saw them finish 30th in points and points percentage. Overall, it was a rather uneventful regular season for the Senators. Their offseason saw 90% of their storylines that carried into the year. Most the year was played to steal points, and at the trade deadline, they recouped some more assets.
As mentioned above, the offseason was full of storylines for Ottawa. After they watched the Colorado Avalanche take their fourth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, fates changed. The Sens had the San Jose Sharks first-rounder this season. Thanks to a disastrous year, that ended up being third overall. They took superstar Tim Stuetzle with it, who already looks primed to make an impact. Their own pick landed at fifth overall, and they went slightly off the board and took Jake Sanderson. This certainly wasn’t the expected pick, but Ottawa has had success recently with off the board picks up top. Regardless, more of the talking points come from all the players they have added this offseason. In the offseason, Ottawa parted ways with fan favourites such as Craig Anderson and Bobby Ryan.
The 2020-21 Ottawa Senators are going to look very different. The team added a ton of veteran players. Like, a ton. Matt Murray, Erik Gudbranson, Austin Watson, Evgenii Dadonov, Alex Galchenyuk, Derek Stepan, Braydon Coburn, and others. There were a lot of names added to this roster, which leaves a lot of questions to be asked. Yes, there will be a taxi squad this season. However, the Sens roster is incredibly full even accounting for that. For a season that was supposed to be full of building with younger guys, it really doesn’t look like that will be the case right away.
This probably deserves its own article, but we’ll go over the debate quickly anyway. The veteran leadership is great, but how many people are there going to be to lead? We’ll get into the lineup predictions in a minute, but even the most optimistic projections have three rookies on this team with four players under 23. That’s not exactly a young team. Names like Erik Brannstrom very well could be ninth on the depth chart. Regardless of what his ceiling is, right about now is when you want to know what you have in a player like that.
The same deal goes for guys like Logan Brown, Joshua Norris, and to a lesser extent, players like Filip Chlapik, who now may be hard-pressed to make this lineup. It’s crucial to know what there is now so you don’t assume they’ll fit in later when you need them, only to find out they’re nowhere near your projected expectations. It will be an interesting year to see how things shake out.
Tim Stuetzle – Derek Stepan – Drake Batherson
Alex Galchenyuk – Logan Brown – Austin Watson
Starting with the top six, this is just a rough guess of what lines could look like. In all honesty, the 2020-21 Ottawa Senators will likely see dozens of line combos. Figuring out which players work best with who and where everyone’s position is. To start, let’s take a look at the top line. Tkachuk is a no-brainer there. He is their best left-winger right now and possibly best forward too. He has shown he can basically play with anyone, but why not add some skill on his line?
It seems likely enough that Dadonov did not come to Ottawa to play with guys who are bottom six players. So, setting him up with your other top forward seems like a smart way to go. Up the middle, White is looking to rebound this season and very well could. It might be between him and Tierney for starting on that first line, in all honesty. However, White’s best numbers came alongside Tkachuk. Granted, Mark Stone was also on that line, but why not try to recreate some chemistry? White also has enough skill to help get the puck to a finisher like Dadonov and Tkachuk will cause chaos in front of the net.
The second line might be the defacto third line to start the year. Doubtful they pick up too many big defensive matchups, this could still be an incredibly fun line to watch. Stuetzle has shown so much skill and Batherson would fit perfectly with that. Up the middle, they have their prized veteran who they brought in for just this reason. In a TSN1200 interview, Stepan mentioned he’s great at mentoring younger players and hinted that might be his position here. All heads went to Stuetzle, but why not have two players at the same time? Batherson has shown so much potential in the past few seasons, having a vet to help him through it could help just as much as Stuetzle. It would also allow for a relatively skilled line and hopefully would see Stepan’s point totals increase again.
Now for the bottom six. Again, there could be a massive rotation of players in and out of this. However, this third line seems like a perfect fit of players. All guys that DJ Smith appears to have trust in. Connor Brown and Nick Paul are two of Ottawa’s better defensive forwards. Tierney won’t be winning any Selke’s anytime soon, but he’s an average player and could be a solid fit between these two. This could become a line that goes out when Ottawa needs a big defensive zone win. It’s three of Ottawa’s more reliable forwards, despite any lack of flash. They probably won’t do too much scoring, but if they can play to even, that’s probably all Ottawa will want.
The fourth line is where things get super interesting. Again, any of the extras listed starting in the lineup is easy enough to see. Pacquette, Watson, Anisimov, and even Chlapik feel like prime candidates to sub in and out if Ottawa wants to get everyone playing. Galchenyuk feels like he should slide up the lineup, however, there really isn’t much room. The top six feels relatively solid and the third line could be defensively responsible. Galchenyuk is the exact opposite of that. So, that leaves the fourth line. It is the main reason Brown might centre this line.
Adding some more skill for Galchenyuk to work with. If you place Watson and another grinder on the bottom line, there is no way Galchenyuk will succeed. He needs some talent to play with and while there might be a role for Watson, another skilled forward is needed. That is where Brown comes in. Ideally, he works his way up the lineup. So much so that they feel comfortable with trading Stepan come deadline time. For now, he may have to show he can play near the bottom though.
Some people want to see Anisimov start in this lineup to “boost his trade value” but that honestly seems like poor asset management. Despite how many goals he had, Anisimov’s overall game isn’t very strong. There feels like better options to play in the lineup. Paquette also isn’t the player he used to be. However, if he rides on the taxi squad he’d be a fine replacement if injuries add up.
The two very interesting names are Chlapik and Balcers. Both these players need to clear waivers if they’re not on the opening roster. So, what does Ottawa do? Chlapik has shown he is an NHLer at some level. He’s not a top guy like they were hoping, but could be great depth. Balcers feels like a player other teams might want to take a shot on if he does get placed on waivers. 23 and skilled, he could fit anywhere in the lineup if needed. Both of these players will be possible waiver claim candidates if placed on it. However, if they clear, they provide Ottawa with great depth.
Thomas Chabot – Erik Gudbranson
Extras: Brayden Coburn, Artem Zub, Christian Jaros
This is certainly the worst looking part of the Senators lineup. The blueline is extremely weak even if the most ideal lineup gets used. Thomas Chabot will be the star on it once again. And while Gudbranson may not be the personal choice here, Smith has already said he’ll be getting the start along with Chabot. One of Brown or Zub could be candidates to work their way up to that top spot, but they both need to show quite a bit.
Wolanin should be a shoo-in for this second pair spot. Especially if the org doesn’t plan on playing Erik Brannstrom to start the year. He is easily their second-best defenceman on the left side and very likely overall. He suffered a brutal injury last year but has battled back. Another guy you want to see what he can bring. His partner feels destined to be Zaitsev. Until we see otherwise, there’s not much reason to believe Zaitsev will be pulled out of the top four, let alone the lineup. Again, he’d have to get really outplayed by one or both of Zub and Brown, which might happen, but to start it seems like this is Zaitsev’s spot. This will be a tough area for Ottawa as the right side is extremely weak. Getting a huge season from both Chabot and Wolanin will be key to success.
Bottom Pair and Extras
Mike Reilly seems like an obvious candidate to start on the left side third pair because he’s the last lefty Ottawa has. Brannstrom and Maxime Lajoie both play the left side, but Reilly is better than Lajoie and Brannstrom can be sent to the minors without using waivers. Ottawa has so many one-way contracts it seems hard to believe they’ll want to waive too many or even send any to the AHL. So, that leaves Reilly. Not a terrible option for the third pair either. He should be able to play well in that position and maybe chip in on the penalty kill. As for his partner, starting we have Brown. The Sens gave up assets to acquire him so it feels like they’ll want to give him a shot. However, this could be a rotating area for Ottawa.
Brown should be alright but if Zub has a good camp he could play his way in there too. Coburn feels destined to be the seventh defenceman, coming in against physical teams or on back-to-backs. The real interesting thing will be if they want to see anything out of someone like Jaros, or if he is destined for the AHL again.
Extra: Francois Brassard
Murray is going to be the starter seeing the contract they gave him alone. However, it will be interesting to see how aggressive the split is. Is it closer to a tandem? Or does Murray play say 40 games of 56? It will likely all depend on how he and Hogberg plays, however, Hogberg should add solid depth. If Murray struggles, he can step in for a few games to give him a break. No doubt Murray will get the reigns to start though as Ottawa is hoping he’s their starter of the future now.
As for the extra, you may be asking “who”? Brassard was signed to a PTO by Ottawa and is an ECHL goalie. He was Ottawa’s sixth-round pick back in 2012 and has never played above the ECHL. However, every team must have a third goalie on their taxi squad, unless they carry three on the roster. The rest of Ottawa’s goalies need playing time because they are so young. It would make no sense for Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson, or Kevin Mandolese to sit and waste in the press box. Especially because Ottawa already has two NHL goalies and there are fewer games than usual to play. So, having an extra body who hopefully won’t need to play seems like the best option. If an injury does occur to a starter, it seems likely Brassard would be the backup until they can get an AHL goalie through whatever quarantine protocols will be needed.
Players to Watch
There are a couple of players to keep an eye on for the 2020-21 Ottawa Senators. However, let’s go slightly off the board with Wolanin. He is a guy that looked like he was ready for the NHL last season before a brutal leg injury. Now, he needs to show he is once again capable of playing big minutes for Ottawa. Obviously, Chabot will be the top pair on that left side. However, there is a pretty big hole for the second pairing, especially if Brannstrom doesn’t make this team.
Keeping an eye on whether Wolanin can take that and play effectively in it will be huge. If he can, he might cement himself as a regular on this roster for at least a few more seasons. It would also give a guy like Jake Sanderson extra time to develop if needed too. Watching what type of player he grows into might be one of the most interesting parts of this season.
This one isn’t as off the board as Wolanin, but Murray is the most important part of the Senators this year. In all reality, they will not be a very good team. If Ottawa is near a playoff spot for an extended period of time, it may almost certainly be because of Murray. Watching what type of goalie he is this year is also critical to Ottawa’s future. They hope that they have their starter for the next few seasons in Murray, however, he needs to show that.
His past two seasons haven’t had very solid results. And while the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t a very good defensive team, the 2020-21 Ottawa Senators don’t have a very good defence core either. Seeing what he can do behind this team will be key. If he even looks passable that’ll be a good sign for Ottawa. As the thought should be, a better team means the goalie will look better too. Right now, anything more than average would be gravy. Murray’s development will be a key thing to keep an eye on this year.
Predictions for 2020-21 Ottawa Senators
Let’s be honest, this might be another long year for Sens fans. While that may be for the best in the long run, it isn’t always fun at the time. Hopefully, this team will see a youth infusion as the season goes on. It doesn’t look like there will be too many rookies to start, but it seems like a bad plan for long-term development if none of the kids see any ice time this year. Depth is great and veteran leadership is important, but there needs to be someone to lead too.
Luckily, anything can happen in a 56 game season. For Ottawa, it’s probably best if they finish seventh in the North Division. That’s where we predict them going too. Again, anything can happen, but the most realistic scenario seems like a last-place finish in the North for the 2020-21 Ottawa Senators, finishing around 28th or so in the standings.