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Improved Ottawa Senators Defence: Tangible or Repeat of Past Seasons?

The Ottawa Senators 2023-24 campaign has been yet another very disappointing one. Once again starting flat and facing many controversies along the way, the team finally fired head coach DJ Smith mid-way through the season. Since taking over, Jacques Martin has preached fundamentals and doing the smaller things right. It seems that this is finally starting to pay off as Ottawa has strung some wins together, which has been led by a much improved Ottawa Senators defence.

However, this team has seen late-season surges in the past, where they start to win games while way out of the playoff picture. Today, we will look at if these results are tangible, or simply a product of being taken lightly.

Ottawa Senators Defence – Is This Improvement Different?


Since January 18th, the Senators are 9-3-3 which is good for a 0.700 points percentage. There are two ways to look at this improvement from the 15-24-0 (0.385%) start. One is that the team is finally starting to play the way Martin wants them. They are doing the smaller things correctly and that leads to less overall pressure against them. This theory does gel with what the eye test suggests. When watching, it does seem that the Ottawa Senators defence has been much improved as a team. Less often they are getting caught on odd-man breaks or simply losing people in front of the net. Chace McCallum found that defensive results were something that changed more aggressively than offensive results under a new coach. This could factor into what Ottawa is experiencing.

However, the other theory is that this recent stretch can be attributed to how far back they are in the standings. It has been obvious since December that this team was once again not making playoffs. And we see very often that as the season goes on, teams that are clearly out of the playoffs will win more games. This is often because they are playing a higher percentage of backups. And that good teams do underestimate them or almost treat them as a night off when playing them. Is it possible that Ottawa is experiencing this already because of their recent history of being a bottom feeder?

The Process

To try and figure out if this is the case, or if there is a more sustainable impact at play, we are going to look at the most recent stretch of play and compare it to the results of the Senators earlier in the season. Focusing on the underlying numbers to determine if there has been a tangible improvement that isn’t just shooting percentage or save percentage driven. From there, we are going to repeat the same process over the past two seasons. Taking a stretch of play where fans thought Ottawa was “turning it around” to see how the numbers compare.

One of the important things to keep in mind is we are using some arbitrary cutoff dates here. We have tried to keep the “winning” sample size as close together as possible across all three seasons. 15 games in 2023-24, 18 in 2022-23, and 16 in 2021-22. In each season, we will look at results during their most successful stretch vs before the year.

The stats we will be looking at are overall possession metrics (CF% and xGF%) as well as focusing on the defensive rate stats of CA/60 and xGA/60. This will help determine if the Senators defensive game has truly improved under Martin, but also vs past seasons.


Before Jan 18 Rank Since Jan 18 Rank
Record 15-24-0 9-3-3
Points % 0.385% 0.700%
CF% 49.63% 18th 51.77% 11th
xGF% 48.12% 24th 53.07% 10th
CA/60 61.79 23rd 58.77 15th
xGA/60 2.79 25th 2.46 15th

Starting by looking at the results this season, we can see there has been tangible improvement over the last 15 games played for the Senators. For the first half of the season, they ranked in the bottom third of basically every possession metric. However, lately, they have climbed their way up and been closer to an average or slightly above-average team. This once again shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for those that have watched Ottawa over the last month. Now, let’s compare to changes in past seasons to see if the difference was the same.


Before Jan 25 Rank Jan 25 – Mar 9 Rank
Record 20-23-3 13-4-1
Points % 0.467% 0.844%
CF% 51.82% 9th 51.17% 12th
xGF% 51.95% 12th 51.61% 10th
CA/60 57.03 19th 56.69 16th
xGA/60 2.63 19th 2.57 10th


Before April 1 Rank After April 1 Rank
Record 23-37-6 10-5-1
Points % 0.394% 0.656%
CF% 47.93% 21st 47.66% 24th
xGF% 47.26% 23rd 45.59% 26th
CA/60 59.1 27th 56.47 16th
xGA/60 2.59 24th 2.92 28th

As you can see, when we look at what changed in previous seasons when the team started to win, it was much less about their underlying play. Instead, it was an improved shooting or save percentage that only lasted a short period of time, before eventually coming back down to Earth.

In 2022-23 the team improved slightly defensively when they went on a winning streak, but in 2021-22 they actually got worse in some areas.

What Does This Mean

All of this should be encouraging for the management and fans of the team. The current Ottawa Senators defence is clearly improving, and this is something that has tangibly changed from seasons past. While there still may be some element to playing backup goaltenders or getting teams on an off night, this year’s team is starting to show they actually belong as one of the teams that can beat anyone on any given night. Vs years past where the middle or end season pushes were simply a factor of good luck, mixed with weaker opponents.

The key now for the team is simple, how do they make this continue? At the end of the day, a 15-game sample, even under a new coach, is something that they will want to be cautious of. If they can show continued improvement throughout the year, there may finally be reason to hope this team has figured it out, at least to some degree. After all, these results do feel different than years past.

Other Factors

When taking a look at these results, there are some other factors to remember as well. The first is that over the last 15 games, the Senators have had a fully healthy roster for the first time in over three seasons. At times, the Ottawa Senators defence has missed Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun, or Artem Zub. The offence missed Joshua Norris for large parts of last year, Shane Pinto missed the first half of this year and Drake Batherson has dealt with injuries in the past.

It maybe shouldn’t be too shocking that the Senators have seen improved results when having a fully healthy lineup. However, health isn’t something you can bank on in the NHL. If your team can only play well when perfectly healthy, there are bigger issues at play.

The other thing to recognize is even their improved numbers recently still sit them at about 15th in the league or so. Anyone will take that vs what they have been for a number of years now, however, there is still another large step to be taken if they truly want to develop into an elite team. On paper, most fans would have said this roster should be in the 12-15 range this year, so while it is not something to be mad about, the team also needs to realize even this could use improvement in the long-term.

Moving Forward

This team has some big decisions ahead of them. As the NHL Trade Deadline approaches, Ottawa’s name is in plenty of NHL Rumours. For fans, it would be tough to see them sell yet another year. However, it is on the core of this team to prove that regardless of circumstance, they can continue to control play and see better results.

They have made an encouraging step towards that so far, but it needs to continue as the season progresses. And it will all start by a consistently improved Ottawa Senators defence and structure.

All Stats from NaturalStatTrick.

Main Photo: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports


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