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Senators dealing with 'problem' of riches on their power play units

Except that now, the Senators have an abundance of riches, at least at forward, such that head coach D.J. Smith cannot fit all of his offensive weapons into a single five-man unit. 
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Ottawa Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith shouts instructions to his players during the third period of NHL pre-season action against the Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg on Tuesday September 27, 2022.

For the first time in years, the Ottawa Senators might have too much of a good thing. 

Or is there such a thing in hockey?

The Senators ran through power play drills on Wednesday, Sept. 28, the kind of ho-hum, training camp routine that ordinarily would not merit attention. 

Except that now, the Senators have an abundance of riches, at least at forward, such that head coach D.J. Smith cannot fit all of his offensive weapons into a single five-man unit. 

Considering that Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion just recruited winger Alex DeBrincat, a two-time 41-goal scorer and power play (PP) sniper (14 PP goals last season), plus veteran centre Claude Giroux, the assumption may have been that one or both would be on PP1.

However, explaining later that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Smith ran out a first unit that was a carbon copy of last year’s group – captain Brady Tkachuk with Tim Stützle, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris and defenceman Thomas Chabot.

DeBrincat and Giroux were on the second unit with rookie Shane Pinto, rookie defenceman Jake Sanderson and prospect Angus Crookshank, who is not likely to make the final roster out of camp. 

Of course, the camp is barely a week old and a lot can change between now and Ottawa’s first regular season game in Buffalo on Oct. 13. 

But it’s interesting to see the Sens dealing with this first-world-problem kind of issue: Keeping everyone happy with their minutes and power play opportunities. Even a casual fan understands that offensive players pad their stats and pay their bills on the power play.

A typical first unit might get 80 or 90 seconds of time, depending on whistles and zone pressure. It can really vary from team to team and player to player. It’s almost as though Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has a two-minute PP clause in his contract. Unit two generally gets chump change. With a few exceptions. For a second time, Smith referred to the St. Louis Blues’ balanced approach, trying to give somewhat equal time to both units. 

“They were second in the National Hockey League (NHL) on the PP while sharing their units,” Smith said. “We’re in that situation where I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Smith told Ottawa reporters that he has spoken with Giroux and DeBrincat about this situation. 

“For today’s athlete, communication is absolutely the key,” Smith said. “Who is to say which unit will be better?” Luckily, communication seems to be a real Smith strength. It may be needed. 

Smith added that Giroux has been dangerous on the power play “his whole career.”

For now, everyone is making nice, like kids in the sandbox when the teachers are watching.

“We’re a tight group,” Stützle says. “For us, it doesn’t matter who scores the goals, everyone is going to play as much as he can. And the group that is going better is going to play more.”

Not caring who scores the goals sounds terrific in theory. One for all, team first – just pick your cliche. But the 24-year-old DeBrincat and his agent are going to care who scores the goals when the winger’s contract expires after this season. He would be a restricted free agent in 2023, if he doesn’t sign an extension here beforehand. 

For now, DeBrincat is saying all the right things about the pleasant problem of having too many strong forwards for one power play unit. 

“It’s a great problem to have,” DeBrincat says. “(There are) times during the year when power plays go in droughts and if you have two good ones that can pick up the slack or whatever it may be, I think it’s a friendly competition. 

“And we obviously want to be the ones going out there and everyone wants to play - it’s a good problem to have.” So he keeps saying. Privately, is he wondering why a two-time 41-goal scorer is starting out on PP2? Or is he confident that cream rises. He will get his shots and bury them. 

Along with adjusting to a new team and systems, DeBrincat has the challenge on the power play of learning to play with a new setup man. In Chicago, DeBrincat made a good living off the soft passes of one Patrick Kane. For his part, Kane was lamenting the loss of his linemate, saying the other day that he had lost his “best friend” when DeBrincat was traded to Ottawa.

Here, at least for now, Giroux is the one setting DeBrincat up for one-timers. And DeBrincat admits it’s a work in progress, as much as he respects and admires Giroux as a player and teammate. 

“He’s a great competitor...  a great passer,” DeBrincat says. “He can find those seams, he can move the puck. I think we’re just trying to find each other, find out where each one wants to be. And it’s still not the best out there. But you know, we’re working through it and we’re talking a lot, trying to get better out there, trying to get that chemistry and feel good about our games.”

DeBrincat adds that he likes Giroux’s willingness to battle. And as much as they have to learn to read off each other, a lot of times on the power play individuals react to a certain situation, and go on instinct. 

In one sense, Smith must feel he can’t lose in this power play deployment. 

If that familiar Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson-Stützle-Chabot unit isn’t getting it done, he can turn to another group led by DeBrincat and Norris. 

It might just work out fine, going with the hot hand. Still, it will be fascinating to see how this team keeps two trigger men happily fed in Norris and DeBrincat. Ottawa may have two units, but they only get to play with one puck.

 

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