OTTAWA — A season that started with optimism for the Ottawa Senators finished with the same result — the team outside the playoffs.
After a strong 7-2-1 finish to the 2020-21 season, Ottawa came into this campaign hoping to challenge for a post-season berth.
"The rebuild is done," general manager Pierre Dorion said before the season after signing a contract extension. "Now we're stepping into another zone."
Instead the Senators (33-42-7) finished the 2021-22 season 26th overall and missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year.
The development of players like Tim Stützle, Josh Norris and Brady Tkachuk bodes well for the future, but at closing interviews Saturday the players were hesitant to say Ottawa would be a playoff team next season.
“Of course, we want to be playing meaningful games and that’s our goal year in and year out,” said Tkachuk, who hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his first season as team captain.
"I think for us we’re not going to put pressure on ourselves. We want to get better and we don’t want to listen to the outside noise because at times it can be distracting so if we just focus on getting better every day and have a great summer all individually and come back ready to go I think we’ll be happy with the results."
Defenceman Thomas Chabot said he’s ready to experience meaningful games after five losing seasons, but added the jump to playoff contender could be a tough one.
"For us to take the next step next season it’s going to require all of us as a group to improve and make sure we’re ready right from the start of the season," Chabot said. “Next year is my sixth season, and while we all love playing hockey, at the end of the day we’re all competitive and want to win and want to make the playoffs.
"There’s still a long road ahead when you see the teams in our division had 100 points so it won’t be easy for us to get there…but I’m ready to play in the playoffs."
Coach D.J. Smith said he’ll withhold judgment on whether this can be a playoff team until he sees what kind of moves Dorion makes in the off-season.
"You have to wait to see what we look like in September and I’ll give you an honest answer," Smith said. "But I believe that our core group is good enough, that the core group is strong enough, but how good are we as a whole when the whole pieces are put together."
Dorion was scheduled to meet with the media Sunday morning.
At the very least, the Senators will have a returning young core next season in Stützle, Tkachuk and Drake Batherson.
A priority for Dorion will be getting Norris, a pending restricted free agent and another big part of that group, under contract.
Norris, who had a career-high 35 goals, said he plans to let his agent take care of negotiations, but admitted he would prefer to see things get done quickly rather than having to deal with it all summer.
He plans to lean on Tkachuk, who went through the experience last season. Tkachuk missed training camp while holding out for a new contract before signing a seven-year, US$57.5-million contract just before the season opener.
“Obviously, (Tkachuk) went through it last summer and he’s one of my best buddies," Norris said. "I’m sure there’s going to be some days where I need a little bit of advice or just a word or just know that it’s all going to work out."
There are other useful pieces. Mathieu Joseph was a solid trade deadline addition, while veteran Connor Brown is a stable, reliable presence. Alex Formenton evolved into a bona fide threat on the penalty kill and Artem Zub has been a solid presence on the blue line.
Nick Holden provided a veteran presence on defence, and there's excitement around top prospect Jake Sanderson joining the blue line next year, but more time is needed before a decision can be made on what veteran Travis Hamonic can contribute.
Both Formenton and Joseph are set to become unrestricted free agents, as are Dylan Gambrell and Adam Gaudette.
With Norris and Stützle as the top two centres, Shane Pinto, who was limited to five games due to injury, envisions himself lining up as the third, with possibly Mark Kastelic the fourth.
“I obviously have to still earn my spot next year and continue to work,” said Pinto. “But if we could continue to get better with those four guys I think it’s going to be a good future for us.”
Stützle will play for Germany at the upcoming world championship and will return home for the summer, where he plans to study video and take on a more individualized training regimen.
“I’m so young so I think I can still improve everything in my game,” Stützle said. “I’ve got to get way better staying on my feet too and just try to move my feet as fast as possible. I just try to get stronger and stronger every day.”
Stützle said he definitely wants a better start to next season. It took until game 14 for his first goal of 2021-22.
“That was a pretty rough start and I didn’t expect that to happen because I felt really good going into the games,” admitted Stützle. “In the end it just builds confidence.”
Anton Forsberg, who signed a three-year extension, became the first goalie since Craig Anderson to play 45 games and was a steadying presence in goal.
Matt Murray still has two more years remaining on his contract and Filip Gustavsson will be on a one-way contract, and would require waivers to be demoted to the American Hockey League.
Notes: Tkachuk says he’s dealing with a few bumps and bruises and won’t represent the United States at the world championship. Batherson and Chabot will play for Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2022.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press