It’s playoffs or bust for the Ottawa Senators this season. Expectations last year were perhaps too high, with the fanbase hoping to see the Sens experience the meteoric rise the New Jersey Devils saw. While that wasn’t the case, a 13 point improvement is far from nothing, and the team faced enough obstacles that it’s worth mentioning at least a couple. Fresh off of a season where he scored at a 43 goal pace, Josh Norris was injured for the entire season, and the net a revolving door that saw seven goalies start a game – the highest in the league. This maybe wouldn’t be as big of a problem if someone had been able to consistently make saves, but the highest save percentage among their goaltenders who played more than 3 games was .902, hardly a number that generates confidence.
There are still several question marks with the roster as it’s currently built, so we don’t know what the lineup will look like on opening night. But even with at least one inevitable trade between now and the start of the season, I think it’s fair to say the team looks deeper than it was a year ago.
At a glance, the top six has taken a fairly big hit when you replace Alex DeBrincat with Vladimir Tarasenko, who only scored 18 goals last season (21 pace). He’s only a year removed from a 35 goal, 82 point season, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see a significant improvement, especially if he ends up on a line with Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle. The discourse around replacing DeBrincat’s offensive production (27 goals, 66 points) has mostly pointed to Norris playing a full season, but it really isn’t out of the question that Tarasenko could put up similar (if not better) numbers than DeBrincat’s lone year in Ottawa.
The remainder of the top six looks fantastic. There’s no reason that both Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle can’t take another step after both scoring above a point per game last season (83 and 90 points, respectively) and while it isn’t expected to see 35-year-old Claude Giroux set a career-high in goals again, 65+ points is absolutely reasonable. The only question mark is Drake Batherson, who was invisible in the defensive zone all season, and at times invisible anywhere on the ice. There are reports that he had been dealing with a playable injury for the majority of the season until late February, and based on that timetable and his performance, I believe it. Defensive warts aside, if he was able to score 62 points on an ankle that was bad for three-quarters of a season, I’m excited to see what he can do when fully healthy again. If he can play like the healthy Batherson of the 21-22 season, 70 or even 80 points is not out of the question.
This is an area (barring a significant move before October) that I think is an improvement over a year ago. Priority number one is to make room for Shane Pinto, who scored 20 goals as a rookie last season and is still unsigned. The team has nowhere near enough cap space to offer him a contract, so something has to give. The most likely contract they’d try to ship out is Mathieu Joseph, who is owed $2.95 million over the next three seasons. While Joseph hasn’t played up to his contract following its first season, it’s hardly a nightmare of a cap hit. He’s a fine bottom-six winger who plays on the penalty kill. Most teams would be thrilled if their worst contract was under three million, but those dollars could be better used elsewhere. Such is the life of a max cap team (how cool is it to finally describe the Sens that way?)
Dominik Kubalik has the highest upside of any depth scorer the team has had in several years. At 27 years old and on an expiring contract, he’ll be looking to impress the league in hopes of a long-term deal next July. Through four seasons in the NHL, he has scored below a 20+ goal pace only once and could have a surprising season.
Ridly Greig showed he’s ready to make the opening night lineup and would round out that third line with Pinto and Kubalik perfectly. Even though he only played 20 games last season, he scored 9 points and didn’t look out of place at any point. Don’t expect 40+ points out of him in his first full season, but there is no doubt that he’ll find a way to be a menace whenever he’s on the ice.
This is the best the Senators’ defense has looked in a very long time. Thomas Chabot and Jakob Chychrun are legitimate top-pairing d-men, and Jake Sanderson could jump to that level this upcoming season. With Artem Zub to round out the top four, there aren’t many better groups in the NHL. Of course, a few things need to go right: Chabot and Chychrun need to stay healthy (something they have both struggled with throughout their careers), Sanderson can’t be a victim of a sophomore slump, and Zub would ideally have a bounce-back year. He wasn’t bad by any means, but Zub definitely lost a step last season and wasn’t his usual top-quality shutdown self. If these four can stay healthy and play at the level we’ve already seen from them, this is an elite bunch.
Rounding out the defense are Erik Brannstrom and Travis Hamonic. Brannstrom had as close to a breakout season as he could have last season with his place on the depth chart. I’m still a believer, but with a one-year contract and cap needing to be moved out soon, it sort of feels like the writing is on the wall for him. Hopefully, he can put together a really nice full season on the third pair and stick around because he’s absolutely a useful player. Then there’s Hamonic, who had a stretch of about 15 games last season where he was incredible, but was a liability just about every other game he played. He’s a serviceable depth option, but he’s also got term, signed through the next two seasons. The Senators have to hope that the real Hamonic is the one from that really hot stretch and not the other 60 games he played. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Goaltending is what held the Senators back the most last season. Even with three forwards scoring 35+ goals, you can’t outscore bad goaltending.
Anton Forsberg will be back for his third full season with Ottawa. His first in 21-22 was surprising to say the least, putting up a .917 save percentage in 46 games. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to replicate those numbers last year. Through 28 games, he struggled quite a bit with a .902 until tearing his MCL in both knees in February, which kept him out for the remainder of the season. Now in his third season with the team, we should figure out which of those stat lines is the real Forsberg.
Joonas Korpisalo will be the other goaltender and is what should at least start out as a 1A/1B tandem for Ottawa. There’s no sugarcoating it: Korpisalo is a risky bet. Signed for the next five years at $4 million per season, he’s never put together good seasons back-to-back, let alone five in a row. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of his career so far has been with Columbus, so he hasn’t had a lot of help. Also worth noting, despite the very small sample size of only 11 games, when he was traded to the playoff-bound Los Angeles Kings, he put up a .921 save percentage. In his eight-year career, Korpisalo has played 37+ games only twice, so he’s never had to be a starting goalie for an entire season. Fingers crossed, they both stay healthy and are able to split the work this season.
Could this be a great tandem for Ottawa, where both goalies have somewhere around a .915 save percentage? Absolutely! Could they also both be struggling just to have that number start with a nine? It’s possible, but the much deeper defense this year should help them both.
Despite how strong both Eastern Conference divisions are on paper, 92 points is all it took to make the playoffs in the east last season, a much more reasonable number than the 100 points the second wild card team had a year ago. If a ticket to the playoffs can be punched with a similar point total to last season, a 6 point improvement is a more-than-reasonable expectation for Ottawa.
A top-six forward group where every player has a real chance to score 70+ points and a top-four defense built for a true contender all means nothing if they still don’t get any saves. In a division as stacked as the Atlantic, even with Boston and Tampa seemingly on their way down, there are so many good teams you still have to beat. I truly believe this is a playoff team, but when April comes around, it will be up to the goaltending to decide whether they’re playing for a wild card spot or home-ice advantage.