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Photo Credit: (L-R) Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire; Sportfoto Sale; Icon Sportswire. Graphic by Mike Gould.

Know the North: Ottawa Senators 2021 Season Preview

Welcome to “Know the North,” a new series from us here at FlamesNation breaking down what to expect from each of the seven teams in the NHL’s North Division.

Only the historically bad Detroit Red Wings finished with a worse record than the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference last year. Still, despite concerns around the team’s ownership and management, there’s reason to believe that Ottawa could take a step forward in 2020-21 with some new additions and an extra year of experience for their young core.

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Will the Senators’ moves be enough to place them in one of the four Canadian playoff spots? Let’s take a look.

Ottawa Senators

2019-20: 25-34-12 (7th Atlantic, 15th Eastern)

Captain: N/A (Gudbranson, Chabot, Tkachuk alternates)

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Coach: D.J. Smith

General Manager: Pierre Dorion

Key additions: F Derek Stepan, F Tim Stuetzle, F Evgenii Dadonov, F Alex Galchenyuk, F Austin Watson, F Cedric Paquette, F Micheal Haley, F Logan Shaw, D Josh Brown, D Erik Gudbranson, D Artyom Zub, D Braydon Coburn, G Matt Murray

Key departures: F Anthony Duclair, F Bobby Ryan, F Jayce Hawryluk, F Mikkel Boedker, F Scott Sabourin, D Mark Borowiecki, D Ron Hainsey, G Craig Anderson, G Anders Nilsson

Few teams had busier off-seasons than the Senators. Dorion overhauled half his roster, questionably cutting bait with Duclair and Ryan up front while investing heavily in reclamation projects like Stepan and Murray.

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2019-20 leading scorer Brady Tkachuk will return on the final year of his entry-level contract. This year will be a big factor in determining what his next contract looks like: is Tkachuk the 40-point scorer we’ve seen in the last two seasons, or can he take another few steps like his brother, Matthew, did in his third year? We’ll see.

Even despite the Senators’ mentioned losses at the forward position, Tkachuk will still have some solid supporting pieces to help him carry the load in 2020-21. The most exciting new Senator might be 2020 third overall pick Stuetzle, who’s coming off a dominant performance for Team Germany at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

“A guy like Stuetzle, he’s a natural centre, but [the Senators] have spoken pretty openly about the fact that they want to start him off on the wing,” said Brandon Maki, a staff writer for SilverSevenSens.com. “I don’t see a scenario where Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stuetzle aren’t the Senators’ two top-six left-wingers.”

In Stepan, the Senators acquired a 30-year-old right-handed centre who enjoyed very productive seasons with the New York Rangers and Arizona Coyotes between 2010-11 and 2017-18, never falling below 0.55 points per game in those years.

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But Stepan’s last two seasons in Arizona have fallen short of expectations. His 28 points in 2019-20 ranked ninth on the team, just one point ahead of what Taylor Hall managed in 35 fewer games.

“The Senators are dying for veteran experience. They have none, especially in their forward corps,” said Maki. “What a guy like Stepan brings in is what guys like Bobby Ryan and Mark Borowiecki—who aren’t on the team anymore—brought, but perhaps with a little bit more. He’s a veteran of over 100 playoff games, he’s been to a Stanley Cup Final.

“So, when you have a team that is trying to fundamentally shift their culture, from being the NHL’s and the Atlantic Division’s doormat to eventually becoming a contender—if you look at the trajectory of the Ottawa Senators, it seems like their goal is to push for the playoffs in 2022. So, in order to do that, you need to have that culture of winning,” Maki added.

Two seasons ago, the Senators traded Ryan Dzingel to Columbus at the trade deadline for two second-round picks… and Duclair, for good measure. Duclair rewarded the Senators for taking a chance on him by scoring 31 goals in 87 games with the team.

Now, with Duclair gone, the Senators are continuing their tradition of taking chances on bounce-back bets. Stepan is one, but the Senators also spent the off-season buying low on Murray, Galchenyuk, and Gudbranson.

All three of these players came with relatively cheap acquisition costs. Even Murray’s price, a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden from Ottawa, could be considered a bargain for a two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie. But the Senators followed that up by handing Murray a four-year deal worth $6.25 million per season, a contract that might prove difficult to earn.

“The Senators get [Murray] for a later second-round pick and a prospect in Jon Gruden who probably wasn’t in the top-15 of Ottawa’s prospects,” said Maki. “With that being the cost to get Matt Murray, it was a no-brainer. I was frankly surprised to see how little they got him for. People have concerns about the contract, I get that, but the cap will be going up again in a few years.”

With respect to the four-time 19-goal scorer Galchenyuk, the Senators’ biggest unrestricted free agent signing of the off-season was undeniably Dadonov, who signed in Ottawa on a three-year deal worth $5 million per season after posting 182 points in his last 225 games with the Florida Panthers. Maki called the Dadonov deal “a huge acquisition” for the Senators’ formerly “bleak” right wing position.

Beyond the new veteran faces in the lineup, the theme of the 2020-21 Senators will again be “youth.” Stuetzle looks like a virtual lock to make the team. 23-year-old centre Colin White will have a big opportunity to rebound and potentially grow after a disappointing sophomore season in 2019-20. Even Thomas Chabot, also 23 and beginning the first year of his huge eight-year contract, still somehow qualifies as “youth” despite it feeling like he’s been in the league for eight years already.

The Senators also possess one of the strongest prospect groups in the NHL, particularly on defense. Acquired in the Mark Stone trade, 21-year-old defenseman Erik Brannstrom looks to have a strong chance to make the NHL roster on a full-time basis this year. 2020 fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson has looked impressive on Team USA’s blue line at the World Juniors. Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, Christian Wolanin, and Artyom Zub all have good potential.

Up front, there’s obviously Stuetzle, but 21-year-old centre Josh Norris (one of the infamous “Six Assets” fetched by trading Erik Karlsson) has also been skating in the Senators’ top-six in training camp. Ridly Greig won’t make the team this year but he’s a sparkplug who earned his selection at 28th overall in 2020. Logan Brown is a mountain of a man at 6’6″ and has been great in the AHL thus far. Rudolfs Balcers, Drake Batherson, Roby Jarventie, Shane Pinto, Filip Chlapik, and Alex Formenton round out the top end of a very exciting group of forward prospects.

Still, the Senators face intrinsic issues that they’ll have to address to maintain consistent success. No NHL team has faced more controversies over the last three years, with the list of scandals including Eugene Melnyk’s various transgressions against reporters, former assistant GM Randy Lee resigning after being charged for harrassment, the leaked video of Matt Duchene and a few of his Senators teammates trashing the team in an Uber, and that time Melnyk characterized his team as being “in a dumpster” while being interviewed by one of his own players.

Amidst all these scandals, the Senators have cut ties with the majority of their star players instead of signing them to new contracts. To reach the salary cap floor, the team has acquired numerous contracts with cap hits that vastly exceed the actual money being paid (for instance, the Senators will only pay Stepan $2 million this season but he’ll count for $6.5 million against the cap). Already in a smaller NHL market, the Senators have languished near the bottom of the league’s attendance rankings over the last three seasons. And they’ve seen an alarming rate of managerial turnover, with former CEO Jim Little notably lasting just two months in the position before abruptly being fired by Melnyk in May.

Maybe things will be different now, and the Sens’ encouraging crop of young talent will develop as Melnyk wishes. Still, the Senators’ last core developed to the point where they were able to reach the Eastern Conference Final—before it was disassembled instead of its stars being paid.

In October, Melnyk predicted his team would be a Stanley Cup winner “within four years.” That might be optimistic, but things do look to be on the upswing in Ottawa. Dorion managed to keep Chabot on a massive eight-year deal but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to do the same with Tkachuk, an RFA in 2021.

“Brady has played himself into a situation where the Ottawa Senators can’t afford to lose him. Both on the ice and off the ice, it’s been Brady Tkachuk who’s kept Senators fans invested since the Erik Karlsson trade,” said Maki. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see it play out in a way like Matthew Tkachuk’s extension did, where it’s shorter on term to get the player signed.”

As for how the new-look Senators—literally, they came out with beautiful new jerseys in the off-season—will finish in the shortened 2020-21 season, Maki agreed that it’s likely they’ll place last in the North Division. That said, they’ll probably put up a decent fight along the way.

“I think, if I’m a betting man, I’m gonna say they’re coming last,” said Maki. “I don’t like this defense corps going against the likes of Auston Matthews, Elias Pettersson, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl on a consistent basis. I think they’re going to get shelled. That said, I really do believe that there is the potential for some growth. I think Matt Murray could steal some games. [Backup goaltender] Marcus Hogberg showed last year that he could steal some games.

“Even if they don’t finish last, I don’t see them finishing any higher than sixth,” Maki added. “Another top-five or top-10 pick doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Projected Lineup:

Brady Tkachuk Josh Norris Evgenii Dadonov
Tim Stuetzle Derek Stepan Connor Brown
Alex Galchenyuk Chris Tierney Drake Batherson
Nick Paul Colin White Austin Watson
Cedric Paquette Artem Anisimov
Thomas Chabot Erik Gudbranson
Christian Wolanin Nikita Zaitsev
Erik Brannstrom Artyom Zub
Josh Brown
Matt Murray (starter) Marcus Hogberg

Projected Taxi Squad:

F Micheal Haley F Matthew Peca F Logan Shaw
D Braydon Coburn D Mike Reilly G Joey Daccord