Debrinked: Offering Perspective and Caution

The big news from the draft for the Sens was bundling picks for Chicago winger Alex DeBrincat— understandably the fanbase is skweeeing about it (here’s a typical example). I’m not here simply to offer a negative take, but I do think there’s important context and deeper analysis to perform (for instance, the aforementioned post includes this incorrect assumption: “It’s very unlikely any of the three picks they gave up will turn into anyone as good as [him]“). We’ll explore why that conviction is far from clear below.

The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the trade was, assuming team finances are unchanged, that the 24-year old is a rental, albeit of the two-year variety. Debrincat is a fantastic comparison to another big move from the Pierre Dorion, namely trading for Matt Duchene in 2017 (Nichols almost hits upon this, but not quite). At the time, just like now, Dorion thought he was on the cusp of playoff success, so let’s go back to the halcyon days of 2017, look at that trade, and see how it compares.

This was a threeway trade between Ottawa, Nashville, and Colorado (which the Avalanche won going away); that aside, we’ll concern ourselves only with the elements that apply to Ottawa.
Sens gave up (1 player, 3 assets):
Kyle Turris (Nsh) – 172-29-67-96 (0.55) over three seasons, which was below his Ottawa average (0.67); the Sens wisely got out of the Turris-business before his play collapsed and they avoided paying him the absurd salary Nashville handed out–moving him at this time was a good idea
Andrew Hammond (Col) – The Sens ill-advisedly rewarded him with a one-way contract and dumping him became necessary (Anderson-Condon was the tandem that season); the Avalanche buried him in the minors and let him walk at the end of the season
Shane Bowers (Col) – A first-round pick (!) that I thought was terrible at the time and, as Colorado discovered, I was not wrong (his AHL numbers with them: 117-23-22-45 0.38); the Sens picking him was a waste (a Mann pick, incidentally), but knowing to get rid of him was the correct move
2019 1st-round pick (Bowen Byram, Col) – Dorion dumped the first-round pick thinking he was managing a playoff team–instead the Avalanche got a lottery pick the Sens needed; Byram has won a Cup already (his NHL numbers through parts of two seasons: 49-5-17-19 0.38)
2019 3rd-round pick (Matthew Stienburg, Col) – The third-rounder is still plying his trade in the NCAA and doing well, but whether he’ll pan out is up in the air (it’s statistically unlikely)
Sens acquired (1 player):
Matt Duchene – 118-50-57-107 (0.90) over parts of two seasons as the Sens bottomed out to become one of the worst teams in the NHL; he was flipped to Columbus (a trade we’ll get into below); Duchene played very well, producing above his career average (0.76), but that production was wasted because Dorion misunderstood how good his roster was

What you can say about this trade is that, in terms of the established assets, Dorion did well (moving on from Turris, Bowers, and Hammond, and getting in on Duchene at peak performance). What Dorion failed at was assessing his own team and thus surrendering an asset he’d dearly love to have back. Dorion also struggled when forced to move Duchene, so let’s briefly look at that.
Sens gave up (2 players):
Matt Duchene – Finished out the season with the Blue Jackets (23-4-8-12), but walked and signed with Nashville afterwards (so he was a pure rental)
Julius Bergman – Previously acquired in the Mike Hoffman deal, the Sens jettisoned him after just part of one-season in the AHL (he finished out the year and then went back to Europe)
Sens acquired (3 players):
Vitaly Abramov – The prospect received a lot of fanfare, but suited up for just 5 NHL games over three seasons before returning to Russia
Jonathan Davidsson – A signing Columbus clearly regretted, the Sens brought him over for one season where he accomplished nothing in the AHL (30-2-3-5) and returned to Europe
2019 1st-round pick (Lassi Thomson) – Is on the right trajectory, although it’s too early to say if he’ll become an important NHL regular or not

Dorion again made the correct decision to dump Duchene when he did (as well as moving an asset he didn’t want in Bergman), and Davidsson was simply part of the price to be paid for the trade, but the team failed hard in gauging Abramov’s potential. Given that Columbus retained none of the assets in what was a playoff-push trade, the Sens win the exchange if Thomson turns into even a marginal NHL-regular, however, big picture we’d all rather have Byram than Thomson, which means Dorion loses the entire Duchene cycle–not just because of the final assets, but because Duchene’s time with Ottawa was wasted. His performance, while good individually, did nothing for the team.

With that lengthy preamble aside, let’s see what Dorion has learned. The pint-sized Debrincat (368-160-147-307 0.83) was a 2nd-rounder in 2016 who has flourished with the largely non-competitive Hawks since he debuted. He’s young, hasn’t had notable injury concerns, is signed and an RFA for the following season–he’s expensive, but in theory there’s two seasons for the budget-conscious Sens to get out of him. What did they give up?
2022 1st-round pick (Kevin Korchinski)
2022 2nd-round pick (Paul Ludwinski)
2024 3rd-round pick

A top-ten pick is nothing to sneeze at and the 2nd is very early, meaning the odds of Ludwinski also turning out are (relatively) high–the 3rd-round pick is much more of a crapshoot. Let’s take a look at players picked in those positions over 2012-20 (those in italics either failed or were marginal players; those undetermined have their current league/circumstance noted):
7th overall: Matt Dumba, Darnell Nurse, Haydn Fleury, Ivan Provorov, Clayton Keller, Lias Andersson, Quinn Hughes, Dylan Cozens
39th overall: Lukas Sutter, Laurent Dauphin, Vitek Vanecek, A. J. Greer, Alex Debrincat, Jason Robertson, Olof Lindbom, Jackson LaCombe (NCAA)

I appreciate the irony of Debrincat being a 39th pick. That aside, 75% of the time the 7th-pick has become a significant asset; on the other side, two cases remain undecided (Vanecek and LaCombe), so of what’s left it’s 33% (which is still quite high). Let’s also keep in mind that the best later pick was made by Chicago, the team Dorion just traded with. In the long term, it’s unlikely the Sens win this trade (to do so Chicago needs to fail), so this trade isn’t for the long term.

With Debrincat, just like Duchene five years ago, this deal requires the Sens to win now. We understood that urgency when Melnyk was in charge, but he’s no longer with us, so where is the pressure coming from? My theory is Dorion knows he’s on very thin ice–this could be his last year as GM and, if that’s the case, he wants to go for broke. Are the 2022-23 Senators better than the 2017-18 Senators? It’s easy to say yes in hindsight, but the latter were coming off almost making the Stanley Cup finals, so I don’t think it’s that simple. Let’s briefly compare the two (I’m going to note the season they had prior and then the current season; bold is improved, italics is not):

Top-six forwards
Mark Stone (1.06/1.05)
Mike Hoffman (0.82/0.68)
Matt Duchene (0.53/0.72)
Ryan Dzingel (0.39/0.52)
Derick Brassard (0.48/0.65)
Bobby Ryan (0.40/0.53)
Top-four blueline
Erik Karlsson (0.92/0.87)
Thomas Chabot (junior/0.39)
Cody Ceci (0.21/0.23)
Dion Phaneuf (0.37/0.30)
Starting ‘tender
Craig Anderson (.923/.898)
Significant Roster Losses
Marc Methot

The Sens were slightly better offensively in the 17-18 season, but their goaltending collapsed and that had hidden deficiencies on defense. Dorion’s inability to read the tea leaves in terms of the blueline and goaltending sent the team crashing down into its lengthy rebuild.

Top-six forwards
Alex Debrincat (0.95)
Brady Tkachuk (0.84)
Tim Stutzle (0.73)
Josh Norris (0.83)
Drake Batherson (0.95)
Shane Pinto (injured)
Top-four blueline
Thomas Chabot (0.64)
Artyom Zub (0.27)
Jake Sanderson (NCAA)
Erik Brannstrom (0.26)-Lassi Thomson (AHL)
Starting ‘tender
Anders Forsberg (.917)
Significant Roster Losses
None

The Sens suffered a ton of key injuries this past season and are leaning heavily on younger players. There’s no depth to replace key losses, such that it’s impossible for success if there are any significant health issues (this also applies to individual regression or struggles). Goaltending, just like in 17-18, is a huge question mark, as Forsberg is a career backup and there’s only uncertainty behind him.

We also can’t help but repeat what Nichols and others have found by digging through the numbers: how much playing with Patrick Kane has helped boost Debrincat‘s numbers–and it does no good to say, well, if he’s not as advertised, the Sens aren’t committed, because they’ve already surrendered significant assets to get him that can’t be replaced. Debrincat must work out or this trade is a disaster.

Also, as others have pointed out, Debrincat helps the team in the way it needs least: on offense. While it’s safe to say the top-six without him is hardly dominant, scoring wasn’t the primary issue for the team this past season. Not only that, but by surrendering two top-40 picks, the Sens are delaying the addition of new top talent in net or on the blueline. Do I think Jake Sanderson will be a good NHL player? I do, but how long is he going to be playing with Chabot and Zub? It’s also unclear if the Sens have a proper #4 to complete the picture (along with zero capacity to make-up for injuries on the blueline). The net is a mess and clearly Dorion is praying for the continued evolution of Mads Sogaard, but he’s only 21 (shades of Murray waiting for Robin Lehner or Dorion relying on Marcus Hogberg). The echoes to 2017 and the Duchene trade are ringing louder and louder.

At the end of the day, I hope the Debrincat addition is all people hope it will be (I do love offense, lest we forget), but Pierre Dorion has a magical talent for losing trades, so I’m going to remain cautious until we’re well into the coming season.

This article was written by Peter Levi