Can the Senators use youth to return to NHL playoffs?

D.J Smith endured an underwhelming first season in charge of the Ottawa Senators, although it was an improvement on the previous campaign when the franchise finished bottom of the NHL standings. Smith was hired as the permanent replacement to Guy Boucher, who endured a tumultuous time in Ottawa.

In Boucher's first season, the Senators were one game away from reaching the Stanley Cup, only to fall to an excruciating double overtime defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ottawa collapsed in their second term under Boucher and was trending in the same direction in his third year. Despite his past achievements, Boucher was fired in 2019. Smith served as an assistant under Mike Babcock at the Toronto Maple Leafs for four years, and was handed the task of negotiating a rebuilding period with the Senators.

The 43-year-old experienced a somewhat turbulent time with the Senators in the 2019/20 campaign. Their form at the Canadian Tire Centre was solid with an 18–13–6 record – a marked improvement on the previous season. However, there is still plenty of work ahead of Smith to guide the Senators back to relevance in the Eastern Conference, especially with their performances on the road.

Ottawa has cultivated a young team with only three players over the age of 30 in the ranks for the 2020/21 season. There is ample room for growth and it will be fascinating to see whether those young players can provide a spark to allow the franchise to return to the post-season for the first time in four years.

Putting Faith in Youth

The Senators are certainly putting their faith in youth, although it is not reflected well in their odds provided by Betway being backed at +7000 as of 2nd December to win the Stanley Cup. Brady Tkachuk is the most integral player in the future of the franchise. The 21-year-old has been nothing short of outstanding in his first two seasons in Ottawa. In his debut campaign, Tkachuk scored 22 goals and collected 23 assists, being named to the All-Rookie Team in the process.

The left wing refined areas of his game last season and became more of a presence on the ice. He was still extremely productive, notching a further 21 goals and 23 assists. The quality of his performances was noted and Tkachuk was named as a 2020 All-Star. Smith will be looking to build the team around the left wing, and excitingly for the franchise, the American is just scratching the surface of his potential.

Unfortunately for Ottawa and Smith, they may lose their other All-Star from 2020 after Anthony Duclair turned down their offer of a new deal. Duclair enjoyed the best season of his career under Smith's tenure after bouncing around the league. However, after opting to represent himself, he and the franchise could not strike a deal. It remains to be seen at the time of writing where the wing will land for the new campaign.

Connor Brown enjoyed an excellent first season in Ottawa, and there will be hope that he can progress in his second term under Smith. Brown was an All-Star in the 2015 AHL season and displayed great pedigree in four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs before his trade move to the Senators. At the age of 26, there is plenty of scope for him to become a star in the NHL.

How Can The Senators Improve?

Ottawa has talent in the final third, but those players have to become more consistent. Only three teams in the Eastern Conference scored fewer goals than Smith's men last season. The trade of Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the New York Islanders will make life tougher on the Senators next season along with the exit of Duclair. The two players were the franchise's leading goalscorers last term, leaving a huge void to fill.

The development of Drake Batherson and Erik Brannstrom will be key to the Senators' hopes of returning to playoff contention next term. Batherson was limited to only 23 games last term, but he has excellent potential along with Brannstrom, although neither has proved it yet in the NHL. There are other developing talents, including Tim Stutzle, who was taken third overall in the 2020 Draft. However, those fledgling players will take time to come to fruition.

At the other end of the ice, only the Detroit Red Wings had a worse defensive record than the Senators in the league last season. Matt Murray was signed in a trade deal to attempt to resolve those issues. Murray was a two-time Stanley Cup champion between the sticks for the Penguins and has the talent to reach an All-Star level. Smith will be hoping that his presence is enough to drag Ottawa's goal difference back into the positive column rather than the minus 52 differential of last season.

The Senators are progressing in the right direction with their rebuild, and there is great hope that they could return to the post-season in 2021 with solid coaching and improving talent leading the charge.

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