The 2023 playoffs are underway. Ottawa missed the mark for a sixth consecutive year, but that doesn’t correlate to a failed season.
Individual performances made this season a relative success for the Senators. Several core players improved, while the roster was refined as a whole. They are on the brink of reaching the next level as a team.
Certain players left a lasting impression with their performance this year. I aimed to address this by conducting season-end awards. These awards help define who took strides in specific areas. Let’s dive in.
Most Valuable Player: Tim Stützle
Runner-Up: Brady Tkachuk
Tim Stützle emerged as a true number one centre after being forced into the role due to Josh Norris’ injury. Stützle became Ottawa’s first player to score 90 points since Jason Spezza in 2008. This is incredible before considering that Stützle achieved it in his third pro season at 21 years old. The nearest player of this age scored 22 less points.
Stützle’s 46 5v5 points led the Senators. He was their best play-driver and utilized a high level of skill to do unique things with the puck. The club fed off of his offense, but also benefitted from versatility. Stützle averaged 2:15 more than the nearest team forward per game, and one more minute of ice-time than the nearest at 5v5. He led the club with 3 short-handed goals as well.
Nobody thought of Tim Stützle as a versatile player prior to this season. He was seen as a scoring threat, sure, but the other aspects of his game improved dramatically. He was Ottawa’s most valuable player.
Most Improved Player: Tim Stützle
Runner-Up: Erik Brännström
Adding to the MVP discussion, Tim Stützle also wins the award for most improved. This is largely because of the refinement of his game away from the puck, but headed by a 17 goal, 32 point increase. This elevation is nothing short of stunning. To score 90 points before finishing an entry-level contract is truly impressive.
Stützle was one of Ottawa’s few players to score more goals than expected. His metrics increased with his production despite facing more quality players than in years past. The opposition would often aim to limit Stützle with optimal match-ups, but he could not be stopped. His production was consistent and featured many point streaks against playoff-caliber teams.
Biggest Surprise + Earned a Payday: Erik Brännström
Runner-Up: Shane Pinto
Erik Brännström entered this season on a one-year contract. Most fans had written him off as a failed acquistion. He hadn’t shown enough to be a full-time NHL player and the club had several other defenders on route.
Brännström put this narrative to bed. He scored 18 points- including 15 over the final 32 games. Brännström also led the Senators in several major analytics. His 2.28 xGA/60 increased from 2.81 last season. This represents how much his defensive game improved. The Senators were a better defensive team with Brännström on the ice. He used his strengths- skating and puck movement- to improve his weaknesses. This helped him become a more complete player who limited mistakes.
People lost faith in Brännström prior to this season; it felt like he was on the way out. He earned more time in Ottawa, however, and maybe even a long-term deal.
Best Rookie/Defenseman: Jake Sanderson
Runner-Up: Shane Pinto
It would have taken something significant to pass on Shane Pinto’s 20 goal rookie season for this award. Jake Sanderson did something significant.
Sanderson changed Ottawa’s infrastructure. He emerged as a top pairing-level defenseman at just 20 years old. Sanderson averaged the second most minutes (21:55) among Ottawa skaters. This number increased to 25:18 over the final 16 games. The Senators relied on their rookie defenseman more as the season went on, and they were better for it. Sanderson was a consistent, reliable force on the backend. He rarely made mistakes and was called for the least amount of penalties (.21) per 60 minutes among team skaters. This ranked seventh among NHL defenseman. Sanderson’s maturity was astounding for his age.
Ottawa received criticism for drafting Sanderson fifth overall in 2020. As it turns out, he would have gone second overall in a redraft behind only Tim Stützle.
Most Underrated: Artem Zub
Runner-Up: Derick Brassard
Everyone loves Artem Zub, which probably makes it surprising that I consider him Ottawa’s most underrated skater this season. Although the ‘ZUB’ chants rung loud throughout the Canadian Tire Centre, fans weren’t as fond of his play. There was often criticism on social media surrounding Zub’s performance, while several members left him off of their power rankings. Zub almost feels forgotten on a defense who suddenly hosts so many stars.
Zub was a quietly steady presence on Ottawa’s backend. He was the only defenseman to record a positive 5v5 goal differential despite starting in the most defensive situations. His 2.16 GA/60 led defenders while his 2.37 xGA/60 ranked second. Zub averaged the second most minutes at 5v5 on the Senators.
Zub battled injuries throughout the campaign. He wasn’t overly noticeable when playing, but it’s important to understand that this is a good thing for a player in his role. He was tasked with shutting the opposition down and did just that.
Best Off-Season Acquistion: Claude Giroux
Runner-Up: Alex DeBrincat
Claude Giroux signed with the Senators as a 34 year old veteran. His production had steadily declined over the past few seasons in Philadelphia, which made the acquistion feel like a boost to the room more than anything.
This was far from the case, as Giroux set a new career-high in goals (35). He was one of four Ottawa skaters to record a positive 5v5 differential and the only member of their top six to do so. Giroux made everyone around him better on and off of the ice. Every player saw a performance increase when skating alongside Giroux.
Giroux was the perfect free agent addition. His impact on the players, franchise and community was uncanny. It was the perfect story.
Heart of the Team: Brady Tkachuk
Runner-Up: Claude Giroux
This award will belong to Brady Tkachuk for as long as he’s in Ottawa. The 23 year old captain drags his team into war every night. This was his personality when they drafted him, and it’s only increased during his time as an NHL star.
Tkachuk finished the season at over a point-per-game. He played all 82 games despite battling nagging injuries. This was largely due to his hit totals- which once again led the club and ranked 11th in the league. Tkachuk brings the energy on and off of the ice. He is a motivator who leads by example. Tkachuk also launched a partnership- along with his fiancé Emma- with the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa. His impact on the team and community continues to grow.
This award belongs to the player who would sacrifice it all for his peers. Brady Tkachuk epitomizes what it means to be a leader.