Dorion and Smith - Fix defense for team success next season!
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With the Ottawa Senators' off-season underway and Pierre Dorion having had both his presser upon the completion of the season and his end of year radio interview on TSN1200 I wanted to start a few blogs in which I will take a look at different aspects of the Sens roster as we move closer to the NHL draft lottery. The biggest point of contention when it came to where Ottawa failed as an organization this season was on defense. Yes, they lacked depth at the forward position but it was on the blueline where it starts and ends for a team that has finished in the bottom third of the standings for four straight years. The demise of the Sens the last two seasons has been how they can't keep the puck out of their net and it all starts with defensive structure, something at times this season many scouts and NHL personnel wondered aloud how it lacked in a big way.
Unfortunately, Dorion added to the problem on defense both during free agency last summer by signing MDZ and with the NHL trade deadline acquisition of Travis Hamonic. Head coach DJ Smith was stopping the progress of key players by playing vets that weren't allowing the team to progress forward the way they should have. Smith sent the wrong message on several occasions to the rest of the defense core by scratching certain players after the entire blueline had a bad outing, making them the scapegoat rather than holding players accountable that made the same mistakes game in and out, regardless if Ottawa walked out with a win or loss. Smith always preached that you don't break up a winning lineup unless a player got injured, yet he scratched MDZ for the NJ game to insert Zaitsev for no reason at all. This type of scenario happened over and over throughout the season. Both Thomson and JBD were cast-off to Belleville after wins, but it was the coach who always talked out of both sides of his mouth when it came to the Sens youth on the blueline. Add in Brannstrom to the mix and all three of these young blueliners only got chances to show what they were capable of due to injuries, otherwise, who knows if anyone would've found out that all three were capable of playing at the NHL level. Thomson and Brannstrom had better pre-seasons than Josh Brown and Nikita Zaitsev but since they were waiver exempt, both were demoted to Belleville to start the season, which led to Brannstrom changing agents and asking for a trade. Darren Dreger spoke about the trade request on the Wally and Methot podcast around the NHL trade deadline. Naturally, it all coincided with Brannstrom changing to the same agent as Brady Tkachuk after he saw what he did for Tkachuk on his long-term extension.
Let's go back to the last time Lassi Thomson was called up from Belleville and how quickly DJ went from putting Thomson in all situations in the top pairing on the blueline to being sent back down to Belleville from a few mistakes in one period. In fact, Thomas Chabot raved about how great it was having Thomson as his partner in those 3 games in late January in which Thomson was logging anywhere from 20 to 23 minutes TOI, getting the 2nd most time on the blue line each game. Then came 2 mistakes in one period against Connor McDavid in a home game against Edmonton, Thomson was benched, got 10:50 TOI, the least of any defenseman that night, with Josh Brown getting four more minutes of ice time that night. Once Thomson was sent back down, low and behold Nikita Zaitsev was ready to return from injury and took his place in the lineup. Coincidence, not a chance! A few sources told me that Thomson told the coaching staff in Belleville as well as his agent that he thought DJ coached as one would in junior hockey when it came to lineup decisions and that many other players who had been called up only to be sent down without a solid reason(JBD and Heatherington included) all felt the same way.
MDZ made it clear when he was put on waivers back in December that he felt he was never given a fair chance either to adapt to new teammates and coaches which is why he requested a trade at the time which was confirmed by a few media members on other podcast platforms. "I came in here this season excited with the opportunity I had helping out on and off the ice. As the most veteran guy, I was definitely a bit shocked in Game 1 not being in the lineup and then never really got in with any consistency, " explained MDZ back in January in an interview with Post Media. DJ had convinced MDZ to sign in Ottawa when the two spoke last summer about his role and how he would be a regular on the blueline. So, you can understand why many players on the blueline don't trust DJ nor feel he's putting his players in the best possible position to win hockey games and it was hard to argue when the same players committed the same errors but were never held accountable like others were in the organization.
All in all, the double standard needs to end if this team is going to progress on the blueline next season. When Dorion was asked why MDZ didn't want to play in Belleville after being placed on waivers again, Dorion once again lied to the fan base saying he had played a lot of hockey and didn't want to extend his season. Playing 52 games, split evenly with Ottawa and Belleville isn't a lot of hockey, in fact, Ottawa had hoped a team would claim him but with a 1.2 million bonus due on July 1st, no team will take on his salary until it's paid. He wasn't going to accept going to Belleville, when he left his exit meeting last weekend, I was told MDZ doesn't see himself in the organization next year. Meaning a trade is most likely to occur this summer, something both sides feel is inevitable.
When Dorion went out of his way to talk positively about Erik Brannstrom at his end of season presser, many close to the team wondered if Dorion was trying to convince other GM's in the league to think he factored into the Sens' long term plans, therefore trying to increase the value of Brannstrom for a possible trade this summer. If that's the case, for once Dorion is trying to maximize an asset as I don't see Brannstrom as more than a 6th/7th defenseman on this team.
Hamonic on the other hand flourished when playing in the bottom pairing with MDZ but when asked to play in one of the top two pairs, he struggled. When he first arrived in Ottawa he played a strong defensive game positionally, with solid gap control/boxing out while getting his stick in the passing/shooting lanes. But in those last few games when he was asked to play against the opposition's top two lines his poor footwork and speed became an issue defending. His skill set is suited for a bottom pairing, if asked to play in the top 4 next season on an extended basis, once again the Sens' defensive deficiencies will be exploited by opposing coaches.
Nick Holden faded a bit in the last 10 games of the season, but a large number of games in the final two months wore down many of the vets. Holden was a nice surprise and at times when he was asked to play in the top four, he held his own. As long he has plays in the 5/6 pairing next season, he will be exactly what Ottawa needs. Every player said he was terrific both on and off the ice, which is why Ottawa locked him up mid-season to a one year extension.
The search for a full-time defense partner for Thomas Chabot continued all season, when in fact he played his best hockey when paired with Artem Zub. When you listen to former NHLers that played the position who now work in the media, every single one of them said this should be a permanent pairing next season. Zub played well with Holden as well this season but one could argue Zub saw his best work on defense with Chabot. Which leads to another question, who is capable of playing with Jake Sanderson in the top 4? The coaching staff would have you believe Hamonic should be the one but pairing him with a rookie could be a tall order plus as I mentioned earlier in the article, can Hamonic handle that kind of role over an 82 game season. Management is putting a lot of pressure on Sanderson to handle the pressure and role of a top 4 pairing when he has yet to play a game in the NHL. The pre-season will be critical for the coaching staff to find the most effective pairings, which is why Dorion went of his way at his presser to say the club wants to play as many as nine pre-season games so they can sort out their lineup well in advance of the first regular season game.
Naturally, last but not least is the most controversial player on the blueline for no fault of his own but rather than the fault of his head coach. It's absolutely stunning how jaded DJ Smith is when it comes to Nikita Zaitsev, which is why there's only one solution to the Sens fixing their issues on the blueline. Zaitsev can't be with this team come training camp under any circumstance or DJ once again will not allow this blueline to reach its potential, therefore resulting in another slow start to the season. The slow starts the past two seasons, 4-10-1 this past season and 2-12-1 to start the 2020/21 season needs to be eliminated for this team to have any kind of success in the 2022/23 season. If Zaitsev is back at training camp, Sens fans can once again expect him to be paired with Chabot, while Zub/Sanderson and Hamonic/Holden would be your opening day blueline with the likes of Thomson not being elevated to the role that he should be in. As BSens head coach Troy Mann has stated, Thomson is overbaked, beyond ready for the NHL, and that he's played himself out of the AHL. Brannstrom is ahead of Zaitsev on the depth chart too but I truly think Dorion tries to trade him this off-season.
Dorion needs to take care of this one major piece of business this summer, making sure Zaitsev is as far away from the 613 area code as possible when training camp opens in September or he will be one of only three GM's in the history of the NHL to lead a team to six consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, one of which includes the notorious Mike Millbury when he was GM in Long Island. I know many Sens fans are adamant about adding to the forward group, but if this team can't keep the puck out of their net it won't matter who they trade for or sign in the off-season to play in the top six up front. Defensive structure as five man units needs to be this team's mandate at training camp, to go with a proper blueline structure to enable success as a team.
Comments, thoughts on the blueline?! Sorry for the one-week hiatus, I was sick with the flu but I will be back writing more often once again.
Thanks for reading.