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Know your Enemy: The Ottawa Senators

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Are they still the biggest joke north of Arizona?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Ottawa Senators Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

We already know the Ottawa Senators because we play them too much in a normal year, and the last thing we need is nine games in four months to get really, really acquainted. Tough. We’re getting it.

We think we know them, that is. No team in the North division made as many changes in the offseason, and no one has as many prospects to promote as the Ottawa Senators. Who are they really this year?

Ottawa’s 2020

It got them a lot of really hot draft picks. That’s really all that needs to be said.

Ottawa’s Offseason

Ottawa is a meme to most people, not a real team. So much so that, when they make a good deal, everyone yells, “LOL SNES” and checks the dollar amounts. So before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: The Ottawa Senators are poor. They’re not broke, not quite, and those two things are very different. Broke is easier to fix. It’s a reality of NHL fans in Canada that laughing at poor teams for being poor is part of the game.

The trick to being poor is to be smarter than the rich people, and sometimes you have to look hard for signs of smarts in poor teams. The Arizona Coyotes have shown a few this offseason, and failed hard a few other times. The Florida Panthers... well, let’s save that for next year when we’re back in their division, but we likely won’t enjoy playing them as much as we used to.

The Ottawa Senators did some very smart things this offseason, some things that make you tilt your head and say, “why, though,” and a few that were gambles that might explode in their faces. Or not. That’s the trouble with rolling the dice on a goalies. If you win, you look very clever, and if you lose you have to brazen it out with a lot of egg dripping off your chin.

The first thing the Senators did after everyone else stopped playing hockey was get Matt Murray and sign him to a four-year deal. The term is smart on this deal, since Murray is 26 and not a young prospect anymore. The cost is high-end starter at $6.25 million, and the gamble is that Pittsburgh is wrong about Murray, and he can carry Ottawa for a season or two, and then be their elite starter when they get good. This is their Frederik Andersen deal, and it’s similar in scope and cost (given some inflation) and it will work for them just like Andersen does for the Leafs, or it won’t.

I said I didn’t want Matt Murray instead of whoever the Leafs find to replace Andersen, so I’m betting won’t, but for this year, chances are really high he’s better than what they had last year.

With him in place, Pierre Dorion (The fanfic that Eugene Melnyk runs the team is not actually true. He’s busy with his blog.) set about doing something about the worst forward corps in the NHL not in Detroit.

The first big add was a shock, frankly. Evgeni Dadonov, was signed for a decent 3-year, $5 million contract, and he had more points in Florida last year than any Ottawa player. He’s yet another winger when they already have Brady Tkachuk, but he’s very good. With a good centre, Dadonov can look elite. At the time of the signing, their 1C was Chris Tierney or Artem Anisimov, take your pick.

The next big splash Ottawa made was signing Alex Galchenyuk to a cheap show-me deal, the sort of thing a rebuilding team with masses of cap space should be doing. Suddenly, Ottawa was spending money like never before. They are being careful with the dollars, and a few days ago I mocked Jim Benning for not doing that, so I’d be a hypocrite for mocking Dorion now. It’s a bit of a surprise to see Benning shown up by Dorion, but so far, so sensible from the Sens.

In mid-November, they added face-puncher (one of the last few) Micheal Haley and then idled along without a better centre until it seemed like they were standing pat. They did not.

In the Boxing Day sales, the Senators got Derek Stepan, who instantly became their best centre, and Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette. They shed their LTIR contracts in that second deal, one of which wasn’t insured, so that freed up some dollars to make the earlier deals easier for them to pay for. They’d already freed up some cash to some extent by buying out Bobby Ryan.

Oh, and then they signed Tim Stuetzle, Egor Sokolov and Ridley Grieg, three of their drafted prospects. Their fifth overall defenceman is an NCAA guy, so they’re holding him in reserve for the future.

Ottawa’s 2021

Where does that leave this team? That, as the saying goes, is a very good question, because it largely depends on which prospects get played and how much.

With a full roster and enough waivers-exempt youngsters to fill three Taxi Squads, they have too many choices. And $10 million in cap space.

They are extremely weak down the middle. While Stuetzle is wowing everyone by hoisting Germany on his shoulders at the WJC, the NHL is not the WJC. He’s going to be good, but not many people expect him to be first-season Auston Matthews good.

They are a one-man show on defence, but he’s a hell of a man. Thomas Chabot is also going to be very very good while he plays with a collection of some of the worst defenders in the NHL. Adding Brydon Coburn almost doesn’t make the Senators worse, they were already so weak.

And then there’s Murray, the man who really gets to decide how bad the Senators are.

They aren’t a playoff team, although weird things happen in a short season, and the North Division has a tightly packed middle class. The season being so weird that Ottawa makes the playoffs is unlikely, but they took a big step up from last year’s roster quality, so they aren’t abjectly horrible. It might turn out to be an invisible improvement since the divisional alignment yanks Detroit out from under them, however.

The Senators will annoy, they will win some games playing D.J. Smith’s simple game that suits those dreadful defenders, and they might shed a lot fewer good players at the deadline than everyone expects.