Not everything has gone as planned
After 28 games, the Ottawa Senators’ record stands at 12-14-12. To say that it’s been an eventful first third of the season would be an understatement: a lot has happened since the team kicked off the regular season on October 13th in Buffalo. For starters, there have been some key injuries: Josh Norris and Artem Zub have both missed extended periods of time, and it’s now looking like Tim Stützle could be joining them in the infirmary. You’d be forgiven for thinking that we still don’t really know what this team is all about, even this far into the year.
Still, we have now seen enough games that it’s fair game to dig into some of the early statistical trends. The samples remain small, but they are no longer miniscule; the characteristics of this team, both the good and the bad, are starting to come into focus.
The Sens are fourth (!) in the league in in Face-off Winning Percentage
On the one hand, Ottawa’s off-season acquisition of Claude Giroux, one of the best face-off takers in the league for years, was bound to help their face-off dot prowess. On the other hand, the team was ranked 25th (!) last season, and won a meagre 47.9% of their draws. This year, however, the Sens are all the way up un fourth with a 53.6 winning percentage. If you’d told me at the start of the year that a team that was planning to give major minutes to Stützle at centre, who for all of his other virtues is not good in the dot, would be occupying this lofty a perch I’m not sure I would have believed you.
The key here has been the performances of Mark Kastelic and Shane Pinto, who are winning 57.0% and 56.2% of their draws respectively. Both were projected to be positive contributors in this area but it’s practically unheard of for two virtual rookies to be this good right away. The value of face-offs is a bit (sometimes grossly) over-stated, but there’s no denying that winning a draw in a high leverage moment is helpful. The Sens’ success in this area has been a pleasant surprise.
The Sens are a Bit Leaky Defensively with Jake Sanderson on the Ice
The Jake Sanderson hype among Sens fans leading into this season was like nothing I can remember since Jason Spezza, and the young prospect has somehow almost lived up to all of it. The smooth skating twenty-year old brings one of the most polished games I’ve ever seen from a defenseman at this stage of their NHL career. That said, Sanderson’s calling card coming into the league was his stellar defensive play; the bet Ottawa made in drafting him fifth overall was that he would round out his offensive capacities as he aged and refined his skills. The defensive acumen was already there. When you watch Sanderson play defense, particularly how he defends opposing players in open ice, it’s hard not to be impressed.
So, you might say that I’m surprised the Sens are giving up more chances with him on the ice than without. In fact, if you look at defensemen around the league that have played at least 200 minutes of even-strength hockey, Sanderson ranks a startling 149th out of 193 in xGA/60. It is worth noting, of course, that his partner Travis Hamonic sits 160th. There are also some other mitigating factors such as a reasonably tough deployment. Nevertheless! The Sens’ defensive heat map with Sanderson is not so great, particularly in the most dangerous area of the ice:
If you’re a glass half full type of person, the good news is that the offensive output is more than we expected and Sanderson’s defensive metrics will likely round into form as the season progresses. But the point of this column is to find “surprising” statistics about the Sens and this was definitely one of them!
Erik Brännström is Blocking a Tonne of Shots
Erik Brännström is kind of like a Bizzaro Sanderson: extremely talented with the puck, but perhaps lacking in some of the physical tools necessary to be elite on the defensive side of things. While I’ve felt that his defensive struggles have been somewhat overstated in the past, there can be no doubt that the blueliner has made tremendous improvements this season. One of the ways that this change is showing up is in how many shots he blocks. It used to be that the diminutive Swede hardly got in the way of any opposition shots at all — in 2020-21, his first real season in the league, Branny only blocked 2.53 shots/60 at 5v5. Today, that number is nearly three times higher at 6.96/60! He leads the team by a country mile (Hamonic is second at 5.09/60), and is seventh among all defenseman who have played 200 minutes at 5v5.
This is one case where the numbers definitely match the eye test, too. My feelings about blocked shots are similar to face-off wins: their importance is typically over-stated, but it’s also true that blocking a shot is better than letting it through, and Brännström’s overall defensive numbers are quite good. This isn’t the case of a player blocking shots left and right because they’re consistently on the defensive. If at the start of the season you’d told me Brännström’s defensive play would improve enough to make him a valuable contributor I wouldn’t have been too shocked, but I certainly would not have predicted that shot blocking would figure so heavily into how his game would change.
The Sens Are Succeeding at 5v5
At the start of the year, this team’s path to success seemed simple (if a bit narrow): control the play when the top two lines were on the ice at 5v5, survive when the bottom two were on, and feast on the power play. Basically: Ottawa was likely to be a volatile (and top-heavy) squad, particularly at even strength. The good news is that the power play has delivered as expected in converting 27.6% of their chance, the sixth best rate in the league. The bad news is that the fourth line has struggled, as expected, but the surprising development is that the other three lines, even with an injury to Josh Norris, have more than held their own at 5v5.
As of this writing, the Sens are coming out ahead in both shots and chances at 5v5, boasting a 51.99 CF% and 52.04 xGF% — figures that have them ranked 9th and 12th for the respective categories. So while it can be frustrating to hear DJ Smith go on after losses about how the Sens were playing the right away and just not getting the bounces, he’s mostly right when he says that. If the injury to Stützle is long-term then it might prove very difficult to stay afloat but that doesn’t diminish what’s been accomplished so far: the team’s overall prowess at 5v5 counts as one of the most pleasant surprises going.