Saturday, June 15, 2024

What went wrong with the Ottawa Senators in 2023-24?

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The Ottawa Senators looked like they were in the driver’s seat of the three up-and-coming Atlantic Division teams. Ottawa finally seemed ready to turn the corner as an exciting team on the rise.

And then the 2023-24 season happened.

The Senators aren’t only trailing the Red Wings and Sabres through 74 games but their 70 points and 33-37-4 record lands them second to last in the Atlantic Division, third to last in the Eastern Conference, and 26th overall in the league. Instead of competing for a playoff spot, Ottawa is in contention for a top draft pick.

So where did it all go wrong for the Senators this season? Let’s dig in and find out.

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Ottawa Senators 2023-24 season preview

What were the chances?

Every season has outliers relative to expectations and in a sport as volatile as hockey those outliers can end up 20 points or more away from what was projected of them. That’s the expectation: That at least one team doesn’t even come close to landing where they should have.

This season Ottawa was one of those teams. The Senators started the year expected to contend for a playoff spot with a 94-point projection. They’re currently expected to finish with 78 points, a shade higher than their current 77-point pace.

The chances of that happening were unlikely, but not impossible. Based on the preseason projections, two percent of Ottawa’s simulations fell around 75 points and six percent were around 80 points. There are bigger outliers this season, but in Ottawa’s case it was the difference between fighting for a playoff spot and fighting to stay out of the league’s bottom five. That’s a huge difference.

What’s the Big Answer?

Are the offseason additions enough to make Ottawa a playoff team?

At the time, it looked like Ottawa’s offseason additions could help push the Senators toward the playoffs, but not over the edge.

That could have changed if Vladimir Tarasenko capably replaced Alex DeBrincat’s offense, Dominik Kubalik added secondary scoring and Joonas Korpisalo proved his 2022-23 breakout was no fluke.

That’s not what happened and is a big reason why the Senators took an unexpected step back this season.

Tarasenko did his part, scoring at a near 60-point pace. While Ottawa’s power play tanked without DeBrincat, Tarasenko more than made up for it at five-on-five. Given what DeBrincat managed to do this season with Detroit, it was still a negative trade-off in player value. But Tarasenko was a more than adequate replacement based on what DeBrincat delivered as a Senator.

Tarasenko filling DeBrincat’s void looked a little dicey to start, but that ended up being the least of Ottawa’s concerns. The much larger issues were Kubalik and Korpisalo.

Kubalik was the NHL piece that Ottawa acquired from Detroit and to say he was a disappointment would be a massive understatement. We expected him to be a fine third-line player based on his 20-goal, 45-point season in Detroit. He instead ended up being one of the league’s worst players with a Net Rating of minus-12.4, two wins worse than expected. Scoring just 15 points in 68 games with dire underlying numbers will have that effect.

And he wasn’t even the biggest problem. That was Korpisalo whose 15.2 goals allowed above expected is the league’s worst mark this season. After last year, we expected him to be slightly above average, but it turns out we should’ve expected something a lot closer to his usual body of work. That was the risk with signing him and it turned out to be bang on with Korpisalo never coming close to replicating what he did last year. That’s another three wins off the mark.

From just Kubalik and Korpisalo struggling immensely, the Senators were 10 points worse than we thought — enough to place Ottawa right next to Detroit in the playoff race.

“Are the offseason additions enough to make Ottawa a playoff team?” No. The complete opposite, actually.

Which direction did the wild card land?

Can Jakob Chychrun live up to the hype?

The Senators had just 12 games of the Chychrun experience heading into the 2023-24 season. The defender was limited post-trade due to injury, and the reviews were anything but glowing when he was healthy. That made him the wild card for this team this season.

The good news for Ottawa surrounded Chychrun’s durability: He has played in 73 games this season after showing some injury concerns previously. The bad news? How much he struggled throughout those 73 games. The red flags that emerged in that initial 12-game stint last year became the reality for the Senators.

The Senators have lacked offensively in Chychrun’s minutes, with little scoring chance creation despite sharing minutes often with the team’s top forwards. That doesn’t fall solely on the defenseman considering how much their stars have underperformed. But dips in his puck movement in the offensive zone likely contribute to that, after setting up his teammates’ shots at a high rate last year. That seems to have weighed on his production, too, with his five-on-five scoring rate down 0.64 points per 60 from last year.

The real back-breaker has been his defensive play. It starts at the blue line, with Chychrun struggling to deny opponents’ entry this year which has led to more rush chances against in his minutes. Opponents pepper the Senators with dangerous shots from the slot in his minutes, and despite Chychrun retrieving pucks at a high rate, he isn’t helping push play out of his own zone. While he may not have a ton of support on his pair this season, this was an expected strength of his game. All of that has dragged down his Defensive Rating from zero to minus-5.8, which is the worst drop-off on the team.

At this point, it isn’t just that Chychrun hasn’t lived up to the hype in Ottawa, he outright hasn’t looked like a fit there at all.

Did they live up to their strengths?

Going into the season, Ottawa’s biggest strength was that it had Tim Stützle at the top of the lineup, a 22-year-old center coming off a 90-point season that had many expecting a jump to superstardom.

Progression isn’t always linear, though. Rather than taking the leap toward franchise status, Stützle took a sizable step back. He was expected to be a top-25 player in Offensive Rating this season at a projected plus-14. Through 72 games he’s only halfway there, good for 68th in the league. He’s dropped to below point per game with a much heavier emphasis on secondary assists and his ability to drive offense severely tapered off. Last season Stützle looked like a dynamic game-breaker every night. This year he’s been mostly forgettable.

It didn’t help matters that the Senators didn’t get back the capable second-line center behind Stützle that they were supposed to. The return of Josh Norris looked like a big deal on paper, but he only managed 50 games of action and looked nothing like his usual self in those games. He scored at a 49-point pace that was heavily driven by the power play and got lit up at five-on-five. The Senators earned just 42 percent of their goals with Norris on the ice this season.

That 1-2 punch down the middle was supposed to be the backbone of Ottawa’s offensive strength. Instead, it turned into a comparative weakness.

It was the same issue on the back end which seemed underrated at the time, but turned into another problem for Ottawa. While Jake Sanderson and Artem Zub flourished, the rest of the defense group crumbled — especially Thomas Chabot and Chychrun. Neither delivered the level of offense expected of them and both bled goals against on a nightly basis.

Sure, a lot of that has to do with playing in front of bad goaltending, but some of it was also on the level of chances allowed in secondary matchups. In that regard, Chabot’s season looks especially disappointing considering he played some of the easiest minutes on the team. The duo were expected to have a combined Net Rating of plus-12 and ended up at minus-3.5 instead.

Before the season it looked like Ottawa had a lot more high-end talent than usual, enough to be a playoff team. Unfortunately, a lot of those players just didn’t deliver as expected.

Were they overwhelmed by their weaknesses?

After holding the team back in 2022-23, defense was once again projected to be a weakness of the Senators.

It did not take long for defense to be an issue in Ottawa this season. The first half of the season was absolutely brutal and contributed to the decision to make a change behind the bench. There has been a slight uptick in scoring chance suppression since Jacques Martin took over, but this is still far from being a strength.

The Senators’ defensive woes are rooted in more than just their blue line. Even their high-end forwards have struggled back in their own zone, which is why we questioned whether they could outscore their problems this year. Unlike last season, Tkachuk managed to succeed at five-on-five with a plus-seven goal differential. But Stützle is still in the negatives, at a minus-6 goal differential.

As a whole, the roster was projected to have a collective Defensive Rating of minus-1. In reality, it sunk down to minus-18.9. That regression has been especially daunting for the Senators because their defensive lapses are much more glaring in front of their unstable goaltending.

Korpisalo was a risky signing for the Senators, especially on a deal with term. The question with Korpisalo was whether his career year, split between the Blue Jackets and Kings, was a reflection of his true ability considering the rest of his career to that point. Now, 48 appearances later and a league-high 13.9 goals allowed above expected later, that high point in 2022-23 looks like an aberration for Korpisalo the Senators are stuck paying for.

Ottawa hasn’t had much support behind their number one, either. Between Korpisalo, Anton Forsberg and Mads Sogaard, the Senators have allowed a league-high 27 more goals than expected based on their shot quality against. That’s a number even the best offensive teams would struggle to balance out, let alone one that has failed to deliver as much as the Senators have.

Word from the beat

This was yet another frustrating and underwhelming year in Ottawa. And once again, their season was derailed by a flat start. After vowing to change their habit of perpetually stumbling out of the gate, the Senators started the season with an 8-10-0 record in the first two months of the season. And that was a tumultuous time for the franchise, as they were dealing with a 41-game suspension for Shane Pinto as well as firing GM Pierre Dorion for his role in the club forfeiting a first-round pick in the Evgenii Dadonov trade fiasco. The start of Ottawa’s season was infused with drama, controversy and losing — hardly the optimistic start many envisioned under new owner Michael Andlauer.

After firing D.J. Smith in the middle of December — a move that came in the middle of a six-game losing streak — the club has shown glimpses of promise. But inconsistent goaltending and extended absences from players like Pinto, Chabot and Norris have exposed the lack of depth at the NHL level.

Ottawa was also submarined by poor special teams play this season. Both their power play (26th ranked) and penalty kill (30th ranked) have been among the league’s worst. Last season, Ottawa scored 72 power-play goals, which ranked second in the entire NHL. This season, they’ve managed to score only 44 power-play goals — a huge swing that can certainly help explain their struggles. — Ian Mendes

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The bottom line

The worst-case scenario came true for the Senators in another season of dysfunction and instability. Korpisalo turned into a pumpkin in the first year of his contract and the forward group fell way below playoff caliber. Chabot wilted in a leading role and a healthy Chychrun disappointed.

There are two positives to take from the season, though. Jake Sanderson has looked like the real deal before his eight-year extension kicks in. And Ottawa has fallen low enough in the standings to land a top-10 pick. That gives Steve Staios something to build off of in his first offseason with the team. Now the key is making progress forward without backsliding as much as the Senators have to keep ending up in this same position. 

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, NHL, All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Top photo: Jonathan Kozub / NHLI via Getty Images)

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