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The Haunting Beauty of Pierre Dorion’s Asset Management

General Manager or Performance Artist?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Ottawa Senators Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Author’s note: First and foremost, and due to the overall satirical nature of this article, I want to break character here and send my condolences to the Melnyk family at this time. Rest in peace, Eugene.

(Also, like so many of my articles, I relied heavily on capfriendly to gather the necessary details.)

Unloved by the author himself and never completed, the novels of Franz Kafka have challenged and fascinated readers, critics, and scholars for the better part of a century. Whether due to drug use, internal turmoil, or financial strain, the Beach Boys abandoned the recording of Smile in the late 1960s and since then it has taken on the legacy of popular music’s greatest hypothetical album. A budgetary and logistical nightmare, producers pulled the capital plug on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune in pre-production in the seventies. How much could we have gained culturally from these works if completed in their proper time? Have we gained more as a society sifting through the fragments for decades?

I ask myself these questions and then I think about the general manager of the Ottawa Senators, Pierre Dorion. The majority of fans tend to either subscribe to the ideology of Dorion as a good GM on the cusp of hockey greatness or write him off as a good scout who probably finds himself in over his head with the whole management thing. What if there were something beyond this dichotomy?

I personally have to believe in a third theory that suggests maybe Dorion has no designs of building a winning hockey team for the sake of it. What if Dorion merely engages in the art of asset management as an art form in and of itself? And what if we just haven’t learned to appreciate his craft?

Looking back now at five years of Dorion’s moves as general manager, I can’t tell you for the life of me if he has made the Senators any better or worse. What we can say with certainty is that he has moved the furniture around consistently for half a decade like someone writing a PhD thesis in Feng Shui. Every now and then Dorion makes a great trade that inspires confidence in the fanbase and then, without fail, he’ll subsequently make an inversely bad trade or acquisition. Either the muses have spoken to him and set him off on a quest to perfect the art of absolute mediocrity or, good Orleans boy that he is, he can’t in good conscience win a trade without passing along the good fortune to the next GM in line.

Okay, so I probably should have started a couple of paragraphs ago qualifying just what I mean. Let’s start with the acquisition of Dylan Gambrell. I love that one. You start by acquiring San Jose’s seventh-round pick for Christian Jaros (my heart) in January and then you trade that pick right back to San Jose in October. You get perfect, beautiful symmetry with no remainder (sorry Jack Kopacka). I like the shuffling even more because both players cleared waivers so the trade seems almost completely pointless. So then, “Why make the trade?” you may ask. Well, why mow the lawn if the grass will grow back? Why make food presentable if you’ll only stick it in your pie hole anyway? Well, it’s called art. Have you heard of art? This is zen in the art of trading hockey players without making your hockey team better or worse and it’s magical.

“What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” asked William Blake. Pierre Dorion did. Everyone loves the Vladislav Namestnikov trades (yes, we’re touring the Dorion exhibit at the gallery now). You trade your good fourth-round pick to the Rangers in October 2019 and you get Colorado’s bad fourth-round pick back in February 2020 (and you don’t even want to know what he did with that pick. We don’t talk about it in front of the children). Speaking of fourth-rounders, the critics also rave about Dorion trading former fourth-rounder Nick Paul for former fourth-rounder Mathieu Joseph with a fourth-round pick and let’s not overlook the fact that Ottawa retained 44% of Paul’s salary. Don’t tell me it’s not some sort of four-focused art because it sure looks like it to me.

A trade of Logan Brown for Zach Senyshyn always made too much sense not to happen and it took a long time but we finally got it (kind of). Besides the Ottawa connection for the latter, both the Senators and Bruins needed to wash their hands of bungled first-round picks. Ottawa drafted Brown, gifting Charlie MacAvoy to Boston while the Bruins in turn drafted Senyshyn, gifting Thomas Chabot to the Senators. It took two separate trades but Dorion made it happen and they both include games-played conditions on the draft picks involved (and both players again cleared waivers this season making you question your own sanity!). Dorion turned a (probably) fourth-rounder out into a (definitely) fifth-rounder and maybe a seventh-rounder out. If those numbers seem familia,r that’s because Dorion sent out fourth-rounders for Josh Brown and Zach Sanford and got back fifth-rounders (and got seventh-rounders for Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson (the rhythm is everywhere)). Dorion probably also felt bad for turning Mike Reilly into a third-round pick from a fifth-round pick via Boston. He owed the Bruins a solid.

Do you think Jackson Pollock cared how many Stanley Cups his paintings won? No. He just wanted to give a voice to the colours themselves. And another thing about Erik Gudbranson: remember when Dorion signed Tyler Ennis the first time? Well he traded Ennis for a fifth-round pick, used that pick to acquire Gudbranson, and then signed Ennis again. Remember when Ottawa and Tampa exchanged the 155th and 157th overall picks in their December 2020 trade? Name another GM who makes that kind of a statement. I’ll wait. I mention that trade because in the acquisition of Cedric Paquette, Dorion accelerated the process of re-acquiring Ryan Dzingel. The Dzingel trade (the first one) stands out as maybe the best of Dorion’s tenure. So you better believe he made sure to a) send Columbus a seventh-round pick that he got essentially as a gift from Los Angeles (via Calgary), b) trade Columbus’ second-round pick for Derek Stepan (nothing), c) trade Columbus’ other second-round pick for Matt Murray (maybe also nothing), and d) let Anthony Duclair walk for nothing. Have you ever seen one of those modern art installations where they burn money just to make a point about capitalism?

A hard-working local kid at heart, Dorion simply can’t accept a free lunch. In hindsight it feels a little bourgeois for the Islanders to have sent both first- and second-round picks to Ottawa for Jean-Gabriel Pageau so I can understand why Dorion sent the second-rounder to Toronto as a trade for the sake of a trade (Tyler Kleven). On the subject of doing favours for our struggling neighbours in Toronto, remember the third-round pick Dorion sent over in the Cody Ceci for Nikita Zaitsev trade? Well that pick tracks back to Pittsburgh (via Columbus) as part of the Derick Brassard deal. You greedy bastards wanted Filip Gustavsson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Jonny Tychonick, and another asset back for Brassard? (and by extension Mika Zibanejad and also a second-round pick). In this economy?! Go back to Rockliffe. It goes both ways though. If Vegas thought they could just have Marc Methot and therefore a second-round pick then they don’t know Pierre Dorion. We’re one Egor Sokolov the better for it (waste not, want not). Dorion doesn’t subscribe to this thievery corporation of young, analytically-inclined NHL general managers. He still does it for the thrill, baby.

I hesitate to call Dorion a good general manager because quite frankly his teams lose a lot of hockey games. I also can’t dismiss his work because I watch literally every transaction he makes and I see his opus coming together before us in real time. Maybe one day we’ll look back on Dorion as a man out of his time. Maybe we simply can’t appreciate his vision because of our own biases and limitations. Blame it on the Stockholm Syndrome but for whatever reason (probably the memes) Dorion fascinates me in a way that he shouldn’t, given the Senators’ years of mediocrity. You can certainly argue that as GM, Dorion has a job to build a winner and not the derelict construct before us. But I think I have a job to write about hockey and I wrote this instead, so maybe Dorion appeals to me like a kindred spirit.

Oh wow, you’re still reading this. Ain’t that something? Look, if you’re like me then you saw that the Sens traded a third-round pick for a Travis Hamonic contract that no one would touch with a ten foot pole, and then you figured at least Ottawa got that pick essentially for free signing Evgeni Dadonov as a free agent prior, and then you saw a bunch of people arguing online about asset management and you wondered if you still follow this team for entertainment or not. Do trades and signings count as part of the entertainment? Does any of it matter? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone knows — likely not even Dorion himself.