For years and years, the Senator’s defense has been one of their bigger weaknesses. That stood true up until the trade deadline this season and now it finally appears as though the Senators have figured out their top 4. The only question mark now is finding a bottom pairing guy and even then, they could likely fill that role internally with one of their young guns. So where does this new-look defense rank among the rest of the league? Let’s take a look.
First, I would like to identify how I expect the team to line up on the back end assuming everybody is healthy.
The biggest question is the bottom pair, I think Brannstrom is all but guaranteed to play there as long as he is re-signed. However, I could see a scenario in which the team would like to start Kleven on the top pair in Belleville, and instead insert JBD or Thomson on the bottom pair. Assuming Brannstrom is brought back there will really only be a single spot open, and it will be a battle between the three guys mentioned. It is still up in the air whether Hamonic will be re-signed to the team, however, given the new Matinpalo signing it is seeming less and less likely we see Hamonic in Ottawa this year.
The top-4 is all but set in stone, it will most likely be some combination of Chabot, Chychrun, Sanderson, and Zub. This is a top-4 that Sens fans would have dreamt about years ago. The emergence of Jake Sanderson has been incredibly valuable to this defense. The Sens now have 3 legitimate all-star caliber defenders on the back end which has set them up for what feels like “unparalleled success”. In combination with the Jake Sanderson emergence is the acquisition of Jakob Chychrun from the Arizona Coyotes. Chychrun is one of the league’s very best young defenders and along with other fans, I am dying to see what he can do in a full season with the Senators. So with this new and improved defensive core, where do the Sens rank among the league back-end units?
The best way to look at this in my opinion is to count down the teams who have superior defensive units to the Sens. As of today (pre-draft/free agency) I would say that the following teams have a better defensive unit than the Ottawa Senators.
Carolina, Colorado, New York Rangers, Las Vegas, Tampa Bay, Boston, New Jersey
After these teams, it becomes a very tight race between the Sens and several other teams. There are a few teams that I think the Senators marginally edge out, these include the Panthers, Stars, and Kings. When looking on paper, I believe the Sens outclass these squads however it is very close, especially given the star power of these defensive corps. The Panthers are quite top-heavy with Ekblad and Montour, the Stars have their true elite #1 in Heiskanen and the Kings are well-balanced with plenty of young and veteran pieces.
All that being said, I believe the Sens have the 8th best defense in the NHL. Given the age of Ottawa’s core as well it is very possible that they increase their rank this season. The average age of the Senator’s blue line if the lineup is as I predicted is only 24 years old. Given this is already likely a top-10 defense in the NHL, they will only improve their rank since they are much much younger than many of the other teams mentioned. The other important part of the Senator’s defense is that each player brings something different to the team.
Jake Sanderson is arguably the top defender on this team. He brings a little bit of everything to the game. His strongest attributes include his elite speed and his defensive positioning. Sanderson brings an elite two-way game to the team and is one of the best transitional players on the team. He is the most well-balanced defender on the roster and has no real weakness making him one of the most reliable defensemen for DJ Smith.
Zub is your prototypical shutdown defenseman. While he struggled at times this year, I am not worried about his play considering the injuries he had to go through, including a broken jaw. While not the biggest player on the ice, Zub brings a great physicality aspect to the team and utilizes his body very effectively to close off the opposition’s forwards.
I am hopeful that Chabot can return to his previous form again this upcoming season. The 2022/2023 season was definitely difficult for the defenseman, however when he is on his game he brings an offensive touch the Sens could use. He is the most smooth skater on this blue line, not necessarily the fastest but his glide allows him to carry the puck and make plays to create offense.
The newest addition to the Senator’s top-4 Jakob Chychrun brings a couple of elite attributes to the team. The most notable of which has to be the cannon of a shot he brings from the blue line. Whether it is a wrist shot or a slap shot, Chychrun can bring the heat from anywhere on the ice. He, like Sanderson, is another great 2-way defender. Chychrun also has a very strong stick that he is able to use to break up plays from the opposition.
What we have seen from Kleven at the NHL level has been limited, although we can combine that with what we have seen from him in college to get a good idea of how he plays. Kleven is the most physical defender on this team. In college, he was known for leveling his opponents with thunderous checks all over the ice. With that being said, he is still a capable defender who can stay with opposing forwards and move the puck up the ice to his own forwards.
Brannstrom is the most interesting of the defenders mentioned in my eyes. He brings so many great qualities to the game, but his biggest flaw is putting everything together to generate production. Brannstrom is a very underrated defender, he is very effective at shutting down forwards regardless of his size. He is also right up there as the best passer on this blue line and has elite skating ability. I am very high on Brannstrom and I consider him to be this team’s “Swiss army knife” meaning he can play effectively anywhere and with anyone in the lineup. Which will be very helpful when this team inevitably has their injuries.