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HEALTHY SKRATCH: TKACHUK, SENS IN FOR TOUGH – BUT HOPE INSPIRING – SEASON

OTTAWA SENATORS

Ottawa has likely got a couple more lottery finishes in them before they truly turn the corner and start competing for the playoffs, but I’m expecting this to be a season of hope and promise amidst a hefty number of losses.

The Matt Murray acquisition has the potential to be a franchise altering move. His recent struggles are well known, but his ability to be a bonafide star in the league shouldn’t be forgotten.

At both forward and defence, Pierre Dorion & Co. have turned the keys over to the kids. Several key veterans are out the door and the depth chart is wide open for internal competition.

There’s not enough here to be a playoff team, and it’s probably gonna be another painful year in Ottawa that ends with anotherTop 10 pick being added to the prospect pool. That being said, the developing young talent on the roster should be fun to watch – just don’t expect too much.

UP FRONT

This feels more like a Top 25 Under 25 than a preview, so forgive me, because I’m not going to be able to cover everybody with enough detail to express their full value.

Which is the case with every team, but when dealing with young talent there’s always this feeling of “Hey, f*ck you, there’s way more to him than that” from the fans.

And I get it; when you know what you’ve got and the word isn’t quite out yet, you bristle at the idea of your guys being undervalued or misrepresented.

Don’t fret – I know how exciting the future is, and I’m excited about it too. I just can’t dive in too deep in this format. Even more so considering I just burned three paragraphs on a preemptive mea culpa.

Ah well, that’s a shame.

Colin White struggled last season with Mark Stone gone, but I think he bounces back playing alongside Brady Tkachuk and new addition Evgeni Dadonov. With his work ethic and ability to process the game at a fairly high level in all three zones I think he gets back on track and eases the premature “bad contract” fears. Should he struggle again this season, Derek Stepan will be waiting in the wings, ready to fill in.

They went out and traded a second round pick for Stepan, and while that’s an overpay, I feel like he’s exactly what this team needs. He’s essentially an extra coach on the bench, and while his presence alone should offer a lot, I think he finds his way back to being a 50 point player to boot.

Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Drake Batherson will have ample opportunity to prove they can translate their AHL dominance into NHL success. It’s going to be trial by fire given the lack of veteran support, so it will be interesting to see who locks in a spot in the lineup. All three have increased their stock since being drafted, a common theme with Ottawa prospects.

Tim Stuetzle, man. Let’s see what he’s got. Very dynamic. NHL ready? Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako struggled mightily as rookies last year. Curious to see if and how he avoids a similar fate.

The time has come for Logan Brown. If he can’t stick this year, he’ll likely get lost in the shuffle and be shipped out. Big men can take a little longer to develop, and he’s taken substantial steps in the right direction in recent years.

They took a flier on Alex Galchenyuk, I like that. Low risk deal on a former 30 goal scorer who, for a time, showed the potential to be an elite forward in the league. He’ll look to have the same shot at redemption as Anthony Duclair last season, though he’ll be hard pressed to replicate Duclair’s success.

Love the Evgeni Dadonov addition. He flew under the radar for years in Florida. Ottawa needed a veteran skill player, and that’s what he is. I’m anticipating some nice chemistry between him, Colin White and Brady Tkachuk.

Speaking of, I think Tkachuk will be an absolute force this year. I’ve got him hitting a 65 point pace, while cementing himself as a star power forward in the league.

All in all, the success of this offence is reliant on how NHL-ready its young players are. Given the glut of options, I think enough guys seize the opportunity to make this a fun, albeit flawed, group to watch.

ON THE BACK END

Optimistic Sens fans can cheer this D corps on knowing another gem of a prospect lies at the end of the road. Pessimistic Sens fans can… drink? I don’t know, you’re kinda up sh*t’s creek for another two or three years.

Thomas Chabot will have his hands full again, but he’s a guy who always seems to be quietly persevering through adversity of some kind. He’s flown under the radar in the process, but I firmly believe he’s among the best defencemen in the league. He’s gonna get his due in time. Tough to shine when you’re relied on to play 26 hard minutes a night on a bad team.

Nikita Zaitsev will continue to fill a larger role than he’s best suited for and should see his minutes increase with the departures of Ron Hainsey and Dylan DeMelo. He’ll get tough matchups game in, game out. Not what you want him taking on.

Mike Reilly took some steps in the right direction. He’s capable of being a solid contributor at the NHL level if he can find consistency in his game. Shows flashes of higher-end puck moving ability that always leaves you wanting more.

Erik Gudbranson is a bottom pair defenceman. Less than that, if you’re leaning heavily on analytics. Yet he averaged 20 minutes a game with Anaheim last season, and I’m expecting he receives similar usage in Ottawa. It won’t be pretty.

Erik Brannstrom didn’t look particularly good in his 31 game stint with the Sens last season, but he was dominant in the AHL at just 20 years old. Expectations have been for him to be the new Karlsson, and that’s just not the way to look at it. He’s still got a high ceiling and I’m anxious to see how he plays at the NHL level this season.

Josh Brown, Christian Jaros and Maxime Lajoie will duke it out for a bottom pairing role. None of them has much upside, and they’ll serve as warm bodies if they make the team.

Late-addition Braydon Coburn will likely see quite a bit of bottom pairing usage as well, and with this roster he’s got a shockingly reasonable path to a bigger role than that.

It’s a rag tag group. Management has essentially assembled a unit to throw to the wolves, and I’m sympathetic to the players on that level. They’re going to earn their salaries this year, if for no other reason than because of the added workload and ridicule.

BETWEEN THE POSTS

I’m a fan of the Matt Murray signing. He’s been up and down in his career; there’s no getting around that, but he’s shown the ability to play at an elite level in both the regular season and playoffs. Consistency from year to year is all that’s missing from considering him among the league’s elite at the position.

He’s in for a lot of rubber this season. More than he’s accustomed to, and with far less help in front of him to stop the bleeding. It’s not going to be easy, but thankfully pressure is relatively low. Nobody is expecting a playoff birth and I think he uses the challenge ahead as an opportunity to find his game (again).

Marcus Hogberg is in line to back him up. He did as well as could be expected in 24 games with the big club last season and has an opportunity to get a share of the starts in a condensed season, so long as he plays at a serviceable level.

Matt Murray will be leaned on to carry the load – ideally while playing at a high level, though I think even that is optional in the eyes of management given the stage the team is at in their rebuild. An injury to him would make an already-challenging season that much worse.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ottawa was dead last in the league on the power play last season, and fourth last on the PK. I’m expecting more of the same or worse, though I have some small hope that a #1 power play with Tkachuk, Dadonov and Chabot finds a way to improve, especially if Galchenyuk finds a way to replicate his past success as a trigger man at the top of the circle, but that is a huge if.

UNDER THE RADAR

Really tough to choose an under the radar player who’s success could make a big difference when you’re looking at a team with a next to zero percent chance of making the playoffs, countless players in significantly larger roles than they’re best suited for, and a high number of roster spots that are up for grabs.

Matt Murray makes the most sense, because a return to form would mean a few more wins for the team. He’s not exactly “under the radar”, but given his struggles last year, his signing did come and go without a ton of notice paid to it.

CAMP SURPRISE

This is similarly tough to choose due to the number of roster spots available and the fact that this not a good team. Short of selecting someone I don’t genuinely believe has a chance, my hands are kinda tied here, so I’m going to pass on this one.

To elaborate on that a bit, it’s not going to be particularly surprising if any of the guys competing for a spot get one, because some of the guys who win out are likely going to be sub-NHL caliber players to begin with.

CONCLUSION

I’m not big on stating opinion as fact, but Ottawa is finishing last in this division and I will eat my own face if they don’t. I encourage any of the seven people who read this to hold me to it.

That being said, they’ll have more of their up-and-coming talent on the roster than last year and they’ll have a potentially elite goalie in net, so I think there’s a good chance this year will be more fun to watch than last, particularly for fans with a keen eye on the future.

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