When the trade deadline came and went on March 21st at 3pm, Pierre Dorion addressed the media and made the following request:
“Don’t judge us on what we have right now. Judge us on the roster when the puck drops, and we’ve had our training camp. That’s fairer to say. Up front, it’s about giving guys opportunities. We’ve set ourselves up. The team we have now is not the team we’re going to have when the season starts.”
Dorion has known only one playoff season in his tenure as Senators General Manager and he, along with Head Coach, DJ Smith, are starting the first of three-year extensions they signed during the 2021-22 season. Granted, both of these extensions were signed with the blessing of the team’s late owner, Eugene Melnyk. Who knows if either or both will live to see another season at the helm if Dorion doesn’t deliver on his veiled promise?
With pre-season set to open in three weeks, it would appear that the depth chart for the opening of camp is set with the noted exceptions of Erik Brannstrom and Alex Formenton who remain restricted free agents. Let’s see if Dorion did, in fact, deliver the goods by evaluating the training camp roster.
Left Wing Center Right Wing
Brady Tkachuk Josh Norris Drake Batherson
Alex DeBrincat Tim Stutzle Claude Giroux
Alex Formenton* Shane Pinto Mathieu Joseph
Parker Kelly Gambrell/Kastelic Austin Watson
Left Defense Right Defense
Thomas Chabot Artem Zub
Jake Sanderson Travis Hamonic
Nick Holden Nikita Zaitsev
Erik Brannstrom* Thomson/Bernard-Dokker
At least at the forward and goaltending positions, this seems to be more of a training camp than a tryout camp. That, in and of itself, is a promising development. Teams with too many unfilled chairs heading into the season would seem to lack the stability needed to be successful out of the gate. You certainly wouldn’t consider them playoff contenders.
Prospects such as Roby Jarventie, Zach Ostapchuk, Thomas Hamara and Ridly Greig (injured), who all performed admirably at the World Junior Hockey Championships in August will certainly be interesting to watch. Goaltender Leevi Merilainen, who also performed well at the WJHC, has taken his game back overseas for the coming season and Egor Sokolov, Viktor Lodin and Tyler Boucher will also be interesting to catch a glimpse of. However, barring something unforeseen, such as Formenton not signing, or an injury in pre-season, all will be returning to their junior teams or continuing to develop in Belleville. As they should be.
With the trades of Filip Gustavsson and Matt Murray in the off season, the team only has two goaltenders on one-way contracts, so the only competition in the crease is to see who gets opening night. Again, this is a positive development. Mads Sogaard will get reps in training camp. However, there is something to be said for stability in training camp. This position is critical to the success of any season and not knowing who will be there opening night when camp starts does not bode well for a team looking to get out of the gate with momentum.
The defense core is the one area of concern. Chabot remains the Alpha of the group and DJ Smith has already indicated Zub will be slotted with him from day one. Again, this makes sense to me on many levels. Keep your Alpha insulated and, if you can show Zub he has a chance to be part of something special going forward, perhaps the team can extend him going forward before the season starts. I don’t like the idea of Zub starting the season without an extension. Players of value often tend to go UFA if that unpleasant piece of business isn’t handled by opening night. Agents typically use the “we won’t negotiate during the season” ploy to force the team’s hand.
After that, there is a lot of uncertainty. Most of the talk in the off-season once the DeBrincat and Giroux acquisitions happened, was getting a top four defenseman. There seems to be concern in fan and media circles as to whether Hamonic can fill that role and we all know the view on Nikita Zaitsev and his contract.
I will be the first to say that no one is more bullish than myself on Sanderson and his future. Having said that, this is a kid who is recovering from an injury sustained towards the end of last season, did not attend development camp and is unanimously being penciled into the top four or even top three. Because of COVID-19 and injuries, he's played less than 50 regular season games in the past two seasons.
Now he's expected to log top four minutes in an 82 game NHL regular season?
Hamonic is a much surer bet to play successfully in the top four before Sanderson this season. Chabot and Erik Karlsson both did brief tours of duty in Belleville and Binghamton and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sanderson needs that before ascending full time to the parent club. I agree he needs to be given every opportunity to be successful and the word is that he will pair with Hamonic at the start of camp. I am simply saying the club needs to be honest with him and themselves to ensure he isn’t forced too quickly. If he meets or exceeds expectations, no harm done. If he is behind that projected curve, the team needs to do right by him.
The bottom four defenseman are the wildcards in the equation. Holden, 35, is a safe and solid veteran who, assuming Father Time can be held off, will provide some stability on the back end.
Brannstrom, who remains unsigned, is someone we've all been waiting on the take the next step. Whether he signs or not, the idea of him being in the top four is something I gave up on last year. He had ample opportunity to play in Chabot’s absence later in the season and showed he can play in the league. He has yet to show that he can make a difference in the league.
Thomson, more so than Bernard-Dokker, has shown glimpses of being on the verge of transitioning to a full time NHL defenseman. Though both have shown they can play, as I indicated with Brannstrom, there's being able to play in the league and make a difference in the league. I'm not sure either are there yet. However, Thomson is the one I can see ascending to the top four with Sanderson some day.
I won’t flog Zaitsev as I believe with the improvement in the team, assuming Zaitsev isn’t moved, we will see him be more effective. Ottawa was in defensive mode considerably more last year than they should be this year by virtue of some of the acquisitions upfront. It stands to reason all of the defensemen will be the better for it. That said, it’s no secret the team has been trying to move him and his contract for the summer. Thomson and Bernard-Dokker are better than Zaitsev and it would be better for all parties if he were moved.
The uncomfortable trade elephant in the room is the constant talk about whether a deal can be made to acquire Jake Chychrun from the Arizona Coyotes to fill that top four defenseman requirement.
The permutations and combinations that have been bandied about between picks, prospects, players and retained salary has been hard to keep up with. Suffice it to say the Coyotes are trying to prey on the likes of GMs like Dorion as they know he is under the gun to deliver a player and satisfy his fan base. I will give Dorion this, he hasn’t panicked and made a move to part with assets and paid a king’s ransom.
Chychrun is a legit top four defenseman. However, he isn’t worth stocking the Coyotes cupboard with the Senators’ amateur scouts hard work by handing over their prospects. Perhaps this trade will happen during the season or perhaps not at all. If it does, I hope it's in the form of picks rather than prospects. Let the Coyotes' scouts prove their worth rather than reaping the benefits of Ottawa’s.
Looking at this roster objectively, I believe Dorion has delivered on his veiled promise. His promise was veiled in the sense he never said they would be a sure-fire playoff team. He just asked that the fans judge the team by what they are at the start of this season and not the end of last season. This team clearly has the ability to be competitive every night and their power play should be a sight to see for the first and second units.
However, despite the changes Dorion has made, I don’t believe he has delivered a playoff contending team just yet. I say this for a number of reasons:
1) The core players such as Chabot, Tkachuk, Stutzle, Norris and Batherson have never played with the weight of expectations at the NHL level. They have in international events, but never at this level. I don’t question their ability to rise to the occasion but there is usually a learning curve.
2) Point #1 can also be said about DJ Smith as an NHL head coach. He rose to the occasion as the head coach of the Oshawa Generals and won the Memorial Cup. However, this is different, and his game acumen needs to rise to the level of his development and motivational skills. I am not sold on this just yet.
3) Point #1 can also apply to Anton Forsberg. He played well above any level he had played at previously during last season. Can he do it when he is expected to? We will see. The addition of Talbot provides a stabilizing veteran who proved at 34 he could still play an elite level. Given that he's 35, it will take two solid goalies to get Ottawa to the post-season.
4) The Senators are not the only team to have made a splash this off-season. The East is a beast. And it’s not just going to be a question of passing either Boston or Washington. Other teams are going to stake their claim as well.
Those are some very big ifs to be resolved.
I believe the team will be in the thick of the race in February and March rather than out of contention by November as they have been the past two seasons.
The same defense that ended last season will not, in my mind, be good enough to finish top three in the Atlantic division with Toronto, Florida and Tampa likely to still occupy those spots. The issue then becomes the seventh and eighth seeds. Can a team with an unproven three/four defense pairing be playoff contenders? I'm hesitant to say yes, but I am open to being proven wrong.
As unsettling as it sounds, the ability to rise to that challenge appears to lie in the adaptability of Sanderson to the NHL game and Hamonic’s ability to play above his pay grade. If that happens and the Forsberg and Talbot of last season deliver at the same level again, there is legitimate hope.
For the first time in three years, I have a sense of optimism heading into the season. Predictions above might contradict that statement. I don’t want to sound like a buzz-kill, but I don’t view this as a playoff or bust season scenario. If the Sens resolve the following, fans should be satisfied:
1) Is DJ Smith capable of taking his game and this team to another level?
2) Will Jake Sanderson be properly integrated into the NHL to ensure his success?
3) Do the Sens core players all take a step forward in their development?
4) Are the Senators in contention at the trade deadline?
If the Sens answer YES to all of the above, I can live with those outcomes from the season. A playoff berth would be the icing on the cake.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey