Tkachuk, Sanderson and a Rebuild in the Rearview
Five Thoughts on offseason moves, the World Junior Summer Showcase, Victor Mete, cheap reputations and a rebuild that could be considered over.
On Offseason Moves
So far, I’m quite happy with the offseason the Senators are having if only because they haven’t done anything blatantly silly. Last offseason, we saw some veteran, mostly-past-their-prime acquisitions paired with a relatively big contract for a goaltender who hadn’t been great in a few seasons. If the Sens had gone down that path again this offseason, I would’ve been concerned.
Instead, we saw Ottawa move Evgeni Dadonov’s contract, for better or for worse, for a stable, veteran defender in Nick Holden and then they spent a couple bucks at the free agency farmers market on Michael Del Zotto. Neither are majorly impactful moves, but neither are, at the surface, inherently bad.
What I worry about is that, as time ticks away, the likelihood that the Sens are able to bring in a top six centre or top four defender, as they’ve been rumoured to be working on, continues to go down. Realistically, the majority of big, impactful moves are made at the draft, during the first few days following free agency and leading up to the trade deadline. Mid-to-late August, heading into training camp, isn’t often a time where a big name is on the move. Many General Manager’s will be comfortable with what they have coming into camp and won’t be looking to shake things up.
This isn’t to say the Sens can’t or won’t bring in their Sean Monahan or Nazem Kadri or whichever other centre is the flavour of the week, it just feels less likely with every passing day that a truly good addition will be made between now and training camp.
Would I love to see the Sens run Shane Pinto down the middle right off the bat? Absolutely. Is it more likely that they bring in a fail-safe, back-up plan of a centreman to “ease Pinto into the lineup” - effectively making the Sens worse on the ice until Pinto is “ready”? Yeah, probably.
On the World Junior Summer Showcase
This past week, we got a glimpse into the players who are in the running for Team USA, Team Finland and Team Sweden at the World Junior Summer Showcase tournament - as well as a look at Team Canada in their own bubble showcase.
For Team USA, it’s all but certain that both Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven will be mainstays in the top four, while Tyler Boucher has a fighting chance of being a pesky fourth line winger for the defending champions. What had me most excited, about Sanderson in particular, was Corey Pronman’s review (paywall) of the player following the completion of camp. For those that don’t subscribe to the Athletic, Pronman essentially said that Sanderson was easily the best defenseman at the showcase, showed elite skating and improved offensive capabilities all while claiming he’s probably already NHL ready and looks more and more like an upper echelon NHL prospect.
Can I get a heck ya?
USA WINS!— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) July 30, 2021
Jake Sanderson sets up Logan Cooley on an exceptional rush in overtime. What a finish! #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/YeaxZNW9cE
Pronman doesn’t have Boucher slotted into the lineup for Team USA in this particular piece, but he does mention in the comments that he can see that 4RW spot being Boucher’s if he has a great start to the season with Boston University.
The other exciting player Pronman outlines is goaltender Leevi Meriläinen. A year ago, Joel Blomqvist was essentially the top option for Finland between the pipes for the 2022 tournament, with little to no competition behind him. After a great U20 camp and a solid showing at the showcase, it’s very possible that Sens fans get to watch Meriläinen backstop the Finns in December. With the news that he’ll be joining Shane Wright and the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, let’s cross our fingers that he shows the Finnish hockey brass that he’s their guy come Boxing Day.
On Victor Mete
On Wednesday, the Sens finally checked one of their Restricted Free Agents off the to-do list, signing Victor Mete to a one year deal carrying an AAV of $1.2M. Realistically, we knew one of the first RFAs off the board would be Mete or Filip Gustavsson, as their negotiations should be far simpler than the negotiations that will be taking place between GM Pierre Dorion and the camps of Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson.
When free agency opened up, the Sens added two left shot defensemen to the fold, clouding what looked to be an intriguing and skilled left side of Thomas Chabot, Erik Brännström and Mete. From DJ Smith’s comments about adding size to his blueline, it wasn’t overly surprising to see players like Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto brought into the fold but it does raise the question of where - or even if - Mete is going to fit.
Although he didn’t play for the Sens as much as others last season, Mete’s metrics were still quite promising in his short stint. Relatively speaking, his CF% (46.91%) was comparable to that of noted Sens fan hero Artem Zub (48.64%), his GF% was second amongst bluelienrs (60%), ahead of Zub (51.32%), Brännström (51.16%) and Chabot (48.72%), and his xGF% led all of Ottawa’s defenders with 52.52%. Statistically speaking, if Mete were 3 inches taller, he’d probably have his name written in permanent marker on Ottawa’s top four heading into camp.
As many wonder how things will look on Ottawa’s blueline this season, Dorion did make a statement on the Mete signing, alluding to the fact he’s looking forward to seeing Mete in the lineup this fall.
Statement from Pierre Dorion after Sens and Victor Mete agree on one-year contract for $1.2 M. pic.twitter.com/EXEkbH0Qzq— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) August 4, 2021
The fact that Dorion specifically called out Mete’s defensive awareness is good news, as that is paramount for a smaller defender to have in his toolbox if he’s going to be a mainstay on an NHL blueline. That being said, this is also something you’d expect the General Manager to say right after he extends a player. It’s not like Dorion is going to come out and say he’s happy about the signing but we’ll see if this guy plays.
So, we’ll have to wait until camp gets underway to get a better idea of where Mete will slot in this season - if he’s still on the roster by then.
On Cheap Reputations
I know, I know. Here we go again.
This isn’t a Eugene Melnyk bashing thought, I promise. We’ve done that over and over and I, too, am exhausted by it. That being said, Shawn Simpson tossed a thought out into the Twittersphere yesterday based on some conversations he’d had around the Sens organization and, more importantly, those close to Tkachuk.
Been asking around on the Tkachuk contract, and nothing new at this point. What was told to me by someone close to the Tkachuk camp, is that Brady loves the crew in Ottawa. But he's totally waiting to see if ownership is willing to spend what it takes to deliver a Cup team.— Shawn Simpson (@TSNSimmer) August 5, 2021
The major backlash the Sens organization has faced regarding its tight budgeting and overall negative reputation for being cheap has come almost exclusively from the fans. It’s got to the point where many immediately head over to CapFriendly to check the salary structure of a player Ottawa has acquired to see if their bonuses have been paid out or if their cap hit is lower than their salary owned. And, a lot of the time, one or both of those things has been true about a player brought in by this organization in the past few seasons.
A consequence to this reputation for not wanting to (or, maybe, being able to) spend cash that has been thought about but never really come to focus has been from the player side. We’ve known for the past few years that Ottawa wasn’t a hot spot destination for top free agency but you could pretty easily blame that on being in a rebuild and free agents wanting to play for a competitive team. When it comes to your star player, who is likely the best choice to be the next captain of your franchise, that shouldn’t be the case. Any other 21 year old, coming off their entry level deal, with the team that drafted them, shouldn’t have to ask themselves if the ownership is going to spend money to give them the best shot at winning a cup. It should be obvious that that is the case.
There are a few ways this scenario plays out - all of which end with Tkachuk signing a contract of some kind with the Sens - and some of those scenarios are appealing, while others are terrifying.
First, the Sens do nothing. They sign Tkachuk to a bridge deal and cross their fingers that in the next 2-3 years they’re able to continue with their budget while somehow being a contender. This is effectively punting their problem a few years down the road - not ideal.
Second, the Sens bring in a big name via trade or free agency. All of the truly big names in free agency are gone, so this would have to be a move to bring in someone like Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau or, even, Jack Eichel. This is the best strategy but would certainly take some prospects and picks going out the door, effectively announcing the rebuild is over.
Third, the Sens bring in a big name but they aren’t actually that good. This is the Derek Stepan type player who’s got the reputation but won’t move the needle on the ice. This is the nightmare strategy and let’s all hope it doesn’t happen.
On a Rebuild in the Rearview
Multiple thoughts on this lovely Friday have a similar theme - the rebuild. Whether it’s about extending RFAs or going big game hunting on the trade marketing, are the Senators ready to shed the “rebuild” label?
For me, the answer is an easy yes.
It’s true that the Sens are still a few key pieces away from being a legitimate contender - particularly in a division with Tampa Bay, Boston and, sigh, Toronto. There are question marks in net, they’re missing at least one top six forward and at least one top four defender. These options may come from within but that’s not likely to be the case for at least a few seasons.
In the pipeline, there is a lot of trade value who simply all cannot make the team. On top of that, the Sens are still loaded with draft picks.
For me, it’s time to stop hoarding assets and start spending them. You’ve got Tkachuk questioning the team’s ability to afford a contending roster and that thought isn’t going to end with Tkachuk. When Stützle is ready for a raise, when Sanderson is ready for his, they’ll be asking the same thing. Let’s get ahead of those conversations by pushing some chips on the table and welcoming in a big ticket name.
With two second round picks and three thirds in 2022, the Sens first round pick should absolutely be available. If this team believes they’re going to take the next step into being competitive, they have to be valuing this pick as a mid-first. If they need to also move out someone like Roby Järventie, Ridly Greig, Lassi Thomson or, yes, even our big cuddly bear Egor Sokolov, in order to bring elite talent into this organization, it should be done.
At the end of the day, as much as I love all of those prospects, they can’t all make the team and the organization would be better served starting to package them up and ship them out for top line or top pairing help. If it takes multiple prospects and Ottawa’s 2022 first round pick (and more?) to get, let’s say, Eichel from a rebuilding Sabres team, you have to do it.
The Senators may not have a ton of cash but they have a ton of assets to move, let’s saddle up and get going.