I recently graded all the players on how they performed this past season. General Managers and Head Coaches get similar treatment. How did they contribute to the season that was for the Ottawa Senators?
For Pierre Dorion, his body of work would normally include the draft, off season free agency and trades, cap management and the trade deadline.
2020 Amateur Draft: A+
I wrote a series of articles earlier about the Senators Pro and Amateur Scouting as well as Prospect Development. I conceded that amateur scouting is hard to evaluate short term as prospects follow a curve. For now, what we know about the 2021 draft is that Tim Stutzle is going to be a keeper. We suspect the same for Jake Sanderson, while Ridley Greig is also trending up and has been signed. A lot of noise was made about Tyler Kleven, and Egor Sokolov has been a revelation as a 1st year pro. If 5 picks from any draft year play for your team in a meaningful way, you've hit the motherload. So far so good.
Off-Season Free Agency/Trades: D+
If the entry draft was an overwhelming success, the opposite can be said of the off-season recruitment. I wrote an article that it can take 5-10 years to know who won a trade. I meant that. However, forgetting about winning and losing a trade, the following trades didn’t yield much for the Senators regardless of whether they were of benefit to their trading partner.
Matt Murray from Pittsburgh for John Gruden and a 2nd round pick and signed to a 4 year $25 million extension.
Erik Gudbranson from Anaheim for a 5th round pick
Coburn/Paquette from Tampa for dead money contracts (Nilsson and Gaborik)
Josh Brown from Florida for a 4th round pick
Derek Stepan from Arizona for a 2nd round pick
These deals were made with a view of giving younger players a more experienced support network to allow them to flourish. Instead, they made the team slower and got in the way of developing other prospects. Granted Derek Stepan was injured which made him unable to be moved at the deadline. His 6 pts in 20 games pace would not have gotten them anywhere close to the 2nd round pick that was paid for him. The Murray trade is unresolved as yet. Without a good remaining 3 years, Pierre Dorion may not be around to ask Eugene Melnyk’s permission to buy him out.
Free agent signing Alex Galchenyuk was an attempt to resurrect a player like was done with Anthony Duclair. He couldn’t get in the lineup on a last place team on a regular basis. Evgeny Dadonov signed for 3 years at $15 million out of Florida to help with the power play. It looked good at the time and none of us expected him to struggle like that. However, clearly the Senators brain trust thought he could make it without Huberdeau and Barkov. His results were more because of them than theirs because of him. Two more years to justify that deal. Optimism is scarce.
Had Artem Zub not been signed from the KHL, this rating would be an F.
Cap Management: C
Say this for Pierre Dorion, he can give a dollar a good home. It’s a good thing given who his boss is. In order to maximize cap space, Dorion moved players like Erik Brannstrom (15 times) and Filip Gustavsson (24 times) on 2 way contracts back and forth to Belleville and the taxi squad to minimize his cap hits and maximize his cap space. It is funny how this was done without actually moving the players. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Nilsson and Gaborik were never going to play for the Senators. It might seem like good cap management. However, contracts were taken back. Every trade that was mentioned above, with the exception of that one, was taking on a cap hit and giving nothing back. That cap space could have been useful at the deadline to acquire picks or assets to help contending teams get where they needed to be.
Not a total failure but not a great success either. We had cap space and we did not use it to our advantage. I don’t want to flog Dorion for the same thing twice.
Trade Deadline: B
Dorion earned some points by undoing some of his acquisitions from the off-season.
He was able to flip Paquette to Carolina for Ryan Dzingel early in the season which yielded benefits. He also turned Mike Reilly (3rd round), Erik Gudbranson (5th round) and Braydon Coburn (7th round) into draft picks at the deadline. None of these deals are necessarily game changers but the Senators amateur scouting staff has been known to find good prospects outside the top rounds.
More importantly, by making these deals, it allowed players with a future in the organization such as Erik Brannstrom and Victor Mete, to play and develop.
While this essentially was undoing damage, more than anything it highlighted the fundamental flaw in the season strategy. Veteran leadership is only valuable if the ability to play makes them a good role model. If they are not better or at least as good as the kids they are mentoring, they are in the way.
OVERALL RATING: C -
Dorion’s strengths continue to be in the drafting and developing sides of the business. He has assembled a top-notch amateur scouting team that, for the moment, is yielding some great returns. Unfortunately, whether it be from budget constraints or priorities, building a team through effective pro scouting has not been as fruitful. Pro scouting over the years has yielded some positive results. However, not this past year. Artem Zub was the saving grace of an abysmal off season of misplaced cap spending.
DJ Smith, like his predecessor, seems to have some influence in personnel decisions. I don’t question that a GM should talk to his coaches about players he is considering acquiring. However, when the track record is to bring in players who simply don’t add value, it’s time to let coaches coach and general managers assemble the team for them to coach. Pierre Dorion may have announced Pierre Groulx’s dismissal and Zac Bierk’s appointment as goalie coach. However, when you find out that Bierk worked with Smith in Oshawa when they won the Memorial Cup, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t at DJ Smith’s behest.
Dorion can’t afford another off-season like this past one. He is in the last year of his contract and he has some work to do on restricted free agent signings. Hopefully the final 15 games reinforced that the tools needed are in our own shed.
For DJ Smith, it all comes down to what he gets out of the players individually and collectively. I will examine his development of the core players, integration of support players, game management and lineup decisions.
Development of Core Players: A -
In terms of key pieces of the puzzle such as Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Thomas Chabot, Drake Batherson, Tim Stutzle and Colin White, all took steps forward with the potential exception of White. Smith showed he is willing to use tough love in White’s case. That said, the cornerstones are all moving forward and this is a positive.
Integration of Support Players: A-
Other players such as Nick Paul, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, Artem Zub, Erik Brannstrom and Victor Mete all seemed to respond well to his approach. Paul has become an everyday player who can move up and down the lineup. Brown was a constant threat to score in all situations and he showed he can play with anyone. Zaitsev and Zub both solidified the right side of the defense which was a concern coming into the season. Brannstrom and Mete both responded well to the additional ice time. Mike Reilly found himself as the season progressed and ultimately fetched a decent return at the deadline. I don’t know how much impact Smith has on the goaltending. I thought he managed a complicated crease effectively and the Senators have a much better idea of what they have today than they did before the start of the season.
Game Management: B
When I watch the Senators play, I see coordination and execution and there was steady improvement in special teams as the year progressed. The message isn’t getting old yet. I suppose after 2 years, I would expect that to be the case.
I see Thomas Chabot getting too much ice time to play at optimal pace. However, there wasn’t much choice early in the year. Hopefully, this will balance out with Zub being in the lineup opening night.
The right people appear to be playing the key situations and ice time has to be earned for the most part. Dadonov’s role diminished when production wasn’t there. Even his protégé, Josh Brown, found himself on the taxi squad for extended periods.
I can’t give a higher rating than this to a coach who couldn’t figure out a way to get 1 point from his lineup from the Edmonton Oilers despite 9 tries. I liked most of what I saw, however, it’s a coach’s responsibility to adapt and he and his staff did not adapt to the Oilers.
Lineup Decisions: C
My issue with Smith is his use of the lineup card. The Senators missed the playoffs by 8 points. Artem Zub didn’t play until game 9 of the season. Braydon Coburn and Josh Brown played ahead of Zub and Wolanin to begin the season. Paquette and Stepan were also in the lineup ahead of players like Colin White and players in Belleville like Formenton. Even Michael Haley dressed for some reason as a nuclear deterrent.
I am operating on the assumption that the head coach controls the lineup card. Perhaps that is misguided. Perhaps there is pressure to play the players recruited by the general manager. Perhaps there is also pressure to play players that are being shopped at the deadline. The closest Artem Anisimov came to a game after the trade deadline was as a goalie. He played several games leading up to the deadline. This is conjecture but it does suggest that managers have some influence.
For now, I have to assume that Smith owned the lineup card at the start of the year and it is clear that some mistakes were made. At the risk of being harsh, those decisions played a role in a missed playoff spot. Once the right players were playing, the Senators got the results.
OVERALL RATING: B
Like his boss, Smith has one more year left on his contract and it is time to deliver a playoff team. I like him as a coach. I don’t like him as a GM. The players are playing for him and as long as that continues and we don’t bring in players who are beyond their best before date, this team should compete for a playoff spot whether it is a North division or the old alignment.
For now, the jury is still out on Pierre Dorion and DJ Smith. This is a show me year and Sens Nation needs some food on its plate. The team will be playing with expectations next year and that is a different dynamic. Part of what we saw down the stretch could be mistaken as Fool’s Gold. A team with nothing to play for has nothing to lose.
I am as curious as you all are. No playoffs, no extension for Smith. Dorion may not be on a tight rope if he signs all the RFAs and puts the pieces in place. As well, not a lot of people can work for Eugene Melnyk. One thing is for sure, Melnyk won’t suffer losing gladly. Playoffs or bust for both, I would suspect.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey