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Ottawa Senators Defense Must Improve Very Soon

Adam Proteau says the Ottawa Senators can do what they want with coach D.J. Smith, but improving the defense corps should be the main focus.
Ottawa Senators

This past summer, the Ottawa Senators were lauded for adding two elite-level forwards in Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat. Sens GM Pierre Dorion also added a veteran when he traded for goalie Cam Talbot, and those three additions combined, along with Ottawa’s core of young talent, got some analysts (this one included) believing this could be the season the Senators broke their streak of five straight years without a playoff appearance.

However, after a four-game win streak at home in the first six games of the season, the Sens have struggled mightily. They’re currently on a six-game losing streak that’s dropped them to last place in the Atlantic Division with a 4-8-0 record, and there are no signs they’ve figured out what to do to reverse course. That has put coach D.J. Smith squarely on the hot seat, and he’s replaced Devils coach Lindy Ruff as the odds-on favorite to be the first bench boss fired this year. It doesn’t matter that Talbot missed the first 10 games of the year with a rib injury – the bottom line is that other teams also have been bitten by the injury bug, and many of them are in a much better position in the standings.

But even if Dorion decides to dismiss Smith and bring in a new head coach, Ottawa is still going to be plagued by one indisputable fact: their defense corps simply isn’t good enough to make the Senators a playoff team, and until that changes, the Sens will be on course to miss the post-season once again.

Ottawa still has nearly $3.3 million in salary cap space, but with due respect to DeBrincat and Giroux, Dorion probably should’ve allocated more money and assets to improve his defense. The Senators have generated a decent amount of offense – 42 goals, to be exact, which is more than Toronto (40), Detroit (39), and Montreal (37) have amassed thus far. But their goals-against total of 44 is the worst in the Atlantic, and the second-worst in the Eastern Conference (Columbus, with 54 goals-against, is the worst in the East). Some of that falls at the feet of their goaltending, but even with Talbot returning to action Saturday, the Sens allowed eight goals in two games with him between the pipes, including a 6-4 defeat to the almost equally-terrible Vancouver Canucks Tuesday in Ottawa.

The Senators have been one of many teams linked to Arizona Coyotes blueliner Jakob Chychrun, but the 'Yotes asking price has been too high to have any deal consummated. Many believe that Arizona GM Bill Armstrong would want skilled-up-and-comer Shane Pinto involved in any deal for Chychrun, and while that would be an extremely high price to pay, the alternative – being a top-heavy lineup with no depth on the back end – seems to be a huge price to pay for not making that deal.

Teams are always loathing to make big trades when they’re in a place of weakness, which is where the Sens are right now. But before too long, the Senators’ crater of this season is going to be too big to climb out from. We all saw the Canucks bury themselves in the standings at the start of last season, and although they nearly got back into the playoff mix, there were simply too many teams ahead of them in the standings, and they failed to push their year beyond the end of the regular season. This is the trajectory Ottawa is on. Another couple of weeks of losses and they’ll be facing a long and ponderous rest of the 2022-23 campaign, which won’t help ticket sales at all.

Chychrun can’t be seen as the Sens’ savior, but he would instantly give Ottawa a boost in their own end. Can you put a value on that? Can you say there’s one young prospect who can’t be dealt under any circumstances, when it’s clear that the current group of D-men don’t have what it takes to make life easier on Talbot and tandem-mate Anton Forsberg? Something has to give, and it has to give on the blueline. Nikita Zaitsev is a passenger when he’s not a healthy scratch, and he's now on waivers. Nick Holden is 35 years old, and Travis Hamonic is 32. Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson are obviously keepers, but the dropoff in skill is drastic, and there’s no internal solution.

When an NHL team is on the verge of losing eight games in a row – almost 10 percent of their season – it’s natural for a GM to fire the coach. But even if Smith is let go, the Senators’ next five games are against teams that can beat them. Two games will come against the white-hot New Jersey Devils, one game will be against the Philadelphia Flyers squad that’s already beaten Ottawa once this year, and one game each will come against the improving New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres. By this time next week, the Sens could be on the verge of losing 11 games in a row.

If you think Ottawa has no leverage now, just wait to see how bad a spot they’ll be in by then. Smith may be gone, but opposing GMs will be licking their chops to see what they can get out of Dorion. And that’s where true desperation will set in, if it hasn’t already. 

The Sens had huge expectations this year, and now that they’ve been such a letdown, they need to salvage what’s left of the season. If that means dealing away a top draft pick or prospect, they have to take a long, hard look at it. The status quo cannot be an option for them any longer. We’ve had a good look at what ails them, and they’re not going to address that area of their game without giving up something worthwhile from another element of it.

All things considered, DeBrincat and Giroux have delivered on offense, although the former is piling up assists while he deals with his 3.8 shooting percentage this season. But until their defensive woes are addressed, all the offense the team can muster won’t be good enough to put them back on track. Defense must be their focus for the time being, and until there’s a significant improvement in that respect, the Senators will remain a bottom-feeder. 

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