NHL·Analysis

Ottawa Senators poised to spend season in NHL basement, here's why

The fall from promise to unpleasant was swift after the Ottawa Senators reached the 2016-17 East final. At least they own their first-round pick this season.

Ottawa lacks front-end talent after trades of Karlsson, Duchene, Stone in past year

Freshly minted Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith has a tall task ahead of him bringing the franchise back into Stanley Cup contention. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

To prepare you for the opening of NHL training camps in mid-September, CBC Sports will do a deep dive on one of the seven Canadian-based clubs every Thursday. The Ottawa Senators are examined in the sixth installment.

Click here to read about the Montreal CanadiensWinnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Vancouver Canucks.

The Ottawa Senators traded one of the best defencemen in the league in Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks a little more than a year ago. Even though Mark Stone and Matt Duchene remained, predictions immediately rained down the Senators would finish in the basement.

Those forecasts were on the money. One massive problem, however — Ottawa didn't own its first-round selection. It was dealt away to acquire Duchene in Nov. 2017. Yes, the fall from promise to unpleasant was swift after the Senators reached the 2016-17 East final.

The late Bryan Murray had left incoming general manager Pierre Dorion Jr. with a sound roster three summers ago. But now after two playoff-less seasons, the Senators face a steep climb back to contention.

Dorion enters his fourth season as Ottawa's GM. He fired the coach he hired back in May 2016, Guy Boucher, last March. A 7-10-1 finish wasn't good enough for Dorion to keep around interim bench boss Marc Crawford.

New head coach D.J. Smith was brought in to navigate the choppy waters, mostly caused by owner Eugene Melnyk's miserly ways.

The 42-year-old rookie NHL head coach has a proven track record working with young players. And after the Duchene and Stone trade-deadline departures, that's precisely what's left.

Smith was an assistant coach when the Windsor Spitfires won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and won the prized junior trophy again as head coach of the 2014-15 Oshawa Generals. He spent the last four seasons on Mike Babcock's staff with the rival Toronto Maple Leafs.

In Ottawa, Smith will have some familiar faces in his lineup. Former Maple Leafs Tyler Ennis, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey all joined the Senators this summer, too.

WATCH | Dorion: Smith has all the makings of a successful head coach:

The Ottawa Senators have hired D.J. Smith, formerly assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the team's new head coach. 1:12

Smith also has a trio of bonafide young standouts in blueliner Thomas Chabot as well as forwards Brady Tkachuk and Colin White. Blue-chip prospects Drake Batherson and Erik Brannstrom, acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights for Stone, will make a strong pushes for roster spots. Brannstrom turns 20 on Monday.

The Senators' prospect talent pool is deep. But players like 2019 first-round selection Lassi Thomson, used with the pick acquired in the Duchene trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, are a few years away. Thomson will skate in Finland this season after playing junior with the Kelowna Rockets last year.

The Senators will be a young, energetic and hard-working team under Smith and his staff of Jack Capuano, Davis Payne and Bob Jones.

But there is a massive void in the makeup of this roster. As mentioned, the Senators have a good core of young players. They also have a solid mix of middle-six players with Chris Tierney, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Brown.

But there are no front-line veteran players. Hainsey, Ennis, and Artem Anisimov are on the back nine of their careers, and closer to the 18th hole than the 10th.

The goaltending tandem is mediocre with 41-year-old Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson. The latter has never won more than the 11 games he did last season. Anderson has struggled to find a consistent level since his brilliant playoff run in 2017.

Does all this mean the Senators will be battling it out for the basement once again this season? Probably. But the better news is at least they possess their first-round pick this time.

About the Author

Tim has covered the hockey landscape and other sports in Canada for more than 25 years for CBC Sports, the Globe and Mail and Toronto Sun. He has been to three Winter Olympics, 11 Stanley Cups, a world championship as well as 17 world junior championships, 13 Memorial Cups and 13 University Cups. The native of Waterloo, Ont., always has his eye out for an underdog story.

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