Can Stuetzle make seamless transition to NHL?

At a time when they are usually taking stock of their mid-season performance, the Ottawa Senators will be heading to training camp on New Year’s Eve day.

This will be the first official function of the team since it played its last game — way back on March 11, 2020.

A lot has changed since that time. Veterans have left and veterans have been acquired by trade and via free agency.

Some things haven’t changed. Namely, the same management group and coaching staff will be in place, looking for the next big thing to come out of their rebuild.

A large group of prospects will continue to push for jobs — and the fruits of the 2020 draft, where the Senators selected six players in the first two rounds, will be felt for years to come. However, wanting to protect his prospects during an abbreviated season, GM Pierre Dorion has brought in veterans at all positions.

Cap space: $12,502,501

General manager: Pierre Dorion

Head coach: D.J. Smith

Assistants: Jack Capuano (associate coach), Davis Payne, Bob Jones, Pierre Groulx (goalie coach), Mike King (video)

Unsigned players: the Senators have no players left to sign

Here is a look at the three big questions facing the Senators as they prepare to open camp.

Is Stuetzle ready for primetime?

For a hard-working, high-end prospect, Tim Stuetzle is as easy-going as they come. Yet, this is not an easy, or ordinary, transition into the NHL. Even his contract-signing with Ottawa was virtual, from the world juniors tournament in Edmonton.

Due to the pandemic, Stuetzle wasn’t able to take part in the usual developmental camp that would have helped him to get comfortable in the organization, meet his peers and settle in around the Canadian Tire Centre. Instead, he was drafted in a virtual event in October, third overall, and then rejoined his Mannheim Eagles team in Germany, where the C/LW promptly broke his hand in a flukey training camp collision. The 18-year-old (19 in January), shrugged that off, and jumped on a plane for Edmonton to be part of the 2021 World Junior Championship, only to have nine players on his German team test positive for COVID-19.

Despite those setbacks, Stuetzle has performed with aplomb at the world juniors, carrying his team on his broad shoulders, even though the Germans are at a massive competitive disadvantage. Stuetzle has been physical (no injury concern so far), assertive with the puck and dominant against his peer group, using his speed and size to advantage.

He says he can’t wait to arrive in Ottawa, and fans here can’t wait to see him, even if it can’t be live at the rink for a while.

After a week of quarantine, which will no doubt include training, Stuetzle will quickly transition to the Senators’ camp. After all of this, the kid is expected to make the team and be a productive player. It’s a lot to ask. But Stuetzle seems up for the challenge, and after the depth additions Ottawa made at forward recently, including Derek Stepan and Cedric Paquette, he will have a lot of veteran support. Expect Stuetzle to start the season at left wing, perhaps with Stepan as his centre.

Can the defence hold up?

Let’s not tar this group with the same brush that painted those awful goals-against numbers from the past three seasons. Not yet. There have been a lot of changes over that time. Gone from last year alone are Dylan DeMelo, Mark Borowiecki and Ron Hainsey. In their place are the likes of Erik Gudbranson, Josh Brown and now Braydon Coburn.

How the pairings shakeout will be sorted out in camp, but Christian Wolanin, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, and Erik Brannstrom, 21, who had a good year in Belleville, will be given serious looks. Franchise defenceman Thomas Chabot plus Mike Reilly and Nikita Zaitsev are back.

The recent addition of Coburn means the Senators have six NHL veterans on the blueline, with Brannstrom, Wolanin and Artem Zub trying to break through. It sets up well to have younger players, or a struggling vet, on the AHL/taxi squad ready to jump in as needed.

While Matt Murray, 26, should be an upgrade in goal from 39-year-old mainstay Craig Anderson, Murray will need some help from his blue line if Ottawa is going to improve on its 3.4 goals per game allowed last season, second-worst in the NHL. This new corps is going to have to find chemistry in a hurry. How the defence meshes with the man in the mesh will go a long way to dictating whether or not the Senators can surprise some people in the Great White North Division.

Who backs up Murray? Plus, the backup needs a backup

Along with just about everything else, the goaltending rotation has changed for 2021. As a defence against the compressed schedule, plus insurance against the coronavirus and travel restrictions, teams will carry three goaltenders. What will that mean for the Senators? Sorting it out will be a major camp exercise.

The first part is easy. Murray will play the bulk of the games. On paper, at least, Marcus Hogberg will back him up. Anders Nilsson, who had been dealing with post-concussion syndrome, just got dealt to Tampa and will be on the Lightning’s LTIR.

With 11 back-to-back games on their schedule, the second-most in the North Division, the Senators will likely use two goalies to give Murray a break and to keep each netminder sharp. Who knows if the AHL will start on time in early February. Until then, Ottawa is the best place for veteran goalies. Vying for a spot in the three-man system will be Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson — the AHL Belleville tandem last season. The Senators thought enough of Daccord to sign him a three-year contract, the third year of which is one-way (2022-23). That works in his favour.

What might help Gustavsson is the fact he had been playing, and playing well, in Europe prior to leaving in early December for Ottawa to quarantine before the Senators’ camp. With Sodertalje SK of the SHL, Gustavsson had a record of 11-7-0 with a 2.30 goals-against and .919 save percentage.

The goalie troika could play out any number of ways, but the advantage goes to the backup who can show well early, and make the most of his practice and camp time to be ready when called upon. With 56 regular season games in 113 days, there is no downtime. No time to regroup.

Head coach D.J. Smith and goalie coach Pierre Groulx are going to look to the backups that have the confidence of the coaching staff and players.