Throughout the Twittersphere, Sens Nation and media have been trying to identify a source of blame for this disastrous season the Senators are having. Everyone has been called into question.
General Manager, Pierre Dorion and head coach, DJ Smith, are ahead in the polls by a significant margin. Of course, there is always time to lash out at owner Eugene Melnyk as well. Professional scouting has been openly criticized, along with the veteran players they have acquired. The defense core has been on the hot seat, goaltending, special teams and even Jobu from Major League has been mentioned.
In the end, everyone is looking to make sense of this mess by assigning blame. But there is more blame to be assigned than there are recipients.
Oddly enough, two key figures have been omitted from the blame ballot and they are legitimate candidates. Thanks to DJ Smith announcing there are “No Excuses”, COVID-19 and injuries have escaped accountability.
I am not looking to create a pity party for players who have a minimum salary of $700K. The vibe around the season wasn’t overly optimistic before the injuries and the COVID bug decimated the Sens roster. Why should we expect any more from a team who has lost two of their top three centers and recently had as many as 11 players out due to COVID protocols? I understand the league suspended the season for three games. However, they weren’t practicing during that time off.
I wrote a piece earlier that the Senators should privately fold their cards and look to next year, based on the roster they had assembled and the early injuries. I maintain this strategy now more than ever, but there are still moves to be made.
Here are the next five moves the Senators should make, given the reality they are not a playoff team this season. Keep in mind that patience is key, and these moves don’t need to necessarily be made in a week.
1. Invest in Pro Scouting
I get the sense the Senators' pro scouts don’t see enough of the players they're acquiring to properly assess their fit. Quite simply, there are too few pro scouts. If you are looking for Pierre McGuire, he can routinely be found on game day in the GM’s box with GM Pierre Dorion. As Senior Vice President of Player Development, I would think he'd have a glossary of scouts in his rolodex that he respects. It would behoove him, along with Director of Professional Scouting, Jim Clark, to woo a few of them to join their staff so they can avoid the mistakes of recent off seasons.
2. Filip Gustavsson to Belleville
I know he's the best option in the Sens net right now, but he is on a two-way deal, and he needs to win. Belleville is doing well now, and he will only make it better. Let Matt Murray play a couple of games after clearing waivers and then get him back up here to figure it out. I am less worried about Murray’s psyche than Gustavsson’s. His stats at the NHL level are very respectable, but losing is contagious. Insulate him and use him for injury call ups on the understanding he is going down as soon as Murray and Forsberg are healthy. The Sens' season can’t be saved. However, Belleville could have their first playoff team since they arrived, and he could get the valuable experience that Robin Lehner got on that Binghamton Calder Cup run in 2011.
3. Lassi Thomson to Belleville
For the same reasons as Gustavsson, I want to protect Lassi Thomson from what is happening up here. He has been a pleasant surprise but have no illusions, he can’t make things better. It can be argued that he will learn a lot playing in Ottawa. I agree. He will learn how to lose and get comfortable with it. Let the veterans absorb this. I also believe his development will suffer playing up here and he won’t become what he was drafted to be which is a top four defenseman with offensive upside.
I know it has been said the best players need to play in Ottawa. I am not convinced Thomson is in the top six right now. No one is criticizing him at the moment. He is the darling that can do no wrong. The players he is supposedly better than are the ones getting hammered by the media and Twitter. Eventually, they will come for him too. They know they have a prospect now. Let’s develop him properly. He was scratched against the Kings which suggests to me this might already be in the works. If it isn’t, it should be.
4. Extend Nick Paul, Josh Norris & Alex Formenton
Paul, in particular, is a UFA next season. If the Sens don’t get him signed before free agency, he is gone. I think he likes it here now that he has become an NHL regular, and the team likes him. I think they could do this affordably and at a decent term of no more than three years. This would give Paul security and the Sens get a little more return on that Spezza trade.
Norris and Formenton are coming out of entry level and don’t have any arbitration rights.
Norris is a projected #2 center, at minimum, and has lived up to billing. He is on pace to better last season and his signing would send a positive vibe through the organization and Sens Nation. The Sens have the Tkachuk, Batherson and Chabot contracts on the books for comparables. If Norris is willing to do a longer deal and be part of this, it would just be a matter of using those deals to figure out where he fits. The team would be smart to buy up his years of free agency to keep him here.
Formenton is not producing offensively and this is a concern. However, he isn’t good enough to get it done without some legitimate linemates. His speed is elite and it generates chances. His hands are not what his feet are, but he is physical. The offense will come with time. Again, this would send a positive message and it wouldn’t cost a ton to do it. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to do anything long-term just yet. I do, however, believe the Sens should want him here for the short-term at the very least?
5. Start heavily scouting the Kingston Frontenacs
I would imagine that the Senators are already keeping a close eye on the Frontenacs, given that their #1 goalie is the Sens' 3rd round 2020 draft pick, Leevi Merilainen. Add to that, 2021 2nd round draft pick, Ben Roger, has been acquired by the Frontenacs from the London Knights.
Of particular interest on that team is projected #1 overall selection, Shane Wright. Wright is a projected #1 center, and the Frontenacs are making a bid for the league championship this year, knowing he probably won’t be back next year. Wright didn’t play last year due to COVID-19 and despite that, he is still better than a point per game pace this season. Look for him to represent Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships and have a deep playoff run.
The Senators have never had any luck in draft lotteries. If you believe luck runs in threes, the Sens team got decimated by COVID, lost two of their top three centers to long term injury and the Captain’s hand got bitten in a fight….TWICE!!
They are due for some luck and, since we all agree that the Sens' season is not salvageable, they shouldn’t do anything to salvage it. They don’t need to say the word tank, but when you are 32nd in a league of 32 teams, it doesn’t always need to be said.
If they don’t get the #1 pick, all is not lost. This is a deep pool. The Sens will get someone worthwhile or, wait for it, they can explore trade options to move down and get some pieces that can be used now. Of course, they will need to invest in the pro scouting to pull that off.
You may be wondering why I didn’t suggest firing someone or making a big trade. Those are moves by teams looking to save the season. Let it play out and see if the current roster can rally and get it together like they did last year after the horrendous start. If they do, scratch #5 and replace it with the trade down scenario and see who wants to play ball. The Sens can still unload UFA players at the deadline if they improve their play and generate a market for themselves.
If you can’t sell winning, you need to sell hope. Investing in scouting, developing prospects, and signing RFAs all send a positive message that the team still has a plan.
The Redblacks had another horrible season this year. However, they have signed at least 10 players to return next season just prior to season ticket renewal time. There is work to be done but they are selling the plan.
I remember how closely the Binghamton Senators' Calder Cup run was followed by Sens Nation. Players from that team ended up playing meaningful roles on the NHL roster. It provided hope to a fan base that there was a plan in place.
Clearly, this season was not part of the plan. The Senators brass need to sell hope more now than ever. They also need to not insult the intelligence of their fan base by making moves designed to move them from 32nd overall to 25th.
It’s time to FIGHT FOR THEIR WRIGHT!
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey