Few NHL teams manage to elude the adversity bug over the course of an 82-game hockey season. However, even fewer seem to have adversity woven into their DNA like the Ottawa Senators. At the best of times, there never seems to be a shortage. In recent years, the team has been plagued by major injuries, off-ice drama, and the ever cloudy situation around the LeBreton Flats relocation.
For a while, this year seemed to be different. After 29 games played, the Senators hold a surprisingly decent record of 12-14-3 for 27 points. Furthermore, they sit just five points away from a wild card position in the 2019 playoff race. Few predicted this would be the case, considering the team is in a major rebuild and has an average age of 26.7.
Matt Duchene and Bobby Ryan both suffered major injuries against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. Ryan exited first, after colliding with the shoulder of Brett Kulak in the first period. Meanwhile, Duchene appeared to tweak something in his lower body mid way through the second period. After appearing in some discomfort, he immediately headed down the Senators tunnel to the dressing room. Neither player returned.
The Senators went on to lose 5-2 against the Habs. Despite an exciting and competitive first period, the team became disjointed after both players made their exits. Ottawa failed to match the intensity brought on by their opponents. On multiple occasions, they looked very uncoordinated and disorganized. Their game became littered with puck mismanagement, including accidental giveaways and unnecessary turnovers.
Following the game, Senators head coach Guy Boucher did not provide an immediate update on the players’ status. “We’ll know in the next days”, he said.
On Saturday morning, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion announced the grim news: Duchene suffered a groin injury and has been placed on IR. He is expected to be week-to-week. Meanwhile, Ryan is out indefinitely after suffering a concussion. He too will be placed on IR but has no timetable for a return.
The loss of these two key players will pose a significant challenge for a young Senators team. Duchene and Ryan are veteran figures who generate offence and instill confidence in the younger players around them.
Duchene, 27, plays a major role on the team’s top line as their number one centre. He logs an average ice time of 19:11, and leads the team with 34 points (12G, 22A) in 29 games. To date, his production has been strong enough to rank him top 10 in the NHL scoring race. The native of Haliburton, Ontario is playing for a new deal. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. To underscore Duchene’s effectiveness this year, in 15 games last month, he recorded an astounding 22 points, including eight goals and 14 assists.
Ryan, on the other hand, has also been having one of his more productive seasons in some time. The 31-year-old has accumulated 18 points (6G, 12A) in 29 games while averaging 16:00 of ice time per night.
Filling The Voids
Filling these gapping voids in the Senators top two lines and on the power play will be a major challenge for Boucher.
There are no obvious or immediate replacements who appear ready or capable of taking on these two important roles. Boucher will need to promote from within the team’s roster, and turn to Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, the Belleville Senators, for help.
Although the injuries are unfortunate for Duchene and Ryan, it opens a great opportunity for other players to take their game to the next level. Ryan Dzingel, Mikkel Boedker, Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Colin White, are all prime candidates for breakthroughs.
As of Saturday morning, the Senators announced that Max Lajoie and Max McCormick will both return to the Senators line-up for the Saturday night match-up against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team has also recalled Nick Paul from Belleville. Other AHL players who may get looks include Jack Rodewald, Rudolfs Balcers, and Paul Carey, who are amongst Belleville’s leading offensive contributors this season.
2019 NHL Draft Implications
Moving forward, the Senators will have to respond much better to their new reality without Duchene and Ryan than they did against Montreal. Otherwise, the Sens could be in for a very rough stretch of hockey.
The Senators misfortunes must be music to the Colorado Avalanche and their general manager, Joe Sakic. The Avs possess Ottawa’s 2019 first-round pick, which they acquired last season in the Duchene trade. This pick could easily become at least a top-five pick by seasons’ end if the Sens fail to play well. In a draft that is highlighted by franchise prospect Jack Hughes, the Avs have every reason to be excited.
Unfortunately for the Senators, the timing of these injuries could not be much worse. The Hughes chatter will only get louder as the hockey world turns its attention to the annual 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship. It starts Dec. 26, 2018 and runs until Jan. 5, 2019 in the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. In this tournament, the heavily hyped 17-year-old standout will be a centrepiece on Team USA, attracting many eyes and stirring a lot of conversation.
To date, the Senators have surprised many by playing competitive hockey with Duchene and Ryan. Time will tell how the team responds without these two players for the foreseeable future. Perhaps with all this exposure to adversity, the young Senators can become masters of it. Could it end up forging the young core together? Ottawa fans can only hope, as Colorado fans hope not.
Cover Photo Credit: Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Billy Morrison covers the Ottawa Senators and the Atlantic Division for Full Press Coverage. Follow Billy on Twitter, @BillyMorrison01.