Final Month: Sens Need to Spend House Money Wisely
With Monday’s trade deadline now in the rear view mirror, it’s now time to reflect on what was a definitive moment in the rebuilding process. Bidding farewell to veterans like Coburn, Reilly and Gudbranson, Dorion has now opened up the necessary spots for incoming prospects. Currently, with Evgenii Dadonov, Artem Anisimov and Michael Haley being the only remaining players over 30 years of age, the youth movement is in 4th gear.
With expectations set to skyrocket as soon as next season, these final 13 games left on the 2020-2021 slate will be the organization’s last shot at playing with house money for quite some time. Given that, there are some burning questions Dorion and company would love answered, at least partially, before season’s end.
Erik Brannstrom, behind the likes of Mike Reilly and Christian Wolanin on the depth chart for much of the campaign, will now likely be thrust into a top 4 role for the remainder of the season. His skill level is apparent, but he’s had difficulty getting acclimated to the increased size and speed the NHL has to offer. On top of that, he’s playing for a head coach in DJ Smith, who quite clearly likes his defenceman to resemble tree stumps.
However, Monday’s waiver claim of the also vertically challenged Victor Mete suggests he and GM Pierre Dorion don’t exactly see eye to eye in that regard. Mete, profiled as the “modern day defenceman”, is just a year older than Brannstrom (22) and, going forward, It’s reasonable to think the two could be competing for one spot.
When you forecast next year’s blue line, I envision a top tandem of Chabot and JBD. I expect to see Bernard-Docker’s cup of coffee this season be played mostly alongside Chabby to get a look at them as a duo. After that, Artem Zub will need someone on the left side to play with on the second pairing. Although Brannstrom is a left handed shot, he’s admitted that he feels more comfortable playing on the right side. With Mete being a left shot, there’s a good chance that the final top 4 spot on the left side goes to one of either Brannstrom or Mete. That’s the kind of internal competition the organization has been trying to create in all areas.
When comparing the two, you certainly have a lot more to go by at the NHL level when it comes to Victor Mete. Breaking through at just 19 years of age, Mete has already played in 185 NHL games since the ‘17-’18 season. He hasn’t shown much offensive prowess, only finding the back of the net 4 times over his 3 and a half years of intermittent play with the Habs. But his offensive game has never been his calling card. Thus far in his career, he’s never wrapped up a season with a negative plus/minus, nor has he ever shied away from blocking a shot (236 career blocked shots). Claiming someone off waivers is never an ideal way to kick off a relationship, but with Mete, a guy who quite simply fell victim to a numbers game in Montreal, I see this move for the Sens as a no-risk transaction that could reap solid benefits. His numbers and play give me hope this will work out favourably for Ottawa.
Back to Brannstrom, it’s clear from watching him play with Belleville this season that he’s too good for the AHL (5 assists in 4 games). Unfortunately, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re ready for the NHL either. Unlike a guy like Mete, a defence-first guy, whose game better translates to the NHL, Brannstrom’s style of play forces him to rely more on his instincts and skill set.
Working with offensive minded, puck-facilitating D-men, you sometimes have to let them learn on the job. Erik Karlsson was afforded the opportunity to work out his kinks on the fly, as is Thomas Chabot. For Brannstrom, a guy that’s produced nice point totals at every level but the top one, he's in a situation where he’s playing for a head coach who's skeptical of his game.
Already getting sent down on numerous occasions and having to deal with the mental strain that goes with that, when he has gotten his way into the Sens lineup, he’s yet to eclipse 20 minutes played in any game. He’s been out there sitting on the bench for, at times, upwards of 45 minutes a game as he watches Chabot make in-game mistakes and be afforded the opportunity to learn from them.
With 13 games and just over a month remaining in the season, Smith needs to give Branny the Chabot treatment and, more or less, throw him to the wolves. Personally, I see him as a medium risk, high reward project. His upside is much higher than Victor Mete’s, but his style of play requires a lot more grooming. With the remaining games being the last chance to just go out there and play with no consequences to the team, now is the time to give Brannstrom a legit top 4 role.
The next question the Sens will be seeking answers for over this next month will be finding out what they really have in Matt Murray. Acquiring him in the offseason, Murray promptly signed an extension that carries with it an AAV of $6.25M and good for three more seasons. Posting a sub .900 save percentage over the last two years, there is also a question mark in regards to his durability. That skepticism won't be answered in the present, but with Murray poised to make his return Wednesday night against the Jets, seeing him turn in some strong performances would do wonders for both his own confidence, as well as the fan base's confidence in him being the guy moving forward.
Looking solely at play, I would put Joey Daccord in the pole position to land a 1A role between the pipes in 2021-2022, with Gustavsson also being in the mix. However, that’s just not the way things work in professional sports. Murray isn't a threat to be taken by the Kraken in the upcoming expansion draft, given his price tag. I see Forsberg as a more viable option for Seattle, despite being a pending UFA.
For Murray, that money he’s owed is not going away. The Sens are pigeon-holed into a spot where they have to throw him out there and hope he figures things out. If he does, we know his upside is Stanley Cup caliber, but those days are getting further and further away and you have to start to wonder if he’s still capable of reaching those heights. Still just 26, we’ll see how he holds up the rest of this season and go from there.
Up front, it’s been an up and down year for the Sens. The power-play struggles have been well documented (26th league wide). But most of the young guys have still put together some nice campaigns. Young phenoms such as Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Shane Norris and Tim Stutzle have all lived up to expectations. With Alex Formenton coming up and playing well, and Shane Pinto signing his entry level deal, there should continue to be a steady influx of reinforcements to add to an increasingly enticing top 12.
Connor Brown is in the midst of an 8 game goal streak. That puts him up with the likes of Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, to name a few, in terms of longest goal streaks. Brown is an extremely hard worker that generates a ton of scoring chances off that hunger. Locked up for an AAV of 3.6M over the next two seasons, that has a chance to be a VERY team friendly deal if he keeps up the strong play. Essentially, if things go according to plan, Ottawa will have one of the best 3rd line centres in the game at an affordable cost.
As for who will play alongside Brown, that’s the biggest question. Ryan Dzingel stayed put at the deadline. Surprisingly, there was not a ton of intrigue surrounding the 29 year old speedster. A guy in his second stint with the club, Dzingel has accepted a bottom 6 role with grace and, in around 13 minutes of action a night, he gives you great energy and usually one or two solid scoring chances. Dorion said the two parties would, at the very least, discuss a new contract in the off-season and perhaps find a solid role for Zinger.
After that, the bottom 6 fills out quite nicely. Nick Paul, who despite registering only 3 goals thus far on the season, makes his presence felt on both ends of the ice each and every game. He is a responsible player and a type of player that every team needs in their lineup. Colin White has floundered production-wise after a hot start, but he’s still just 24 and good enough as is to slide in there as a 4th line centre. That’s not what Dorion envisions for a guy the team is paying 4.75 big ones a year, but I figure he’ll grow into more than what he is currently before the end of his contract. I don’t see him ever being a legit top 6 centre, but I think he’ll figure out a way to become a 15-20 goal a year guy to go with a pretty solid 2-way game.
Overall, I’d say the rebuild is coming together pretty nicely. This year’s deadline was a productive one in terms of off-loading some veterans and acquiring some nice draft currency to play with. What they also did was open up some roster spots for guys who it would be wise to get a better look at as they prepare for the long-run.
If this is truly the last stretch of “meaningless” games for a long time, it would be well worth their while to use that freedom wisely and get a clearer picture of what they have in some key areas heading into next season.
By Cam Clement | Sens Nation Hockey