The Ottawa Senators D-Core has been a project of Pierre Dorion’s for quite some time.
At least since 2021, Pierre Dorion has been searching for the proverbial top 4 defencemen to take the young Senators to the next level. But the addition of players like Travis Hamonic, Nikita Zaitsev, Nick Holden, and Josh Brown have fallen far short of the dream.
Still, there has been improvement. Under D.J Smith, the Sens have steadily risen from 30th in the league in Goals Against Average (GAA) in 2019-20, to 17th now at 3.17 GAA, average for the league.
No wonder Dorion’s acquisition of Jakob Chychrun has thrilled Ottawa Senators’ fans. Chychrun looks like a player who could help carry the team to the playoffs, if not this year, then next. Of course, the ultimate goal isn’t just making the playoffs; it’s becoming a Cup contender and ultimately a Cup winner.
The question I have is whether the Ottawa Senators can reach that goal when their top defencemen–Chychrun, Thomas Chabot, and the Sens’ rising star Jake Sanderson-all shoot left. Having so many left-shot defencemen can be an issue because most left-shot defencemen prefer playing on the left side and playing their best hockey there. Among the Ottawa Senators’ current top D-men, only Chychrun has played a bit on the right side in the NHL. And Sanderson has said, “I definitely prefer the left side.“
Given the Senators’ heavy left tilt, I looked at all the Cup-winners since 2010 and found it is pretty unusual to be so overloaded with lefties. But there is one huge exception: the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In 2020 and again in 2021, the Lightning’s two Cup-winning years, their 3 best defensemen were all left shots: Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, stable and reliable Ryan McDonagh, and the skillful Mikail Sergachev. These three defencemen played up and down the 3 defensive pairings for the Lightning, but they were always on the left side, through the season and in the Stanley Cup finals. In general, the Lightning put Hedman, Sergachev, and McDonagh opposite right-handed shots, such as Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, and David Savard.
Take a look at these Lightning lineups from the 2020 and 2021 teams. This is the example the Ottawa Senators can follow:
Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh — Kevin Shattenkirk
Mikhail Sergachev — Erik Cernak
Victor Hedman – Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh – Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev – David Savard
In the defensive pairings the Lightning played with in 2020 and 2021, we see that Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak are both big bodies and stay-at-home defensemen, neither having more than 20 points in a single season. Meanwhile, Savard had no points in the regular season in 14 games with Tampa in 2021 and just 5 assists in 20 games in the playoffs that year. Among this crew of righties on Tampa’s right side, only Shattenkirk had real offensive flair, with multiple 40-point seasons on his card.
Since the addition of Chychrun, D.J. Smith has generally followed the same approach as Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper: don’t play your stud left-shooting defensemen on their weaker right side. Instead, he has mostly paired them up with journeymen on the right side.
Typical Ottawa Senators lineup
Thomas Chabot- Artem Zub
Jake Sanderson-Travis Hamonic
Jake Chychrun- Nick Holden/ Erik Brannstrom
Will it work? I don’t know. One huge difference between the two teams is that, as good as the Sens D now are, none of them is a Victor Hedman. Equally important, the Senators have a huge drop-off from their top right-shot defenceman, Artem Zub. On the right side, Travis Hamonic and Nick Holden are stopgaps who are unlikely to be part of the Sens’ future.
One long-term option may be the left-shot Erik Brannstrom, who–unusual for a lefty– prefers playing on the right side. His advanced analytics are strong, with a CORSI of 56% according to PuckPedia, which leads the Senators. He is a puck-mover like Shattenkirk.
But it’s clear that with their strong retinue of lefties, the Senators need to add right shots and depth to their blue line. They could add depth through free agency, but if they sign Alex Debrincat and bring back Shane Pinto, they will not have a lot of money to throw around this summer. The Sens’ first pick in this year’s draft is in the 4th round, although in 2024 they will have all their picks other than a missing a 3rd round pick in 2024.
Either way, they do not have much flexibility to add right-sided defensemen outside the organization. That could likely mean depending on internal options, namely Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker who have spent most of this season in Belleville.
In recent days, D.J. Smith has experimented with pairing up Chabot and Chychrun, leaving Chychrun to play on his offside. But is this the best use of this talented player, or just a concession to the fact that the team is overloaded with lefties?
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The Sens have made a clear choice to assemble as much talent as possible in their D-core, regardless of whether they are left or right shots. They have an exciting array of mostly young forwards and a promising up-and-coming goalie in the 6’ 6” Mads Sogaard. The question for Sens fans in the next couple of years is can the Lightning formula strike twice?