The Ottawa Senators defensive depth on their NHL roster is not something worthy of praise. However, within the organization lies several defenseman who have the potential to lead the franchise into a new era. Freshly signed University of North Dakota defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker joins a depth chart which includes Thomas Chabot and Erik Brannstrom, while fellow Fighting Hawk Jake Sanderson waits in the wings. This has the making of an elite top-four, but the problem lies in the distribution of the salary cap. Despite this problem being years away, the Senators must be wary, in order to avoid a franchise altering decision. The last problem this franchise needs is a redux of the fatal decision to retain Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara in the summer of 2006.
While we have the benefit of hindsight, the decision to re-sign Redden to a 2-year, $13 million dollar contract on June 30th, 2006 was a terrible choice that changed the future of the Senators organization. At the same period of time, Chara, who Senators general manager John Muckler did not retain, signed a 5-year $37.5 million deal with the Boston Bruins. The Senators had initial success, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, but lost in five games to the Anaheim Ducks. As time went on, it became clear that the wrong player was re-signed, as Chara went on to have an illustrious career in Boston that included a tenure as captain, and a Stanley Cup in 2011.
Meanwhile, Redden had an average final two seasons in Ottawa, before signing an infamous 6-year, $39 million contract with the New York Rangers in 2008. For Senators fans, this debacle remains one of the biggest “what if?” scenarios that reared its ugly head for more than a decade. So, what brought the Senators to make this decision in the first-place? You can blame the 2004-05 NHL lockout for that. As a condition of the new collective bargaining agreement in 2005, the salary cap was introduced at the beginning of the 2005-06 season. This cap was set at a minimum of $21.5 million, and a max of $39 million. The Senators, who ended the 2003-04 season at a payroll of just over $39 million, ended up cutting 6.7 per cent of their payroll in order to be cap compliant. This put the Senators in a position where both Redden and Chara’s contracts expired at the end of the 2005-06 season. Both had excellent seasons, but Redden was a more complete player, and Chara, at the time, was not as dynamic. The Senators finished that season with their best record in franchise history, the decision to make Redden the franchise’s highest paid player was made, and the rest is history.
This exact reason is why the Senators need to be very careful in the way that they manage their salary cap. Without discussing the elephant in the room regarding ownership, the franchise has always been controversial regarding contracts, especially in the last half decade.
While many are clamouring for Sanderson to turn pro as soon as possible, having both Bernard-Docker’s and Sanderson’s contracts expire in the same offseason could cripple the plans of a team who could very well be a Stanley Cup contender in the near future.
This is also without even mentioning the contracts of Tim Stützle, Shane Pinto, and Drake Batherson, who will all be up for new contracts around the same time.
This is all banking on the hope that Bernard-Docker and Sanderson will fulfill their potential and become the top-pairing defencemen they're projected to be. The Senators, despite their issues with pro-scouting and asset management, have one of the better amateur scouting staffs in the NHL. There is reason to believe that both defensemen will become the type of players worthy of their draft position.
The key remains not to rush them to the big club, as both Bernard-Docker and Sanderson are only 20 and 18-years old respectively. The Senators have no chance, nor desire to make a serious run for the Cup for at least three years, so while getting both North Dakota standouts much needed experience in the pros will be a priority for the organization, there is no need to rush it.
While Bernard-Docker will likely go straight to Ottawa to begin his career, it would likely be better for his development to spend some time in Bellville to further his development. When Sanderson does decide to go pro, the same path would be ideal. It is well known that defensemen take far longer to reach their potential than forwards, especially those who take the NCAA route.
The Senators have drafted very well over the last ten years, and the pattern is to not rush them to the NHL. When you look at players like Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson, and even Batherson, they were not given spots on the roster until the management team felt they were ready. Doing so allowed them to develop at their own pace. Delaying their trip to the NHL will save the Sens valuable time and cap space to plan how they want to build their roster, and allow them to make the moves necessary to avoid repeating one of the worst decisions in franchise history. The next three to five years are crucial to the foundation of what could be a very successful period in Senators history. The pain of the tear down and rebuild of the roster cannot be in vain for a fan base that has suffered from countless examples of ineptitude. History is about understanding the events of the past in order to correct the actions of the present, and the mistakes of the mid-2000s cannot be repeated again. Both Bernard-Docker and Sanderson are vital to the future, and if the opportunity arises to keep two upper echelon defensemen on the roster of a competitive team, everything must be done to retain both.
The salary cap is very hard to predict, especially during a pandemic where revenues are reduced in such a way. However, with ESPN purchasing the broadcasting rights to the NHL, perhaps the cap will rise further than expected. Either way, the Sens need to be prepared to make the tough choices in the short-term, to benefit in the long term.
By Ben Fraser | Sens Nation Hockey