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Looking at the Sens’ Options at Centre

With Shane Pinto potentially out long term, what should Ottawa do about the void at centre?

NHL: NOV 13 Penguins at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the beginning of the 2021-22 season, if you had asked me to pick one Ottawa Senators player to watch over the next 82 games, I probably would have chosen Shane Pinto.

Coming off a strong NHL debut at the end of last season and a great training camp in 2021, Pinto was poised to play his first full season this year and hopefully earn himself a permanent spot in the top six. Now, it looks like he’s going to miss the entire season with a shoulder injury. It would be hard to overstate the impact of losing Pinto. It’s not just that the Sens need him in the lineup if they want to win games - and they certainly do need that - it’s also that this organization needs to know what they have in Shane Pinto, and soon, if they want to compete in the next few years.

So with Pinto out, what do the Sens do now? Do they look for a stopgap who can play out the season and then step aside once Pinto is ready? Or do they look for a more long-term solution, a guaranteed top-six forward who can take some of the pressure off Pinto?

The Rebuild: Over?

Pierre Dorion was clowned on at the beginning of this season for announcing that “the rebuild is over.” It was a silly quote, but I do think he was right in some sense. This team is now at a point where they can stop focusing on stocking up on draft picks and prospects. Now, it’s time for this organization to look at all the players they acquired during the rebuild, decide who’s going to be a part of the team moving forward, and identify weak points. It’s time to go after big trade targets to fill those holes in the lineup, and not worry about giving up picks and prospects in the process. That, to me, is what it means to be at the end of a rebuild.

If we’re looking ahead to the future, my best guess is that the top 9 will eventually look something like this:

Stützle - ??? - Batherson
Tkachuk - Norris - ???
Paul - White - C. Brown

The biggest absence in that lineup is obviously the first line centre position. Given that the Sens didn’t go out and acquire a first line centre this offseason, I’m guessing they were hoping to see what they had in Pinto before making any big decisions. If Pinto turns into a legit top-six player, the Sens could have a good 1-2 punch down the middle with him and Norris.

I think Norris is ideally a second line centre, but I also think he could centre the first line IF: a) he had wingers as skilled as Stützle and Batherson with him and b) there was a player of roughly the same calibre centering the second line, so it was more of a 1a/1b situation. I think there’s a good chance Pinto turns into that player.

But if he doesn’t?

Other Options at Centre

If we’re looking for top-six centres in the Sens’ prospect pool, the conversation stops at Pinto and Norris. Barring any major surprises, nobody’s coming up from the minor leagues next year to save us.

The only internal option, then, is Tim Stützle, who has played centre in the past. The organization seems pretty intent on keeping him on the wing for the moment, and he’s definitely at least another year away from being able to centre the first line. Still, his defensive game has improved by leaps and bounds this year, and he’s a great playmaker who’s really strong on the puck - all attributes you want in a centre. Considering how deep this organization is along the left wing, it might make sense to move Jimmy Stü to centre and put someone else on his wing.

If the Pierres don’t want to trade for a centre this season, it might make sense to try Stützle at centre for a little bit just to see if that’s an option.

Still, I’d rather keep Stützle on the wing for the next little while. Which leaves us with...

What are the trade options?

If the rebuild really is over, the Sens should start looking to other teams to find solutions to their problems. With Jack Eichel off the market, they’re still left with a few good options.

I actually think that the best fit for the Senators would be 2015 third overall pick Dylan Strome, who’s barely getting any ice time in Chicago right now, but from what I understand is still a solid middle-six centre. He’s on the last year of a cheap deal, and his trade value is at an all-time low. This could be exactly what the Sens need: someone who can fill in as the second line centre right now, and who has the potential to turn into something more. Reminiscent of another former Coyotes third overall pick who played centre, perhaps. The Sens could give him one season in their top six and if he finally breaks out then, great, they’ve got another top-six centre. If he doesn’t, then they can let him leave as a UFA and turn back to Shane Pinto. Low risk, high reward acquisition.

The one big red flag is his defensive game, which is, to put it mildly, not good.

Dylan Strome’s Isolated 5v5 Impact, via hockeyviz.com

I still think it’s worth taking a chance on him.

Now, if we want to aim higher - like, say, a guaranteed first line centre who can lead this team into unparalleled success and is definitely a pipedream - my personal preference would be Tomáš Hertl. The centre requested a trade out of San Jose last year. At 28, he’s only a little bit older than this team’s core. His numbers are excellent; he’s been one of the best Sharks in xGF% over the last few years, and this pretty much sums it up:

He also seems like a fun guy, and as all Sens fans know, you have to consider the power of friendship when building a hockey team.

The big question here is obviously whether or not the Sens can actually get him. His pending UFA status brings down his value, but he’s still the best centreman on the market right now, so he won’t be cheap. He also has a modified No Trade Clause that lets him submit a 3 team trade list, and again, he’s a pending UFA, so he’s only becoming a Senator if he really wants to be a Senator. I should probably stop getting my hopes up about this.

The other name being thrown around right now is Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Rumour has it that Ottawa is the only team for which Giroux would consider waiving his No Movement Clause. Although he’s been in the NHL forever, at 33 he’s still producing at an impressive rate on Philadelphia’s first line. He’s a pending UFA, but if he’s willing to waive his NMC to come to Ottawa, I feel like there’s a good chance he’d be willing to re-sign. He would be an immediate upgrade on the first line, and playing him there for a few years could take some pressure off Norris, Pinto and Stützle.

Here’s how he’s doing at age 33, for anyone worried about him being too washed up:

Claude Giroux’s isolated impact, via hockeyviz.com

The last guy to maybe watch out for is Calgary’s Sean Monahan. The former Ottawa 67 has been struggling lately, and might be in need of a fresh start. He’s very much a second line centre, but at the right price, he might be a good fit in Ottawa. He is, however, the only guy on this list who won’t be a UFA this summer, and Calgary will probably be asking a lot for him.

Basically, there are a lot of options here. If the Senators are really confident in their prospect pool and still think they’re a few years away from playoff contention, it might make sense for them to play it safe. But if they’re hoping to salvage this season and make the playoffs in 2022-23, they should probably make a push for an immediate upgrade at centre, even if it comes at the cost of a few picks and/or prospects.