OTTAWA — The Ottawa Senators are missing the playoffs for a sixth straight year, but unlike years past there’s a belief this will be the last time for the foreseeable future.
There’s good reason for that optimism.
The Senators posted their best record since the 2016-17 season, going 39-35-8 after losing the final game of the season to the Buffalo Sabres 4-3.
Despite numerous injuries and a disastrous month of November that saw them go 4-9-1, the Senators found themselves in the thick of a playoff race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
For players like captain Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, it was their first taste of meaningful games.
“I just don’t like being done in April anymore, pretty done with it,” admitted Tkachuk. “I think moving forward that won’t be the case. That’s the belief we have in the locker room, that next step is that we’re not going to be done in April anymore.”
Claude Giroux, who signed in the off-season, admitted he’s upset the season is over.
“It’s not a big frustration, it’s more a disappointment,” said Giroux. “I think we are a team that should be in the playoffs, which is why I’m a little frustrated, but in saying that I still think we did well.”
Like his players, Senators coach D.J. Smith believes this team is more than ready to take the next step.
“This group’s really ready to hold themselves accountable and push themselves to be playing at this time of year,” he said.
“This team has enough talent to be there now, now it’s going to be health and to just keep getting better and as these kids keep getting better you’re going to see this team’s going to continue to keep climbing the standings.”
Ottawa finished the season with six 20-goal scorers and saw Tim Stutzle post career highs in goals (39), assists (51) and points (90).
Stutzle is just one of four players aged 21 or younger to post 90 points or more in a season since 2013-14, joining Connor McDavid, Jack Hughes and Mitch Marner.
Tkachuk also had career-highs with 35 goals and 48 assists, while Giroux had a career-high 35 goals. It’s no surprise the trio spent much of the season playing together. Drake Batherson also posted career numbers (22 goals, 40 assists).
Heading into the off-season, Cam Talbot, Austin Watson, Derick Brassard, Travis Hamonic, Nick Holden and Patrick Brown are all set to become unrestricted free agents.
Hamonic has said he would like to stay in Ottawa and there’s no denying the important role he played in supporting Jake Sanderson during his rookie season. If the two sides can come to terms on a deal it would probably make sense to have a veteran, natural right-hand shot as a depth defenceman.
Brassard, who was signed on a professional tryout, proved to be a solid addition after Josh Norris suffered a long-term shoulder injury. Brassard’s season came to an end March 30 when he suffered a broken fibula, ruptured deltoid and high-ankle sprain.
The 35-year-old has to get through rehab, but said he won’t close any doors and would be open to returning.
Holden has been told he won’t be re-signed, but does still want to play and will look elsewhere. Watson has left the door open, but admitted that at 31 he’s looking for a multi-year deal and that might not be available in Ottawa.
Talbot fell short of expectations as he dealt with numerous injuries and was restricted to starting just 32 games, posting a 17-14-0 record.
“I wish I was able to do a little more,” admitted Talbot. “I just never was able to stay healthy enough to really make a big enough impact and looking back at the season I just wanted to come here and help this team make the playoffs.”
With both Talbot and Anton Forsberg sidelined, Mads Sogaard took advantage of the opportunity and proved he can play at the NHL level, posting an 8-6-3 record with a 3.32 goals-against-average.
“He is the goalie of the future,” said Smith of Sogaard. “He got forced into too many games with the injuries to the veterans.”
Talbot seemed resigned to the idea that he would be looking elsewhere for work next season, but definitely wants to play again.
The Senators used a franchise-record seven different goalies this season and have yet to find a solid tandem.
Alex DeBrincat, Shane Pinto, Dylan Gambrell, Julien Gauthier, Egor Sokolov and Erik Brannstrom are all restricted free agents.
In a radio interview earlier this week, Dorion said the team would give DeBrincat a qualifying offer, despite it needing to be US$9 million, which would make him the highest-paid player.
By all accounts DeBrincat didn’t sound like someone who’s ready to sign a long-term extension in Ottawa as he spoke about the challenges of making the adjustment to a new team, a new coach and a new city for him and his young family.
“I think that was something maybe I struggled with a little bit in the beginning of the year of where that middle ground was,” admitted DeBrincat. “Ups and downs is the best way I can describe it. I think I learned a lot this year and hopefully something that can make me better going on to next year.”
The other priorities will be Pinto and Brannstrom. The team will also likely want to start negotiations with Sanderson, who enters the final year of his entry-level deal next season.
Ottawa is expected to be a cap team, but with US$69 million already committed and an expected cap of $83.5 million, the Senators may need to be a little creative to get everyone under contract.
The question for new ownership coming in will be: who’s going to put this roster together, and who’s going to coach it?
Smith uttered the words, “if I’m back next year,” a half dozen times throughout his availability, clearly indicating he’s unsure of his future.
Decisions will need to be made and there’s been no timeline for when the change in ownership will take place.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2023.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press