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Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion
Tim Stuetzle of the Senators tries to squeeze past the Canadiens’ Joel Edmundson during the first period on March 2, 2021.
Erik Brannstrom of the Ottawa Senators.
The Ottawa Senators’ Joey Daccord redirects the puck with his glove near Joel Armia of the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at the Bell Centre on March 2, 2021.
Artem Zub of the Ottawa Senators battles against Sam Bennett of the Calgary Flames on Sunday March 7, 2021 in Calgary.
Just like that, the first half of the NHL season has gone by in a flash for the Ottawa Senators.
As they hit the midway point of the shortened 56-game schedule Monday night against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place Arena, the Senators had a 9-17-1 record going into the game and while Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion was hopeful they’d have a better record he’s confident this team has taken steps in the right direction.
Speaking to Postmedia in a one-on-one interview from his Edmonton hotel Monday afternoon before facing the Oilers, Dorion wasn’t thrilled with the club’s 2-11-1 start in the first 14 games, but if they could find a way to beat Connor McDavid and the Oilers then that would move Ottawa’s record to 8-6-1 in the last 14.
“I really feel this team is building on what we’ve done in the second quarter of the year,” Dorion said. “This is the team that we envisioned we’d see. The biggest thing is that we’re learning a lot of things. We’re learning to win, to play in tighter games and we’re learning by our failures from the past are bringing success through the season.
“We’re growing. We’ve got a lot of young players in our lineup and young players have to understand what it takes to win in the NHL. They’re learning as the season goes that if they learn to play the right way they’ll learn to win.”
Make no mistake, the start to this season wasn’t easy, but a lot that had to do with the poor performance from goaltenders Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg. It was noted in this space when the club had a 1-8-1 record after 10 games that both goalies had a save-percentage below .850.
Of course, it didn’t help the Senators were struggling to score and not playing very well in front of them, but let’s be honest that success for every team starts in the net.
“After the first quarter of the year, we were 2-11-1 and we knew this wasn’t the team which we’ve seen in the second quarter of this season,” Dorion said. “This is a better indication of the team we aim to be.”
Playing in the all-Canadian division, the Senators have focused on making sure the young core, which includes Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Colin White, along with Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, No. 3 overall pick Tim Stuetzle a and Erik Brannstrom, have all made steps in the right direction.
The club also added 25-year-old defenceman Artem Zub from the KHL.
“Some of our most talented players are our younger players,” Dorion said. “Our young players start with Chabot, Tkachuk and White. They’re all having good seasons. You look at the rookies, and I count Batherson as a rookie with Stuetzle, Norris and Batherson, they’re a big part of our offensive success. They’re also going to be a big part of our success moving forward.
“Then, you look at what (Branstrom) has done and Zub have done. He’s played solid minutes and he’s eaten up ice time whether it’s against the first, second or third line of the opposition. He plays quality minutes. Brannstrom has an offensive flair to his game and, at the same time, it’s way tougher to step into the NHL as a defenceman compared to a forward. He’s find his way with some solid play.”
Dorion likes the way coach D.J. Smith and his staff have employed the youngsters.
“(Smith) decides how many minutes everyone plays and on the lineup and I’ve made that clear,” Dorion said. “He’s doing a great job because from Day One our mantra has been that you’re going to earn it and nothing is going to be given to you. You can’t hand stuff to young players. At times, some of the young players have played more or less minutes and it helps to develop the proper winning culture that we want.
“D.J. has done an unbelievable job with these guys. He knows we’re creating more offence, especially at home, we’ve got to become more consistent. After that, we’ve got to become a more puck possession team so we can give our defence a rest. That all comes in time. It’s not a process that happens over night and it’s all part of being consistent. All these things come with experience and repetition.”
Yes, the 21-year-old Brannstrom played only five minutes in Sunday’s 4-3 shootout victory in Calgary, but if that’s what Smith feels is best for the team and the player then he has Dorion’s support.
“Players have to know if they’re having an off-night their minutes aren’t going to be as high. I think (Sunday) was just a one-off,” added Dorion, who noted Brannstrom has been averaging about 15 minutes per-game. “I don’t think (Brannstrom) had it yesterday and I think D.J.’s done a great job.”
The key to any team is goaltending. Acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins and signed to a four-year, $25 million deal, Murray, 26, hasn’t played up to expectations, but in the last stretch he has been better and the Senators just need him, Hogberg or Joey Daccord to give them a chance to win.
“Our goaltending, at times, has been outstanding. We just need it to be at a consistent level every game,” Dorion said. “At times, we’ve seen elite goaltending from Matt Murray and all we want from (the three of them) is consistency.
“Of all the positions, the people that didn’t benefit from not having a pre-season were the goaltenders. They didn’t have their rhythm to start off and what we’re seeing in the second quarter is more of what expected.”
An area the Senators need to improve is in their own end. Lately, Smith has settled on the pairings of Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev, Mike Reilly with Zub and Brannstrom beside alternate captain Erik Gudbranson. Josh Brown, Braydon Coburn and Christian Wolanin have been regularly scratched.
“Our defence is a work in progress with all the new players we brought in this year,” Dorion said. “Chabot and Zaitsev have been a great pair. We all know what Chabot is, but Zaitsev is a premiere defender. He’s a guy that has great gap, skating ability and he competes. They’re solid.
“Reilly and Zub have established themselves as a solid No. 2 pairing. Zub has been a pleasant surprise as a defensive defenceman. He can out the puck and he competes hard. Reilly has been really good with his play. He’s made himself, not just into a simple puck mover, but he’s brought urgency to his defensive game which has made them every reliable.
“The pairing of Brannstrom and Gudbranson, I’ve really liked. There are growing pains with Brannstrom, but with his skating ability, evasiveness, passing ability and offensive upside, and his high character in competing, he’s been good. As for Gudbranson, our guys love having him and if he wasn’t in our lineup, people would properly take more liberties with us. He’s a great penalty killer, he’s got a physical presence and we’re happy with him.”
Dorion said the club wants to take more steps in the right direction.
It’s interesting to note that when this road trip ends Friday, the Senators will play 16 games at the Canadian Tire Centre and 10 on the road. That will allow Smith to get the matchup he wants and put young players in situations where he wants them to be able to excel.
“We want to continue to improve on what we did in the second quarter in the second half,” Dorion said. “We want to continue to developing our players, continue on this path by being more consistent, creating more offence, being tighter defensively and being more of a puck possession team.
“All these things we want to improve but we just feel as a team we’ve got to take that next step.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021