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Interview with Pierre Dorion

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The Sens’ general manager spoke yesterday on the rebuild, analytics and more.

2017 NHL Awards - Media Availability Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Ottawa Senators invited a group of writers from social media yesterday to attend the team’s pre-season game. Pierre Dorion was kind enough to lend us his time beforehand to ask questions, where he opened up on topics including analytics, staff additions, team direction and much more.

Below is a full transcription of the 18-minute interview, with some brief thoughts added in between.

On the potential of adding another assistant general manager...

“Yeah, there are. Peter was here, the first time that he’s here tonight, he’s not going to start officially until October 1st. Peter has a great legal background. He’s got a pretty good hockey background too as far as when you work in the agent business, you have to know about development and what it takes. Because you take players at about 15, 16, even earlier than that 14. So he’s got a pretty knowledgable hockey background, he’s got a great legal background. I’m tired of arguing with every agent, so we’ll let him do that. So he’s going to do a lot of things, but I think for us to get to the level that we need to — and again we’re going to find the right candidate — down the road we could be adding another assistant GM. Not for the immediate today, but for down the road.”

“So, obviously, Peter has more expertise in negotiations, contracts, all that stuff. So, looking for probably more of a hockey guy, because Peter won’t be the GM of Belleville for now, so someone that could take on those responsibilities. Peter doesn’t come from experience as far as management, so maybe someone with experience. When it comes to picking candidates, you never to put anything in stone. We’ll interview nine guys, and Peter was just head and shoulders the best guy. So, if it comes to that, and it’s not going to come right away, once we feel that we can move forward with another candidate, then we want to make sure that we get the right guy. But it’d probably be someone with a bit more hockey background, or hockey spirits. It could be scouting, it could be management, it could be development, it could be coaching, something along those lines.”

It isn’t a surprise to see that the team is looking for another assistant general manager, considering MacTavish was brought in to fulfill a specific role. With Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel all upcoming as unrestricted free agents (more on them later), it makes perfect sense for Dorion to bring someone in whose expertise is in that type of area. That said, Dorion gives high praise for MacTavish, so hopefully he can live up to the expectations.

Of course, that still means there’s plenty of holes to be filled, with the Belleville Senators GM being the most outstanding. Dorion still has a lot on his hands, and bringing in a second assistant for the first time in years would be huge for the organization. Let’s just hope it comes sooner rather than later.

On what he would focus on with the additional time...

“Probably getting my life back. Is that fair? I think it’s been a trying summer. First, I’ll tell you that I’ve worked pretty much every weekend. I did take a few days off. After the season I went to Arizona to play 4-5 days of golf right before the lottery. I’ve worked every day. We’ve never been a big staff in our hockey operations, that’s true. And people will sometimes say, well, we don’t want to spend money. Well, we could if we wanted to. It’s about getting the right people. When you know when this is the number of people you can have making decisions, you know everyone’s got an input and every input’s going to matter. And sometimes, we could be like [the Toronto Maple Leafs] and have 47 people, and sometimes it’s not the best thing because you know your voice is never heard.”

We’ve heard this a few times from Dorion, on the benefits for keeping the staff size down. While there may be no direct correlation between staff size and team success, the lack of scouts has led to create a few holes, which is where things become problematic. It ties into why we haven’t seen anyone drafted outside of Europe in either of the last two drafts (they’re the only team to do so), and why they haven’t drafted a player out of Russia since 2007 (also a current NHL high).

Including the most recent addition of Petr Havluj, the Sens employ three scouts to cover the entirety of Europe, which is nowhere near enough considering the amount of talent that’s produced there. The biggest weapon at the draft table is having a clear picture of as many prospects as you can, and when information is lacking, the process starts to lag behind. While too many voices could certainly be a problem, the Sens seem far from reaching that point, whether it be in hockey operations or scouting.

On potential plans to expand the pro scouting staff...

“We’re still looking at that. We’d like to do that, a few things, a few irons in the fire. But, you know, pro scouting staff, we’re pretty much on the average with the league as far as our numbers. We’ve got three pro guys, and then we’ve got a fourth guy that does about half of it — Steve Stirling does college and also does pro — so we’re three and a half and that’s pretty good. I’ll admit it to you that pretty much every night I watch NHL hockey, it’s what I do on a pretty regular basis. So one league I should know and I do know well is the NHL.”

Stirling is listed as a part-time NCAA scout on the team website — interesting to see that he’s covering both the NCAA and NHL.

On being net zero in scouting hires and departures...

“Yeah, we’re about the same. The quality might be better than what we had previously. It’s never about quantity, it’s about quality. We’ve always got to be sure.”

On any concerns pertaining to the scouts being new to NHL scouting...

“No, not at all. Because [Petr Havluj], his father is a Detroit scout, so he comes from a great family. And I can speak, my dad was a scout and I think I did a pretty good job scouting. Kyle Flanagan, he got some experience last year, one of the smartest players we’ve ever had. And [Christian] De Blois comes from another hockey family. Lucien was his dad, his brother’s an agent, and they’ve all had experience. Like, Kyle as a player, so he started last year after the concussion, he got a taste of it. Christian has been the director of hockey operations for Shawinigan and worked for St. John’s so he’s got experience. There are things that worry me in life, and that’s one of the last things that worries me. And as someone that values amateur scouting as a general manager a lot, I’m not even worried at all about it.”

Although they’re here to replace other scouts who have left recently, it’s good to see the organization bringing in new faces instead of downsizing this particular area. Flanagan and Havluj are the two youngest members of the scouting department, with De Blois providing additional support to an already strong scouting team in the QMJHL.

On Clarke MacArthur potentially showing interest in a hockey ops role...

“Yes he has. I think guys like Chris Kelly. We want to make sure we find the right roles for them. Like, Chris Kelly is so engaged in his role, as far as player development, him and Shean Donovan. I say that we doubled our workforce, but we only had one, but we did double it. Having those two guys now, we’re getting to where we want to be. Again, we could have ten guys in development. I don’t know how worth it it would be, because these two guys are aligned. When they talk to our prospects when they’re in Belleville, when they’ll be in Ottawa, they’ll always be able to always be in the same line with what we want them to be. I met with them today, I meet with them regularly. Our assistant GM’s going to meet with them regularly to make sure that everyone’s on the right path.”

Between Shean Donovan, Chris Kelly, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips and formerly Daniel Alfredsson, the team has shown to be open to bringing in former players to continue working with the organization. MacArthur would surely be a popular hire amongst the fan base, and it’d be interesting to see what role they’d see fit.

On the role of analytics in the organization...

“Right now, I really like our analytics guy. I really like him. [Elias Collette] is what I consider a genius. I don’t want to tell him that because he talks too much. He just goes on and goes on and goes on and talks but he’s a really bright guy. Now, how we use it. For NHL scouting we use formulas and methods because all the data you get is on an even plane as far as that. For scouting in junior, it can be very difficult because how the data’s gathered is not done on a professional level. So we’re always very careful for that. But at the NHL level, our coaches use it with our analytics consultant on a regular basis about where we are. I get reports after every five games, where we are. There are certain things that we look at a lot is scoring chances. Scoring chances, really for us is a tool that we look at as far as how many you give up. We created A-B-C scoring chances, how many chances you give up, and how those players correlate to giving up chances or getting chances. And the coaches use it a lot for matchups, pairings, etc. But I don’t want to really get into it because I don’t want them to know. I’m a scout, so I always believe in my scouting background. But I’ve learned, we’ve all learned in our hockey group that we can use it as tools, and we feel that it’s important to use it as tools. But at the end of the day, you still have to go with your gut feeling. But if you’re not sure about things or want to verify things sometimes it’s good to go that way. And it’s something we’re going to look to expand as we move forward. But again, we don’t want to expand it too much, but we want to make sure that we do it well.”

The Sens currently employ two people for analytics: Collette has done analytics consulting for the Sens since 2014, and Tim Pattyson has been with the Sens since 2005 as a video coach, although is now listed as a ‘hockey data analyst’. Their roles seem to have continuously grown in the organization, and coming from a team that has made some against-the-grain decisions pertaining to analytics (think Cody Ceci’s deployment, trading for Alex Burrows, etc.), the way Dorion frames this appears that it’s more involved than we thought.

The mention of scoring chances in particular is interesting. It’s a stat that’s been used by teams for decades, and the way he describes it, A-B-C chances, sounds like this is something they track in-house. One wonders how well it correlates to scoring as he mentioned (a common tracking method proves to be less predictive than Corsi), although it’s good to see that it’s at least being incorporated in some manner. The way I view analytics is similar to how Dorion described it: it’s a tool that should be implemented to make more informed decisions.

On what he’s learned from past rebuilding experiences...

“Well, there was another general manager at the time. [Bryan Murray] is the greatest man I’ve ever met, I’ll go on the record for that. And Bryan, in whatever he wanted to do, I’m not going to say we derived from the plan, but we have a plan in place and we’re going to stick to it. We could go 41-0 — don’t think it’s going to happen, you never know — but we could go could go 41-0 to start off the year and we’re going to stick with the plan. You’re not going to see us trade prospects, kids, to try and get better right away. That’s not what we’re going to do. One thing I’ve learned is that no matter what the results are, we’re not going to diverge from the plan. And I know it’s tough, and it’s not fun to hear, and no one wants to hear that, like my buddies don’t want to talk about a rebuild. But for us to be good in the long term we have to. You look at all the teams that have won Cups, that have stayed at the top or are going to stay at the top — the Chicagos did it, the Torontos did it — I’m not going to name other teams because maybe they haven’t done it as successfully. But we’re not going to say we’re going to go exactly like one team. We’re going to try to do our own thing, and just rebuild with the great group of kids we have, and we have the best since I’ve been here. And we’re going to try and use those, and keep some core veterans, to try to build this thing slowly but surely. Well, not slowly. At the right pace.”

There are two ways to sell a sports franchise: winning or hope. The Sens are obviously not in a place to sell the first one, so emphasis on the young talent is going to be head-on.

My concern with the Sens’ rebuild, aside from the ever present cloud of ownership, is that the plan shows no specific goals or timeline. The teams he mentioned, Toronto and Chicago, planned years into the future to ensure that they were on track with their progression. This is something that was also lacking in 2011 — when the Sens made the playoffs the following year, the rebuild was tossed away almost immediately, which didn’t allow them to progress any further. There’s also the concern about a lack of elite talent, but I’ll save that for another day.

On steps being taken to ensure a successful rebuild...

“It’s not about losing, you’re right. You’re bang on about that. But it’s about seeing progression. Like, this year we’ve got to see progression, or else the rebuild is not going in the direction we want it to. I think the one thing is we cleaned up our room after last season. Not going to name names but we’ve cleaned up our room. Always having the veterans that can lead the kids into buying into what we do. And at the same, we’ve talked to our amateur staff, and we’re not always going to draft the highest skill guy. We’re going to draft a player that helps us win the most, and that comes with character. Those are intangibles that we’re always going to try and do. Easier to say now, but sometimes when you get in the fifth, sixth, seventh rounds sometimes you try to hit a home run with a skill guy. We’re going to do less and less of that now. Just because at the end of the day most of them don’t ever pan out.”

That second last sentence concerns me. The Sens’ biggest strength in the past handful of years has been their ability to find quality players late in the draft — think of Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Drake Batherson, Christian Wolanin, Christian Jaros, Ryan Dzingel... the list goes on. These were almost all guys that came with some form of risk at the time of their selection. Saying that they need to draft safer is only going to lead to mediocrity, and a riddance of what was once this team’s biggest strength.

On Elias Collette’s role with the team...

“He doesn’t know, because a few times I’ll ask him questions. He’s not directly involved in trade scenarios, I’m going to honest with you, no. But a lot of times I’ll just throw some stuff at him to see how he responds to me, just because I want to be careful about how the information gets out, because sometimes you guys know more than I know. I’ve checked my office for bugs because it doesn’t make sense. Directly he’s not involved as far as trades, I’ll admit that to you. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t be involved moving forward. Not directly, but indirectly he won’t be.”

On whether Collette’s role will be expanded...

“To a certain degree we will. I’m meeting with him over the next few weeks. We were supposed to go play golf and I never had the chance. I want to develop a certain type of rating which we have internally to use externally with the 30 teams, where value of players and grades and stuff like that.”

The mention of a single-number metric or rating are intriguing, especially with the topic being heated within the hockey community. There’s already plenty of great work being done publicly, such as the WAR metrics released by Emmanuel Perry or Evolving Wild. It’s good to see analytics being incorporated internally, and I won’t deduce anything else without more information.

On the progression of contract negotiations...

“[Mark] Stone, we were really close on a long term deal. We were close enough that I think we have faith to do what we need to do. At the same time, a lot of things can happen from now until then. We can talk, but can’t put anything officially on paper. And Duchene, they knew that we were working on something else, and maybe as recently as today we talk. But when you say stuff that that people expect that the contract will be done tomorrow, that’s not the way it works. Anyone who’s done contracts knows that. It’s a process, and both those contracts are going to be, if we ever get the chance to sign them, either or both, that they’re going to be the biggest contracts in Senators history. So we have to make sure with what we what.”

It was only yesterday that rumour surfaced that Mark Stone wanted out of Ottawa, with it being quickly denied by the player. While I don’t doubt that Stone loves being in Ottawa, we know for sure now that it was the organization pushing for a long-term deal, with Stone using his leverage to pave his way to free agency. We’ll have to see how this plays into the Duchene and Dzingel negotiations, although if Stone is no longer on the team, on top of Karlsson’s departure, it would be hard seeing them wanting to play for a franchise with such little chance of immediate success.

On other staff members that he’s been able to lean on for support in a difficult summer...

“Tim Pattyson, Sean McCauley, Allison Vaughan. Allison’s our manager of hockey administration, Tim Pattyson has done an amazing job as far as a lot of contract research and a lot of prep work. And Sean has done a great job in the office. No one ever hears about the people in the background, and they’ve been great.”

On why we should continue to be Ottawa Senators fans...

“Have faith in what we’re doing. I’m from Ottawa, I’m going to live here my whole life. And, I care about this team, I was here when the team first came. What we’re doing here is for long term success. And we’re going to do it right, and the fact that we’ve got a lot of big, young kids I think helps us out. And it’s not always about the big names, and sometimes you have to understand that. You can have as many big names as you want but sometimes it doesn’t bring Cup after Cup after Cup. For us what we want to do is we want to contend every year for the Cup. We want to bring attributes to the team that people can identify with — character, leadership, accountability, youthful energy. I don’t know if you guys know your hockey that well, I’m not even on Twitter. I was on Twitter for a while and someone figured out who I was so I got off. I don’t know you know if you guys saw how we played yesterday. The way we’ve played now is changed from last year. We’re going to be way more exciting. Just on the first goal, where the F2 was to support the puck and get a scoring chance, and a few times in the game we reverted back to where we were last year. And you know, if we’re up by two goals with ten minutes to go, you might see a neutral zone trap where we try to just block the neutral zone and counterattack. But I’ll tell you, I met with Guy [Boucher] numerous times, and we made a commitment for the way we play to be more entertaining but at the same time to bring us success. I can say all this to you, and if our goalies don’t stop the puck we’re not going to win any games. You guys are smart enough to know that. The secret to having a good team, three things: good goaltending, good coach, and talent. It’s not very complicated. If you have those three things, you’ll be pretty good. And I didn’t say GM in there.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. The part about the “big names” is a clear allusion to the Karlsson trade, and to imply that Stanley Cup contenders don’t need to have the superstars is false. From Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Carlson on Washington, to Crosby, Malkin and Letang on Pittsburgh, to Toews and Kane and Keith on Chicago, it’s the elite talent that leads a team to the highs. And let’s not forget that Karlsson has the ability to do this too, as we clearly saw in the 2017 playoffs. If this is the reasoning Dorion is going to try and use to justify trading the best player in franchise history, he won’t have much luck winning back the fans.

On a slightly more positive note, I’m looking forward to see what system tactics Guy Boucher will use to make the game more exciting. He’s surely been told to play more younger players (see: selling hope), although having them play a trap system all game won’t do much to help that.

There was a lot learned from this interview, as Dorion was generous in giving his time to answer questions. Chief Marketing Officer Aimee Deziel also spoke for 15+ minutes, so you can also expect a transcription of that one soon.

Edit: A quote previously assumed Dorion was talking about Tim Pattyson when he was talking about Elias Collette.