I recently evaluated DJ Smith’s body of work and gave an opinion on his three plus years as the Ottawa Senators Head Coach. It seems only fair to do the same for the man who hired him and his predecessor, Guy Boucher.
Pierre Dorion assumed the General Manager’s role of the Ottawa Senators in April 2016. He delivered a four-year extension to potential UFA, Artem Zub, at an AAV of $4.6 million as recently as Wednesday.
Recency bias might lead me to think he is doing a great job, along with the off-season he just had. However, with six and a half seasons under his belt and the club in the process of being sold, it’s important to evaluate the whole body of work to decide if this is the man who should be leading the Senators to the promised land.
Dorion, like Smith, has two years remaining on his current contract beyond this year. While not irrelevant, I think we are hoping that new ownership is stable enough to absorb that kind of hit if the right thing to do is to part ways.
That said, I am still somewhat relieved to see that Dorion still has the ability to make $18.4 million decisions that will affect the club beyond its sale date. Part of me had wondered, given the lack of activity since the start of the year, if Dorion had been neutered once the news of the sale became public.
To fairly evaluate Dorion, I will look at his record in four criterions from 2016 to Present Day:
A) Drafting/Amateur Scouting
B) Trades/Signings/Pro Scouting
2016 – 2017
It was Dorion’s handling of the amateur scouting department that led to him being named assistant GM and ultimately succeeding the late Bryan Murray. Great drafts aren’t all the work of the GM, but rather the amateur scouting department. However, Dorion joined the scouting department in 2007 and his first major delivery was Erik Karlsson in 2008. That said, the 2016 draft was a dud. Logan Brown was his first 1st round pick at #11, and he is now in the AHL in St. Louis’ system while Michael McLeod (#12) is playing for New Jersey as we speak.
It may be unfair of me to judge Dorion based on one trade. However, his first order of business as GM was to trade Mika Zibanejad, a legit #1 center in the making, to the New York Rangers for Derick Brassard and a 7th round draft pick who became Luke Loheit. Granted, the Senators and Big Game Brass made it within one goal of the Stanley Cup final that season. However, the best thing about that trade, in the end, was that Brassard received his signing bonus on July 1st before being acquired.
Alex Burrows' acquisition would have been fine were it not for an ill-advised contract extension. And Mike Condon played well for the Senators.
Overall, not a great first season for Dorion on this front with a legacy trade that still haunts him.
Almost from the moment Dorion took the job, I found him to be operating on the “more is more” philosophy of talking to the media. Granted, English is not his first language. That said, there is nothing wrong with his grammar. It’s his timing. In April 2017, with the playoffs about to begin, Dorion delivered his famous “On the 8th day, God created Erik Karlsson” quote only to trade him less than 18 months later. Karlsson’s need for a contract extension was in sight and Dorion painted himself into a corner with that quote. He was clearly still learning.
Dorion’s first hire was head coach Guy Boucher. Boucher held the position for nearly three full seasons and while it ended badly, he looked like a great hire by leading the team to the conference finals and within one goal of the cup final.
At the conclusion of this season, Dorion replaced himself as Director of Amateur Scouting with the promotion of Trent Mann, who currently holds this portfolio as one of the organization’s two assistant general managers.
In short, the 2016-17 season looked like a great first season as GM for Dorion. Long-term decisions were made during this season that the team still lives with today.
The 2017-18 draft only led to four selections for the team. Two of the four, Alex Formenton (2nd round) and Drake Batherson (4th round) made the team and Batherson looks like the steal of the draft. Perhaps 2016’s draft was a result of Dorion being spread too thin. Trent Mann likely got the scouting department back on track.
Hard to believe the Zibanejad trade won’t be the one Dorion will be remembered for the most. It'll be the Matt Duchene acquisition, which couldn’t have gone worse. The salvation from that trade is that Dorion protected the 1st round pick in the 2018 draft that ultimately became Brady Tkachuk. Unlike the Zibanejad trade, I approved of this trade at the time.
The rest of the season was spent in damage control. However, Dorion did, somewhat, redeem himself at the draft by unloading Derick Brassard and getting a 1st round pick (JBD) in that draft along with Filip Gustavsson.
Overall, Dorion showed himself willing to swing for the fences in his first two seasons.
Though he continued to be awkward with the media in English, he did have the courage to own the problem that lay within the dressing room. The season wasn’t only a disaster on the ice. There was also the Mike Hoffman/Erik Karlsson situation that ultimately led to Hoffman being dealt to San Jose in June 2018 and Karlsson in September of the same year.
This time, he knew enough to stay out of the media with that Hoffman/Karlsson situation.
Nothing significant happened on this front as the Senators were operating on a skeleton crew in the operations department.
The 2017-18 season was a disaster, results-wise. However, Dorion did handle some awkward situations by learning that less is more.
The 2018 draft marks a turning point in the organization. Dorion, wisely, used his option to push the 1st round pick in the Duchene trade to 2019. Thanks to Marc Bergevin believing that Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a number one centre, Dorion was able to deliver the key piece to the current rebuild in Brady Tkachuk. Tkachuk is the only Sens pick from that draft who is a full time NHLer. However, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Angus Crookshank and Kevin Madolese are in the system. JBD is on the cusp of being a full-time NHLer and don’t lose track of Crookshank.
With the agreement that the team was heading into a full rebuild, trades were the order of the 2018-19 season.
Erik Karlsson was dispatched to San Jose in, what would seem to be, a fairly advantageous trade for the Senators. Despite Karlsson’s performance this season, the Senators have netted two top centers in Josh Norris and Tim Stutzle, Chris Tierney when he was effective, and San Jose can’t get out from under Karlsson’s $11.5 million cap hit fast enough.
Of course, the return on Mark Stone will never become what Dorion advertised unless Egor Sokolov becomes a top 6 forward and Erik Brannstrom becomes more than a number six defenseman. Neither outcome seems likely.
The return on Matt Duchene put the Senators back in the first round in 2019 (Lassi Thomson) though the 2020 conditional 1st round pick never materialized as Duchene never signed with Columbus. Thomson remains a legit prospect but a work in progress.
Dorion continued to struggle with overpromising on players. He promised Brannstrom would be a star in the league to excite fans about the return on Stone. He was wrong about that. The skeleton pro-scouting department didn’t project him properly and neither did he. Of course, that was his proudest day as GM if I recall correctly.
Dorion did have to handle the Randy Lee situation and the "Uber-gate" incident and did so with tact and diplomacy and, for the most part, kept it short.
When dealing with awkward or uncomfortable situations, Dorion subscribes to less is more. When projecting players, he needs to do the same. I know he is selling hope. He needs to project what he says and how it could impact him down the road. It’s hard to back peddle from some of the things he says when he gets excited.
Troy Mann was brought into the fold as Belleville’s bench boss in 2018 and has done a great job in developing talent that has ascended to the parent club. In four plus years, despite no playoff success and only one appearance, he has groomed seven players currently on the roster full-time while others are still developing.
Guy Boucher was shown the door before the end of the season and replaced on an interim basis by Marc Crawford. Rest is a weapon will be his legacy.
Though the Senators finished last overall on the ice, they enjoyed some luck in the lottery with their deferred 1st round pick to Colorado falling to fourth. Better they get Bowen Byram than Jack Hughes.
Dorion’s work was a mixed bag for the season with trades for the rebuild yielding mixed results. However, things were set in motion which played a major role in the team we see today.
Every player selected in the 2019 amateur drafting is playing in the AHL or NHL. Shane Pinto is full-time in the NHL. Mark Kastelic has settled in nicely on the fourth line. Lassi Thomson is on the cusp. Mads Sogaard appears to be the chosen goalie prospect with the trade of Filip Gustavsson. Viktor Lodin and Maxence Guenette are in the pipe. Mostly this is the work of Trent Mann and his team. However, Dorion would oversee this and that is great work.
Colin White was inked to a six-year extension in August 2019. No one complained when it happened as he had a successful first full season in the league in 2018-19. No one stopped complaining when it didn’t pan out. It was a lesson for Dorion about paying for potential, but, in fairness, I liked the deal at the time. It also sold hope for the future.
The final moves in the tear down happened during this season and trades were a plenty.
The Zaitsev trade looks like a disaster and fiscally it was with his contract still on the books and slated to be for another year. Connor Brown was the best player in the trade. With him gone, Zaitsev will be the legacy of that trade. Ouch! Trades that help divisional rivals need to come at an extra cost.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau generated a great return with Ridly Greig being the key piece at 28th overall in 2020. Some didn’t like Pageau being moved. You don’t partially tear down a house.
Dorion does better on trades when draft picks are involved which usually shows the delta between his amateur and pro scouting sides. Josh Norris being the exception, of course.
This season was marked by the Covid-19 pandemic hitting and bringing the regular season to an abrupt end and the refreshing change of nothing disastrous happening in the media after a couple of tough seasons. The pandemic took the heat off Dorion in some ways and forced him to speak less and less is more with him.
DJ Smith was hired as Head Coach on a three-year deal after four seasons as Mike Babcock’s wingman in Toronto. The season was expectedly bad with the Sens finishing the abbreviated season second last overall, and no one really judged Smith with all the player movement. On the surface, the hiring had credibility but also reflected the internal budget and lack of willingness to go out and get someone with NHL credentials. Then again, established coaches don’t take jobs on rebuilds either.
Overall, the consensus on this season was that the Senators had finally bottomed out and there was nowhere to go but up.
This will likely go down as the greatest draft in Senators history with 10 players chosen and eight already signed and in the system. Tim Stutzle and Jake Sanderson are already proving to be great picks and Ridly Greig is knocking on the door. Great work by Trent Mann and his team, but it was Dorion who appointed Mann and if he is going to take the heat when a draft goes badly, he deserves the credit when they strike gold, and they struck gold in this one.
Joey Daccord was lost in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken which, in the grand scheme, was not a huge loss.
Matt Murray was the key acquisition and signing for Dorion as he attempted to fast track the rebuild by taking a chance on a once number one goalie that the Penguins were willing to part ways with. The trade made more sense than the contract as Murray was given four years at $6.25 million per without having ever played a game and having a health concern.
Chris Tierney was given an extension of two years at $3.5 million per after coming off a decent season the previous year. His first two years in Ottawa were productive, but, for some reason, before the age of 30, he lost a step and became a liability. Not sure this could have been predicted.
Alex Galchenyuk was an inexpensive Hail Mary, of sorts, who ended up playing a significant role in the Leafs collapse against the Habs in the playoffs. 😊
Connor Brown got a three-year deal at $3.6 million AAV, and he lived up to it with solid performance.
Dorion also had a miserable off-season bringing in older, slower yet experienced players such as Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn who didn’t last the season. Erik Gudbranson was also brought in via trade from Anaheim and struggled, only to regain his form in Calgary and get a nice contract in Columbus. Suggesting that part of the acquisition struggles were coaching and system related.
He also whiffed on Evgenii Dadonov on a three-year deal. Systems don’t fix heart problems.
It wasn’t all bad as Artem Zub came in from the KHL and provided some redemption for Dorion and Nick Paul transitioned to the NHL full-time and earned his first pay day.
The season ended with the team playing much better and Shane Pinto was signed out of North Dakota, played some games and gave a glimmer of hope for the future.
On the whole, the off-season set the organization back in the rebuild rather than fast tracking it.
Again, the pandemic shielded the Senators GM in a manner of speaking and Dorion didn’t put his foot in his mouth. He defended his coach and did his best to undo his mistakes.
Nothing significant happened on this front as the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t really going to see a lot of movement with the bubble in place.
The season ended much better than it started and there was optimism that the team had started to take steps forward. Dorion’s best work was the damage control over his off-season.
The jury hasn’t come back on this draft class yet. Only Tyler Boucher and Zack Ostapchuk have been signed and both are in the upcoming WJHC. Not a lot of buzz surrounds the remaining four selections. This was the Covid-19 draft class and scouting was not extensive.
Artem Zub was inked to a team friendly two-year extension at $2.5 million AAV.
Drake Batherson was inked to a very team friendly six-year extension worth $4.975 million AAV.
Tyler Boucher was signed out of Boston University and moved to the Ottawa 67’s to properly develop.
Anton Forsberg was claimed off waivers and proved to be a great acquisition.
Dorion didn’t deliver any high profile free agents but he took care of his own house.
Pierre McGuire joined the fold and was not of Dorion’s choosing. McGuire was positioned as someone who would help in this regard. That never happened and he was likely muzzled by Dorion who ultimately let him go when Eugene Melnyk passed.
The whole thing was awkward watching them sit together in the press box pretending to like one another when one wanted the other’s job. I think Dorion did what anyone would do and said the right things to the media.
DJ Smith was given a three-year extension with the club’s option on the third year. This was, in my opinion, ill-advised given his first two years in the league. I was okay with the extension. However, this should have been a one-year “Show Me” season.
Dorion managed to arrange a three-year contract extension for himself prior to Eugene Melnyk passing away. Who knows what would have happened had he not gotten that done in time?
The team rose to 25th overall in the league and the pieces started to come together.
It’s too early to render judgment on this draft class. No picks were made until number 62. We won’t hear from this group for a while.
All of Dorion’s off season moves have paid off thus far. Claude Giroux has exceeded expectations as a free agent signing. Alex DeBrincat, despite his low goal total, has had an immediate impact on the power play and Cam Talbot, after an injury to start the season, has seized the starting job.
Artem Zub’s extension is the icing on the cake for Dorion who has given cost certainty to the team on a number of key players.
The one move that doesn’t look good is the Murray trade to Toronto. I never liked that the Senators were paying Murray to play for a divisional rival. Between Dion Phaneuf, Nikita Zaitsev and Murray, I think the Senators have done quite enough favours for the Leafs. Murray back from LTIR and excelling only makes this look worse. If the worst happens, Dorion is going to look like a court jester and could spell his doom.
With the team up for sale and not much having happened since the start of the season prior to Zub’s extension, Dorion has kept it quiet and let DJ Smith handle the media. Less is more.
He has had no choice but to keep quiet about the state of Alex Formenton though his declining a qualifying offer earlier in the summer is likely the only reason he isn’t playing right now.
Dorion took steps to keep Trent Mann in the fold by promoting him to Assistant General Manager while maintaining the amateur scouting portfolio. Ryan Bowness, formerly Pittsburgh’s director of scouting, was also brought in as Assistant General Manager to handle the pro side of the business.
Refreshing to see the Hockey Ops Department expand.
Dorion’s track record as the Senators GM has a number of blemishes and its fair share of high points as well. I think it would be fair to say he is a better GM today than he was when he took the job.
It would be equally fair to say that Dorion worked as GM for one of the most difficult men in league history. I always try to keep that in mind when I judge this man.
He has dealt with a number of situations that were not of his making and he made the best of those situations.
I would say his background in amateur scouting was more evident in how he performed his job. He is better at projecting an amateur player than a pro player who can integrate into the current system.
Has he built a case for the new ownership group to keep him on? I would say that is yet to be determined. Now that we know Dorion is still able to make moves, if he can deliver a legitimate top four defenceman before the end of the season, be it Jakob Chychrun or someone else, and he gets Shane Pinto on board with a longer-term deal to provide cost certainty then, yes, I would say he has. He would have earned the right to continue his current deal.
Do I think Pierre Dorion will be replaced when new ownership is brought in? The timeline on the sale is unclear at this point. If the sale is approved and ratified by the end of the regular season and the Senators are not part of the post-season, he may well be. The longer it takes, the better for Dorion and his staff.
My instincts tell me that he won’t be moved out immediately. I understand that leaders like to have their own people. However, I think new ownership will opt for stability in the short run and Anthony Leblanc, Pierre Dorion, Trent Mann and Ryan Bowness will survive the transition.
The Senators don’t need change for change’s sake. A new arena deal is back on track and, if there is a better candidate, I am all ears. Remember that Brian MacLellan didn’t hire Barry Trotz as coach of the Washington Capitals, but he surely chased him out of town so he could have his “guy” in Todd Reirden. The Washington Capitals haven’t come close since.
I am not comparing Dorion to a Stanley Cup GM. The new ownership group is free to source options while Dorion continues to fulfill his contract. I think that is what they will do.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey