For Sens Nation, hearing the announcement – on opening night – of Brady Tkachuk’s 7 year $57.5 million contract was akin to getting a call from the governor in the 11th hour leading up to execution. The season was looking bleak. The team was barely at the cap floor. And only days prior to opening night, DJ Smith was saying he was preparing for life without Tkachuk in the lineup.
Fast forward 72 hours, the Senators were defeating their arch nemesis, Tkachuk was saluting the fans from the rafters like an Elvis apparition and there was a renewed sense of optimism in Sens Land.
Though I still maintain this season is more of a developmental year than a “The Rebuild is Over” year, this signing represents more than just locking down a key piece of the future. This signing represents the foundational piece that will underpin the remainder of the organization moving forward.
I know that’s quite a metaphor to live up to for a 22 year old kid, who doesn’t look a day over 20. However, I would venture to say that this organization hasn’t had a player to rally around with this kind of fan excitement and anticipation since Daniel Alfredsson left. I know Erik Karlsson was the marquee player who won a pair of Norris Trophies and led the team on one leg to within a goal of the Stanley Cup finals in 2017. But it never felt quite the same for some reason. Perhaps it was too soon to forget Alfie or that Karlsson’s inconsistent defensive play always seemed to cast a shadow on his offensive prowess. The fans took to him but he had a tough act to follow. Don’t believe me? Ask Jason Spezza.
I have been critical of management’s lack of activity in the off season to bolster the roster or at least replace the dearly departed Evgenii Dadonov. Even with Tkachuk and a healthy Colin White, I viewed the Senators as pretenders in a division that includes the repeat champs from Tampa, the built for now Florida Panthers, the always consistent Boston Bruins and those other guys whose name we dare not mention.
Having said that, perhaps I was being a bit too harsh in my criticism. Signing free agents is not simply putting out offers and outbidding people. The GM needs to be able to sell the situation and the Senators situation since Chris Kunitz daggered them in OT of Game 7 in 2017 has drastically deteriorated. They have not made the playoffs in 4 straight years. The team has not had a captain since Erik Karlsson left after the 2017/18 season. Attempts to secure a new downtown facility have been futile. There has been regular turnover in the front office as the reality of working for Eugene Melnyk has become apparent to all and even the fans made it clear that they didn’t have faith in their owner’s promises.
Aside from the actual remuneration of a contract, the stability of the “situation” being sold is critical to off season recruitment and Pierre Dorion hasn’t had much to sell of late. I can imagine the calls to agents of sought-after free agents hearing Dorion’s name would be met with “CLICK”.
This signing fixes a lot of that. The Chabot and Batherson contracts are helpful but Tkachuk will attract talent on a long term deal. Had this been a bridge deal, it becomes a wait and see for Brady Tkachuk and for potential free agents. This signing says he is on board. The Senators and their cap space could become an attractive location in summers ahead.
This will also encourage Norris, Stutzle and Pinto to ink long term extensions coming out of entry level rather than also doing bridge deals and the team will actually have the money to do it too. This should also be enough to woo Jake Sanderson out of UND after this college season rather than playing the wait and see game.
Hopefully, this signing also lays to rest the issue of who is going to lead this team going forward. I maintained steadfastly that a bridge deal should not have been rewarded with the captaincy. The C not only stands for Captain but also for Commitment. Now that Tkachuk is on a long-term deal, the only logical move now is to get a seamstress to put a C on his jersey. If leaders are called into service, I am sure Tkachuk will answer that call. The fans want it. And based on how the players follow him into battle, clearly his teammates want it. If his teammates want it, the coaches should surely want it.
All the boxes have been checked.
Most importantly, this signing is a message to the fan base. I am sure as these negotiations dragged on, I was not the only one worried this was going to become another William Nylander situation. The deadline date of December 1st was already being discussed and, of course, the fears were that Melnyk and his pocket book had gone missing. Granted, the Nylander situation got resolved but not without a lengthy hold out. That may be reparable for a player like Nylander, who is clearly a key piece of the Leafs team.
Tkachuk is more than that.
Fans were not deciding whether or not to believe in the Leafs based on the outcome of that hold out. Had this become acrimonious and a distraction, it would have given fans one more reason to put their credit cards back in their pockets and not buy tickets. Not only has Tkachuk signed his contract, his AAV is the highest in his draft class amongst RFA signings. So the cap spending days Melnyk promised may not be as far away as we might have thought.
When Ken Daneyko’s number was retired in New Jersey in 2006, he said during his speech that he knew the Devils were serious about winning the Stanley Cup when they acquired defenseman, Scott Stevens. I believe the same will be said about this signing and it won’t take until the Senators retire one of his teammate's jerseys to say it either.
I am saying it right now. The Senators will seriously compete for the Cup at least once during the life of this contract and may even win it. There is light at the end of the tunnel and that tunnel may even include a new arena. This signing could give Melnyk the hood ornament his freight train desperately needs. Sidney Crosby was a key piece in the Penguins getting their new stadium. Tkachuk may not have his overall speed and talent. But he will be the best player from his draft year and he has the intangibles.
I had my eye on Tkachuk during a New Year’s Eve game in 2017 in the World Junior Hockey Championships against Canada. By then, the Senators season had begun to unravel after the Matt Duchene trade and I figured, why not let it continue to unravel and get into a position to get that kid.
I felt like I was watching Gary Roberts impose his will on the Senators during those heartbreaking playoff series in 2001, 2002 & 2004. That heartbreak remains a sore spot to this day for me and I am sure for others in Sens Nation as well. I knew the Sens had never had a player like that. Zdeno Chara was the closest thing I could think of. He was an imposing figure and kept opposing teams honest but didn’t have Tkachuk’s charisma and swagger. Perhaps it was the language barrier. He just didn’t connect with fans on that next level through no fault of his own. Of course, they let him walk too. Enough said.
As fate would have it, the Senators continued to plummet, Dorion correctly opted to protect that 1st round pick from the Duchene trade in 2018 and relinquish the 1st round pick in 2019. Marc Bergevin chose position over potential in choosing Jesperi Kotkaniemi and my prayers were answered. The Sens landed that elusive piece whose value is worth more than the sum of his individual parts.
By no means is he perfect. He will undoubtedly frustrate fans with the occasional undisciplined penalty as he tries to get the opposition off its game. However, even when he struggles on the scoreboard, this kid will find a way to make a difference in the game and elevate his teammates.
The seven player profile isn’t complete by any means but this signing lays to rest the power forward position for the next seven years and with Pinto and Norris down the middle, Chabot and Sanderson being mainstay defensemen, the missing pieces at specialist/utility forward and elite goaltender remain the only boxes to check. With any luck, the Sens should be able to develop that from within and recruit key free agents to form a championship team before this contract expires.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey