Tempering Our Expectations for the Senators This Off-Season

While we’re all hoping for a big splash or two, we should probably be tempering our expectations in terms of trades and free agency

It’s the off-season. Fans are excited. Anything can happen. The possibilities are endless. And then the GM of your favourite team trades a 2nd round pick for a guy who makes $3M and will play 4th line minutes and you’re left wondering why you were ever hopeful.

The off-season is great because fans can speculate on what will happen and the discourse can be pretty fun. It’s been an interesting few months in the Ottawa Senators sphere because not only are we hoping for something to happen, it seems like everyone is expecting it to happen. It’s no secret Pierre Dorion is looking to add a top-6 forward and a top-4 defenseman, and it’s being reported that the 7th overall pick is potentially available to get that done. Then again, it seems like every year he has been after these two mysterious players.

The Senators have been legitimately linked to some big names like Alex DeBrincat, Kevin Fiala (who has since been dealt to Los Angeles), Claude Giroux, Clayton Keller, Jesse Puljujärvi, and others. It’s fun to dream about acquiring one of these players because they’d drastically improve the team but also because it’s so rare for Ottawa to be the one getting the big fish. While I want to be hopeful for a game-changer, I feel like we should also temper our expectations with what Dorion does this summer.

Do they really have the cash to sign Giroux or the prospects/cash down the line to acquire DeBrincat and keep him in Ottawa? Those are legitimate questions, and I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for failure if those are the names we are expecting. Instead, cautious optimism is usually the way to go with this team because they truly are a wildcard franchise—they’re too unpredictable. I’m not trying to tell you how to feel, just that I wouldn’t be surprised if people are disappointed when all is said and done.

I wanted to look at how many times the Senators have acquired a “big name” player through either free agency or a trade. A “big name” is a bit subjective, but it’s essentially someone who (at the time) was framed as a real difference-maker and not just a rental. I’m excluding unproven players (Kyle Turris), reclamation projects (Craig Anderson), and lateral moves (Marc Methot) because those moves didn’t come with narratives about how the Senators all of a sudden got much better. Making that “splashy” move has actually been quite rare.

In the salary cap era, there are essentially six times when the Senators acquired a fairly sought-after player, which all came with quite a lot of excitement surrounding them. Three of them were free agent signings (and all Russians) with Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Kovalev, and Evgenii Dadonov. They all had very similar deals, with Gonchar at 3x$5.5M, Kovalev at 2x$5M, and Dadonov at 3x$5M. Gonchar was the most impactful of the three in Ottawa, although even he was only a second-pairing defenseman for three seasons during his age 36-38 years. Kovalev had 49 points in 77 games in his first season, but was quite ineffective in 2010-11, making the signing fairly inconsequential. Dadonov seemed like a great deal at the time, but he had just 20 points in 55 games and his contract is now treated as a net negative.

Those three names brought something to the table, but they definitely did not accomplish as much as fans had hoped. Ottawa has also had successful free agent signings before, most notably Clarke MacArthur, but that was a very under-the-radar signing at the time for just 2x$3.25M. It’s probably for the best that Ottawa has mostly been forced to stay away from the highly-priced free agents anyway.

Then looking at trades, there are three that fit the bill: Bobby Ryan, Matt Duchene, and Matt Murray. The sad thing is, the Ryan deal is easily the most successful of the three, and it was essentially fine. On paper, the 26-year-old Ryan coming to Ottawa seemed fantastic as he already had four 30-goal seasons and was dealt for Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen, and a 2014 1st rounder (which turned into Nick Ritchie).

Silfverberg has been consistent but never topped the 50-point mark, and Noesen and Ritchie were nothing more than fourth-liners. Meanwhile, Ryan enjoyed three solid seasons in Ottawa while averaging 57 points per year, which Ottawa desperately needed. However, Ryan’s contract was obviously not great, as (besides a magical playoff run) he was ineffective for the final four seasons of his contract while getting paid $7.25M per year. Silfverberg has been solid but not a star in Anaheim, so that trade turned out decently well but not as well as we hoped.

The Duchene one...is much worse. Ottawa gave up Kyle Turris, Shane Bowers, Andrew Hammond, a 1st (Bowen Byram), and a 3rd (Matthew Stienburg). Duchene was actually incredibly good for the Senators with 107 points in 118 games, although the team around him was horrendous, and Dorion underestimated how high the first-round pick was going to be. They were able to flip Duchene to Columbus for Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson, and a 1st (Lassi Thomson), so all of this value essentially hinges on Thomson being an effective NHLer.

Thankfully Byram is the only player on the other side who is worth anything, although they could’ve kept that pick and also gotten assets for Turris at the deadline if they knew they were going to sell like they ultimately did. The gamble to go after Duchene wasn’t totally ill-advised because the player they got was fantastic. However, Dorion misread how good his team was, which cost them Byram and some other pieces. Going after the big fish in this case did not go as planned at all.

Lastly, it’s easy to forget, but Murray was seen as a big acquisition at the time in October 2020. He was only three years removed from taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second-straight Cup championship, and his career SV% was at .914%. Not exceptional, but the potential was there for him to be a solid starter in Ottawa since he was just 26. And the Senators put a lot of faith in him by signing him to a 4x$6.25M contract, showing that this was a big deal for them. Jonathan Gruden (to Pittsburgh) hasn’t done much since, although the 2nd rounder (Joel Blomqvist) has shown some promise in Finland. Nevertheless, Ottawa probably wouldn’t have taken Blomqvist specifically, and the more important point is how Murray has fared.

Murray has just a .899 SV% in 47 games for the Senators, and his health is a complete unknown at this point. He went unclaimed on waivers and nobody has any idea what the plan is for him next season. So Dorion’s plan to acquire a “big name” goaltender has clearly not worked out. If I had to rank all six of these moves and how they turned out (stripping away what people thought at the time), I’d put them like this:

  1. Sergei Gonchar—B
  2. Bobby Ryan—B-
  3. Alexei Kovalev—C+
  4. Evgenii Dadonov—C
  5. Matt Murray—C-
  6. Matt Duchene—C-

It’s not as if all of these moves were ridiculed at the time. In fact, I can remember feeling quite positive about 4/6 of them, and very hopeful (but worried about the downside) that Murray and Duchene were going to work out. However, the track record for “big splash” moves in Ottawa is still quite small and poor. That doesn’t mean it can’t change, but I’m tempering my expectations this summer. They could target someone we like, or they could be targeting someone we haven’t even thought of like Tyler Myers—just like they did with Travis Hamonic.

And the thing is, it’s not as if the Senators need to make a huge move in order to have a successful off-season. They can make some good bets on undervalued players, shed some salaries, and be in a much better position to begin next season. So I don’t want to make it seem like it’s imperative that they push their chips into the middle.

At the same time, I’ll be over the moon if Dorion is actually able to keep his word and gets a few names that can really push the Senators into playoff contention. That’s a lot easier said than done though, and I’m not confident that the fans and the team see eye-to-eye on who is a true “top-6 forward” or “top-4 defenseman.” After all, many of the names that are being mentioned are clear first-line players, whereas “top-6” is usually code for “second liner.”

As always, the Senators love to keep things interesting by keeping us on our toes.

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