Ottawa Senators Logo with Ice Background

The 2019-20 was another disappointing season for the Ottawa Senators, but it certainly appears as if better times are ahead.

Only the Detroit Red Wings finished the season with a lower winning percentage than that of the Senators while the club once again struggled at both ends of the ice. Rookie head coach D.J. Smith seemingly got the most out of a roster largely devoid of NHL talent, and he certainly has the team’s ears inside that locker room.

Despite the Ottawa faithful’s extreme disappointment with the recent departure of star-caliber players such as Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, you have to tip your cap to general manager Pierre Dorion at this point.

The Sens used the bundle of picks and assets acquired in those deals to build on of the top farm systems in all of hockey. The team recently held the third and fifth overall picks in the 2020 draft, notching German winger/center Tim Stutzle with the former and promising American defender Jake Sanderson with the latter.

Not only that, but the Senators have used their ample cap space to add impact NHL talents such as former Panthers winger Evgeni Dadonov, currently the top-paid forward at just $5M a season as well as Alex Galchenyuk, Austin Watson, Erik Gudbranson and Josh Brown to supplement a young, inexperienced group with some experienced NHL players.

That’s not to mention a brand new netminder in former Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Murray, a goaltender with plenty of postseason experience and likely in need of a change of scenery after some recent regressed work in between the Penguins’ pipes.

With all that said, let’s take a look at the 2020-21 version of the Ottawa Senators, their season outlook and odds as well as some predictions on how this season should shake out in Canada’s capital.

*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary cap figures courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

2020-21 Ottawa Senators Season Preview & Odds

  • Last Season: 25-34-12 (7th in Atlantic Division)
  • Key Additions: LW/RW Evgeni Dadonov, C/LW/RW Alex Galchenyuk, RW Austin Watson, D Erik Gudbranson, D Josh Brown
  • Projected Salary Cap Space: $12,502,501
  • 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +8100
  • 2021 Eastern Conference Odds: +3300

Offense

The Sens’ offense was a low point again in the 2020-21 campaign, although not at the bottom of the league at a share of 24th alongside the New Jersey Devils while averaging 2.68 goals per game.

Certainly, the power play didn’t help. The Sens’ man advantage was the worst in the business a season ago where they ranked dead-last with a 14.2 % clip despite drawing a health 211 power play opportunities.

The offensive catalyst for the Sens was their top pick in the 2018 draft in Brady Tkachuk who has tallied 45 and 44 points in his first two seasons in the league, but it appears Tkachuk will have some additional help this time around.

Incoming is Evgeni Dadonov, easily the Sens’ top offseason acquisition. The Russian winger spent the previous three seasons with the high-octane offense of the Florida Panthers, scoring at least 25 goals in each of those seasons with that low coming in the shortened 2019-20 campaign. Previously, Dadonov had rattled off back-to-back 28-goal seasons, and while that type of production can’t be expected now that he’s no longer playing alongside all-world pivot Aleksander Barkov, Dadonov has the scoring touch that can help the Sens’ offense both at even strength and on the Sens’ anemic power play unit.

It’s not a terrible gamble for the Sens to take a chance on a player like Galchenyuk who has bounced around after the Canadiens traded him to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Max Domi. Galchenyuk split the 2019-20 season between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild, and the Sens hopped on the opportunity to sign the former third-overall pick to a cheap deal barely over the $1M mark in the hope he can get his career turned around with an increased opportunity with a growing Senators offense.

As for Watson, the gritty right winger can be a difference-maker at his best. The 28-year-old has scored as many as 14 goals in a single season in his career, and while he’s scored 13 goals in the ensuing 90 games since that breakout 2017-18 season, he brings additional elements that can help out a developing Ottawa squad. His ability to get to the dirty areas of the ice, physical presence, leadership qualities and postseason experience could have the former London Knights revive his career with the rebuilding Senators.

Where the offense goes from here remains to be seen. The problem on this writer’s part is the depth down the middle where the likes of Josh Norris, Colin White, Logan Brown and Artem Anisimov are projected to handle the center-ice reps.

Quality NHL offenses are built down the middle, and the Sens completely lack a No.1 or even No.2 center at this point. The likes of Norris, White and Brown certainly have upside, but to rely on them to keep up with the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Barkov and even Dylan Larkin in Detroit is quite a stretch. The upside is there, but it appears the scoring in Ottawa is on the flanks more than it is down the middle, and that hasn’t been a recipe for success in the NHL.

Defense

Smith had his team defending quite well in the early going to the point where I was taking them as heavy dogs against some quality offenses. However, as the season went along, the Sens’ ability to keep up with the remainder of the league diminished to the point where they finished near the bottom of the league once again.

It’s not unexpected for a developing blueline, however the Sens once again finished near the bottom of the league at 30th while yielding 3.35 goals per game on the campaign. Only the Red Wings were worse – albeit by a long shot – with their 3.73 goals against per game.

Again, specials teams didn’t help. The Sens tied for 28th with a 76.1% penalty kill last season, lacking the ability both up front and on the back end to form a formidable unit.

The defensive corps the Sens will roll out in the 2020-21 season is notably different than the unit the team finished with at the end of last season. Out is veteran Mark Borowiecki and Dylan Demelo who the club dealt to the Winnipeg Jets prior to the 2020 trade deadline.

It appears that prospect Erik Brannstrom will now get a full-time role after disappointing in his first extended taste of NHL action. Brannstrom received an opportunity to crack the big club in the 2019-20 season, but tallied just four points – all assists – across his 31 games. After being sent down to the AHL’s Belleville Senators, Brannstrom thrived in notching three goals and 23 points across 27 contests in the minors. Of course, it’s not unusual for a 20-year-old defenseman (at the time) to scuffle in his first tour of duty in the big leagues, and by all accounts Brannstrom is an elite defensive prospect after the Sens acquired him from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Mark Stone trade. Vegas had previously drafted him with the 15th pick of the 2017 draft.

Brown comes from the Florida Panthers and certainly serves as a defensive-first asset with some grit the Sens could certainly use in their top six. Similarly, Gudbranson, now a journeyman at 28 after the Panthers took him third overall in the 2010 draft, will add size, grit, toughness and leadership to a youthful Senators roster in need of those types of assets.

Although it’s a re-tooled back end, the Senators will be looking for improved defensive results to be sure. They certainly deserved their near bottom-barrel defensive fate last season after ranking 26th in terms of scoring chances against and 25th in terms of high-danger chances against in 2019-20.

Perhaps some thump on the back end with Brown and Gudbranson along with the elite defenseman that already is Thomas Chabot and his league-leading 26 minutes-per-game played from a season ago and perhaps the Senators have the upside to improve on the back end after all.

Goaltending

There’s certainly a changing of the guard in the Senators’ crease moving forward.

Veteran Craig Anderson put in 10 quality seasons with the franchise through thick and thin, but the 39-year-old is now a free agent and could entire the retirement phase of his life after a well-earned 648 regular-season game tenure in the best hockey league in the world.

Now the crease belongs to Matt Murray, the former two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Since entering the league in the 2015-16 season, Murray has posted a 2.67 GAA and .914 Sv% across 199 career regular-season appearances. However, the Sens will certainly be looking for the earlier version of Murray than what we’ve seen in recent seasons.

Murray worked to a 2.00 GAA and .930 Sv% in 13 regular-season games after his debut and went on to lead the Pens to a Stanley Cup in part thanks to his 2.08 GAA and .923 Sv% in 21 postseason contests. The following season, the now-26-year-old posted a 2.41 GAA and .923 Sv% in 49 regular-season appearances followed by a 1.70 GAA and .937 Sv% while spelling Marc-Andre Fleury en route to his second Stanley Cup victory in as many years in the league.

The years since haven’t been as kind. He’s still just 26, but Murray was on the trade block due to being outplayed by Tristan Jarry in the Penguins’ crease as he worked to a 2.87 GAA and .899 Sv% in 38 appearances a season ago. He was a quality netminder the season before, but a mediocre one in 2017-18 when he turned in a 2.92 GAA and .907 Sv% in 49 games played.

All that being said, Murray has the keys to the Senators’ crease after the team acquired him for only a 52nd overall pick and prospect John Gruden at this year’s draft.

Now, Anders Nilsson remains and he’s had some success in the past. By some, I mean from the 2018-19 and 2016-17 seasons in which he put forth some numbers that amplified his status as a potential No.1, especially at 6-foot-6 and 230 lbs.

However, the timeshare is going to be strictly in Murray’s favor this season, and while Nilsson’s services will be required in what can be expected to be a condensed regular-season schedule, Murray’s hefty four-year, $25M contract upon arriving in Ottawa, especially given his recent subpar work, clearly indicates he’s the man moving forward and with Nilsson hitting the UFA market at the end of the season, it’s a certainty.

At the end of the day, the Senators will be looking for a substantial improvement on the .900 Sv% from their received from their goaltenders last season.

2020-21 Ottawa Senators Predictions

There appears to be a ton of upside in this franchise.

For as angry as the Senators’ fan base was when the stars of yesterday were dealt for future assets, it appears the cooler heads in the Senators’ front office have prevailed as the team boasts some serious upside in their prospect crop.

As far as next season goes? It’s going to be tough sledding.

In my humble opinion, the Eastern Conference is a monster when compared to the west. Surely I’ve been wrong before, but it appears the east is far deeper than the west, and it’s not even close.

The Red Wings and Devils won’t compete in the east next season, and unfortunately the Senators will join that group again in 2020-21. To me, those are the one sure-fire clubs that won’t compete in the east compared to the likes of the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks in the west.

I’ve done more than half of the league in these season preview pieces, and I’ve come down to the conclusion that there will be 13 teams competing for eight postseason spots in the east. Those teams include, in no particular order, the Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Bruins, Lighting , Maple Leafs, Islanders, Rangers, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Canadiens and Sabres and Panthers. It’s just too difficult to make a run in the east this season.

There is very little doubt the future is bright. Dorion has flat-out done a wonderful job despite being rag-dolled through the media and fans alike for trading players who weren’t going to be long-term Senators anyways. I get it, rebuilding is hard on fans, but for the ones that were willing to be patient, you’re probably happier now than you were two seasons ago.

Needless to say, this Senators team will miss the postseason again in the 2020-21 campaign. They probably will again next season, and maybe the year after. The long-term future is bright, but the immediate-term Senators are playing golf early again in 2021.