Boy, have the positive vibes around the Ottawa Senators quickly faded.
After winning their first contest in more than 10 months not even three weeks ago in a plucky opening-night upset over the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then playing their next two games tight, taking three points from their first three games, the Senators have lost six straight — each by a minimum of three goals.
In their nine games, the Senators are conceding 4.89 goals per outing, which is a full goal worse than the next most easily penetrable team. They have countered that with 2.44 goals per game in the highest-scoring division in hockey, or a meagre output superior to only a small handful of clubs.
Limited to one goal in nearly half of their games, orchestrating meaningful attacks has been a clear issue for the Senators in the early going.
But the true disaster at the moment is the mess on the back end, and in goal.
Most worrisome, Matt Murray has been awful in his first seven appearances in Ottawa, and since signing his full-value four-year, $25-million contract. He’s essentially established a seriously problematic standard, stopping puck at a .849 clip for a team that’s last in the league with an .848 total team save percentage.
Murray currently ranks dead last in the league in Goals Saved Above Average, while Ottawa’s backup, Marcus Hogberg, is third from the bottom of that metric in parts of just four appearances.
But as bad as they’ve been, Murray and Hogberg are only partly responsible for the Senators’ inability to keep pucks out of their own net. D.J. Smith’s defensive rotation has been abysmal to start the season, routinely welcoming the opposition to feast.
Thomas Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev have combined to turn in a reasonably positive top-four offering in over 80 five-on-five minutes together, but virtually every other combination has been torched. The next most-used pairings are Erik Gudbranson-Mike Reilly and Braydon Coburn-Josh Brown, tandems that have combined to control 33 percent of total shot attempts at five-on-five.
Spread across all three pairings with Chabot out of action with a minor injury Sunday versus the Edmonton Oilers, these four seriously-underperforming defenders were completely exposed, and the Sens’ issues laid bare, in an 8-5 drubbing.
As bad as it has been, the expectation wasn’t that Ottawa’s defensive core would hold up — or at least sufficiently insulate the goaltending in the highest-scoring division in hockey.
So what could be considered just as disappointing is the performance from Ottawa’s forwards.
Evgeni Dadonov, namely, has been alarmingly ineffective in the early going. Fresh of signing one of the more expensive forward contracts in the offseason, Dadonov hasn’t looked nearly dynamic in a world without Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida, having offered very little from an offensive perspective, especially at even strength.
But Dadonov is hardly alone in failing to deliver value. In fact, the four other highest-paid forwards on the team are offering next to nothing, combining to average one goal every three games to start. Among them, Derek Stepan is stuck on two points, while Colin White is still trying to convince the coaching staff that he belongs in the lineup after being scratched to start the season.
Even with Tim Stutzle offering flashes of brilliance, it’s clear that Brady Tkachuk is very much still on an island with this team despite management’s efforts to improve the supporting cast.
The Senators weren’t supposed to amount to anything this season, while still very much in the beginning stages of their rebuild. But the hope was that they would remain competitive and lay the groundwork for future success over the months of a season that will see them spared from truly elite teams.
But now already 12 points behind, the Senators are teetering on becoming non-competitive quick.
And that’s a scenario in which it is incredibly difficult to find wins within the losses.
And elsewhere in the North
Montreal: Jeff Petry is tied for the most goals by a defenceman with four — of which three have come at five-on-five. That’s as many under normal hockey circumstances as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau and his highest-scoring teammate, Tyler Toffoli.
Toronto: The Leafs have their best defensive unit in a long, long time and still there’s an issue bubbling beneath the surface. Neither Travis Dermott or Mikko Lehtonen have seized their opportunities in the six-hole, each showing benefits and issues with including them in the lineup, while toggling back and forth between the two leaves the club’s arguably top prospect, Rasmus Sandin, without the chance to play live hockey games. I’m not sure how long the Leafs can carry on this way.
Winnipeg: The quarantine process is almost complete for Pierre-Luc Dubois, who will be entering a lineup that’s certainly in flux at the beginning of next week. Winnipeg has four consecutive off days as PLD breaks free from the shackles of his hotel room, which certainly works well in Paul Maurice’s favour.
Calgary: It’s possible that no player — not even McDavid — has a bigger impact on where his team finishes in the North Division standings than Flames backstop Jacob Markstrom.
Edmonton: It hasn’t been a masterpiece, but you almost have to hand it to Mikko Koskinen, who has kept the Oilers afloat while being saddled with 100 minutes more than the next most-taxed netminder in the NHL.
Vancouver: Ottawa really is the tonic, isn’t it? Three straight victories over the Senators seemed to rescue the Canucks’ season, though previously undeniable issues did seem to resurface in Monday’s sound loss at the hands of Montreal.
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