The Ottawa Senators find themselves in rebuild mode as the 2019-2020 season gets underway, with a new head coach in D.J. Smith. The bench boss receives a much different NHL team than the one presented just a year ago, with Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk now among the top draws. The old guard, including the likes of Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone, seem long gone.
“We’re excited about the turnover on our roster,” general manager Pierre Dorion said. “Not just the young players but the veterans. It’s a significant difference and we’re trying to do this the proper way, adding quality, character core guys. Their mentorship can be valuable for our team success moving forward.”
The Senators sure have committed to core guys like Chabot, signing him to an eight-year contract extension Thursday that pays out an average annual value of $8 million. That’s a huge raise from the deal he signed in September of 2015. He’ll be paid $863,333 in 2019-2020, the final year of that pact before the extension kicks in for 2020-2021.
The message the Chabot deal sends is clear: the Senators believe in their youth. Chabot is now the highest-paid player on the team and it’s apparent Tkachuk will join him when Ottawa looks to extend him. Centre Colin White earns $4.75 million a year on a six-year deal signed in August of 2019, but Dorion still has a few iffy contracts to contend with – namely Bobby Ryan’s.
Irrespective any contract issues, the Senators have a team to table come October and their goal-scoring starts with Tkachuk. As a club, Ottawa scored 242 goals last season. That was more than the playoff-bound New York Islanders, which is saying something. Right?
Ryan Dzingel, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone joined Tkachuk as the quartet of Senators with over 20 goals last season. Tkachuk is the only one of that group left on the roster. He had 45 points in 71 games in his rookie year, a campaign worth remembering for a 20-year-old in a tough spot. With the team disintegrating around him, Tkachuk found it in him to produce at a high level.
Colin White also did well in his rookie campaign, scoring 41 points in 71 games. He had 11 multi-point games and should see plenty of time on the top line with Tkachuk, which’ll improve his points exposure overall. He should also get more power play time.
25-year-old centre Chris Tierney had a career-high 48 points last season. He posted nine goals and 39 assists, but was also a minus-22. He put together 10 power play points, no goals, and held fast with 116 shots on goal. Bobby Ryan had 15 goals and is the third-oldest player on the team behind goalie Craig Anderson and defenceman Ron Hainsey.
The Senators inhabited the Eastern Conference basement, allowing 302 goals against last season. That was 21 goals more than the second-worst Philadelphia Flyers and 10 more than the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference. The top priority for Smith is to reverse the team’s fortunes on D.
The good news is that the Senators have a lot of young defencemen. While 38-year-old Hainsey gives them experience at a $3.8 million price tag, the likes of Chabot will lead this group into the future. Smith knows that and he’ll try to incorporate a system that plays D as a five-man unit. That means having the forwards drop lower in the zone, which could restrict breakout chances but enforce more accountability.
Erik Brannstrom is another defenceman worth watching. The Senators won’t have a lot of top-tier players on the blueline, but Brannstrom was acquired as part of the Stone trade and could be an interesting element. He’s scored at the AHL level, putting up 32 points in 50 games last season for Chicago and Belleville.
Anderson and Anders Nilsson have their work cut out for them as the Senators’ goaltending tandem. Anderson’s role will taper off, which puts 29-year-old Nilsson in the driver’s seat. Anderson has a year to go on his contract before he hits UFA status or retires, while Nilsson will see a boost in playing time.
Nilsson’s never started more than 36 games in a season and he’s played for six different clubs in 141 games since 2011-2012. Last season, he split time with the Senators and Vancouver Canucks and went 14-19-1. Filip Gustavsson is in the hopper, but he needs more development after a frustrating season with Belleville.
With Smith behind the bench, the Senators stand a chance at casting themselves as a respectable young franchise. Eventually. They’re far from a playoff team and almost entirely bereft of marquee players, but that’s okay. It’s going to have to be. Ottawa has a heavy road ahead to re-earn the trust of their fanbase – one game and one season at a time.
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