A lack of scoring is sinking the Senators
The Ottawa Senators have a scoring problem.
General manager Pierre Dorion has spent a lot of time on the road over the past two weeks in advance of the March 3 trade deadline. The Senators figured to be contenders at this point of the rebuild, but reality is setting in. The team sits 13th in the Eastern Conference, and there is increasing daylight between the Sens and the teams chasing those final playoff berths.
One of the interesting points Dorion has made in talking to the media over the last couple of weeks is a belief the team is better than its record indicates. In some regards, Dorion has a point. The team has occupied the cellar for much of the year, but if you looked at their performance by way of goal differential, you would have struggled to find a bad team until recently:
The Senators were carrying a season-to-date goal differential of just -1 on Jan. 3, which would generally have a team positioned in the thick of the playoff race heading into the final 40 games. But that hasn’t been the case for Ottawa. The team dealt with a bit of poor puck luck early in the year, but the goal differentials and losses are starting to accelerate in the wrong direction.
The Sens are starting to see that slide because the team’s inability to turn scoring chances into goals has impeded its progress in the standings all year, and that’s particularly true at even strength. At the team level, consider Ottawa’s expected goal rates versus their actual goal rates. One version of this team looks downright competitive; the other version looks downright weak:
Why Ottawa is struggling so much in the shooting department is a bit of a puzzle. The forward group is loaded with talent in ways that rosters of the past were not. And while it’s true the team does have high-volume, low-percentage attackers (see: Brady Tkachuk), that doesn’t explain other mysteries, like Alex DeBrincat’s shooting percentage plummeting in his first year with Ottawa, or Drake Batherson’s 3 per cent shooting at even strength.
It’s also important to note here this is not a half-season trend – the Senators were one of the league’s worst teams converting on chances a season ago, so this core has been plagued by this issue for nearly two seasons now.
There are only two ways to combat such a significant shooting slump: diagnose the structural and personnel issues that may be causing them, or drive even bigger shot differentials. Ottawa has certainly tried on the latter front – whether you are looking at shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chance rates, or expected goal rates, all are much more flattering than the team’s goal share at even strength:
Not every player has been impeded by this. Tim Stutzle and Claude Giroux in particular have been fantastic in the league’s most common game state, adding 25 goals to the ledger and shooting 15 per cent as a tandem. The problem is that’s the end of the list. And because it’s the end of the list, you get a shot profile like this, courtesy of HockeyViz:
Irrespective of how Dorion and the Senators brain trust plays the upcoming trade deadline, it’s increasingly clear this is an issue the organization needs to address. This isn’t the early-stage rebuild team where skill and talent has been very hard to find. The team has shown it can play a transition game, that it can apply offensive zone pressure, that it can both cycle the puck and work inside-out against quality opponents.
The problem is the puck rarely finds the back of the net. And whether that’s a void of playmaking personnel, a dearth of shooters, or something systemic from D.J. Smith’s lineup, that’s a problem this team is going to be troubleshooting the rest of the year, if they haven’t started already.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference