What's the Vision, Steve?

Does this Sens management group have a coherent vision?

What's the Vision, Steve?
Photo by David Travis / Unsplash

I was looking forward to the draft and offseason because it was going to give us a chance to learn more about the strategic ideas of the new Ottawa Senators management group. After all, the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline brought us a grand total of one NHL-level Sens trade: Vladimir Tarasenko to the Florida Panthers, which in turn made it difficult to get a read on the GM Steve Staios era. Now that we've been through a draft and a couple days of free agency, we can get a better sense of this staff's collective vision, and right now, for me, that vision is... huh?

The Sens' recent moves have been all over the place. As a quick recap, the team made an unquestionably stellar trade for Linus Ullmark, offloading Mark Kastelic and Joonas Korpisalo in the process; they drafted a bunch of very large players; didn't qualify Erik Brannström, Parker Kelly, or Boris Katchouk; traded Jakob Chychrun for Nick Jensen and a 3rd-round pick; signed David Perron (2 years, $4M per year) and Michael Amadio (3 years, $2.6M per year) as free agents; traded Mathieu Joseph + a 3rd-round pick for future considerations; and signed Pinto to a 2-year bridge deal with $3.75M AAV.

The way I see it, there are three distinct themes:

  • There's a lot of pressure to compete with this core, and we need to win now, as seen most clearly in acquiring a Vezina-calibre goalie without an extension in place, and then signing a young player to a bridge deal who will almost certainly need a large-ish raise next contract.
  • This team is young and needs a couple years of veteran supervisors to help them get over the hump, as shown in, for example, the David Perron contract.
  • This team had developed a losing, or even toxic, culture and it had to be undone at all costs, as seen by trading Chychrun and Joseph and not qualifying a few depth RFAs.

On their face, each of these ideas is defensible. The problem is those three concepts, though not mutually exclusive, aren't exactly harmonious either. Doing all three at once leaves some corners of the fanbase scratching our collective noggin.

I won't spill more digital ink than NKB already has on letting Brannstrom walk. What's curious to me is that Kelly seemed by most measures like the kind of hard-working, depth forward that this team would want, and Katchouk actually got some good results down the stretch in a similar crash and bang role. I guess the staff decided that 200 NHL games played was the cutoff for staying in the bottom six. This team has been bad for years, and I get the nothing that changes are necessary. But letting even the more effective depth guys go — Kelly ending up on a good team (Colorado) at $825k so was hardly going to break the Sens' bank — seems to say they felt that this locker room had to be fixed.

This "change the room at all costs" idea seems very clear in the Chychrun trade. I get that if you're going to lose the player either way, you should get something back; that being said, was a soon-to-be-34-year-old #4 defenceman coming off a bad year plus a 3rd-round pick really the best you could get? That's the kind of return that seems like they felt keeping Chychrun was more trouble than it was worth.

Maybe there was a reason to get him off this roster as soon as possible, but it's hard for me to imagine that no team would offer something better at the trade deadline, for instance. While trading for Ullmark without an extension in place seems like a "win now" move, refusing to keep Chychrun around as an own-rental seems like a "maybe next year" move. Chychrun for Jensen feels like a downgrade in every area but handedness. It's hard to say exactly what he is. He's not an offensive guy, with a career high of 29 points (and somehow a total of 0 playoff points in 27 games). Jensen is 6'1" and 205 lbs, so it's not like his size is a standout. He's averaged 1.11 hits per game across his career, which dropped to 0.79 per game this season, so he hardly counts as "physical". He's had good moments in his career, but it would be a stretch to say he's ever been a stand-out.

Per HockeyViz, this past season, he was awful for the offence (-14% 5v5 expected goals for vs. league average), a little bad for defence (+2% xGA 5v5), and outright terrible on the PK (+24% xGA). The biggest thing he has going for him is that he's a 562-game NHL veteran, which is great when your goal is to have a role model for your young guys. To be fair, hee's not as washed as some previous veteran acquisitions when they joined Ottawa, but is the staff really expecting him to rebound in his age-34 season? If this team is in win-now mode, they can't afford for him to be a late-career fill-in. He needs to play 20+ minutes a night and drive the play. He needs to be the Zub to Chabot's Sanderson. If you want to make more sense of this than I can, you need to be really convinced that Jensen will be an important diffence-maker. I'm not sure I see that vision.

Especially since, right now, that third-pairing right-side guy is either Hamonic or Bernard-Docker, who both showed they couldn't play more than about 12 minutes a night last season in very sheltered deployment. Either management couldn't handle another game with Chychrun in the lineup, or the premium on RHD was so high that they had to take this deal. A big chunk of whether the Sens improve next season rests on Jensen holding his own in meaningful minutes.

The pattern in the free agent signings is also a bit unscrutable to me. David Perron has been a scoring winger for most of his career, but is now 36 and it is fair to say that his prowess is dropping off. The only place he was effective last season was on the powerplay. Not to conjure some bad memories, but is that not essentially a Dominik Kubalik, except at $4M for two years? Are they planning to put him in the top six? Are they seeing him as bottom-six depth despite having never been a defensive player in his career? And if they don't see him in the top six, who do they see there? Is Norris (if healthy) or Pinto moving to the wing? Michael Amadio looks like a good addition, but then, looking at the other moves, I wonder, did they sign him for his strong underlying metrics? Or did they do it because he has a Cup ring and was willing to return to Ottawa? Maybe that doesn't matter, but, again, I find the pattern tricky to pin down.

Not to mention that now, after all the criticism we had of the team for blocking a Shane Pinto extension after signing Tarasenko last off-season, they found themselves back there again due to an older, longer Perron deal. Forcing yourself to bridge Pinto seems like a win-now move, since he'll likely price himself out of your future budget, but doing it to sign whatever's left of David Perron feels like a "the kids need a couple more years of mentorship" move.

Let's talk about trading Joseph AND a pick for future considerations. I'll admit I'd actually written most of this piece before the Joseph trade (and Pinto extension) went down, and now I'm even more perplexed. Apparently the locker room was so bad they had to start paying teams to take guys off the roster. But if that was true, it seems weird that it's useful peripheral players getting the axe. Shouldn't the leadership be the ones to take accountability? Maybe these moves are designed to wake up Tkachuk, Stützle, and Chabot, telling them that if they don't make things better, they're next? I feel like trying to find a narrative is being very charitable to those making the decisions.

I can look at each of these moves individually and come up with an explanation. As a whole though, I'm lost. Does management see this group as needing an Ullmark and an Amadio to be playoff contenders? Did they see a group being dragged down by Chychrun and Joseph's entitlement that needed to be solved immediately? Do they see a young team that needs the short-term mentorship of guys like Perron and Jensen (kind of like Chicago did for Bedard with Hall and Foligno, and tried to do with Perry) so that they can be competitive in a couple years? It's like we've got a peanut butter, hot mustard, and cotton candy sandwich: you could argue that maybe two out of three can complement each other, but adding more of any one of those ingredients doesn't fix the fact that all three don't go together.

All this being said, maybe the biggest thing that scares me is Dave Poulin's quote that nkb also shared a couple days ago:

In case you've forgotten, that run that Poulin's referencing happened in the Canada bubble during Covid season, so it was already a weird, impossible-to-replicate season. That Habs team also famously overachieved heavily in the playoffs, before getting absolutely slaughtered by the Lightning in the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals. Carey Price had a lights-out postseason, but by the next year the Habe were no longer serious playoff contenders. That Montreal team was the definition of a flash in the pan. If Poulin and his staff see that as a blueprint for the Sens, we're screwed.

Hoping and praying that a great goalie has an otherworldly postseason and drags a decidedly mediocre team deep is not a good strategy. That Habs team wouldn't even have made the playoffs in an ordinary season. Jason York keeps bringing up a valuable point on the Comin' In Hot podcast, that teams want big defencemen who can skate — he also keeps pointing out that the Oilers were actually better without David Desharnais, who's 6'7" but a liability because of, among other things, his inability to move his feet. Gone are the days of a Hal Gill being effective.

Now don't get me wrong. Looking at the contracts that were signed on July 1st, the Sens could've come out much worse. I'm happy to not have contracts like Chris Tanev (6 years, $4.75M per year), Tyler Bertuzzi ($5.5M×4), Elias Lindholm ($7.75M×7), Nikita Zadorov ($5M×6), Brady Skjei ($7M×7), Brandon Montour ($7.14M×7), Matt Roy ($5.75M×6), Sean Monahan ($5.5M×5), Jake DeBrusk ($5.5M×7), Chandler Stephenson ($6.25M×7), or Brett Pesce ($5.5M×6) as potential (likely?) long-term albatrosses. Even shorter-term ones like Teuvo Teravainen ($4.5M×3) or Alex Wennberg ($5M×2) are lot of money for a depth player. I just think that maybe, sometimes, the best move is to stand pat. Especially when you seem to be of three minds about your team's competitiveness.

Maybe we'll get a little more clarity once the season starts. Maybe management is trying to see how this team responds to different moves and will then follow that path. I'm just finding it hard to know what to expect next year. On the one hand, having mixed expectations means I can't be sorely disappointed like last season. On the other hand, this does take away a bunch of my excitement as a fan. I don't want to watch a young team struggle yet again, but I'd handle it better if management was upfront that that's what they were doing. The haphazard moves over these last couple weeks make me wonder about the plan. I'm a Sens fan, so I'm used to there being no consistent plan, but at least you could count on Pierre Dorion to do something embarrassingly funny. It feels like the best explanation for Staios' moves is that he's trying to both improve the team's immediate prospects without going all-in to do so. He wants to make changes but not to the core. It has the feeling of coming and going, all at once.

It's hard for anyone to know what Staios' goals are for this team. Besides the confusing strategy, he's notoriously tight-lipped. I've been through worse as a Sens fan, obviously, but this off-season has left me confused. Where's the vision?

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