The Ottawa Senators have plenty of work to do in the second half of the season, with their topsy-turvy form leaving them nine points below the playoff line at the midway mark.
The Senators have been pretty competitive at times (they posted a 7-4-1 record in December), but were totally rudderless at other points of the year (most notably in November). As a result, head coach D.J. Smith remains in a precarious position, with his team too far away from the playoffs and the tank race.
However, there have been stories of personal triumph for the 2022-23 Senators, not least the emergence of rookie defenceman Jake Sanderson as a bona fide option in the top four. Pierre Dorion’s marquee arrivals — namely, Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat — have delivered in their first season at the Canadian Tire Centre, too.
Evidently, the ride has been bumpy. Nikita Zaitsev has been shelved and appears to be heading for an exit. Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg have also been left overexposed several times, with the pair already combining for more than 1,000 saves on the season.
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But there is hope. The Senators have work to do in the second half, but there is still plenty for them to play for, both individually and as a unit, in the months ahead. With that, here are The Hockey Writers’ three takeaways from the first half of the season in Ottawa. There is plenty to unpack.
Senators Defenceman Jake Sanderson Is The Real Deal
Sanderson, selected fifth overall in 2020, has produced a sustained run of high-quality performances in his first season as a professional. While he is unlikely to feature as a Calder Trophy finalist, he remains an outsider for the rookie of the year award, which speaks to the quality of his performances on a shaky blue line.
The American also possesses a level of maturity beyond his years. After the Senators were shutout by the Nashville Predators, he told reporters that the defence, himself included, needed to improve in the offensive zone and spoke honestly about the mental strain he is under in his age-20 season.
“I feel like you’ve just got to bring it mentally every night,” Sanderson explained at the Canadian Tire Centre. “There are some games when you’re tired, maybe it’s the second half of a back-to-back, but you need to mentally wrap your head around that it’s going to be a long season. I try my best, but there are definitely times when I’m tired. It’s good that there are older guys I can lean on.”
Sanderson’s 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 40 appearances place him eighth in team scoring and behind only one defender, Thomas Chabot. The Whitefish-born skater can also ranks second on the team in penalty differential, fifth in takeaways, and fifth in shots blocked per 60.
In other words, Sanderson is the real deal and will be a pivotal player for the Senators down the stretch. However this season shakes out for Ottawa, they have a real gem on their hands.
Individual Errors Continue To Plague The Senators
In the offseason, the Senators’ front office received praise for what seemed to be an effective period of work. Dorion added impressive players in important areas, subtracted Matt Murray’s contract from the club’s cap calculations, and produced a wave of optimism as a result.
The Senators, many felt at the time, had noticeably improved their roster on paper and would soon reap the benefits. Unfortunately for Ottawa, hockey isn’t played on paper and the team has stuttered on the ice. Errors, compounded by subpar finishing and poor puck luck, have derailed the team this term, with Erik Brännström’s blue line turnover versus the Predators as the latest example of the squad shooting themselves in the foot.
“I thought there were a lot of guys who played hard, but there were a couple of guys who turned pucks over which ended up in the back of our net and you can’t do that in this league,” Smith said of Brännström’s error. “You have to know that there is a time and a place. You also can’t allow odd-man rushes but we did tonight.”
The Senators need to reduce the number of errors they commit as the season advances. It’s time for them to focus on living up to their potential as a unit.
The Senators’ Playoff Chase Isn’t Over Yet
Despite the problems the Senators faced in the first half of the season, they just about remain in the playoff conversation. However, their hopes of a late push for the postseason rest on other teams capitulating. It’s improbable, not impossible.
For what it’s worth, Dorion tried to cool the hype around his team in the summer. In an appearance on 32 Thoughts, he refused to set firm objectives for the season and instead focussed on underlying metrics and overall performance. While the Senators have improved in those areas, they still have work to do.
When he spoke to reporters in December, Giroux praised the level of team spirit in Ottawa and remarked that finding consistency will allow the Senators to unlock their potential.
“At one point there, it didn’t look too good for us, and we started putting a few games together,” the 34-year-old said. “We just have to keep being consistent in how we play, and if we’re consistent, we’re going to be in every game and then it’s about finding a way to win.”
It will take a perfect storm for the Senators to rise into the playoff places — they need an almighty turnaround at this point of the season. But they could make the back half of the campaign interesting with a run of sustained success. It isn’t over yet.
Looking Ahead For the Ottawa Senators
The Senators start a three-game road trip on Thursday (Jan. 12) at Mullet Arena versus the Arizona Coyotes, with visits to the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues to follow. Smith’s squad will then finish the month with must-win matches against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens.
The Senators face a make-or-break run to finish the month. It will be fascinating to see how the team navigates the challenges ahead.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.