When a team gets blasted 7-1 at home against the Colorado Avalanche, people start asking questions. Most people expected that the Senators were going to struggle this season. The common consensus was that the Sens would finish at the bottom of the Northeast Division and would be near the basement in the Eastern Conference. Just looking at the roster in the offseason revealed a team that had question marks all over the ice. When a team has too many question and not enough answers, the pundits will have their doubts.
Thinking a team is going to be bad and watching it play out in real life are two completely different things. Through four games, the Sens are 1-3 and have been outscored by nine goals in only a week—easily the worst in the league. They are one come-from-behind shootout victory from being winless going into a Saturday night game against the dangerous Washington Capitals.
So are the Sens really this bad?
Unfortunately, the early returns are a resounding “Yes.” The rebuilding Sens are an ugly mix of veterans way past their prime and young prospects struggling to find their way in the NHL. Filip Kuba has looked awful thus far; the only reason Kuba isn’t getting more negative press is because Sergei Gonchar looks like a guy who isn’t even pretending to exert any effort. The least he could do is to have the decency to look like he was trying. The worse part: these are two of the defensemen who are supposed to be showing the young blueliners the “right” way to play the game. Nice mentoring.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, former first round draft picks like Jared Cowen, David Rundblad, and Brian Lee are all trying establish themselves in the NHL. As any coach or GM in the league will tell you, there’s always a learning curve for young defensemen when they’re trying to break into the league. A team can hide an inexperienced defenseman, but it’s impossible to hide three (especially when the veterans are playing just as poorly). The two main problems for the Senators blueline right now are a) Erik Karlsson can’t play 60 minutes per game and b) Karlsson can’t be his own defensive partner. Aside from those two problems, their blueline looks great.
The forward situation is better than the defense, but still has similar problems. Captain Daniel Alfredsson is on the backside of his career, while young guys like Peter Regin, Bobby Butler, and Colin Greening are being asked to play roles that they’re not quite ready to handle yet. Mika Zibanejad looks like he could still be another season away and Nikita Filatov has already been sent to the AHL. Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek have both been good in the early going—but not the kind of dominant players who can carry a team that has problems with depth. It’s just not there yet.
And then there’s goaltending. Craig Anderson was supposed to be the beacon of hope in an otherwise challenging season in Ottawa. His impressive numbers down the stretch last season (2.05 GAA, .939 save percentage) earned him a 4-year contract extension worth $12.75 million. The Sens management was banking on the idea that Anderson’s struggles in Colorado were a temporary bump in the road for the former 3rd round pick.
Right now, Anderson has a 5.07 goals against average and an .853 save percentage in four starts. For people who have watched all four games, those numbers actually sound better than they could be. Backup Alex Auld will get to try his hand in net against the Capitals on Saturday. Nothing like a game against Alexander Ovechkin and Co. to break in the backup goaltender.
There are rebuilding years and then there are rebuilding years. Ottawa looks like they have put together a team fully capable of being #1 as soon as this season. Unfortunately, when we say #1, we mean the #1 pick in the Entry Draft next June. They’re going to need their older players to find a fountain of youth, young players to mature in a hurry, and their best players to play even better if they want to be competitive at all this season.
Otherwise, it could be a tougher road that we originally thought.