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The DeBrincat Dilemma: Luxury or Necessity?

When Senators' GM Pierre Dorion swung the deal that sent the 1st and 2nd round NHL draft picks in 2022 and a 3rd rounder in 2024 for Alex DeBrincat, I finally felt some of the optimism Sens Nation had been promised.

Looking at his age, past performance, ability to stay healthy, and consistently find the back of the net, I couldn’t really find a downside to the trade. Yes, a 7th and 39th overall selection is a heavy bounty to pay. However, from my vantage point, if DeBrincat came as advertised, it seemed to be exactly what the team needed.

He was 24 at the time and managed to miss very few games in his first five seasons in the league. He averaged 32 goals and 61 points, which included a 56 game COVID-19 campaign. The power play and what it could become was the new topic of conversation in Ottawa talk radio, blogs, podcasts and social media feeds. In fact, when the Senators followed that up by signing Claude Giroux a week later, the talk became who was going to be bumped to the second power play unit, with all this firepower to choose from.

Now DeBrincat is 25, about to become a restricted free agent, and the talk has turned to what the Senators should do with him.

It’s hard to believe it has come to this so quickly. However, with a $9 million qualifying offer due this summer and unrestricted free agency looming the following year (unless a long term extension is reached), it’s a conversation that Dorion has surely been having internally for most of the season.

Of course, the primary reason this conversation is happening is that DeBrincat has not performed at the level that he had consistently delivered in Chicago. If he were on pace for a 40 goal/80 point season like everyone hoped (and like he did last season), the talk wouldn’t be “What are the Senators going to do with DeBrincat?”. The talk would be “How are they going to be able to afford DeBrincat?”.

I don’t view the season as a total disaster by any means. The Senators power play, despite struggles on the most recent road trip, has been one of the shining lights of the season. DeBrincat has been a big part of that. However, being on pace for 26 goals and 69 points while being a -25 has given many a pause for thought about whether this is a fit.

The main question to be answered is “Why hasn’t DeBrincat delivered like he did in Chicago?”

Was DeBrincat’s performance a function of playing with Patrick Kane all those years or can he deliver wherever he happens to go? Have weaknesses in his game been identified by not having a premier linemate like Kane? Why did the Chicago Blackhawks, even in a rebuild, want to unload a 24-year-old proven goal scorer?

Of course, everyone benefits from playing with elite talent. I also subscribe to the belief that if you aren’t up to the challenge, playing with a superior player will only make you look more inferior. If DeBrincat weren’t really a 40 goal/80 point player, it would have shown regardless of who he played with.

Another point to consider is if the system DeBrincat is playing in at five on five is truly conducive to him being effective. I don’t like to give multi-million-dollar athletes an out, so to speak. However, he isn’t the only Senators player with an ugly plus-minus, despite having decent offensive numbers. The Senators five on five play has clearly left them in an uphill playoff battle. Had they played anywhere near as well at even strength as they have on the power play and penalty kill, they would be top three in the division. If this is a coaching issue rather than a personnel issue, it’s best to figure that out before making any decisions.

That said, the most recent road trip put his plus-minus in Drake Batherson territory, competing for the Green Jacket Award, diminishing the value of his offensive production.

Finally, if the decision is that the Senators want to go long on DeBrincat, how do they make that work in the Caprobatics world, when they also need to get extensions in place for Shane Pinto for next season, Jake Sanderson the following year and, yes, Jakob Chychrun the year after that. The looming change in ownership and timeline that it follows will play a big role in the decision when all is said and done.

Dorion can’t be wrong about his next move with this player. He paid a heavy bounty to get him. The wrong move could set back the rebuild and put his own employment in jeopardy.

So, what are the options?

1) Qualifying Offer - $9 million

This seems like the safest move to me. The belief is that DeBrincat holds all the cards and I agree, to an extent. This would be a $3.6 million cap hit increase over this season. However, with Dion Phaneuf, Nick Holden, Travis Hamonic, Derick Brassard, Patrick Brown, Austin Watson and possibly Cam Talbot coming off the books after this season, this will leave $11,320,834 in additional cap space. That goes with the projected $3,508,353 unused and the projected bump of $1 million on the cap for next season.

DeBrincat isn’t the first high profile new player to underperform in a new environment. That said, Claude Giroux is overperforming in a new environment. He also wouldn’t be the first to find his form in subsequent seasons.

I see a player who is in his own head and not making his chances count. If the chances weren’t there, I would be worried. This option prevents rush decisions being made and allows for a thorough view of the player. We don’t know who will be coaching next season and I am not at all convinced that the plus-minus stat isn’t more a condemnation of the how the team plays at even strength.

From a cap perspective, the $1.562 million the Senators are paying Matt Murray to back up in Toronto will come off the books, along with $2.583 million in dead cap for Bobby Ryan and Michael Del Zotto after next season. The cap will continue to increase, and the financial picture will hopefully be clearer with newly ratified ownership in place.

One caveat to this option would be that DeBrincat is eligible to receive an offer sheet. Given the range in which said offer sheet would likely land, the Senators would be owed the following:

a) Two first round picks

b) One second round pick

c) One third round pick

If an offer sheet is tendered and this is the bounty in return, I would not match. I would take my chances with the Senators amateur scouting department every time. DeBrincat is a luxury, not a necessity.

Since the picks being surrendered must be original picks, the following teams are the only ones eligible to get DeBrincat on an offer sheet in the $8.4 million to $10.5 million price range:

Ducks, Coyotes, Sabres, Flames, Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Stars, Red Wings, Predators, Rangers, Kraken and Blues.

Offer sheets are rare. I don’t see this happening. However, the Red Wings and Sabres both have the cap space and clever GMs.

2) Trade during the off season/Trade Deadline

Dorion probably could have made out all right at the trade deadline and chose to hold on to DeBrincat. I doubt this would happen in the off-season. However, it is an option. When Josh Norris returns next season, the Senators top six could look like this:

Brady Tkachuk–Tim Stutzle–Claude Giroux

Trade Return–Josh Norris–Drake Batherson

Ridly Greig continues to evolve in Belleville. The fate of Alex Formenton is still unknown. I understand that's not a popular name in Ottawa right now. However, the only reason he isn’t playing is because he didn’t accept the Senators' qualifying offer during the summer. Though I feel like he may have played his last game in Ottawa, he is still the Senators’ asset. He could return to play or be traded depending on the outcome of the investigation, which has gone eerily silent.

That is a lot of uncertainty to have in your top six. However, DeBrincat could also be replaced in the same manner that Giroux was brought in. With cap space and a positive situation to sell, the Senators could be major players in the free agency market.

If option 1 is exercised, and a deal can’t be reached during the season, Dorion will have plenty of suitors at the trade deadline next season and he will get a decent return.

I only point this out to show DeBrincat holds some cards. He doesn’t hold all of them.

3) Sign 8-year extension

There has been lots of debate over what the AAV would be like for DeBrincat on an eight-year deal.

If I am doing this kind of extension, it would be on the understanding there is an internal cap within the team. Tkachuk makes a little more than $8.2 million per season for another five seasons. Stutzle begins his $8.35 million eight-year deal next year.

Under absolutely no circumstances would I give DeBrincat what they make or more. If that is the ask, we can move to trade discussions right now.

I have talked a lot about the seven-player profile. Here is my view of the Senators profile.

1) All Star Center: Tim Stutzle

2) All Star Center: Josh Norris

3) Elite Power Forward: Brady Tkachuk

4) Role player/two way: Shane Pinto (future)/Claude Giroux (present)

5) All Star Offensive Defenceman: Thomas Chabot

6) All Star Shutdown Defenceman: Jake Sanderson

7) All Star Goalie: Mads Sogaard (future)

Tkachuk and Stutzle are the primary cogs in the Senators' wheel. DeBrincat is not part of the seven-player profile, nor should be paid as such. I don’t have a problem with him making more money than Pinto or Giroux. However, Norris makes $7.95 million and I wouldn’t sign DeBrincat to anything more than that.

Perhaps the upside of DeBrincat not coming into Ottawa and filling the net is that he may be open to a long-term deal at a more manageable number to get the eighth year. Dorion did great work getting Stutzle to sign that deal with a year left on his ELC. Given the year he is having, it’s not hard to see he should have gambled on himself.

In short, if DeBrincat were open to eight years at $7.5 million, I would do that deal. He clearly has scoring touch, he just hasn’t found the range consistently in Ottawa yet. That said, he is also the type of player where, when the points dry up, he dries up. He doesn’t kill penalties. He can play a 200-foot game, but he won’t be a shut down player.

He needs to produce offence. He is free to gamble on himself and sign a qualifying offer for a year and take $9 million. However, every season you perform below expectations lowers your leverage. Perhaps he takes a bird in the hand approach.

In the end, my ideal scenario would be to lock DeBrincat up long-term at a number that makes sense. If a limited no-trade clause helped lower the price even further, I might consider that as well.

However, under no circumstances can this player make more than the core stars. That’s a deal breaker. After next season, I would much rather see an investment like that be made in a player like Sanderson for eight years.

How do I think this will play out?

Barring a late rally to the season that puts the Senators into the playoffs – and Debrincat going on a tear in the process – I think he will sign a qualifying offer with the Senators and see how next season goes.

Dorion showed he is willing to play chicken in a negotiation process on the Chychrun deal. DeBrincat holds cards and so does Dorion. If his camp is firm on him wanting something in the $9 million range (AAV), then a qualifying offer puts the onus on the player to deliver at a level to justify such a contract. Regardless, I wouldn’t give him that kind of money long term.

Dorion would have until the trade deadline next season to evaluate and decide if that is worth it. If he is playing at a level to justify it and a deal can’t be reached, he will fetch a nice return that can make the trade with Chicago a wash at the very least.

It is too often said that players hold all the cards in these scenarios. That is only true if you believe that player to be irreplaceable. Very few players fit that description and DeBrincat isn’t one of them.

In the Caprobatics world, he's a luxury and not a necessity. The Senators have a great situation to sell around the league. I would prefer to make it work with him in the fold. However, I would not want to do it at the expense of anything in the Seven-Player profile.

By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey


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