Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 29, the Ottawa Senators.
*NOTE* The biggest story in the NHL right now is the trade speculation surrounding defenseman Erik Karlsson. After a quiet summer, trade talks have heated up over the past week again and the superstar could be traded any moment, or a deal might not be reached, and he still is on the roster entering training camp less than three weeks from now. For the purposes of not driving myself too crazy, until Karlsson is officially traded, this preview will be treated as if Karlsson enters training camp still a member of the Senators. If a deal is made before the season, projected points, team rankings and the depth chart will be updated at that time.
Record: 28-43-11 (67 points), 7th in Atlantic Division, 30th Overall
Playoffs: Missed by 30 points
The Ottawa Senators were one goal away from the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016-17 when they lost in double overtime of Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That memory seems so long ago now for Ottawa fans after enduring one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The success of the Senators two years ago was largely received as an overachievement by most pundits, both in the regular season and in their magical run to the Eastern Conference Final, so it was not a huge surprise for those outside of the Ottawa fan base to see the team slide down the standings last year. It was, perhaps, a surprise to see just how far that slide took them. Ottawa suffered through their fifth-worst season in franchise history and the worst since 1995-96 when they won just 18 games.
It is hard to point at the offense as the main undoing for the season, who scored nine more goals in 2017-18 than the year prior but was still one of the worst in the NHL finishing 25th at 2.70 goals per game. The defense, on the other hand, allowed 291 goals and 3.55 per game – the second most in the league and an outrageous 77 more than the year prior – after being a strength and finishing as the 11th best unit two seasons ago.
While an early season-ending injury to the underrated Chris Wideman no doubt hurt the unit, the top culprit was the play of goaltenders Craig Anderson and Mike Condon. After combining for 44 wins and a .920 save percentage in 2016-17, Anderson and Condon each put up a career-worst year individually and combined for just 28 wins and an .899 save percentage.
The team traded one of their heart-and-soul players in centerman Kyle Turris early November in a three-team deal with the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche which netted them the highly coveted Matt Duchene. After a very slow start with his new team, Duchene was quietly one of the hottest players in the league over the second half of the season, putting up nearly a point per game.
The final roster to end the season was vastly different than the one that began. In February, Ottawa saved a bit of money by trading fourth line center Nate Thompson and aging defenseman Dion Phaneuf to Los Angeles for oft-injured Marian Gaborik and young centerman Nick Shore. Ten days later, the Senators were involved in another three-team deal sending Derick Brassard to the Pittsburgh Penguins. This trade netted a huge haul with the Senators acquiring top goaltending prospect Filip Gustavsson, veteran defenseman Ian Cole (later flipped for a third-round pick in 2020) and a 2018 first-round pick (swapped with the New York Rangers at the draft and resulted in defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker).
Overall, it was a difficult season and a shock to the fan base going from the Eastern Conference Final to 30th overall but the real trouble was just beginning.
Ottawa’s summer could be categorized by many single word answers, many of which are not fit to print here at the family-friendly environment of BangTheBook! The first couple tolerable words which come to mind could be scandalous or dysfunctional.
To kick things off, Senators Assistant General Manager Randy Lee was involved in an incident resulting in two counts of sexual harassment charges at the end of May which eventually led to his resigning earlier this month.
The bigger controversy of the summer, however, came less than two weeks later when the wife of Superman (aka Erik Karlsson) filed an order of protection, alleging harassment and cyberbullying against the longtime girlfriend of teammate Mike Hoffman.
Those allegations were denied, and no charges were (or have) been laid but less than a week later, GM Pierre Dorion traded Hoffman to the San Jose Sharks in return for winger Mikkel Boedker and swapped defenseman prospects in Cody Donaghey for Julius Bergman. It was a less than desirable package for the Senators top goal scorer over the past four years but considering the circumstances and Dorion calling the team’s dressing room “broken” and “something that we needed to do”, the return could have been a lot worse.
A few days later, controversy followed Ottawa into the NHL Entry Draft where they had drawn the number four overall pick (a poor result after entering the lottery draw with the second-best chance at the number one slot). A franchise-altering decision had to be made by the Ottawa ownership. As part of the Turris-Duchene deal with Colorado and Nashville in November, the Sens had also sent the Avalanche their 2018 first-round draft pick. However, that pick was top-10 protected, meaning if the Senators missed the playoffs and received a top-10 pick they could defer to the 2019 draft.
Ultimately, Ottawa decided to keep the number four pick and selected forward Brady Tkachuk. It was a highly debated decision since the Senators could very well end up near the bottom of the standings again this year and be in the running for projected number one pick, Jack Hughes, the best player available in a draft since Connor McDavid. That pick is now automatically Colorado’s, regardless of where Ottawa finishes this year.
The rest of the summer has been quiet for Dorion outside of buying out the final season of Alex Burrows contract, who later announced his retirement in July, and signing one-year deals with defenseman Codi Ceci and the team’s best winger, Mark Stone. The Sens avoiding salary arbitration in Stone’s case, signing a $7.35 million one-year contract the day of the scheduled hearing and signed Ceci for $4.3 million after that number was decided by an arbitrator (which was slightly in Ottawa’s favor).
Dorion and owner Eugene Melnyk have pledged commitment to a rebuild and will turn to several young players to make a push for a full-time role on the roster this season. How many prospects eventually earn a spot will depend on how long three of Ottawa’s best players still are with the team. Duchene, Stone and Karlsson will each become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season. If the team feels they will not be able to negotiate a long-term contract with any one of them, the simple call is they must be moved before the trade deadline for assets.
Karlsson remains with the team but Elliotte Friedman recently reported trade talks have heated up again. The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning were two teams reported to have been close to a deal around the time of the draft, but Friedman says the most likely destination now is a Western Conference team, with Dallas once again engaging in talks along with San Jose, Vegas and a possible new player in Vancouver (which they denied, of course). It would make sense for Dorion to pull the trigger on a deal before the season starts as every day he remains with the team, the bigger a distraction the story becomes. The trade watch continues.
Stanley Cup: +20000 (Bookmaker, 5Dimes)
Eastern Conference: +10000 (Bookmaker, 5Dimes)
Atlantic Division: +10000 (Bookmaker)
Regular Season Points: 71.5 (-115) (Bovada, MyBookie), 69.5 (-110) (Bookmaker)
Make Playoffs: YES +800, NO -1600 (Sportsbook.ag)
Current Odds as of August 29, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Predicting depth charts is often called a fool’s errand and can be as difficult as predicting where a team will finish in the standings. Nonetheless, I decided to undertake this impossible task and am confident (as one can possibly be doing this task, anyway) with the below information heading into training camp. All attempts will be made to update these charts once camp is underway and head coaches change their mind a thousand times.
*Individual Player Ratings involve the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 30
The Senators depth down the middle took a big hit last year when they traded Kyle Turris and Derick Brassard. Matt Duchene was supposed to be a bona fide top line center but really struggled to settle in until later in the season. Duchene recorded 49 points in 68 games after being traded to Ottawa but had 43 over his final 44 games, more like what the Senators were expecting. Is the nearly point per game the Duchene we should expect for a full season though?
In his 8+ years with Colorado, Duchene had 428 points over 586 games, a 0.73 per game rate. His totals with Ottawa resulted in 0.72 points per game, right in line with his career norm, even with his hot finish. Only once in Duchene’s nine seasons has he been close to a point per game player, usually topping out in the 55-60 range. Duchene is going to be the focal point of the Senators offense along with linemate Mark Stone but getting 70-80 points is likely wishful thinking.
After the top spot, the Senators are in over their head without a true number two center. Jean-Gabriel Pageau figures to fill the role, at least to begin. Pageau is more of a checking center and a solid third line choice but will be asked to take on more responsibility in the offensive end. He has great speed and can be dangerous when he gets loose, so it is possible we see some extra pop from him this year.
The bottom-six is difficult to project but I will slot veteran Zack Smith into the third spot right now. Smith is coming off a terrible season with just 19 points but has been able to provide secondary offense in the past. The Senators are going to have several prospects fight for a full-time spot during training camp and depending on how many earn a role, Smith’s versatility to play both the wing and center gives head coach Guy Boucher some options.
One of the hottest contested spots should be that of fourth line center. It is thought either one of prospects Colin White or Filip Chlapik will win the job with the other sliding out on a wing spot but do not sleep on Logan Brown stepping in and stealing the spotlight. Brown was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft and is projected to be the team’s number two center down the road. He made the club out of camp last year and played four games before being sent back to the OHL where he proceeded to have a big year splitting time with Windsor and Kitchener. Brown also played in the World Junior Tournament with USA but suffered an injury after just three games. He has been fairly injury prone over the past couple seasons and jumping right into the strength and size of the NHL is the biggest concern. A stint in the AHL might be best for Brown to improve his conditioning but he is one of the top prospects in the organization and should get another trial run out of camp to begin the season, which is why I am penciling him in this spot. With a huge enough camp even, Brown could open on the second line and push Pageau and Smith down a slot to where they would be better utilized but that is more likely to happen later in the season.
If the Sens decide Brown is not ready, look for Chlapik to get another look here. Chlapik was called up last season due to injuries and saw action in 20 games, but really struggled with the speed of the NHL. Ideally, he should also be starting in the AHL, but the Senators just do not have capable bodies to place here.
NHL RANK: 31
When Dorion was forced to trade Mike Hoffman, it left the Senators with a gaping hole on the left side, so it is no surprise to see them projected with the worst left-wing depth in the league. The fourth overall pick in this year’s draft is hoping to plug that hole sooner than later. Brady Tkachuk decided to forego his sophomore season at Boston University and signed his 3-year entry-level contract earlier this month. The Sens have three options for him next season – play the whole season in Ottawa, return to the London Knights in the OHL or send him to Belleville in the AHL. Of course, Tkachuk can play nine games with the Sens before a final decision has to be made and that course of action is about the only certainty we can project as of now.
There has been talk of putting Tkachuk on the top line and that would be an aggressive move by Boucher, but the upside is there, and he should be the future top left wing. The brass is going to do everything they can to make Duchene and Stone happy so showing them what the future holds on a stacked top line might not be just a crazy idea.
Tkachuk is like his older brother, Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk, in that he brings a strong physical game. He has a very high hockey IQ and makes smart decisions and is a better distributor than pure goal scorer which would complement the abilities of Duchene and Stone.
Even with the logjam of left wingers on the roster, there is no outstanding level of talent, so an impressive camp should be enough to earn Tkachuk a regular spot, even if playing in the AHL this year might be better for his overall development.
If Boucher decides to start Tkachuk lower in the lineup, newly acquired Mikkel Boedker is expected to skate on the top line. Boedker is ideally a second or third line winger but he is the direct replacement for Hoffman and will be expected to fill a role over his head. While Boedker does possess good speed, his shot differentials were terrible in San Jose, on a team who typically does well in that area.
Ryan Dzingel is expected to slot in behind Boedker either on the second or third line. Dzingel had a career year in his second full season finishing fifth in total points at 41 and tying Duchene with a team high 23 goals. He shot 16.9% for the season so he is likely due some regression on that end, but he will also be asked to take on a greater offensive load this season. I think he is a better option than Boedker overall and should slot ahead of him, but it does not appear Boucher has the same idea in mind, at least to start.
The fourth spot is a bit of a wasteland now. Magnus Paajarvi projects to be a negative player which means the Senators would be better with just about anyone else taking this spot. Max McCormick would be a slight tick of an upgrade but has projected as nothing more than a depth forward for three years now. Fortunately, Ottawa does have some options with prospects who will be given a chance. Chlapik could slot here if he does not start at center or there is Nick Paul, a prototypical fourth line grinder but has high smarts and is solid in puck possession. The most intriguing player who could steal this spot is Alex Formenton. After making the team out of camp last season, Formenton was returned to the OHL after just one game. He scored four points in seven games and impressed with Canada at the World Juniors which should have him in position for a stronger camp this year. He plays a basic game but is a hard worker, strong forechecker and can absolutely fly. His speed alone might be enough to earn another trial run to begin the season.
Finally, Marian Gaborik underwent back surgery in April to repair a herniated disk. His recovery timetable was supposed to be eight weeks but there has not been a whisper about how his surgery went. This could indicate his recovery may not be going well which leaves Gaborik as a possible LTiR candidate when the season begins. Gaborik was also a strong buy-out option but a player cannot be bought out while he is still injured. Either way, until we hear an update on Gaborik’s situation, I am going to keep him off the depth chart.
NHL RANK: 28
Ottawa’s right-side projects slightly higher than center or left-wing but it is arguably in the worst shape overall. Mark Stone, the single best forward on the team, makes this side top heavy with little to offer below him. Stone’s 62 points tied with Karlsson for the team lead last season and might not look impressive, but he accomplished that number is just 58 games played thanks to an ankle injury which caused him to miss about the final month of the season. Boucher might be better served to drop Stone to the second line to help balance his offense but that would mean trusting Bobby Ryan to produce as a first-liner when he has barely shown able to produce at a third line rate the past two seasons.
Before Stone signed his $7.35 million one-year deal this summer, Ryan had been the highest contract on the books with his $7.25 million which still has four years remaining. That has made it even more painful seeing Ryan put up just 25 and 33 points the past two seasons. Injuries have played a role in Ryan’s struggles but even when healthy he has looked like a shell of the former 30-goal player he once was. The Senators are believed to be interested in packaging Ryan as part of a potential Karlsson trade to rid themselves of this terrible contract but that might leave them in even worse shape on the right side than they already are.
Tom Pyatt receives a spot on this side by default, so I will slot him in here (although the Sens would be better off burying him as deep as possible). Pyatt has never really been a great NHLer and is consistently near the bottom of the league every year in terms of puck possession. Unfortunately, the Sens just lack options here. Prospect Gabriel Gagne made strides last year but is likely not strong enough to make the jump while the future of the right side, Drake Batherson, is still at least a full year away before making an impact.
I kept Pyatt on the third line mainly to not mess up the chemistry of a potential fun fourth line. It is possible the young players impress to the point where we could see some combination of Paul, Chlapik, Brown and Colin White on this line. White is a natural center, but he played a lot on the right side to begin his NHL career last season and due to the lack of options still, he likely starts here again. If Brown and/or Chlapik do not earn a full-time spot early in the season, look for White to move back to the center spot on the third or fourth line. White entered training camp last year with the upside of being the number two or three center, but a broken wrist sidelined him for four weeks and he never found his stride until late in the season. After a bronze medal win with the United States at the World Championship where he gained valuable experience playing on a line with Patrick Kane, White should enter camp with confidence and be ready for the next step in his development.
NHL RANK: 27
When Thomas Chabot entered the league last season, he was already being compared to Karlsson and expected to be the next great NHL defenseman. At just 20 years of age though, the Senators smartly eased him into his role by limiting his ice-time and giving him 62% of his zone starts in the offensive end. Due to the sheltering, the comparisons seemed to dull down. Chabot averaged just 17:31 per game over 63 games while contributing nine goals (all 5-on-5) and 25 points overall, soaking up every drop of wisdom from Karlsson along the way. Now, Chabot is primed for a larger role and ready to run with it. For as long as Karlsson is around, Chabot will continue learning from the best in the world and when he is gone, Chabot will be ready to quarterback the top powerplay unit, and by then the comparisons should come back to the forefront. Karlsson says Chabot is already ahead of where he was at this point of his career, so the further development of Chabot is truly one thing for Senators fans to be excited about this season.
Another point of excitement could be with rookie Christian Wolanin. Wolanin made a big jump last year bypassing any AHL time and going directly from the University of North Dakota to a cup of coffee in the NHL. He put up three points in 10 games and had excellent possession metrics, particularly on the offensive end. Defense is still a question mark but there is no denying his ability to move the puck and play in transition. Look for Wolanin to be sheltered in similar fashion as Chabot last year with a heavy dose of offensive zone starts.
The third spot should be manned by a pair of heavy hitters. Veteran Mark Borowiecki was tenth in the NHL last season in the hits category and plays his role well. As a bonus, Borowiecki had respectable shot differentials for a grinder and did not drag the team down as would normally be expected. The hulking 6’6 Ben Harpur had lofty expectations in his rookie year but struggled in 41 games, recording just one assist with very poor advanced metrics. He has a ton of upside and is still expected to be a valuable player on the Sens blueline, but splitting time with Borowiecki on the third pair is best until he shows further development, or even another stint in Belleville.
NHL RANK: 15
Ottawa’s right-side ranks in the top half of the league thanks to Erik Karlsson but it is going to be a troublesome spot if he is eventually traded. Karlsson got off to a slow start after offseason foot surgery but still ended up tied for the team scoring lead at 62 points with Stone. It was the fifth consecutive season Karlsson has led the team in scoring. With a full summer of his usual training routine, Karlsson should return to his dominant self and the only question is which team that will be with.
Codi Ceci receives a lot of praise around the NHL for his defensive ability, but reality is he is one of the worst top four defenders in the league. His shot differentials have been a tragedy for his entire five-year career and the Senators are a better team when he is off the ice. This is unfortunate seeing Ceci averages over 23 minutes per night, the second highest average ice-time on the team behind Karlsson. Making matters worse, once Karlsson is traded Ceci will move up to the top line and see even more time.
The third spot is more comforting as a healthy Chris Wideman returns. His season was reduced to 16 games after tearing his hamstring in November. Wideman is an excellent underrated third pair guy who crushes the puck possession metrics. It will be interesting to see how he handles moving up to the second pair after Karlsson is gone but for now the Senators will welcome back the stability he brings.
The Senators have a few bright spots among the defense and several high-end prospects in the pipeline like Jonny Tychonick and Jacob Bernard-Docker, but they will need a couple of years to develop.
I honestly have no idea what the immediate plan is once Karlsson leaves. There is no single player on the right side who is ready to make the full jump to the pros but the closest would have to be Christian Jaros. Ideally, Karlsson stays with the team for a couple of months before Jaros must be called up. He will not wow you offensively, but Jaros projects to be an excellent stay-at-home defenseman and is improving his two-way game. A bit more time in the AHL would go a long way.
NHL RANK: 28
(Starter – t-23rd, Backup – t-45th)
It was rumored starter Craig Anderson had asked for a trade in June, but he has not been willing to discuss this publicly. Whatever the case was then, Anderson’s latest comments have him fully committed to the Sens this year, saying he has no interest in going anywhere if the team cleaned up their mess from the summer and was moving forward.
Anderson has always been a steady presence but is coming off one of his career-worst seasons where he only recorded an .898 save percentage. Backup Mike Condon is also coming off a career-worst year but was an above average performer the year prior. The Senators are hoping both can return to form and a better defense in front of them will go a long way. Ottawa’s defense was destroyed in puck possession last year finishing second to last in the league but there is reason to believe it can be better this year with a healthy Wideman and the continued development of Chabot and Wolanin.
Anderson and Condon both have two years remaining on their contracts which should be good timing to align with the future of their crease, prospect Filip Gustavsson who was acquired in the trade that sent Brassard to Pittsburgh. As one of the top goaltending prospects in the world, Gustavsson had a big World Juniors last winter being named the tournament’s top goalie. He will play in Belleville this season but is still a couple of years away from being ready for the NHL.
The Contracts of Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Erik Karlsson
Let’s be honest. Even the most optimistic projections should not have the Senators anywhere near a playoff spot this year. So, for a team destined to finish near the bottom of the league, what is there to look forward to and will matter most?
The biggest concern for Melnyk and Dorion is not what the roster will look like when the season begins but what will it look like when the season is over. The pipeline is loaded with enough young talent to make an impact within the next two years, but will there be a core of solid veterans in place for when they arrive?
It seems but a foregone conclusion at this point that Karlsson will be traded sooner than later but there is still the outside possibility of this relationship being repaired. That would require a big gesture on Dorion and Melnyk’s end which seems unlikely considering the lowball contract they initially offered and then shut off further talks. Outside of Karlsson, the Senators blueline has been a mess this entire decade but the future looks bright with all the names I have mentioned above. It would be in ownership’s best interest to get a deal done but, again, it does not seem like Melnyk wants to loosen the purse strings.
The situations for Duchene and Stone are at least more promising and long-term contract extensions in the new year seem conceivable. Duchene has already publicly stated he thinks Ottawa could be a great spot for him for a long time if the Sens want him in their plans. Having Duchene onboard could go a long way to securing Stone’s commitment, as well. Stone is also on record saying he was “really happy” with how everything worked out with his one-year deal this summer and is willing to try and work out something long-term in the new year.
An extension cannot be signed until January, but those negotiations will be the single most critical aspect for the Senators throughout the season and if they go sour, it could be a number of years before the Senators are relevant in the NHL playoff picture again.
The Senators are one of the more difficult teams to project for the full season due to the uncertainly of their big three and how long they may or may not be around. As the roster is constructed now, Ottawa should be able to reach the 70-75 point plateau which would make the 69.5 Bookmaker is hanging worth considering. The problem, however, is if Karlsson is traded soon or Duchene and Stone are dealt before the deadline, it becomes a poor bet.
Any notions of a lottery ticket for a Stanley Cup Future should not be on your radar for Ottawa and it will be best to avoid a regular season points bet, at least until training camp nears completion and we see the roster decisions by Boucher. If a player like Logan Brown or Alex Formenton can crack the lineup it would be a considerable upgrade over the likes of Magnus Paajarvi and Max McCormick.
In the end, the Senators success this season all boils down to how long Karlsson is with the team and an under bet will have to be considered if he is moved before the season. My article with best bets for Futures will be out in September but as of now I do not envision the Senators making any of my lists.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com