What's Next: Ottawa Senators

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Welcome to our 2022-23 Preview series. In each article we'll be focusing in on a different team, reviewing how they did last season, what their summer has been like, and what their outlook is for the 2022-23 campaign.
We've already covered the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, and Detroit Red Wings so we'll continue our look at the Atlantic Division today by examining the Ottawa Senators.

2021-22 Season in Review

Going into the campaign, you could separate the Atlantic Division into three categories: Serious contenders, clearly rebuilding teams, and the Montreal Canadiens. Ottawa fell into the second camp and their season largely went as expected, which is to say that they saw encouraging performances from some of their young players, but they didn't come close to a postseason berth.

On the positive side of things, forwards Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Joshua Norris, and Drake Batherson all set career-highs in points. Tkachuk and Norris were particularly impressive, scoring 30 and 35 goals respectively. Ottawa still finished 26th offensively with 2.73 goals per game because no one other than those four even breached the 40-point milestone, but at least it's clear at this point that the Senators have a good core of forwards they can build around.

Their offense clearly was still a work in progress, but what really held the Senators back was their defense. Ottawa had an Expected Goals Against of 270.68, per MockeyPuck. That was the seventh worst in the league. In five-on-five situations specifically, they had the sixth worst Expected Goals Against at 185.4. What's important to note about this stat is its measuring how many goals the opposing team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots that they've been allowed. In other words, this is a stat that purely measures the quality of the team's defense, not the goaltending.

So when you see that Anton Forsberg had a 22-17-4 record, 2.82 GAA, and .917 save percentage in 46 games while Matt Murray had a 5-12-2 record, 3.05 GAA, and .906 save percentage in 20 starts, it's important to remember that the team in front of them was essentially a burden that those goaltenders had to attempt to overcome.

In fact, if you look at what Murray's expected GAA would have been had he played simply average hockey with that defense in front of him, he'd be at 3.21. The fact that he had a 3.05 GAA suggests that overall, he was an above average goaltender dragged down by his team. Forsberg's situation was much the same.

That's important to remember for when we get into the Senators' outlook, but for now let's just note that it hurt Ottawa significantly. Even with a late season surge that saw Ottawa winning seven of its final 10 games, the Senators finished with a 33-42-7 record.

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How has their summer gone?

It's been interesting to say the least. Before the UFA period even began, Ottawa was swinging for the fences with some major trades. The Senators acquired Alex DeBrincat from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the 2022 seventh overall pick (Kevin Korchinski), the 39th overall pick (Paul Ludwinski), and a 2024 third-round pick. That's a pretty good price to pay for DeBrincat, who had 41 goals and 78 points in 82 games last season and is still just 24-years-old. He fits in perfectly with the Senators' forward core, giving them another major weapon for years to come.

Ottawa also dumped Murray on the Leafs. They gave up a 2023 third-round pick and 2024 seventh-round pick while retaining 25% of Murray's salary in exchange for “future considerations.” Ultimately this move was designed to free up roughly $4.7 million in cap space. Ottawa then used most of those savings to flip Filip Gustavsson to Minnesota in exchange for goaltender Cam Talbot.

On the surface this might seem like Ottawa solidifying their goaltending situation but remember what I mentioned earlier about the Senators' defense, not its goaltending being the root of the issue.

We'll get back to that in the Outlook situation, but we can't discuss the campaign to come without first noting that Ottawa signed Claude Giroux to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. Giroux, 34, has perhaps started to show his age a bit, but he's still a high-end forward. He scored 21 goals and 65 points in 75 games last season and will provide some veteran leadership to a team looking to shift to being a contender.

2022-23 Outlook

Let's start with the murky, which is swapping out Murray for Talbot. Murray had a shaky stint with the Senators and it wasn't just about his performance between the pipes. He also had injury problems, which is part of the reason why he started in just 20 games last season. Ultimately, it's not hard to get why the Senators would want to move on from him.

But is Talbot the solution? Probably not. Talbot benefited from playing behind the Minnesota Wild last season. Remember how Murray overperformed relative to his team's defense? Well, Talbot underperformed relative to the help he got from the Wild. An average goaltender facing the quality and quantity of shots Talbot received would have a projected GAA of 2.64 while Talbot finished the season at 2.76.

It's important not to be too hard on Talbot, he's a veteran goaltender who could be solid in net for the Senators. But what he likely isn't is a savour and it would take such a goaltender to mask the Senators problems if their defense performs as it did last season. And that's where the concern about Ottawa really lies because one thing the Senators didn't address over the summer was their blueline.

That's why, even as I look at a top six made up of Tkachuk, Stützle, Norris, Batherson, Giroux, and DeBrincat, I'm on the fence about them being a playoff quality team. I do feel good enough about them though to say that they're at least going to be in the mix for a Wild Card spot.

This will be a fun team to watch and it certainly will be a better team than it was a year ago. Plus it's also still a very young team, so even if they do fall a bit short of the postseason this season, they should continue to improve in 2023-24.