Who’s ready for some thoughts?
On Getting the Deal Done:
Ever since last season concluded, it’s felt like virtually every conversation about the Ottawa Senators eventually turned to Brady Tkachuk’s contract status. There are myriad reasons for this, including the team’s failure to retain several prominent names in recent years, but that didn’t make the exchanges feel any less draining as time went on. As a fan of the Sens, we’ve all had to come to terms with the team’s budgetary limitations. Part of what made these negotiations so frustrating, though, was that it seemed like the two sides were not very far apart when it came to dollars. We were told, on numerous occasions, that the disagreement stemmed from the “structure” of the proposed deal. “Structure” can mean any number of things, but we can take it as read that part of the disagreement revolved around signing bonuses — namely that the Sens have a standing policy that they don’t pay them (outside of entry-level contracts). Almost every other team in the league, even the relatively cash-strapped ones like Carolina and Florida, will shell out signing bonuses when it’s necessary to do so to keep their star talent.
You can colour me surprised, then, that the Sens were able to get Tkachuk to agree to a long-term deal that didn’t include a single penny in signing bonuses. The logical explanation seems to be that the Sens went a bit above market on the AAV to make up for the lack of bonus and that was enough to push this deal over the finish line. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that the $8.2M average salary is exactly the middle ground between the reported $8M and $8.4M the Sens were offering, and the Tkachuk camp were seeking respectively. Maybe it was just a question of Eugene Melnyk giving Pierre Dorion the go-ahead to “close the deal” as the Sens’ GM seemed to suggest on Thursday and then that kind of compromise became possible. In my immediate analysis, the deal seems fair to both sides: the Sens get the face of their franchise signed through his prime, while Tkachuk gets paid and will get a chance to cash in one last time when this deal expires. Regardless, the deal got done and I have to say my relief was immense.
Besides the obvious hockey reasons that the Sens desperately needed to re-sign Tkachuk, there were some very real symbolic reasons that they simply could not afford to lose him. As I’ve written on several occasions during the rebuild, the Sens have been in the business of selling us on hope, of a bright future that will make all of the angst of the last few years worthwhile. More specifically than that, they’ve been selling us on a future that is led by Brady Tkachuk. Ever since the team controversially selected him with the fourth overall pick, they’ve been selling us on the notion that Tkachuk’s future and the organization’s ascendancy were intertwined. Not only was he a skilled hockey player, he was the type of leader that you could build around. That kind of optimism will only get you so far; at some point, the fans need to see that you’re committed to the process. Getting the deal done, as I said above, makes real so many things that had only been promised; it’s a real cause for hope. Maybe the team can keep their stars. Maybe the youth will band together to lift us first to the play-offs, and then beyond. But none of that optimism is possible without the Tkachuk contract. Now that optimism can flow in a much less guarded fashion.
On Skilled Youth:
Some more of the reasons for optimism were on display during Thursday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. I was particularly impressed with the skill and attacking instinct of Tim Stützle and Shane Pinto, who both had several impressive individual moments. While I wouldn’t discount training camp and pre-season games entirely, it was re-assuring to see the two youngsters carry over their impressive play to the regular season. Stützle has looked much stronger on the puck this year than last, and the way he blew by Leaf defenders en route to some Grade A chances was particularly encouraging.
As for Pinto, maybe the thing that was the most encouraging from my perspective was how much he was trying for in the offensive end. Anyone who’s watched Pinto for any length of time could tell you that he’ll have a future in the NHL, but that his offensive upside would be the determinant of just how impactful he’ll be. Last night he didn’t show any fear attacking NHL defenders, and in particular he looked confident and assured carrying the puck through the neutral zone — two things that weren’t always the case in his brief stint last year. Perhaps as a result of his trying to expand his offensive game he committed a couple of awful turnovers that Ottawa was lucky to not be fishing out of the net, but I can live with those types of mistakes; if Pinto’s going to be the top six centre we’re all hoping for, there will be some mistakes along the way. Between him and Stützle, if the offensive contributions look like they did last night, things could work out very well for the Sens indeed.
On the New First Pairing:
Another set of players that I was watching fairly closely last night were Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub. It’s been documented, at length, how poorly the Chabot-Nikita Zaitsev pairing has fared for the past two seasons; if the Sens are going to go anywhere this year, they need Chabot and Zub to work. It’s awfully early, but there were some promising signs — particularly in the offensive end. One little wrinkle that I noticed is that they were setting up on their off-sides for offensive zone draws to try to get a one-timer going. It’s just a little thing, but it’s the kind of thing that you try for when you’re feeling comfortable with your partner, and when you’re ready to try to push for more offense.
Some of the defensive zone coverage left a bit to be desired, and the Leafs really punished the pairing on the cycle at times, but most of the slip-ups looked to me like things that can be fixed with practice and patience. We’ll need to see a lot more before we can pass any kind of final judgement, but there’s reason to hope this could work.
On Seeing Fans in the Building:
Lastly, when Alex Formenton scored the goal to put the Sens up 3-0 at the end of the first period it really struck me just how much I’d missed having fans in the arena. Yes, a large number of them were wearing blue and white. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about just how wise it is to allow nearly 16k people to gather indoors right now; if it turns out that the Sens home opener was the site of a super spreader event I can’t say I’ll feel too good about it. But I also can’t deny that hearing the roar of the crowd made me feel a certain way I hadn’t felt in 18 months. Fans give the games the stakes that get us all hooked. More than that, it also transported me back to a time before I had to worry about things like super spreader events. I needed that, and based on the way the fanbase seems to have taken this all in, it seems lots of us needed it.