The Ottawa Senators are off to a blistering 1-4-1 start through their first six games of the 2020-2021 NHL season. In most 82-game seasons, that kind of start makes it difficult to recover and sneak into the playoffs. Over 56 games? That’s 10 percent of the season, and the Sens, though considered a long-shot for the playoffs anyway, are pretty much toast. They play their next six games on the road.
The public display of futility, especially following their 1-7 loss to the Canucks on January 25th, has Sens twitter asking pointed questions about coach DJ Smith’s player usage and powerplay coach Jack Capuano’s repeated use of the same zone entry strategies. In response to that pessimism, I’d like to offer that, despite the record…the Sens haven’t been all that bad? *ducks rotting fruit* Allow me to explain.
One of the convenient side effects of the all-Canadian division and compressed schedule is that it allows us to study how teams have played against one another in more controlled conditions. It’s not a series of one-offs; teams play each other several times in a row, often with the same lineup. We can assume home ice advantage is mitigated somewhat by the lack of any discernable differences between empty arenas. So let’s take this series-by-series.
V. Leafs – 1-1
In their first game against the Leafs, who most have picked to win the Canadian Division, shots were even, and they gutted out a 5-3 win. In their second game they were heavily outshot, 40-19, and the game was only close because of Murray’s .925SV%.
Verdict: The Sens were good in that first game, playing a Cup contender to a draw and capitalizing on their chances, and almost stole the second game despite being badly outplayed. They were genuinely outclassed, but will happily take the split. The Murray trade was looking smart through two games. NOT THAT BAD.
V. Jets – 0-2-1
After being caved-in by the Leafs on the shot clock in their previous game, the Sens turned around and hung over 40 shots on the Jets in their first game while keeping them below 20. They also scored twice on the powerplay and took 54 percent of faceoffs. They played well, despite blowing the lead and losing in OT. The middle game is remembered as a bit of a drubbing with a 1-4 loss, but that’s not that fair: they matched the Jets in shots despite Winnipeg receiving seven power plays (and scoring on none of them). Murray was pulled in this game, and it might be a classic example of a game they could have easily of won with a few more timely saves. The Sens lost their third game 3-6, and were heavily outshot. Despite that, they went into the third with a lead and controlled play for large stretches of the game. A bad penalty by Stepan in the third gave away the lead for good.
Verdict: The Sens were good again through two games before turning in a genuine stinker in the third game, with much of that stinkiness taking place in the third period. To be honest with you, despite going 0-2-1 against the Jets, if you could simulate this performance across 100,000 games, you might end up with a winning record. NOT THAT BAD.
V. Canucks – 0 so far with two games to go in the series
The Sens suffered their worst loss of the young season, losing 1-7 in their first game against the Canucks, but here’s the thing: they outshot them handily until the third period and ended up with a shot advantage at game’s end despite being curb stomped in the third. Poor goaltending did them in early, and then the wheels came off the wagon. But you have to almost admire a team that maintains a shot advantage after going 36 percent in the faceoff circle.
Verdict: It’s difficult to defend any game that ends with that score, and the Sens never seemed like a threat to steal the game, but I remember turning on the game after wrapping up a late night of work and seeing them down four goals in the second period with the Canucks having only generated 20 shots, and couldn’t help but feel that this was just a weird one. This might be a classic example of “show me a good coach and I’ll show you a good goaltender.” NOT THAT BAD.
Takeaways: This post might seem like it’s begging to be mocked. “Ottawa Senators fan believes team that ranks 25th in GF/GP and dead last in GA/GP thinks his team is NOT THAT BAD.” It is mockable. I get it. But here’s the thing: for a team with a bad record, they’ve outshot their opponents many nights, and at least two of those losses can be blamed on goaltending and taking stupid penalties. The Sens were also missing Jimmy Stutzle for the entire series against the Jets.
All that to say: it’s not time to blow it up yet, not time to fire to coach, not even time to start swapping out bottom six forwards wholesale. The team’s faceoff wins are second lowest in the league at 44 percent. Improving that even a few percentage points will result in greater control of the offensive zone. Giving Logan Brown a shot and keeping Christian Wolanin on the backend may help. And Murray might not be the workhorse they want him to be. The single biggest improvement this team can make is receiving league average NHL goaltending. If they get that, they’ll end up with a record that implies they are NOT THAT BAD.