As the regular season winds down, there’s perhaps never been a more important off-season for the Ottawa Senators in club history. After shipping out a few more veteran bodies at the trade deadline, the organization seems to have finally flipped the keys to the kids and are letting them get some meaningful NHL reps to close out the year. These reps are crucial for instilling a winning culture, and allows the Sens young core to get a feel for NHL speed & physicality.
Make no mistake about it, the Senators were playing with house money this season. Expectations from fans and media alike were about as low as they come in the world of professional sports. That will not be the case next year. As infuriating as some of the decisions made by DJ & Dorion were this year, barring some off-ice run-in with Melnyk, both are likely to be at the helm when the puck drops in the fall. However, the price they’ll pay for 2020’s goodwill from Sens Nation is that the fanbase will be expecting a trip to the postseason. Anything short of qualifying for the big dance has to be viewed as a colossal failure.
Anyone can tear down a franchise and enter “rebuild mode”. There’s no shortage of teams who will happily take your established NHL players off your hands for you when you’re a seller. It takes an entirely different skill set to take those draft picks, prospects, and players and mould them into a team that can legitimately vie for the Stanley Cup. And while the Sens might catch some of their American counterparts by surprise next year (a year being “north of the wall” as the NHL’s version of the Wildlings will often cause you to drop off people’s radars) the other 6 Canadian teams can attest that these kids are good. What’s more, they’re just scratching the surface.
As the Hockey News pointed out on their front cover, the Sens core could be the next big thing in hockey. They even went so far as to predict a Stanley Cup championship within the next 5 years to the delight of Sens fans everywhere. We’ll gloss over what has to go down as one of the most ridiculous puff pieces ever typed out by Graeme Roustan regarding Sens ownership for now as that debacle could be its own 100,000 word essay. But the point is, Ottawa is ready to compete as early as next year, so long as they don’t botch this summer.
So without further ado, here are Pierre Dorion’s top 5 priorities heading into the 2021-22 NHL season in no particular order.
1. Sign Brady Tkachuk and slap the “C” on him ASAP. Coming into this season there was debate about whether the organization should anoint Tkachuk or Chabot as the heir to Erik Karlsson’s captaincy. That debate ended roughly 15 games ago. Whether its sticking up for teammates in scrums, dropping the gloves, interacting with the media, or just generally setting the tone on the ice each and every night (though I think we can officially retire the phrase “drags them into battle” at this point), Brady is the unquestioned leader of the new look Sens.
Already the captain of the Tkachuk/Stutzle/Norris Call of Duty team (can you imagine the trash talk in COD lobbies with those 3 in tow?), it’s time to make it official at the NHL level as well. And while we’re at it, extend him long term. If we weren’t talking about Sens ownership here, this would be a given. However would it surprise anyone that coming off a year of no gate/concessions revenue that Melnyk would opt for a bridge deal to avoid spending money short term? Anyone? Didn’t think so.
If, by some miracle, the organization does elect to extend him long term, then any figure under $10M a year would widely be viewed as a sound investment. That’s not only how highly I think of him as a player/leader, but the opinion of just about everyone in the industry I’ve spoken with thus far. There is no “window to compete” without Brady Tkachuk on the Ottawa Senators roster. Full stop.
2. Protect Matt Murray in the expansion draft. While you recover from the audible gasp I’m sure you just let out, let’s review the facts. The Senators currently have what seems like 30 goaltending prospects in the pipeline. Can anyone say with 100% certainty that any of them will pan out long term? And when I say pan out, I don’t mean have 20 spot starts in the NHL scattered across 5 seasons and then disappear never to be heard from again. I mean become a bonafide number 1 starter on a championship caliber team.
If you can definitively say “yes” to that, I’d like to talk to you offline about some lottery numbers. There is no more volatile and unpredictable position in hockey than trying to project goaltending prospects long term. Unless you have a true blue chip prospect (Askarov, Knight etc.) to hang your hat on, then they’re all gambles. Let someone else (Seattle) take that gamble if they’re up for it. If the Senators were to lose Matt Murray in the draft, where do they turn for 82 starts next season? Because while the Senators have a collection of good NHL prospects, they don’t have that one elite level starter you need to steal a game or two come playoff time.
And before you scoff at the idea of Murray being elite, remember that this is the same goaltender who broke Sens fans hearts a few years back in game 7 en route to his 2nd Stanley Cup ring. He’s also posted a 3-1 record stopping 112 out of 117 shots (including two shutouts) since returning from injury. A return that just so happened to coincide with the Sens defense shedding its sieve-like appearance post trade deadline. Which Matt Murray is the real one? What we’re seeing now, or the one who appeared to be fighting the puck at every turn at the beginning of the season? It’s likely somewhere between the two extremes, and that’s just fine. Keep the only truly NHL ready netminder in your system on the team and hope that Seattle takes Chris Tierney in the draft. And if they do indeed select a Sens goaltender, then take solace in knowing there’s 29 more where he came from.
3. When draft time comes along, draft the best available player, not for need. One would hope that this is the last top 10 draft pick Ottawa will wield for the foreseeable future. So let’s not squander it by passing on a highly talented player for someone who shoots a certain way or plays a certain position. Take the most talented player left on the board and be happy with it.
Whether it’s DJ’s comments about not trying Stutzle out at centre this year because of their “depth” at the position, or his insistence on playing Brannstrom on a side of the ice he’s not as comfortable on but is consistent with your organizational philosophy, these should not have any influence on who your first round pick in 2021 is. If you want to load up on people who fit the “DJ” mould, then go nuts from rounds 2 onwards. But this top 10 pick should be reserved for the most talented player available at that spot. If Owen Power is available at your spot, YOU TAKE OWEN POWER even if you feel like you’ve got some good defensemen in the pipeline. Because you know what’s always in demand at the trade deadline? DEFENSEMEN. So you can ship out a piece when he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Not as high on Owen Power as I am? That’s fine, but make sure you take a high level talent and not someone who you ranked higher than every other team in the draft because they fit a perceived “need”. This isn’t the year to get cute, it’s the year to add that final piece of the puzzle for a championship window to open.
4. Don’t overdo it. We’ve seen flashes from this young core at various times this season, but until recently, there hasn’t been much in terms of consistency from your 2020-21 Ottawa Senators. Win one night, get blown out the next. Score 6 goals one night, struggle to get 20 shots the next game.
It’s easy to see the cap space the team has, and the assets in the system and want to go out there and try to sign every player and be involved in every trade. But as this recent stretch has shown, the kids are finally starting to come into their own. If this year were a full 82 games instead of 56, Ottawa may even be a playoff team. So let’s not go out there and try to bring in more veteran players and hope for bounce back years, or sign “depth” players that don’t move the needle. Whether it's a top 4 defenceman, or a top 6 forward, go out and make one significant move and be done with it.
If Pierre Dorion’s moves for the 2020-21 season were laid out sequentially he’d look like that one guy in everyone’s fantasy hockey league that is always tinkering with his lineup and never really getting the intended results. Ye know, the one who will pick up a player and before that player has even played a game yet, has already dropped him for someone else he saw on the waiver wire. Let’s not be “that guy” in 2021 Pierre. Make one significant move that you can point to and say “our team is better today than it was yesterday because we signed _______” and call it an offseason.
5. Make a decision on Logan Brown. At this point you almost have to feel bad for the kid. While injuries certainly haven’t done him any favours, I’m sure that even Brown would be the first to admit that he’s sick of living in a perpetual state of “when’s it my time?”.
If your intention isn’t to have Logan Brown break camp with the team this fall, then you need to move him this offseason. Whether you’re flipping him for a pick, or including him in a package of some sort to address item 4 above, Logan Brown should not be anywhere near Belleville next year. Do right by the player, and allow him a fresh start somewhere else if you’re not going to use him in Ottawa. It’s best to move him now and recover something in return before he turns into a distressed asset in the future (because based on his comments in the past, this isn’t shaping up to be an amicable RFA negotiation).
As nice as it would be to hit on every single first round pick, even the best franchises in NHL history miss on a prospect from time to time. Brown may not be completely washed as a prospect, but if you’re not going to use him, does signing him to an extension really make sense from a money or roster standpoint? Allowing him to get a shot with another club even if you’re only getting 60% of his perceived value in return brings a much needed human side to negotiations for an organization who doesn’t have a sterling track record on taking those types of things into account (see Alfredsson, Daniel).
There you have it, Pierre Dorion’s offseason to-do list. Anyone who tells you that there should be dozens of items on it clearly hasn’t been watching many of Ottawa’s games lately. They’re giving every opponent a run for their money each night. Fans are finally getting what they’ve wanted all along, the kids are playing, and games are competitive. Do the five things above this offseason and you are truly positioning this team for Melnyk’s “unparalleled success” years to finally begin.
By Kyle Skinner | Sens Nation Podcast