Look, we all had a basic idea of how things were going to go for the Ottawa Senators this season. From the moment the trigger was pulled on the trade that sent Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks to the bizarre and still-puzzling sit-down chat featuring Mark Borowiecki and owner Eugene Melnyk, the Senators appeared primed for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season.
In a way, though, that’s what has made Ottawa fun to watch through the first two weeks of the 2018-19 campaign. Even though it’s only been six games, over which the Senators have posted a 3-2-1 record, they’ve already somewhat defied expectations and there has been a few noteworthy glimmers of hope. Of note, trade acquisitions Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo have done their part since coming over from the Sharks, while Matt Duchene, Zack Smith and Mikkel Boedker, also acquired from San Jose in a separate trade, have added some veteran scoring.
The greatest source of hope, however, has come from the youth. Thomas Chabot has shown early signs of becoming the high-scoring blueliner he was drafted to become. Freshman Maxime Lajoie has been a minor revelation on the back end. Rookie Alex Formenton has flashed some serious wheels, too. But it’s Brady Tkachuk, especially, who has had an inspiring start to the season.
Forced to miss the first two games of the season due to a groin injury, Tkachuk, drafted fourth overall mere months ago, got into his first game early last week against the Boston Bruins and has since proceeded to score three goals and six points in four games. Tkachuk, 19, has been as advertised, too. Scrappy and skilled, he was looking every bit a possible Calder Trophy candidate as we work our way through the opening month of the season, and, at the very least, Tkachuk was giving fans reason to tune in to watch the Senators.
But just when we were just about to forget, we got a harsh reminder Wednesday that this is indeed Ottawa, where just about anything and everything has gone wrong from the moment Chris Kunitz fired home a double-overtime winner to send the Senators packing from the 2017 Eastern Conference final. That reminder came in the form of Guy Boucher announcing that Tkachuk, fresh off of a one-goal, five-shot performance on Monday against the Dallas Stars, will be sidelined for at least one month with a torn ligament in his leg.
To put into context what kind of loss Tkachuk represents for the Senators, consider that of players who have skated in at least four games, he ranks second in Corsi for percentage (54.1), first in shots for percentage (63.8), first in goals for percentage (83.3), first in scoring chances for percentage (58.2) and first in high-danger chances for percentage (66.7), all at five-a-side. Better yet, he’s managing all of that without truly sheltered minutes. He’s starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone and ranks middle of the pack among forwards with a 41.4 percent offensive-zone start percentage.
Suffice to say, Tkachuk’s injury would be awful on its own. As if losing arguably the most promising young piece of the team isn’t enough, though, the injury bug has already taken a big bite out of the Senators. Beyond Tkachuk’s injury, the Sens are also without Formenton (concussion), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Achilles), Marian Gaborik (back), Ryan Dzingel (lower body) and Cody Ceci (upper body). And for Senators fans who need a reason to make that ball they’re curled up into even tighter, the team’s AHL options are also limited by injuries to Filip Chlapik (ankle) and Logan Brown (lower body), both of whom would have been near-automatic call-ups given how full the Senators’ infirmary is.
So, where does Ottawa go from here? There’s no good answer, really. Another two days off before the next outing, a Saturday meeting against the visiting Montreal Canadiens, means the ailing Senators will have some additional time to nurse their injuries, but there’s no guarantee any of those currently sidelined will be ready to play, not to mention play effectively, by the weekend. That’s an awfully sad, awfully thin silver lining. More likely is that Ottawa is going to have to rely more heavily on what pieces they do have.
That means Ottawa will ask for more out of Mark Stone — who, just to put an even bigger scare into Senators fans, wasn’t practicing on Wednesday — and hope that the likes of Duchene, Tierney, Smith and Bobby Ryan can continue to find the scoresheet. The Senators will also lean harder than ever on Craig Anderson, who is displaying more of that every-second-year magic that has somehow followed him throughout his career. (Seriously, go peruse his numbers if you haven’t. It’s a mystifying phenomenon.) Anderson is clipping along to start the season despite getting peppered behind a leaky Ottawa defense, turning aside 184 of the league-topping 199 shots he’s faced through five games. That’s good for a healthy .925 save percentage.
The reality is, though, that Tkachuk’s injury could very well end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Through the first two weeks of the season, Ottawa has been able to hang tough despite relying on a high shooting percentage and Anderson’s stellar play to win games. But with the injuries piling up and their young star sidelined until mid-November, chances are the Senators will wind up right where we expected them to be by the time Tkachuk is ready to return.