Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Ottawa Senators.
2021-22 Ottawa Senators Preview
The Ottawa Senators had a horrendous start to last season. After winning their first game of the year, they dropped the next 15 out of 18 games. During that stretch, they gave up about four goals a game. Their defence and goaltending were horrendous.
However, head coach D.J. Smith adjusted, some by force and others by his own doing. Both of Ottawa’s goalies, Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg got hurt, forcing the team to play young goalie Filip Gustavsson and grabbing Anton Forsberg off waivers. Both settled the goaltending position, and Murray was better when he came back.
The Senators eventually played a more mobile, puck-moving defence, which settled the back end. The result was that the team started winning more. The Senators finished winning 10 out of their last 14 games. However, they dug too deep of a hole to come back from and finished second to last in the North Division.
The Senators largest off-season acquisition in 2020 was signing free-agent Evgenii Dadonov to a three-year deal with a $5 million cap hit. He never found his groove in Ottawa and finished with 20 points. The Senators traded him to the Vegas Golden Knights for defenceman Nick Holden and a 3rd round pick in 2022. They also added to their defence by signing blueliner Michael Del Zotto to a two-year contract. They recently traded forward Logan Brown and a conditional fourth-round pick to the St. Louis Blues for left-winger Zach Sanford. They didn’t add any game-breakers, so if the 2021-22 Ottawa Senators are going to improve, their young core will have to grow.
Brady Tkachuk will be in Ottawa’s top-six sooner than later. A player rarely goes deep into the regular season without being signed. It will be interesting to see how this line plays out. Can Norris and Batherson build off strong last seasons as full-time players? This line was even against their competition last year, according to data from Natural Stat Trick’s Line tool. They scored and gave up nine goals.
The big question about the second line is who is the centre? Tierney has the inside track to start camp. However, after a strong first exhibition game against the Winnipeg Jets, Shane Pinto may force his way to become the second-line centre.
Tyler Ennis is coming to Senators camp on a professional tryout. He has the inside track of being the team’s third-line right-winger after the team never replaced Dadonov. His line is intriguing. Formenton’s speed can cause turnovers and scoring chances, Colin White will be the defensive conscious, and Ennis will be the offensive driver, a role he excelled at two years ago when he scored 33 points in 61 games for the Senators.
On the fourth line, Sanford, Paul and Watson will be an excellent defensive line who can chip in offensively.
It’s hard to pick the extras because there are many tweeners who have played considerable time in the NHL. Shane Pinto could end up being a full-time player. Another player I think will get many looks is Parker Kelly. The Senators value work ethic above all else, and Kelly has won the hardest working player award at Senators development camp twice.
Michael Del Zotto – Nikita Zaitsev
Thomas Chabot’s best season of his career was in 2018-19 when he played with the steady Dylan DeMelo. Zub proved in his rookie season that he is an all-around steady defenceman. If Zub can continue this level of play, that could help Chabot take off offensively.
The Senators envision Michael Del Zotto and Nikita Zaitsev being the shutdown pairing. Zaitsev is a good defender but a terrible puck mover, while Del Zotto is not great defensively but can move the puck. We’ll see if their strengths and weaknesses can balance each other out.
Victor Mete and Nick Holden can make a strong bottom pair for Ottawa. Mete can skate, move the puck and defend well. It wouldn’t be surprising if he and Del Zotto switch spots. Holden is a steady defenceman who can bring some offence.
Erik Brannstrom is an interesting player to watch. He’s a brilliant skater, a great puck mover, and figuring out his offensive game at the NHL level. The downside is he’s terrible defensively. He has one more year of eligibility to be sent to the AHL without going through waivers. It wouldn’t be surprising for him to spend time down there to work on his defensive game.
Josh Brown played better as the season went along. He’s a defensive defenceman who is a good fit as the seventh defenceman.
Extra: Filip Gustavsson
Ottawa needs their goaltenders to be better. Matt Murray is their starting goalie but hasn’t had a save percentage above .900 in the past two seasons. He had a brutal January last year with a .888 save percentage, but he had a .912 save percentage since February. His numbers after January are fine but not worth his $6.25 million cap hit. He has to be better and remain healthy.
Anton Forsberg usually has a save percentage in the low .900s, which is fine for a backup goalie. The Senators just need him to be reliable.
Extra: Filip Gustavsson was Ottawa’s best goalie last season and the one they protected in the expansion draft. He signed a two-year contract, the first year is two-way and the second is one-way, meaning Ottawa plans for him to develop for one more season before becoming a full-time NHLer. But if Murray or Forsberg struggles, he might be up sooner than later.
Players to Watch
Josh Norris is the most important Ottawa Senator. There is no other player that can or is reasonably projected to be a first-line centre, so it’s crucial his development goes smoothly. Norris was a top centre last season. He finished second on the team in scoring and looked comfortable in all zones while going up against elite centres in the North Division. Whether he can build off last season’s success is going to be a big story this year.
As the starting goalie, Murray’s play this season will affect how well the team performs. If he plays well, the Senators will have a fighting chance for the playoffs. If he falters, Gustavsson could finish the season as the top guy, leaving Ottawa with a backup goalie owed $15 million in his final two seasons.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Ottawa Senators
My prediction is the 2021-22 Ottawa Senators will finish sixth in the Atlantic Division. They’ve moved past the bottom dwellers but are not playoff contenders. Things can change depending on how this young team develops. However, I don’t see them having a strong enough defence to make the playoffs.