We are now mere hours away from the start of free agency, less than a week after the 2022 entry draft, and the Ottawa Senators have been the talk of the offseason... in a good way, this time around.
Over the last week, Senators GM Pierre Dorion has been making aggressive moves the likes of which we rarely see in the NHL these days. From acquiring Alex DeBrincat on draft day, to dumping Matt Murray’s salary to the Leafs then turning around and swapping Filip Gustavsson for Cam Talbot, Dorion has been on a heater, and if reports are to be believed, he’s still not done.
It’s like the opposite of the 2018 offseason. If the Sens actually pull off the moves they say they’re trying to make, this might go down as the best offseason in Sens history.
These are win-now moves, not the kind of thing you’d expect from a team that finished 7th last in the league last year. They’re also exactly the types of moves Dorion should be making right now.
For the last year or so, the Sens have looked like a team that could become a playoff team with a few smart moves. With most of their top prospects now the NHL full-time and the others putting up strong seasons in minor leagues, it was becoming clear where the holes in the lineup were.
They had four top-six forwards in Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson and Stützle. They had a handful of solid third or fourth liners playing too high up in the lineup. They had a good top pairing in Chabot and Zub, with top prospect Jake Sanderson on the way. That’s not a playoff calibre team, but it could be.
That’s why it was so frustrating to watch Dorion do so little during last year’s offseason and during free agency. Anyone could have seen what the Sens needed in order to become contenders.
That’s also why it’s so nice to see the Sens finally, finally make exactly the moves they need to make this week. They got their game breaking forward in Alex DeBrincat, and still have next year’s first round pick as well as all their prospects to use in a trade for a top 4 defenseman. They cleared up cap space by dealing Murray and buying out White and Del Zotto, then got themselves a bit more certainty in goal by bringing in Cam Talbot. For the first time in recent memory, it feels like they might actually be clearing out cap space for the purpose of using it, not just for the sake of keeping costs down.
It’s the right move, not just because of where the team is right now, but also because of how things are shaping up around the league.
The Sens can do amazing things with this cap space
When NHL teams are planning for the future, they usually do so under the assumption that the salary cap will go up every year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that hasn’t happened, and it feels like all the contending teams are feeling the effects. How many teams went all-in on their 2022 playoff run knowing it was their last shot before a bunch of their players needed contracts they wouldn’t be able to afford? The Flames and Wild come to mind, along with - to a lesser extent - the Avalanche, Panthers and Lightning, with the Leafs also being in cap trouble, just without any big contracts to sign.
Sure enough, this year’s free agent class is excellent, and many teams have had to move on from top players because of money. It’s a buyer’s market, as evidenced by how little teams like Ottawa and LA have had to give up for top six forwards. This afternoon will tell us how much free agents can command on the open market, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the deals were slightly less outrageous than what we usually see.
Factor in that teams in tear-down mode might want to keep tanking for another year to increase their chances of getting a high pick in an extremely good draft, and it feels like this is the perfect year for teams like Ottawa to start adding.
Dorion said the rebuild was over last year. He could actually put an end to this rebuild with a few more moves.
Sign Giroux. Trade for a top 4 defenseman - a real top 4 guy, not another Travis Hamonic. That roster probably gets you into the playoffs next year, and maybe that convinces guys like DeBrincat to stick around. The Sens’ window isn’t closing any time soon, but it might be opening in 2022-23.