Are the Senators heading down a familiar road of disappointment?
The Ottawa Senators are heading down a familiar path at the start of the 2021/22 NHL season after making a poor start to the campaign. D.J Smith’s men ranked bottom of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference after the opening 15 games of the term, ramping up the pressure on the head coach and general manager Pierre Dorion.
Ottawa have developed a young team since Smith began life on the sideline in 2019. The Senators have endured two seasons of struggle under the 44-year-old, although the belief was that the franchise would gradually improve due to the potential of their roster. However, it has not come to fruition and Senators are on course to miss the post-season for the fifth season on the bounce.
Smith’s contract expires at the end of the 2021/22 campaign. The head coach knows that unless his team display a dramatic improvement, then his tenure at the Senators will likely be at an end. Ottawa cannot afford to continue to dwell outside of the playoffs, especially given the talent at their disposal. Unfortunately for Smith, his team have fallen into the same trap as last term and it will take something special for them to break out of their cycle of underachievement.
In the 2020/21 campaign, the NHL was realigned into different divisions from the norm. The Senators were placed in the North Division alongside the other six Canadian franchises. They made the perfect start to the season with a brilliant 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at home.
The Senators and Smith would have hoped to use the victory to make a strong surge to send out a statement that the franchise were back to their best. It was not the case. Ottawa would endure a nine-match winless run, losing eight of the contests, before snapping their streak against the Montreal Canadiens on the road. A further four defeats in a row would follow before a minor recovery, but the damage was already done in their hopes to compete in the North Division amongst the elite.
— Sens Communications (@Media_Sens) October 15, 2021
Now re-aligned back into the NHL Atlantic Division, the Senators have faced the same issues. Once again, Ottawa made a bright start to their opening game of the campaign when they defeated the Maple Leafs, edging out their rivals by a 3-2 margin courtesy of goals from Tyler Ennis, Chris Tierney and Alex Formenton. The star of the show was Anton Forsberg, who continually denied Toronto by making 46 saves over the course of the game.
There was belief that that the Senators could build on their performance. Even though they dropped the return game against the Maple Leafs on the road, Smith’s men responded with a victory over the Dallas Stars. However, the lingering issues with consistency emerged once more, losing nine of their next 12 games. It has put them well and truly behind the eight ball in their bid to return to the playoffs.
Can Ottawa Resolve Their Issues?
The Senators have a massive challenge ahead of them to rectify their problems on the ice. It is highlighted by the fact that you can find NHL odds of 151.00 provided by Betway for the franchise to win the Eastern Conference, the biggest price for any of the 16 teams available.
Smith has issues at both ends of the ice. The Senators’ goaltenders Matt Murray, Filip Gustavsson and Forsberg have produced solid performances, but none of their options have managed to prevent their side slipping to narrow defeats. The defence are not stout enough to keep opposing offences in check, while the Senators' own forward line has been lacking a cutting edge outside of Drake Batherson.
Ottawa have had trouble keeping their roster intact in the early stages of the campaign for a myriad of reasons. It has effected cohesion on the ice. The Senators are still playing for their head coach and there has been no evidence that the team are lacking effort. However, they are losing the key battles in the crucial moments of games. This was evident in their close defeats to the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins.
Although Smith can claim moral victories for a young team, the only way they will be able to build confidence is by stringing together wins and by pushing themselves up the standings. There is an abundance of talent on the roster such Batherson, Josh Norris, Tierney, Formenton, Connor Brown and of course the outstanding Brady Tkachuk, who commited his long-term future to the team. However, they are not living up to the billing at the moment.
There are examples of elsewhere in sport where the process of putting faith in a young core paid off with deep runs to the post-season, notably the Philadelphia 76ers and the Cleveland Browns in the NBA and NFL respectively. On the other hand, neither of those sides have won a championship in the aftermath of their rebuild. It proves the case that a winning mentality must be cultivated sooner rather than later for the Senators.