Another Summer of Optimism

Put aside the cynicism, forget the past (kill it if you must, right Rian Johnson?), and embrace yet another summer of optimism for your Ottawa Senators! I’m reminded so much of last summer (whose marketing wonk appears to have been largely forgotten in the fanbase), but this time even people like Shawn Simpson are drinking the Koolaid (and in fairness to him, in relative terms the hype has more substance than is typical for the franchise). That’s not to say I don’t understand why people are excited or that I think they shouldn’t be excited, just that I’ve seen this movie before (including under Dorion–summer 2017 comes to mind), and I’ve learned to look for substance before I buy into the hype.

This article is not all doom and gloom (it’s astonishing how many people just skim the opening paragraph or two). There is criticism because that’s a good part of any assessment process, but also because it’s completely absent right now.

I mentioned some time ago that the vocal fanbase, like most fanbases, has no appetite for constructive criticism until after things have started to go off the rails. Remember when Filip Gustavsson was the goaltender of the future (cf)? Yost has given a little caution at the end of his Debrincat article (and about the defensecorps), but we’ll have to wait for someone like Dom Luszczyszyn to get our moment of clarity outside this space.

What is fascinating to me (and why I wrote my last article), is how easily people forget the parallel’s to the Matt Duchene trade in 2017. Then, as now, Dorion believed he was on the hunt for playoff success and made moves to shore up the forward group (giving up valuable picks to do so). In doing so he moved a useful forward who was nearing decline (Turris/Brown) and a failed goaltender he’d overvalued (Hammond/Murray)–sounds familiar, doesn’t it, even if the parallel’s aren’t exact? One difference I didn’t mention in the article is that it was an older Sens team–the 2017 team’s average age was 28 (in Dorion’s mind, peaking after the 2011 rebuild), while the roster at the end of this season was a full two years younger (its rebuild beginning in 2018). The whole point of this exercise is Dorion has tried this before and failed, so caution should be exercised in judging the moves.

How do we assess the various moves? I thought the simplest way was this: 1) Does it improve the team? (I’m not concerned with how much in individual terms, just in relative terms), 2) How impactful is what was sacrificed for the move? Here we’re thinking both about the immediate impact as well as down the line.

I talked at length about Alex Debrincat (link above), but to sum it up: he should be a significant contributor, but we have to keep in mind how much his performance has been enhanced by playing with Patrick Kane (he’s not Warren Young, but plenty of players drop off when removed from their elite partner), that he’s likely a two-year rental (barring being badly overpaid), and that he’s adding where the Sens are already strong (at forward, rather than fixing their blueline).

Buying out Colin White received mostly positive coverage, but this is Dorion spending money to escape yet another error in judgement (something many, including me, foresaw when it happened). There was no reason, other than marketing, to sign White to the ludicrous deal at the time and it illustrated poor judgement in assessing what kind of player he was (a chronic problem for Dorion, as it seems like every season he has to get himself out of a dumb contract he signed). White‘s impact on the lineup wasn’t huge, but I certainly don’t think he hurt the team.

Buying out Del Zotto was another self-own by Dorion, as literally no one outside the org understood why they signed the vet. The buyout was necessary, but spending your way out of trouble is not a sign of astute management. Moving him helps the team (his presence was a distraction), but having put him on the roster in the first place is a fail (that’s money spent that ought to have gone somewhere else).

Trading Matt Murray isn’t a ‘success’ but (again) making up for another Dorion error that cost the team a 3rd in 2023, 7th in 2024, and money (the latter pick won’t haunt them, but a high pick in the third round could, albeit that cost is years away). Let’s keep in mind the team gave up a second-rounder to get him in the first place (Joel Blomqvist)–that’s three picks and money for someone who never helped the team. The unknown of Murray‘s performance (and the picks) could turn this into a loss, but the immediate positive is getting rid of him. The fail is obvious–virtually no one outside the org liked the deal he made for the ‘tender and it failed as badly as was feared.

Picking up Cam Talbot from Minnesota as insurance for Anton Forsberg is a good idea; this is the former’s last season under contract and if Forsberg goes full Andrew Hammond and collapses there’s security from the declining veteran. Giving up Gustavsson is probably the right move, but as a young ‘tender, there’s always a chance he lives up to the hype.

In dumping Filip Gustavsson, the Sens have given up the last meaningful piece from the Mika Zibanejad trade (the ‘tender being the holdover from dealing Derick Brassard the next season). If you look at the assets, moving the future Ranger star has landed the Sens Talbot and failed prospect Luke Loheit–Dorion wins again! We’ve already graded the move for Talbot above, but just wrap your head around Dorion starting with Zibanejad and ending up with an old goaltender and failed prospect in return for one playoff run.

Descending down from the heavens comes Claude Giroux–good local guy and everything like that. At 34, Giroux is still an effective player, although he’s on the downward side of his career. There’s no question he will help the team and the deal is not unreasonable in length, albeit the cost is high. The fact he wanted to sign with Ottawa should have kept the price lower, and again we have to keep in mind he helps where the team needs it least (at forward). I understand how much he helps marketing and ticket sales and I don’t think that’s a consideration to be ignored, but I think this (like the Norris-deal) is paying more than necessary.

Speaking of Josh Norris, the deal seems very reflective of the Brady Tkachuk contract signed in the fall. In each case I think the Sens slightly overpaid (assuming production remains at a good level). The possible downside is if Norris declines (there’s no sign of that, but it can happen) and how much it may effect the cost of re-signing Stutzle.

Dumping Connor Brown for a 2024 2nd-rounder to Washington isn’t a bad return, depending on what they do with the pick (the pick is likely to be mid to late in that round). I’d much rather the team move an asset before letting them walk for free. Brown is a very useful player (most TOI on the team). As for the return, it’s up in the air (I have a suspicion Dorion will package the pick in a trade), but it has the potential to be very good (this kind of deal is always a conundrum for the fans who say picks don’t matter when Ottawa surrenders them, but then trumpet picks when acquired).

Someone will have to explain to me why the Sens think Dylan Gambrell helps the team–numerous people have stated flatly that he’s not an NHL-caliber player.

I’m not a fan of Dillon Heatherington and he got a two-year deal, but that dislike isn’t based on his capabilities in the AHL (I just thought a better addition could be made). There was an initial fear when CapFriendly indicated he was a one-way in the second year, but they’ve since fixed that, so I can live with the contract. The BSens coach is a fan (as are a few in the fanbase). My lack of enthusiasm is because players like him are a dime-a-dozen–big blueliners with limited talent clog up the bluelines in the AHL, ECHL, and Europe. While I think there’s better ways to approach building the team, having him isn’t a problem and he’s someone easily traded should the need arise.

Speaking of big blueliners, the Sens added Rubins Kristians from Toronto’s system. The big Latvian is virtually a clone of Heatherington (AHL career PPG 0.22 vs 0.28; they even play the same side). I love Latvian players (I have fond memories of Kaspars Daugavins and Sergejs Zoltoks), but there ought to be a limit to the number of lugs needed to fasten your wheels. While he’s technically an RFA at the end of his contract, I don’t see a future for him and I’m not sure that he adds much to the BSens–on the flip side, there are worse decisions they could have made.

A few other minor league deals I want to applaud (regardless of how their seasons go): Jacob Lucchini, who was vital to the BSens last year; Rourke Chartier, for the same reason (albeit to a lesser degree); also Scott Sabourin for how he played in the AHL (he seems to thrive under Mann). I’m all about rewarding players who actually impacted the team and are not given absurd deals. All players could regress and in Lucchini/Chartier‘s case that would hurt much more than Sabourin‘s, but signing the deals makes sense based on their performance.

I don’t expect many forward signings for the BSens, considering that Angus Crookshank should be back after missing the entire season, Viktor Lodin is here full-time, Philippe Daoust won’t be loaned back to the Q, and Ridley Greig has arrived. Both Tyler Boucher and Zack Ostapchuk are signed, but I expect them to be returned to junior (it doesn’t seem worth it for them to play third or fourth line minutes). Jakov Novak is going back for a fifth year in the NCAA, so isn’t on the horizon.

It seems like the Sens are leaving Tyler Kleven in the NCAA (which is fine). With the aforementioned pair of blueliners and Leslie on an AHL-deal, I’m not sure any further additions will be made in the AHL. [After writing that, the Sens signed failed former 1st-rounder Jacob Larsson, the former Duck having played his way onto their AHL-squad with unremarkable numbers, 55-2-13-15 0.27–the 25-year old is another lefthand shot (all three prospects on the team, minus Aspirot, are righthand shots: Bernard-Docker, Thompson, and Guenette).]

For goaltending, a veteran will be signed, but whether the team wants to go with Sogaard-Mandolese as the starting tandem isn’t clear to me. Leevi Merilainen is signed, but I expect him to spend another year preparing for the pro game. [After I wrote this the Sens signed vet Antoine Bibeau, the 28-year old former Leaf pick split last year between the AHL and ECHL in Seattle’s system, so poses no threat whatsoever to the prospects, while being capable of filling in as necessary. I like the signing, as both young goaltenders need to play regularly.]

I read that the Sens let Eric Engstrand‘s rights expire [apparently confirmed]–if that’s true it’s odd and I wonder if that’s on the player as much as the org. If correct he’d be the third European power forward the org has drafted who has failed to turn out for them. Speaking of those players, 2016 pick Markus Nurmi signed with Nashville and it will be interesting to see how the 24-year old does (the Sens clearly didn’t see a future for him).

Assessing the Team

How does the team compares to what it was when the season ended? Let’s take a look (I like to organize by age; I’ve included how they arrived on the roster, how many years remain on their contract, their prior season, their career average, and where they are in their career (RS=re-signed; the number in brackets is their career PPG; green are new to the lineup), and declining or improving if evident (this trend needn’t be catastrophic, just to be noted):

Forwards
Claude Giroux, C/RW, 34, FA, 3 yrs, 75-21-44-65 0.86 (0.91) declining
Austin Watson, W, 30, T-Nsh (4-124/21, Jack Matier), 1 yr, 67-10-6-16 0.23 (0.25)
Mathieu Joseph, C/W, 25, T-TB (Nick Paul trade), RFA, 69-12-18-30 0.43 (0.35)
Dylan Gambrell, C, 25, T-SJ/RS (7-204/22, Adam Zlnka), 1 yr, 63-3-4-7 0.11 (0.17) AHL-player
Alex Debrincat, W, 24, T-Chi (1-7/22, Kevin Korchinski, 2-39/22, Paul Ludwinski, 3/24), 1 yr, 82-41-37-78 0.95 (0.83)
Drake Batherson, RW, 24, 4-121/17, 5 yrs, 46-17-27-44 0.95 (0.67) improving
Mark Kastelic, C, 23, 5-125/19, 1 yr, 16-2-2-4 0.25 (AHL)
Josh Norris, C, 23, T-SJ/RS (Karlsson deal), 8 yrs, 66-35-20-55 0.83 (0.72) improving
Parker Kelly, C/LW, 23, FA/RS, 2 yrs, 41-7-5-12 0.29 (0.31)
Brady Tkachuk, LW/C, 22, 1-4/18, 6 yrs, 79-30-37-67 0.84 (0.69) improving
Alex Formenton, LW, 22, 2-47/17, RFA, 79-18-14-32 0.40 (0.36)
Shane Pinto, C, 21, 2-32/19, 1 yr, 5-0-1-1 0.20 (0.47) improving
Tim Stutzle, C/LW, 20, 1-3/20 (Karlsson trade), 1 yr, 79-22-36-58 0.73 (0.66) improving
Delete
Tyler Ennis, C/W, 32, FA, 57-8-16-24 0.42 (0.49) declining
Connor Brown, RW, 28, T-Wsh (2/24), 1 yr, 64-10-29-39 0.60 (0.49)
Chris Tierney, C, 28, FA (Flo), 1 yr, 70-6-12-18 0.25 (0.40) declining
Adam Gaudette, C, FA (Tor), 1 yr, 50-4-8-12 0.24 (0.32) AHL-player

We could argue that maybe Tkachuk has hit his normal production, but as this past season marked a significant improvement, I think there’s an equal argument to be made that he can still improve. We also need to keep in mind, for all the numbers, that the NHL had an unprecedented bump in scoring which could easily regress to boring levels. Most of the group is young (other than Giroux), and valueless players like Watson and Gambrell can be moved or buried at minimal cost–which is to say, there’s nothing barring younger players from being added to the mix. I’m unsure if Formenton has another gear or if we’ve reached his peak–he was never projected to be a top-scorer and his numbers are quite comfortable for his role.

The deletions don’t include 62 ineffective games from Sanford or a solid 59 from Paul. The only missing player who will be missed and has difficult minutes to replace is Brown.

Prospects who may crack the lineup include Greig, Crookshank, and Sokolov, but I think it’s unlikely to start the season as there’s limited ice time available so that dominating in the AHL makes more sense. We’ll get to the prospect pool later.

Defense
Nick Holden, DL, 35, T-VGK (Dadonov trade), 1 yr, 76-5-14-19 0.25 (0.28)
Travis Hamonic, DR, 31, T-Van (3-80/22, Elias Pettersson), 1 yr, 43-4-6-10 0.23 (0.29)
Nikita Zaitsev, DR, 30, T-Tor (Ceci trade), 2 yrs, 62-2-9-11 0.17 (0.26) declining
Artyom Zub, DR, 26, FA/RS, 1 yr, 81-6-16-22 0.27 (0.28)
Thomas Chabot, DL, 25, 1-18/15, 6 yrs, 59-7-31-38 0.64 (0.60)
Erik Brannstrom, DL, 22, T-VGK (Stone trade), RFA, 53-0-14-14 0.26 (0.27)
Jake Sanderson, DL, 20, 1-5/20, 2 yrs, NCAA 23-8-18-26 improving
Delete
Michael Del Zotto, DL, 32, Buyout (Flo), 1 yr, 26-3-10-13 0.50 (0.36)
Victor Mete, DL, 24, FA (Tor), 1 yr, 37-0-7-7 0.18 (0.18) AHL-player

Zaitsev isn’t a useful player on a bad contract (ala White), instead he’s a terrible player on a bad contract and the Sens are either going to have to buy him out or be forced to package something useful to get rid of him. The team isn’t committed to either of the other older defenseman, which means moving them (or moving on) is easy to do if they struggle or there’s younger players who deserve to play.

Goaltenders
Cam Talbot, GL, 35, T-Min (Gustavsson trade), 1 yr, .911 (.915) declining
Anton Forsberg, GL, 29, Waivers-WPG/RS, 3 yrs, .917 (.909)
Delete
Matt Murray, GL, 28, T-Tor (bag of magic beans), 2 yrs, .906 (.911) declining
Filip Gustavsson, GL, T-Min (Talbot trade), 1 yr, .892 (.905)

I’m deeply suspicious of Forsberg‘s year as I’ve seen this movie before (Hammond among others), so having the option of Talbot to take over is a good one, although I think when you look at the latter’s numbers there are hints that he struggles behind teams that aren’t strong defensively (which is a description that suits the current Sens). Regardless, I think he’s a solid addition and helps shore up the crease and prevents prospects from being rushed.

Summary

There is no doubt that the Sens are a better team now than when they ended the season. In my estimation they’ve only lost one useful player (Brown) and added three (Giroux, Debrincat, and TalbotSanderson too if you count top-prospects). Their top-six is solidified and they can arguably handle one or two injuries to that group in the short-term from within. The team’s goaltending has also improved, albeit with question marks attached. What arguably isn’t much improved is their blueline, which was terrible last season and, for the moment, dependent largely on internal progression. Will Zaitsev still be here? Is Sanderson ready for prime time? The depth can’t handle serious injuries, even if a prospect or two can handle limited minutes in the NHL.

Is this a playoff team? I sincerely doubt it, but if it is, the core players have to remain healthy. That said, there’s less need for prospects to perform than previously (outside the blueline), with most of the core locked in to avoid Dorion fittering away another Zibanejad for nothing. It’s certainly a more competitive and (possibly) entertaining team.

Should fans be optimistic? Sure, I just think expectations need to be tempered.

Prospect Pool

I’m including this as an ending because there’s a great deal of uncertainty in terms of where players are at and (therefore) what impact they can have. Most of the time they are not ready for the NHL, so keep that in mind. I’m going to go over the signed prospects who are going to be playing pro hockey. They are in order of age (this is not a player-by-player assessment, as I did that recently, here and here; keep in mind I have Kastelic on the NHL-roster above, a situation that’s not set in stone):
Forwards
Viktor Lodin, C/LW, 23, 4-94/19, 1 yr, SHL 44-12-15-27 0.61
Angus Crookshank, LW, 23, 5-126/18, 2 yrs, injured (0.84)
Cole Reinhardt, LW, 22, 6-181/20 (Wideman trade), 2 yrs,* 70-15-15-30 0.43 (0.41)
Yegor Sokolov, W, 22, 2-61/20 (Stone trade), 1 yr, 64-19-31-50 0.78 (0.76)
Philippe Daoust, C/LW, 20, 6-158/20 (Hoffman trade), 3 yrs, QMJHL 38-24-23-47 1.23
Ridley Greig, LW, 19, 1-28/20 (Pageau trade), 3 yrs, WHL 39-26-37-63 1.61
Roby Jarventie, LW, 19, 2-33/20, 2 yrs, 70-11-22-33 0.49

Defense
Jonathan Aspirot, DL, 23, FA, 1 yr, 45-5-13-18 0.41 (0.40)
Jacob Bernard-Docker, DR, 22, 1-26/18 (K’Andre Miller trade), 1yr, 58-2-7-9 0.16
Lassi Thomson, DR, 21, 1-19/19 (Duchene trade), 2 yrs,* 44-10-16-26 0.59 (0.49)
Maxence Guenette, DR, 21, 7-187/19, 48-6-13-19 0.40

Goaltenders
Kevin Mandolese, GL, 21, 6-157/18, 1 yr, .901 (.896)
Mads Sogaard, GL, 21, 2-37/19 (Jamieson Rees/Anttoni Honka trade), 2 yrs, .908 (.910)

*Both players have played two years in the AHL, but CapFriendly has them with two years left on their contracts–this is probably in error, although it might be due to Covid-related exemptions

Several of the forwards (Lodin, Crookshank, and Greig) seem like they could slot in below the top-six and be useful at the NHL-level, which isn’t to say it will happen or should happen, just that I don’t think they can only succeed in a scoring role. Other prospects, like Sokolov and Jarventie, should only ascend if they can have that top-end opportunity. The odd man out to me in the forward group is Reinhardt–I just don’t know what he’s supposed to do for you.

On the blueline, other than Thomson, I don’t think anyone is ready for time with the big club. This is a make-or-break year for JBD and if he busts that’s a sad end to the deal Dorion made to get him (K’Andre Miller looks like a good player). The org has brought in a lot of defensive protection for this group, but if they fail to produce the BSens will struggle with their transition game.

For goaltenders, this is a make-or-break year for Mandolese; I prefer the org not pressure or rush Sogaard and leave him in Belleville unless he’s having a breakout season (the org has a bad habit of rushing young goaltenders).

That wraps it up for me. All thoughts/comments are welcome. I am hopeful for the team going forward, but more cautious than the rest of the fanbase.

This article was written by Peter Levi