When Pierre Dorion and the Ottawa Senators signed Vladimir Tarasenko to a 1-year deal worth $5M back on July 27th, it was a bit perplexing because they were left with less than $1M in cap space with both Shane Pinto and Egor Sokolov left unsigned. The addition of Tarasenko brought with it some excitement, the Russian sniper has averaged 70 points per season for his career, and he was seen as a suitable replacement for the offense lost due to the departure of Alex DeBrincat. On the other hand, it was also difficult to see how Pinto (and Sokolov to a lesser extent) was going to fit on the roster. Those all seemed like future problems, though, that could easily be addressed before the start of training camp.
And now on September 27th with two weeks to go before the season, it's still unclear just how the team plans to fit Pinto into the line-up.
At this point I'm not worried that Pinto is going to be unsigned past December and miss the entire season, but I am worried about what the Senators will have to give up in order to become cap compliant and re-sign Pinto. I have to admit to being a bit confused as to what Dorion was thinking when he signed Tarasenko, because he must have believed it was going to be easier to shed salary than it has proven to be. Otherwise, he might have gone about the off-season differently. It's not that I don't like Tarasenko, but we have to wait and see what pick(s) or prospect(s) they have to move to accomodate the final pieces of roster building.
The Senators clearly aren't going to move one of their core members because that would be pointless to make their team much worse while trying to make the playoffs, and they really don't have many obviously bad contracts. Mathieu Joseph has always been the obvious candidate after having a down season with just 18 points in 56 games (and zero even-strength goals) despite making $2.95M for the next three seasons. Joseph has a good enough defensive impact that I don't think he should be viewed as a negative asset, but if a team was willing to give up anything for him, that would've happened in August.
The issue is timing: with two weeks left before the season, Dorion has backed himself into a corner. Teams have no incentive to take on a contract for $2.95M for the next three years (especially if they don't view Joseph positively), and they know that Dorion is scrambling to get a deal done. Even if it only took a 3rd round pick to move him, that would've happened by now as well. Instead, we're seeing rumours that the asking price to off-load Josephy is a 1st round pick. I think that's a steep ask, and who knows if the rumour is true or not, but it doesn't seem totally impossible. It migt really take a first to get this done.
Tyler Boucher's name also came up as an option for a sweetener, and while many in the fanbase would be fine with moving on from him if it means getting Pinto signed, it still wouldn't be ideal to sell quite so low on the former first round pick. The only other names that I've seen mentioned instead of Joseph are Dominik Kubalik and Erik Brännström, although clearing Brännström's salary wouldn't be enough, and I can't see them moving Kubalik – who they expect to be a good additional contributor up and down the lineup. Either way, losing any of those players (plus a pick or prospect) will make the Senators worse.
Ottawa should be incredibly thankful that it seems like Pinto is essentially ready to sign in the ~$2.5M range because if he were asking for more, they would have to move more than just Joseph. $2.5M on a bridge deal would be fair for both sides, although it'd be great to have him locked up down the line just like the rest of the core is.
Pinto is not (yet) in the same tier as the top core players on the team like Tim Stützle, Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Jakob Chychrun, and Claude Giroux, but he's a top player in the tier below and has the potential to get even better. But even if Pinto is a similar player to what he is now, he needs to be playing in Ottawa for one big reason: centre depth.
Norris missed 74 games last season with a shoulder injury, and it's not the first shoulder injury he has suffered. Furthermore, he hasn't played in the first three preseason games out of precaution after tweaking it so that he doesn't re-injure himself. Dorion insists that Norris would play in the regular season if it was on right now, but it's hard to not be a bit worried about this considering the same thing happened last year when he came back for just five games before injuring the same shoulder again. You saw the trickle-down effect last season, as Pinto was cast into a second line role that he wasn't yet ready for.
I wouldn't be comfortable with Pinto playing on the second line for a long period of time just yet, but if he isn't playing either and Norris gets hurt, Ottawa's second line centre is probably Ridly Greig, or....Mark Kastelic. That's the worst-case scenario of course, but not one that's too hard to envision. If everyone is healthy and signed, the Senators centre depth is one of the best in the league, but they still need to find a way to get Pinto onto the roster.
It's going to be incredibly uncomfortable getting closer to the beginning of the season without Pinto, especially considering how few games the trio of Stützle/Norris/Pinto have actually played together. Something will likely work itself out in the end, but I don't envy Dorion for having to navigate this. Then again, he's the one who put himself in this spot. Pressure's on.