After months that felt like years, we’re off the carousel. The games of will-they-won’t-they regarding a historic draft have finally been completed. Last Friday, we entered the next stage of the offseason, free agency. While the Senators were busy, it wasn’t quite in the way some may have expected. Instead of initially focusing efforts on unrestricted free agents, Pierre Dorion set his sights on the trade market, bringing in players that left Sens fans in a familiar place - divided.
It didn’t take long for Dorion and his associates to bring this fanbase from united excitement about new jerseys, high draft picks and an Alex Trebek cameo back to discourse on professional scouting efforts back to elation all within the matter of one week. After all, we went from cheering for Tim Stützle and Jake Sanderson to questioning the meaning behind adding players who are more known for making hits than plays to seeing Dorion sign probably one of the best deals free agency has seen in 2020.
The upcoming week(s) will bring our attention to Ottawa’s restricted free agents. All those eligible have filed for their rightful arbitration hearing but how many will make it there? We already know the answer is at least one less than the total list.
Earlier this week we had another odd jersey related moment, even after the announcement left fans thrilled with the choice to return to the 2D logo. Finally, in the name of unity, we should start setting expectations for the upcoming season now so that, when we get there, we can’t be too upset with how the team fared.
On Free Agency
As the frenzy began at noon on Friday, there was some anticipation from Sens fans everywhere on what the Ottawa Senators would get up to in free agency. As we know, this lineup has a ton of holes in it. The most hopeful of fans, myself included, will look toward to the many prospects in Ottawa’s system and sees those gaps being plugged by young, promising stars like Josh Norris, Erik Brannstrom and, of course, Stützle. But one still had to wonder who the Senators would bring in on Friday.
The day came and went and, if you visited the signings page on CapFriendly, you’d notice a glaring absence of NHL free agent signings by Ottawa since the clock struck noon on October 9th. Up until yesterday, they still hadn’t signed a meaningful soul out of free agency. Yes, they locked up recently acquired goaltender Matt Murray. I know, they added Matthew Peca and Logan Shaw as well. But, at the end of the day, the Sens hadn’t done anything of substance in the first few days of the free agent market. We saw a few rumours that the Sens were in on players like Craig Smith and they were even listed as a player for Tyler Toffoli as well. For a while there, you had to wonder if the pessimistic thought of Ottawa as an unattractive destination was weighing on Dorion’s ability to make a free agency splash.
Yesterday afternoon - at time when the signing required some edits to this piece - the Senators announced the signing of Evgenii Dadonov to a three year, $5M deal. The 31 year old Russian, signing for just three years at a relatively friendly deal for his services, is an absolute home run for Dorion. The Senators were heading into next season very weak on the right wing when it came to established NHL talent, and now they’ve added a proven commodity to their weakest side.
The right wing situation is now:— Brandon Maki (@BrandonMaki_) October 15, 2020
Instant, marked improvement. This is a fantastic signing by the Ottawa Senators.
To top it all off, we might not be done. It looks like Dorion has waited for the dust to settle and is working on picking up pieces that are still available.
And I don't think the Senators are done this off-season, there's a few more moves potentially— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) October 15, 2020
On Player Acquisitions
In altering the lineup, Dorion & Co. have mostly opted for the trade route. When it comes to skaters, the team has added Josh Brown, Erik Gudbranson and Austin Watson to the lineup. What do these players have in common? Size, grit and nastiness. If you were trying to get a glimpse of Dorion’s offseason strategy, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that he wants this team to be annoying and, perhaps, painful to play against. If they’re not going to win hockey games, Dorion at least wants the opposition to be bumped and bruised when the final buzzer sounds.
You can look at this strategy in two ways. First, Dorion and his team have a bit of an archaic, caveman view of how the game of hockey is supposed to be played. Second, Dorion and his team are counting on the long list of skilled prospects they have to score the goals. With my new brand of Amateur Optimist, I’m going to choose to believe it’s the latter strategy. Dorion adding players like Gudbranson, Brown and Watson is his way of saying to the likes of Norris, Brännström and Stützle “we don’t expect you to crash and bang on the fourth line, we have players to do that.”
Am I right? Man, I hope so.
On Strange Jersey Related Leaks
The other day, it was pointed out that the Adidas app was advertising a Brady Tkachuk jersey which includes the captain’s ‘C’ on it. This, of course, led to talks of the jersey manufacturer somehow leaking the intentions of the team to name the young star as the franchise’s next captain. After what felt like a decade of stores like Giant Tiger leaking the Sens new logo, it would be hilariously sad if somehow Adidas was in the know on Ottawa’s upcoming leadership decisions.
That being said, multiple people, including Smith himself, have confirmed the Senators are going with a leadership by committee for the upcoming season.
I don’t know what would be more odd, Adidas leaking the captain of an NHL team or an NHL team naming a 20 year old with a year left on his contract, and apparently no extension coming soon, as the club’s captain.
On the RFAs
On Tuesday, the NHL released its schedule of RFA Arbitration Hearings.
For the Senators, the important dates start next week and go into November. As of Wednesday, however, we can scratch Nick Paul off that list as he agreed to a new two year deal, with an average annual value of $1.35M. As a fellow member of the two first names club, I’m thrilled for Paul. More importantly, I’m excited to see Paul continue building on his play from this past season that saw him finally secure an NHL job. This two year, one way deal should calm any type of nerves Paul would have been playing with in regards to getting sent back to the AHL. He’s here to stay and I’m looking forward to him contributing in a bottom six role this season. Also, I hope Smith reunites the line that destroyed the AHL not long ago by lining Paul up with Logan Brown and Drake Batherson - at least give it a try, please.
As for the remaining RFAs, all eyes are going to be on Ottawa’s conversations with Connor Brown. Under DJ Smith and on an underperforming Senators team, Brown played a ton of minutes and was a trusted player in all situations. The problem is, on a contending team, Brown isn’t quite that player. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Senators see him as a long term piece with the club. If that’s the case, you can expect the two sides to come to an agreement prior to October 22nd. After all, getting a deal through arbitration will take Brown to unrestricted free agency - signaling that the Sens might not see Brown as a long term piece in this rebuild; or that Brown doesn’t see his future in Ottawa.
For the upcoming season, it’s really important to get your expectations in check. I, for one, am of the opinion that every possible roster spot should be given to a prospect. And those prospects should be playing important minutes. After all, this roster, as it stands today, isn’t going to win a ton of games in the NHL. I’d rather see Norris play 20 minutes a night and perform mediocrely than see a player like Artem Anisimov rack up those kinds of minutes. That being said, that’s not a realistic expectation. NHL Head Coaches are notoriously risk averse and Smith is no exception. He’s going to lean on players like Connor Brown, Anisimov and Chris Tierney to play a lot of the minutes that we want the prospects to see.
Similarly, we need to cool our heads about two time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Matt Murray. When it comes to fan expectations I’ve seen on Twitter, in the words of Bobby Ryan, Murray is comin’ in hot. I’ve seen a number of people touting his pedigree, his experience and his playoff success while ignoring the two biggest obstacles standing between him and the goaltender he used to be: his past few seasons of mediocre goaltending and playing behind a team that’s not expected to be great. Murray won two cups by backstopping a team that consisted of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, all in the absolute primes of their careers. Don’t get me wrong, Murray can return to form. But behind a shaky blueline and a team full of inexperienced players trying to establish their NHL careers, if Murray comes out of this season with league average numbers, we should consider that a huge win.