Colin White Backfill: Fold, Check or Raise?

In one of the most innocuous plays I have ever seen in an NHL game, Colin White abruptly left the October 4th pre-season game against the Leafs with what turned out to be a shoulder dislocation. The team announced later that surgery would be required, thus likely ending any hope of White playing in the 2021/22 regular season. The estimated recovery time is between four and six months. Below is a clip which has me wondering how this injury came to be and leaves me to seriously ponder, given his injury history, how he can survive the rigors of an 82 game NHL schedule.



At 24, White was entering the third year of a six year contract with an AAV of $4.75 million. He is coming off an underwhelming season that saw him register only 18 points in 45 games while even being a healthy scratch to start the season out of camp.


I suppose the how or why of the injury or the future of Colin White in the organization can be debated another day. For now, the Senators need to figure out what to do to backfill White's spot on the roster. Contrary to what anyone might think of White and his worth compared to his contract, this is a blow to the Senators season and a serious one. White has 200 games under hit belt as an NHL player with 88 points to show for it. Granted, he is a career -41 over that stretch. However, the Senators were a non-playoff team with very few players on the plus side of the ledger. The point being, Colin White is a legitimate NHL player.


As soon as this happened, ideas started to spew out from the Twittersphere about how the Senators can easily shuffle the lines like Reggie Dunlop from Slapshot and out of nowhere, a saviour will appear from the depth of the organization. Let’s not forget the Senators did nothing up front to better the team in free agency or trade before acquiring Zach Sanford from the Blues for Logan Brown. In my article about the Sanford acquisition, this was the depth chart I had envisioned.


LW C RW

Tim Stutzle Josh Norris Connor Brown

Brady Tkachuk Shane Pinto Drake Batherson

Zach Sanford Colin White Alex Formenton

Nick Paul Chris Tierney Austin Watson

*Clark Bishop/Tyler Ennis


LD RD

Thomas Chabot Artyum Zub

Michael Del Zotto Nikita Zaitsev

Victor Mete Erik Brannstrom

Nick Holden Josh Brown/JBD


G

Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg, Filip Gustavsson


Jacob Bernard-Docker has been returned to Belleville and Clark Bishop is also out long-term with an injury. Tyler Ennis has since signed a one year contract for $900,000.00 and Brady Tkachuk remains the only RFA in this year’s class without a contract. The team appears to be preparing to not have him around until that next magical date of December 1st. Let’s see what the depth chart looks like now on the eve of the season.


LW C RW

Tim Stutzle Josh Norris Connor Brown

Tyler Ennis Shane Pinto Drake Batherson

Zach Sanford Alex Formenton

Nick Paul Chris Tierney Austin Watson

*Andrew Aggozino/Parker Kelly


LD RD

Thomas Chabot Artyum Zub

Michael Del Zotto Nikita Zaitsev

Victor Mete Erik Brannstrom

Nick Holden Josh Brown


G

Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg, Filip Gustavsson

Using my poker analogy, it’s time for the Senators to look at their hand and either fold, check or raise on the season. We have heard “The Rebuild is Over.” If that’s true, a message needs to be sent to the fans about the direction of the team. The Ontario government has announced capacity restrictions are lifted for all venues used for holding concerts, live sporting events and movie theatres. Poor attendance can’t be blamed on Covid-19 anymore. It will now come down to fan support or apathy.


FOLD

Folding on the season would be akin to simply looking at the situations with Tkachuk and White (with no legit substitutes within the system that can help bridge the gap short term) and focus on development. Would the team come out and say: “We don’t think the season is worth saving?” Of course not. It would be evident in the maneuvers they make or don’t make.


DJ Smith and Pierre Dorion have just been extended three years beyond the current year. That is guaranteed money the team will have to pay and Eugene Melnyk doesn’t like to pay people to not coach or manage his team.


It would seem like it wasn’t the Senators' fault as Brady Tkachuk’s camp is clearly being labelled as responsible for not having put ink to paper on a contract. The team doesn’t control injuries like the one that happened to White. They will look to Tyler Ennis as the short-term solution as a player who will look to play his way into a deadline deal as he has in the past.


Rather than disrupting the development of the likes of Egor Sokolov, Mark Kastelic or Roby Jarventie, the team backfills White’s injury with someone like Parker Kelly and moves Chris Tierney up the depth chart to the three spot and leaves everyone else where they were intended to be.

Injuries throughout the season could give those players and other younger prospects a chance to taste from the chalice without the expectations that can cripple younger players and they can move freely up and down without the burden of waivers.


The Senators are also in an unusually advantageous position as far as unused cap space and could potentially stockpile more draft picks by providing some cap relief to teams trying to make a run for it.


After four straight seasons of draft lotteries, many fans were looking forward to a playoff caliber season or at least being in a serious hunt for it. After looking at what management did in the off season, or more importantly didn’t do, I wasn’t convinced the Senators were a playoff team, even with Tkachuk and White in the lineup. This possibility has some merit to it. It's just no damned fun.


The big issue with this option is the team is trying to court the likes of Tkachuk and even Jake Sanderson in the spring to be a part of their future. They hold the cards. If they don’t like the future they see, this is why players stay another year in the NCAA or sign bridge contracts instead of long-term deals. They don’t want to be part of a losing culture. And when you've missed the playoffs five years in a row without even being competitive, that’s exactly the risk you run.


CHECK

In this scenario, the team tries to salvage the season by promoting players to higher roles in the depth chart than originally planned. They would accelerate the curve and see if the young lads are up to the challenge. It doesn’t involve making a big trade. It simply amounts to convincing your fan base that accelerating the development of younger players can actually get the team where it wants to be rather than staying the course. The team maintains it is committed to the current season and ultimately Belleville would suffer the consequences and the backfilling would happen there.


I have heard ideas such as moving Nick Paul to center, put Tim Stutzle at center, move Formenton back to his natural spot and bring Sokolov back up and we’ll be as good as new.


Rubbish!!


The organization waited years to have Nick Paul become a legit left winger in the league and he is finally an everyday player. After all that investment in his development, you want to ask him to re-learn a position he hasn't regularly played since junior and risk losing the NHL confidence he has finally gained?


Granted, Tim Stutzle is only 19 and has a ton of potential. However, as a left winger last season, I did not see the defensive awareness in his game to make me think he could handle the responsibilities of being a center in the NHL. If they did this under the FOLD option with the understanding the team is using this season to identify if Stutzle is a center or a winger, then I could accept that. Please just don’t sell me that as an idea to save the season.


If you watched Egor Sokolov in the pre-season with his huge frame, right-handed shot and the number 75, you saw a potential Ryan Reaves type of player with far less fighting ability and a better offensive upside. In the AHL, I am sure he has the potential to be that this year. I freely admit the potential is there. However, if you put him in the NHL and expect him to have an impact that could ultimately save the season and make the club playoff competitive, you are setting the fan base up for disappointment and setting him up for failure.


This option has the least amount of merit. It requires insulting the fanbase intelligence by believing they have something that isn’t there. As I said before, I didn’t see us the Senators as a playoff team with Tkachuk and White. Believing those two players can be replaced by “shuffling the lines” is just going to end badly.


RAISE

In this scenario, the Senators would use their cap space, not to entice bad contracts to stockpile draft picks, but rather to use some of their draft capital and unused cap space to bring in someone who could help them now.


Anything worth signing as an unrestricted free agent has pretty much been acquired by now so I am thinking of potential UFAs for 2022 that could be available now if their current teams don’t think they can be resigned the following season.


What do the Senators have to offer?


They have two picks in the 2nd round and three picks in the 3rd round in the 2022 NHL draft.

In terms of A level prospects, they also have Ridly Greig who is signed and in the WHL likely to have a World Junior Hockey Championship experience and clearly isn’t long to be in the NHL. Not that they would part with him, Jake Sanderson is not signed at the moment but has been earmarked for General and is expected to the in the league as soon as his college season ends.


In terms of B level prospects, they also have first round picks in the system such as Jacob Bernard-Dokker or Lassi Thomson who are both trending to be good NHL players in the future with the proper development. Where they fit in the depth chart is still TBD but there is undeniable potential as top five or better.


They also have recently drafted Tyler Boucher and Zach Ostapchuk. The latter has already been signed and is back in the WHL.


Who is out there? Who are the potential dance partners? I won’t try to package the players but only to show what options may be out there. The following players are UFA at the end of 2022.


Tomas Hertl – C – San Jose Sharks

There were rumours about Hertl being on the move and the Senators being in on those discussions. This gives the Senators an opportunity to show their fan base that they were serious about this season. He is UFA at the end of this season pending an extension but there is a NTC in play. The Sharks aren’t likely to make the playoffs this season either and perhaps the right deal to get return on Hertl now rather than heckling at the deadline would be appealing to Doug Wilson.


Filip Forsberg – C – Nashville Predators

There were rumours that Forsberg was available last year when the Predators started poorly. Their improbable run to the playoffs nixed that. However, once a player hears his name in trade rumours, the likelihood of an extension becomes low. Perhaps Nashville is looking to make a move now rather than wait?


Claude Giroux – C – Philadelphia Flyers

At 34, Giroux is older than Hertl and Forsberg and is clearly not what he once was. However, I am guessing the Flyers would love to get his $8.275 million cap hit off the books and Giroux would probably love to come and play where he lives in the offseason. He probably wants to make the playoffs this year and the Flyers might give him a better chance. That said, they were supposed to be there last year and the year before and Carter Hart is still figuring out what it takes to be a starting NHL goalie.


These options would be great in theory. However, in the case of the first two, in particular, they would involve the Senators playing from a position of weakness. The Sens' jugular is exposed and they could end up paying more than they might like. I like the Giroux option because the Sens can revert back to their plan and keep him in the fold as a solid center who can score on the power play.


The problem is that trades typically involve a lot of scouting from teams once they establish who is and is not available. Could the Senators pull off a deal like that in time to save this season? Puck drop is October 12th. At least, in the short term, the Sens would have to backfill from within while these deals were developed and, assuming the club is competitive and in the hunt, the trigger could be pulled. I would prefer this option, though it seems unlikely logistically.


In the end, I think FOLD is the best way to go. Sens fans have waited for the playoffs for four years. Another year where the team develops the likes of Norris, Pinto, Stutzle, JBD, Gustavsson and possibly Sanderson to end the season to be cornerstones of the franchise, seems like the more logical and feasible way to go. If those players take a step forward and Tkachuk returns to the fold by December 1st, the fans will be on board if they see progress.


If you’ll permit me the Thanksgiving analogy, keep the turkeys in the oven until they're done and Sens Nation can feast next season.


By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey