35 games into the 2018-19 campaign, the Ottawa Senators own a record of 15-16-4 and 34 points. The team is ranked sixth of eight in the Atlantic Division, and 21st overall in the NHL. Despite these low rankings, the Senators are only five points shy from holding a Wild Card position in the 2019 playoff race.
This season has already had it’s share of ups and downs for the rebuilding Senators.
One of the biggest surprises has been the breakout year of Thomas Chabot. No one predicted the 21-year-old defenseman to be above a point-per-game average, and leading the scoring race amongst all NHL defensemen this early in his career. In 35 games this season, Chabot has 36 points (10G, 26A).
Another surprise has been the strong performances from both Mark Stone and Matt Duchene. Stone is quickly emerging as a leadership figure on the young team, and has also contributed offensively, with 39 points (16G, 23A) in 35 games. Meanwhile, Duchene, who is currently injured, has accumulated 34 points (12G, 22A) in 29 games.
Then, there is the unrelenting play of rookie Brady Tkachuk. Despite only two points in his last 10 games, the 19-year-old’s name has been speculated as an early Calder candidate. He has amassed 18 points (10G, 8A) in 24 games this season, and his physical style of play is consistently present.
On top of these positive player developments, the team has defeated some of the best in the NHL. Ottawa has scored victories against powerhouses like the Tampa Bay Lightning (1st), the Nashville Predators (4th), the Toronto Maple Leafs (6th), and the San Jose Sharks (10th).
Along with these lofty highs, the Senators have also faced some deep lows in a season of polarization. Off the ice, there was a sharp lesson in discretion for players riding in an Arizona Uber at the end of October.
On the ice, the team currently owns the third worst penalty kill percentage in the NHL, which sits at 73.8 per cent. In addition, the Sens have surrendered the most goals against this season, with 135. Finally, the Senators remain atop the NHL for most shots against per game, with 38.0.
Overall, the Senators are outperforming early season expectations as the NHL draws near the mid-way point of the campaign. Only five points back from a playoff spot, the team’s record looks less like a team in rebuild and more like a team just shy of playoff contention.
Below is what the Senators need on their Christmas wish list, for them to become 2019 playoff contenders.
2018 Christmas Wish List
1) Improved Road Record
On their most recent three-game road trip with stops in Nashville, Detroit, and Montreal, the Senators finished below .500 with a 1-2-0 record. This subpar performance is a small sample of a broader trend. Overall, Ottawa’s road record has been terrible this season. After 16 away games, Ottawa is 4-11-1 in another team’s building.
In contrast, the Senators are dominant on their home ice. They own a proud record of 11-5-3 at Canadian Tire Centre.
If this hockey club can improve their results on the road, and continue playing strong at home, they could quickly surge up the standings.
2) Improved Defense
There is definitely room for improvement in the team’s defense department. A large reason for their deficiency this year is youth and inexperience. Ottawa’s blue line is an average age of 24.3 years, and has a combined 1,181 games of experience. For perspective, San Jose Shark’s forward Joe Thornton has played 337 more games in his career, for a total of 1,518.
The good news is the young Senators are learning. Progress is slow and non-linear, but lately, their stats have improved. Earlier this season, the Senators were dead last in the NHL with their penalty kill. Recently, however, they have quietly passed Chicago and Philadelphia in this area.
Since this is a rebuild, it is likely the Senators will exercise patience with their prospects rather than bring in outside help for a cost. If this approach is their preference, they will improve defensively from within through training and development. Fans can only hope these young players are quick learners if they wish to see any Senators post-season action this spring.
3) A Reliable Back-Up
Craig Anderson’s name has often appeared on the list of a game’s official 3 stars this season. The 37-year-old goaltender is a key reason the Senators have enjoyed any success. Anderson has been stellar most nights, and overworked every night, as the Senators weigh on him heavily to compete.
This is not an ideal scenario for the aging goaltender, or the team, if something were to happen, which forced him to miss significant time. Behind Anderson, the Senators crease is on thin ice. Ottawa has flipped between Mike Condon and Mike McKenna in the back-up role this season. However, Condon has been terrible since re-signing with the team in June 2017 to a three-year deal valued at $2.4 million. Since then, Condon has gone an ugly 5-19-0 with a 4.82 goals against average and a .851 save percentage.. His last win came on Mar. 13, 2018- over nine months ago.
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The 35-year-old McKenna, on the other hand, has been a journeyman throughout his career. He has had stops in Tampa Bay, New Jersey, Columbus, Arizona, Dallas, and Ottawa. The seldom used goaltender holds a record of 1-2-1 with the Senators this season with a 3.99 goals against average and a .902 save percentage. Between Anderson and McKenna, the Sens wield the oldest goaltending duo in the NHL with an average age of 36.
It is risky to overload the aging Anderson with work, while having no reliable Plan B ready. Therefore, few should be surprised to see the Senators give one or both of their budding goalie prospects in Belleville a look in the New Year. Marcus Hogberg, 24, and Filip Gustavsson, 20, likely hold the keys to the Senators future in the crease.
4) Renewed Contracts
When the free agency period opens in the summer of 2019, 24 contracts in the Senators organization (Ottawa and Belleville combined) are set to expire. 13 players are scheduled to hit the unrestricted free agent market, while 11 players are set to become restricted free agents.
Included in this group are important players like Stone, Duchene, Colin White, Ryan Dzingel, and Cody Ceci, amongst others. General manager Pierre Dorion will be under pressure to re-sign most, if not all, of them.
There is a growing eagerness stirring across the city. As it stands now, fans are unsure what the future holds, yet, they want to know their team’s direction. After years of uncertainty, the Ottawa fan base craves stability. If the Senators can commit term and money to their star players and a new young core before Jul. 1, then some of that uneasy, uncomfortable feeling of uncertainly will melt away.
5) A Downtown Arena
This big ticket item remains elusive but top-of-mind on every Senators Christmas wish list, year after year. Although the Rendezvous LeBreton project has been seriously jeopardized, a relocation from the suburbs of Kanata to the downtown core is essential for the long-term success and wellbeing of the Ottawa Senators hockey club.
Cover Photo Credit: Jean Levac
Billy Morrison covers the Ottawa Senators and the Atlantic Division for Full Press Coverage. Follow Billy on Twitter, @BillyMorrison01.