What Went Wrong: Ottawa Senators

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Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.

We’ve already covered the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and Chicago Blackhawks. Today we examine the Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa had already missed the playoffs in four straight seasons going into the 2021-22 campaign, but they didn’t enter the season as a serious threat to end their playoff drought. After all, they were still a young and developing team in the highly competitive Atlantic Division. Instead, they were just looking for signs of progress. Even by that low standard though, 2021-22 was something of a mixed bag for Ottawa.

Let’s start with the positives. Ottawa was able to sign RFA Brady Tkachuk to a seven-year, $57.5 million contract just as the season was getting underway. He didn't play in Ottawa’s first three games, but he never missed another contest and certainly didn’t look hampered by skipping training camp or the pressures of his first big contract. Tkachuk had 30 goals, 67 points, 270 hits, and 117 penalty minutes in 79 games. He’s become everything the Senators were hoping for when they took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and now that Ottawa has locked him in, it’s fair to say he’ll be a key pillar of the franchise for years to come.

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Tim Stützle also broke out after an underwhelming rookie season, scoring 22 goals and 58 points in 79 contests in 2021-22. Meanwhile Josh Norris took a sizeable step forward in his sophomore campaign by providing 35 goals and 55 points in 66 contests. Drake Batherson was sidelined for a significant portion of the campaign, but in terms of points-per-game, this was his best campaign yet with 17 goals and 44 points in 46 contests. To make things even more exciting for the Senators, Batherson continued to excel in the World Championships, scoring three goals and 14 points in 10 games with Team Canada. Oh, and Thomas Chabot continued to be Thomas Chabot, so that’s good.

That group wouldn’t look out of place as the core of a contending team. They’re all young – Chabot is the oldest among them at 25 – and while most of them still have room to grow, they've showed that they’re capable of excelling in the NHL.

And yet, in terms of points percentage, the Ottawa Senators’ 33-42-7 record in 2021-22 was slightly worse than their 2020-21 result. The reality is that the Senators have a solid core, but very little to compliment it.

Outside of the players I’ve already mentioned, no one on the team reached the 40-point milestone and only one finished with at least 15 goals (Alex Formenton had 18). As a result, Ottawa ranked 26th in the league in terms of goals per game with 2.73. What was really the death nail though was the fact that their defense wasn’t great, and their goaltending couldn’t make up the slack.

Back in 2020, the Ottawa Senators gambled on the idea that goaltender Matt Murray, who had an amazing start to his career, but seemed to be on the declined since then, could bounce back. That didn’t pan out in 2020-21 with him posting a 10-13-1 record, 3.38 GAA, and .893 save percentage. The 2021-22 campaign had similarly bad results, but with a bit more nuance. He was absolutely terrible early in the season, to the point where Ottawa sent him back to the minors in November. They eventually brought him back and he had something of a resurgence, but injuries prevented him from making too big of an impact.

In the end, Murray finished with a 5-12-2 record, 3.05 GAA, and .906 save percentage in just 20 starts. Anton Forsberg picked up the slack somewhat, posting a 22-17-4 record, 2.82 GAA, and .917 save percentage in 46 contests. That’s not too bad and his save percentage in particular is encouraging, though it wasn’t enough to save the Senators. If nothing else, his strong play did earn him a three-year, $8.25 million contract that will kick in with the 2022-23 campaign.

Ultimately, the Senators missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year, and it wasn’t close. They were 2-2-0 through Oct. 21 and that was the last time in 2021-22 that they owned a record of at least .500. They also finished 27 points behind the Washington Capitals for the final Wild Card spot.

With Ottawa’s emerging young talent, there’s potential here, but it remains to be seen how successful GM Pierre Dorion will be at building around them. To that end this summer should be an interesting one for the Senators.

Players to Watch

Josh Norris – The Senators have no shortage of RFAs going into this summer, but none is as big as Norris. After setting career-highs with 35 goals and 55 points in 66 contests, he’s in a strong negotiating position this summer. Ottawa already has Chabot, Tkachuk, and Batherson locked up through 2026-27 and each of those three contracts have looked reasonable so far. If Ottawa is similarly successful in securing Norris, it will be another big step towards contention.

Tim Stützle – We saw him really come out into his own in the 2021-22 campaign, but of all the Senators’ young forwards, he has perhaps the most remaining untapped offensive upside. After scoring 22 goals and 58 points in 79 games in 2021-22, he might take another big step forward next season by flirting with the 70-point mark for the first time.

Matt Murray – For him there’s two big questions: 1) Will he stay healthy? 2) When he is able to play, what will the Senators get out of him? Obviously, he had some major lows during the 2021-22 campaign, but to his credit, he kept pushing forward. AHL Belleville coach Troy Mann praised Murray’s attitude and professionalism during his time in the minors. Murray worked his way back to the NHL and he did have some good starts after being called up. Injuries got in the way though and his season overall wasn’t great. He’s by far the Senators’ biggest X-Factor.

Jake Sanderson – The Senators have an elite defenseman in Chabot, but outside of him their blueline has been lacking. Jake Sanderson could help in that regard. Taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Sanderson has spent the last two seasons with the University of North Dakota and has developed nicely there. He had eight goals and 26 points in 23 NCAA games last season, but just as impressive is his defensive abilities. There’s a good chance he’ll be a part of Ottawa’ opening game roster and in the long run, he could become an excellent two-way blueliner for the Senators.