NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Ottawa Senators:
1. Can Matt Murray rebound?
The goalie was acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins and signed a four-year, $25 million contract before last season to be the foundation for the young Senators. But the 27-year-old, who helped the Penguins win consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017, struggled in his first season with Ottawa, going 10-13-1 with a 3.38 goals-against average and .893 save percentage in 27 games (25 starts).
What gives the Senators optimism is how Murray improved under the guidance of Zac Bierk, who was hired as goaltending coach April 6. In five games after Bierk joined the Senators, Murray was 3-1-0 with a 1.37 GAA, .954 save percentage and two shutouts before he sustained a lower-body injury against the Vancouver Canucks on April 24.
“In a small sample size, he showed a willingness to make some adjustments and with some success,” Bierk said.
2. Are the Senators legitimate contenders for a playoff berth?
General manager Pierre Dorion said he wanted to see improvement last season and that’s exactly what happened. After a 2-12-1 start, the Senators went 9-2-1 in their last 12 games to finish sixth in the seven-team Scotia North Division (23-28-5). Dorion was rewarded with a contract extension through 2024-25 on Sept. 7 and said it’s now time for Ottawa to take the next step.
“This is going to be the fun part,” he said. “The rebuild [is] done. Now we’re stepping into another zone, I would call it.”
3. Will Brady Tkachuk sign before the season starts?
Dorion said he expects the two sides to come to an agreement before training camp begins Sept. 22. “Are we confident he’ll be signed by the time camp starts? Yes,” Dorion told Toronto-based radio station The Fan 590 on Sept. 9.
Tkachuk, a restricted free agent forward, is the heart and soul of the Senators with his emotional and rugged style of play. He led them in points last season with 36 (17 goals, 19 assists) and penalty minutes with 69. He finished second in the NHL in shots with 220, two behind Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and second in hits with 248, two less than Radko Gudas of the Florida Panthers.
4. How will Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden help at defenseman?
One of the Senators’ priorities this offseason was to add veteran leadership to the group. They believe they addressed that by bringing in Del Zotto, a 31-year-old who has played 710 NHL games, and Holden, a 34-year-old with 513 games of NHL experience.
Del Zotto, who agreed to a two-year contract July 28, scored 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 53 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. On the same day Del Zotto signed, the Senators acquired Holden and a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft from the Vegas Golden Knights for forward Evgenii Dadonov. Holden had two assists in 17 regular-season games and scored seven points (two goals, five assists) in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season.
“If this is the group (of defensemen) that we come to camp with, I think we’re ahead of where we were last year,” Dorion said.
5. How will Tim Stutzle build off his rookie season?
The 19-year-old, selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, did not disappoint in his rookie season. He was sixth on Ottawa with 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 53 games, fourth in power-play points (nine) and tied with forward Drake Batherson for fourth in shots on goal (111).
For Stutzle, who turns 20 on Jan. 15, the experience gained on and off the ice should translate into a more comfortable situation entering his second NHL season. He failed to score a point in seven of his final nine games last season and said he must work on his endurance for a full 82-game season.
“I learned every night that I can improve in so many areas,” Stutzle told the Ottawa Citizen on May 4. “I just have to have a very good summer to get stronger and definitely get better. I know how many games we’ve played, and I wasn’t really ready for playing so many games in so many days.”