Senators’ exit meetings marked by common theme: ‘They want more’

The Ottawa Senators believe they will be a much better team next season.

But they aren’t about to add “expectations” to the list of burdens they need to overcome.

After his first season as captain, Brady Tkachuk made a point of saying the Senators will tune out the “outside noise” as far as playoff talk and opinions of where this team should be in its development.

“To be honest with you, we’re not going to really listen to the external pressures on our group,” Tkachuk said. “We’re just going to focus on ‘day in, day out’, every game is important. All those points are valuable. You see it takes the high 90s (in points) to make the playoffs, so you can’t really focus on the numbers, you have to focus on the day in, day out.

“I think we’re ready for everything that comes our way now.”

The Sens finished their season much as they did last year — with a final flourish. Ottawa won five of its last six games but still missed the playoffs by a country mile.

Head coach DJ Smith called it the longest year of his coaching career, because of the spate of injuries, COVID-19 issues, schedule changes and added travel.

Still, he said the challenges helped the staff learn about the players while the players learned what they could and could not do.

Smith said the common theme for Saturday’s exit interviews was that the group is hungry for success.

“They want more — more for themselves,” Smith said. “They want to be a part of the (playoff) action.”

Talk is cheap, of course, but when there are no games left on the calendar for a non-playoff team, talk is all there is.

Smith, named an assistant coach for Canada’s team at the upcoming IIHF World Championship in Finland, heads home to Windsor for a few days and then will be back here Wednesday to meet with Canadian head coach Claude Julien in preparation for the tournament.

After three losing seasons as Ottawa’s head coach, Smith admitted he’s looking for a “chance to win something.”

Winning is also on the menu for the Senators in 2022-23, although Smith cautioned he will have to see what his roster looks like, following the summer (over to you, GM Pierre Dorion, who speaks on Sunday).

Smith feels the core pieces are in place, with the likes of Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stützle, Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson, among others.

“They need guys to support them,” Smith said.

Tkachuk believes the will is there.

“Internally, we’re going to push each other, push ourselves to be as great as we can be,” said Tkachuk, who was called a “father figure” for the entire team by Smith. Quite a title for a 22-year-old, but Tkachuk certainly established his credentials as a leader. Part of that growth was learning to keep his emotions in check, he said.

Tkachuk’s linemate Batherson said he believes this team is ready to push for a playoff spot.

“We showed we can beat the high-end teams,” Batherson said. “We just have to be more consistent.”

Alternate captain Chabot agreed that it’s time to compete.

“As players, I think it’s time for us to start winning and bring this team to a whole other level,” Chabot said. “I think everybody in our division that is making the playoffs is over 100 points, so it’s a long way there, but I think it’s a place we can get to.”

Contract needed for Norris

Josh Norris, Ottawa’s goal-scoring leader with 35, says he doesn’t focus on setting goals for his stats.

“I think it kind of gets in the way of where you’re trying to go — it keeps you out of the present moment,” Norris says.

Having said that, he added that scoring 35 goals this season was a “nice milestone.”

With linemate Brady Tkachuk scoring No. 30, the pair became the first 30-plus goal scorers as teammates since Milan Michalek (35) and Jason Spezza (34) in 2011-12.

While Norris might not set goals, the goals he scored have set him for a good contract this summer as a pending RFA.

“I hope we can get it done rather quickly,” Norris said. “And I really don’t want it rolling over my head all summer, so we’ll see what happens. But I love it here. I love the city. I think we’ve got a great crew and I want to be here for a long time.”

Norris will lean on Tkachuk and his contract experience of last summer.

“He’s one of my best buddies … I’m sure there’s going to be days when I need a little bit of advice, or just the word that’s all gonna work out.”

Tkachuk can advise Norris

Tkachuk promised Norris an “exciting” summer getting a deal done.

“Honestly, he’s done everything he can to leave it out there and prove himself, prove how good of a player he is,” Tkachuk said of Norris. “I was fortunate to play with him all year and see the progression, and that’s just been awesome.

“I kind of know how the emotions work with it, and yeah, I’m going to do my best to be there for him. It’s going to, at times, feel like a long summer — a couple of hard days will come… but it’s an exciting process, just enjoy it.”

Stützle pumped for worlds

Several Senators will join DJ Smith at the World Hockey Championship, including three players who spoke on Saturday morning — Drake Batherson and Thomas Chabot for Canada and Tim Stützle for Germany.

“It’s going to be fun seeing all those guys at the World Championship and we’re going to have dinner together,” Stützle said.

Interestingly, Stützle and Smith admitted that the 20-year-old was offered the chance to play center right out of the training camp, but opted to learn more about the left wing position first. Stützle’s eventual shift over to centre, due to injuries in the lineup, proved to be the trigger for his development into an elite prospect at the position.

Smith believes Stützle can be a huge star in the league.

“Everything we asked him to do — he got better,” Smith said.

One of the areas Stützle plans to work on: staying on his feet.

Pinto close to 100 per cent

Center Shane Pinto, who missed almost the entire season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, says he probably could have played this spring had the Senators qualified for the post-season.

“We just ran out of time,” Pinto said. The rookie said that is at about the five-month mark now, which is about the time period his doctor said would be required.

“I’m feeling good. “I’ve been working on skating the past couple of months (with one contact practice), but I’ll just reset now. Spend some time with family and then get going again with training in June … I’ll come here a little bit early just to get into the swing of things quicker.”

As usual, injuries were a big part of garbage-bag day talk.

Tkachuk said he has two very sore hands, plus an aching back and knee — ailments that will keep him out of the tournament for the USA. Connor Brown missed the last part of the season with a broken wrist.

Meanwhile, trade deadline acquisition Mathieu Joseph, who also missed the closing games, disclosed that he was dealing with a rib cage injury.

“It’s kind of my SC (sternoclavicular) joint, close to my sternum and my cartilage on my first rib has been bothering me, there’s a small fracture in there so I wasn’t able to go in the last few weeks of the season, Joseph said.

On the bright side, Joseph said he had a wonderful experience visiting the White House with his former Tampa Bay Lightning teammates last week. Joseph can’t wait to play a full season in Ottawa and feels he can be a useful player up and down the lineup as needed and on the penalty kill.

Matt Murray still dealing with concussion issues

Goaltender Matt Murray hasn’t played a game since March 5, and is still dealing with lingering concussion symptoms.

Murray said he was “pushing hard” to get in some games late in the schedule, but had to shut things down recently as symptoms re-occurred. He is hoping a bit more rest can result in him returning to the ice. The veteran dryly noted that he has reluctantly become very knowledgeable on concussion issues, having suffered one in 2016 that had him consult some of the top concussion experts in the US

The most common advice from others who have gone through it — get all the rest you need. Some cases take longer than others.

The focus, he added, is on staying positive and hopes to be able to resume training this summer once he clears the last few hurdles toward full health.

Fans and media can speculate on Murray’s future in Ottawa, and whether or not the team could exercise a buyout option, but Murray is certainly talking as though he will be part of the picture in the fall.

Four of Murray’s five wins this season came in the month of January, and he believes he can get back to that level and form a strong tandem with Anton Forsberg next season.

“When I was in there, I thought I played well all season,” Murray said. “It’s just about being healthy.”

Murray said he has seen a lot of progress in the team’s play over the second part of the season and feels the future is bright.

“I think you’re starting to see the progression even since I’ve been here,” Murray said. “Guys are maturing, both on and off the ice.”

Having won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Murray knows what kind of formula a team needs in the post-season.

“It’s attention to detail, especially in playoff hockey, it’s the very fine details that determine whether you win or lose games. It’s so much different, it’s tighter, there’s a much smaller margin for error.

“The fact we saw a lot more attention to details in the second half, defensively and offensively, I think we just need to keep building on that, keep going in the same direction and we’ll be in a good spot,” Murray said. .

Smith said he hopes Murray can be ready to go in the fall after being “unavailable” for most of this season.

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