The season for the Ottawa Senators is upon us, and there is much optimism for this year’s roster. The pre-season gave everyone a chance to focus on preparation for their respective roles. Despite not making any signings or trades, the Senators’ defence has one notable addition, in rookie Jake Sanderson. Therefore, everyone had a rough idea of where they all fit. This means that everyone knows what it will take for the defence to succeed as a unit as a whole. Let’s take a glimpse at where everyone fits, and some options depending on how the initial plan plays out.
The Ottawa Senators Roster Defencemen
In general, it seems like the Senators’ management is happy enough with their defence roster. They will start the season with a D-by-committee approach. In a big picture sense, if we look at last season, Anton Forsberg proved the pieces they had could allow for a strong goaltending performance. This year’s version is somewhat similar to what was in place last year. This is combined with the hope the offence will be able to shoulder some of that load by outscoring opponents. Moreover, we would hope that Erik Brannstrom is starting to find his game, with a couple of years of maturation under his belt. This idea was supported by his play in the preseason. The other part of this is Ottawa’s relatively easy schedule to start the season, which should give time for Cam Talbot to recover, the defence to sort themselves out, and Forsberg to carry them through to crunch time.
The Alignment to Kick the Season Off
Here is the current alignment of the Ottawa Senators’ defence roster to start the season as set out by coach D.J. Smith:
Chabot – Zub
Sanderson – Hamonic
Holden – Brannstrom
It does make sense to play Chabot and Zub together as the top pairing. For instance, they are their two best defensemen, and conveniently play on opposite sides. Next, Hamonic’s life experience and veteran presence will support Sanderson in growing into an everyday NHL defenseman. This added responsibility for Hamonic will allow him to focus on tutoring Sanderson’s game and help keep his mind from negative pressures. Of course, Sanderson should be well-prepared for NHL life, having the pedigree of his father, a veteran of 1104 NHL games, Geoff Sanderson. Finally, the Holden-Brannstrom pairing, in theory, is a practical pairing. Holden is older, but from last year’s sample by no means unable to handle the workload. He will provide the calm, defensive reliability Brannstrom requires. Brannstrom has the skating ability to supplement the pair. Ideally, given Brannstrom’s play, this is Ottawa’s number two pairing to start.
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Hockey Reference – 2021-22 statistics
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The Senators Have Options on the Left Side of Defence
At this time, we will try our best to piece together the nightly defenseman lineup going forward. For starters, on the left side, we have Thomas Chabot, Nick Holden, Erik Brannstrom, and Jake Sanderson. Chabot tends to get the power-play and last-minute scenarios and can be available for the penalty kill. For Holden, it is dependent on who his partner is for which role he fills. He will be relied on for penalty-killing minutes. He can either be the number two, or three d-man.
The other benefit of Holden is that with running seven defensemen, sitting him out will not derail his confidence as it might with Sanderson for example. Sanderson’s role should be obvious number three left defence, and let his play determine the rest. If he’s comfortable, reward him with special teams and a bump up to the number two slot. Conversely, if it seems he’s not getting enough ice time to properly develop, some time growing his game in Belleville would make sense. This would have the added bonus of him for an option to call up and be a little fresher come playoffs. Lastly, Brannstrom has options. Again, this is dependent on how effective he shows himself to be early in the season. Given the distribution of minutes, it might make sense to try pairing him with Chabot.
Places and Ideas to Build the Defence
As a unit, the D core struggles at breakout, and cross-stream passes. That is why a guy like John Klingberg made so much sense for them to target. Yes, Chabot and Brannstrom are good with the puck, but they’d rather skate it out. This is one reason to argue that Chabot and Zub are not a great pairing since neither is great at that crisp pass through zones. A trait that is vital for a top pairing in this league. Some other names who the rumour milled had linked to Ottawa over the off-season, include Justin Holl or Jakob Chychrun. In addition, Chychrun would be a good example of someone who would help with that elite breakout pass ability.
For the right side of the Senators’ defence, it is a bit of a spot filler to help the left side. Even though Zub may not be ideal with Chabot, he clearly earns the spot being their top rearguard from the right side. Further to Zub’s benefit, is the fact that he logs big penalty kill minutes. Also, Hamonic seems ready to take on the task of role model for the young Sanderson. More on Hamonic and Zaitsev, who starts the season as a filler, later. The nice thing about the right side might be the two prospects pushing for a roster spot when opportunities come, and they will come. There are injuries to consider, and how an individual’s play dictates. Jacob Benard-Docker and Lassi Thomson are both going to be staying warm in the AHL with the Belleville Senators when the call comes.
A Veteran Trying to Find a Role
Travis Hamonic, like much of the Senators defence, needs to put their destiny in their own hands. Hamonic did have some success last season. However, this was in low-impact situations. For Hamonic to be effective, there are two approaches for him, but both require him to play with confidence. One approach is to relive his punishing 2014-15 season, which saw him dull out an impressive 213 hits. In contrast, the 32-year-old is not likely to regain that form. A more realistic version of his success is the 19 points in 69 games from 2018-19 with the Calgary Flames. The problem is that he avoided top assignments. Therefore, depending on how the Holden-Brannstrom pair perform, this might require him to step up. The nice thing is that the Senators have options. Playing with Jake Sanderson at the outset will allow Hamonic to play under the radar, and hopefully build his confidence.
Moneypuck.com 2021-22 regular season statistics
Options for Another Veteran Defenceman
Zaitsev’s true downfall was an impressive rookie season. He joined the Leafs as a seven-year veteran of the KHL. Therefore, his 36 points as a rookie in 82 appearances, should have been treated more like a peak in his progression, rather than him projecting positive regression. Zaitsev’s numbers from last year said he is probably a more than capable third-pairing type of guy. He performed well with the safe, veteran presence alongside Nick Holden. In contrast, when paired with Chabot and expectations of more high-demand responsibility followed, he struggled. Ultimately, the problem with Zaitsev’s game, is he requires a more mobile, puck-moving partner, one that is typically not well-suited for a third-line role. Furthermore, Zaitsev’s salary does not warrant third-line minutes. He was good for the Sens when they were not up against the cap. Now that they are, they need people to perform to their expectations.
Heading into the season, there is a tonne of optimism following the club. There are some tougher realities when looking at the defence. Despite this, the defence group was able to play well in the pre-season and maybe ride the offence. This can be their goal for the season, especially to start the year, as everyone finds their game and their role within (or outside) the organization. They have a plan to start the season, and now it is about execution.
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