Are the Ottawa Senators a playoff team in 2023-24? Despite the loss of Alex DeBrincat, there is a different vibe around the club going into the season. From an organizational rebuild perspective, it seems like the plan General Manager Pierre Dorion has in place is succeeding. Furthermore, this upcoming season seems to be the when from a timeline standpoint that this is what everyone is waiting for.
What Will Be Different for the Ottawa Senators to Make the Playoffs in 2023-24
The Ottawa Senators in 2022-23 did not have a lot of injuries but certainly had some costly ones. At the start of the season, top centre Josh Norris was injured and only managed eight games all year. In addition, their top two goaltenders, Anton Forsberg and Cam Talbot were banged up throughout the season. Talbot missed the first month of the season as an example. Combined, the two only played in 64 games in 2022-23. However, this did allow the team to identify that their top two prospects may need more experience. Hence, they prioritized signing a goalie, in Joonas Korpisalo. So, even though the Senators did not have many injuries, those they did have were impactful.
What Are some of the Positives From 2022-23
Now the injuries were a blessing in disguise in some ways, and help to make the 2023-24 projection more reasonable. With the injury to Josh Norris, this allowed budding star, Tim Stützle to supplant himself as the number one centre. And what did Stützle do, playing alongside Brady Tkachuk and Claude Giroux, they tore it up. Both Stützle and Tkachuk had career-highs in points with 90 and 83, respectively. Also, with the injuries to the top goalies, it allowed a look at other options. The Senators ended up setting a team record, as when Leevi Merilainen got into action, he was their seventh goalie. Therefore, Merilainen as well as Mads Sogaard got a look in 2023-24, which was great for their mental development.
Some Prospects Got a Shot
In general, 2022-23 was great for the Sens prospects as a whole. We saw many of the bottom-six type guys earn more and more playing time. Up front, a couple of examples, include Ridly Greig and Mark Kastelic. Both did very well and will be looking for roster spots out of the 2023 training camp. Moreover, their defensive prospects got a look as well. Most notably was Tyler Kleven who made his NHL debut late in the season. His size and toughness were impressive. It appears he will be a stalwart out there for years to come, once he becomes a regular. In addition, guys like Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and Jacob Larsson put pressure on the third-pairing guys. For all these prospects, one common theme is that the time is now to prove they are NHL calibre, once they get their shot. They will get their shot too when injuries and other opportunities pop up.
League-wide ranks of Expected Goals (moneypuck.com)
An Analytic Look at What the Difference Is Year-Over-Year
Let’s see some proof as to why the Sens will be different. We see that DeBrincat is not among the top players at 52 ranked. Also, Kubalik is producing at a steady, at least second-line clip. Therefore, when you consider value-wise, Kubalik is giving you a lot more bang for your buck. When you mix in the numbers from 2021-22, include Josh Norris. Consider that B. Tkachuk (33.5), Norris (26.2), and Stützle (26.0), all had respectable values. So, not only do we see great improvement by both Tkachuk and Stützle, but Norris will be back. Thus more than adequately replacing DeBrincat’s value offensively from an analytic standpoint.
One final stat that shows Kubalik’s effectiveness as a middle-six guy, is Offensive Point Share (OPS) from hockey-reference.com. Connor McDavid led the league at 15.8 and Stützle was 15th at 8.0. Conversely, much further down the list, we find Alex DeBrincat at 75th with a 4.7. When we consider Kubalik, at 2.8, might not be very high, but perfectly acceptable for a middle-six forward.
Will the Sens Be Better at Keeping the Puck Out of the Net
Goaltending is another consideration of where the Senators improved, as a result of the salary cap space freed up. When they did not re-sign DeBrincat and had money to pick up Korpisalo, things got better. If we look at the stat Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), we see some notable points. Jusse Saros led the NHL at 46.7, and Korpisalo was at 11th when considering goalies with nine or more games played. Korpisalo achieved a GSAx of 12.7. Whereas Forsberg was 19th at 8.1 and Talbot was 44th with a -0.7 number. Clearly, not numbers good enough for a playoff team and in Talbot’s case, a starter. Also, not to be overlooked is the improvements on defence, adding Jakob Chychrun late in the season.
All things being considered equal, the Ottawa Senators will be a better team this year and make the 2023-24 playoffs. We all know about the horrible October and November records over the past two seasons (12-27-1). Yet they only missed the playoffs by six points in 2023. It is time for this team to finally get over the hump, and not let excuses like injuries get in their way. When players get their chances, they have to take advantage. We have seen, that despite losing DeBrincat, having Norris back, and adding Kubalik, might be an upgrade. It looks like the Senators goaltending is improved. Finally, their prospects took advantage of more opportunities last year, which will pay off in spades down the road. This added bit of confidence gives coach D. J. Smith the chance to prove himself as a winner. He’s done a great job getting them this far, now let’s get them into the promise land.
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