Senators searching for answers on the penalty kill
Steve Staios. Jacques Martin. Dave Poulin. Daniel Alfredsson.
Those are just some of the new faces – or in some cases, returning faces – tasked with turning around an Ottawa Senators organization that has been unable to pull itself out of a rebuild for far too long.
Through 32 games of the 2023-24 regular season, the Senators find themselves last in the Atlantic Division, and despite just a -1 goal differential over the course of the year, their playoff chances continue to wane.
What’s frustrating about this Ottawa team is there is plenty to like, especially at the top of the lineup. Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris have already combined for 42 goals on the season, and the Senators as a team carry the league’s second-most explosive offence (3.2 goals per 60 minutes played) in the NHL. It wasn’t enough to save his job but D.J. Smith’s offence had kept the team afloat – without their scoring upside, the goaltending and defensive play (or the absence of) would’ve eliminated this team from contention in November.
I bring up goaltending and defensive play because it’s obviously been at issue all season long for the Senators, but it’s reared its head in an ugly way on the penalty kill. I would submit that all of the fresh faces in the organization – some in the front office, some behind the benches, have to figure out what’s breaking down there if they want to turn the proverbial ship around.
Whether it’s the personnel available to the coaching staff, structural limitations, or the fact that Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg have been unable to buy a save when the team needs it, the Ottawa penalty kill is capitulating in a truly exceptional way. In fact, over those 32 games (and on a base of 428 total penalty minutes; fourth most in the NHL), we have yet to see a penalty kill perform this poorly in years:
We see several teams from the 2023-24 regular season near the top of the list, and that shouldn’t be a complete surprise for two reasons: these teams haven’t yet played the full 82-game season (and thus are susceptible to larger swings in performance), and power play performance has been booming across the league in recent years. So while Ottawa’s been under siege, they certainly aren’t alone.
But make no mistake, they have been more conciliatory on the penalty kill front than any team we have seen recently. What I think is notable is this team – a defensively weak one at even strength – has been okay at limiting large volumes of chances on the penalty kill. As a unit, they are right near league averages in shots conceded (110 per 60 minutes against) and expected goals (8.9 per 60 minutes against). But they fail on two fronts: a lot of volume conceded from dangerous scoring areas in and between the circles, and a goaltending group incapable of erasing any dangerous chances (via HockeyViz):
At first glance, this mostly appears to be a goaltending story, but I do wonder if the new brain trust fleshes out some new groupings to better insulate Korpisalo and Forsberg. If you look at what Ottawa has tried so far this season, it’s been very sporadic – owing in part to injuries and in part to the coaching staff not having a reliable, steady state first unit.
The team has used at least five different defenders on a semi-regular basis and about seven different forwards. Jake Sanderson and Artem Zub are undoubtedly the defensive anchors, but beyond them, it’s a mixed bag of usage and results:
I think it’s reasonable to say the top defensive pairing will remain appropriate, but figuring out what forwards to put in front of them – let alone which four-man grouping should comprise the second unit – is a rather difficult task.
A great goaltender is the rising tide that lifts all boats; a poor goaltender is a receding tide that adversely impacts all. Right now, the Senators are getting a lot of mediocre performance that looks heinous because the goalies can’t buy a save. And unless the team can find a miraculous goaltending rebound (or simply another choice, be it via the trade market or through internal options), the reality is this group will not improve unless the defensive structure starts erasing scoring chances on its own.
At any rate, keeping pucks out of their own net is the core reason why Ottawa is swimming upstream in the Atlantic Division, and it rears its ugly head whenever they are down a man. For a team frequently penalized, that’s a toxic mix, and something that requires an intervening solution this year.
No improvement will put the Senators at risk of missing the postseason for the seventh consecutive year.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference