Off-Season Checklist: Ottawa Senators

The offseason is here for half of the league’s teams that aren’t playoff-bound, plus some that were eliminated early in the playoffs. It’s time to consider what they will need to accomplish over the next few months. The next step is a look at Ottawa.

Prior to last season, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion declared the reconstruction complete. The team continued to post a lower points percentage and finished seventh in the Atlantic Division after finishing sixth in the North the previous year. Nonetheless, they’re still on track to try to get back into the playoff picture and their checklist follows that mindset with a mix of keeping their current core and trying to add to it.

Strengthen the goalkeeper

One area that hasn’t been pretty for the past two years is between the pipes. Anton Forsberg exceeded expectations as a waiver request and was successful enough to earn itself a three-year extension just before the trade deadline. After him, however, there are question marks; even Forsberg is something of a question with just 104 games under his belt.

Matt Murray has struggled mightily in his two seasons with Ottawa, posting a GAA of 3.23 and an SV% of just 0.899 during that streak. He suffered a concussion in early March, the third documented of his career already after having two in a row with Pittsburgh. At this point, it’s hard to count on him providing much, even though he has two years left on his contract at a $6.25 million AAV, one that is effectively untradeable.

Their other internal option is Philippe Gustavsson. Once considered a key goaltender for Ottawa‘s future, he has been disappointed with his limited NHL action so far. He is eligible for the waiver next season so is likely to be on the list, although relying on him would also be risky.

It’s not a trio of goaltenders that will inspire much confidence for a team aspiring to the playoffs. Finding a second keeper who could partner with Forsberg would give them a big boost. That will be easier said than done with Murray on the books and Gustavsson’s market value not exactly at his peak, but Dorion would be wise to try and bring an upgrade between the pipes.

Turn the knob

Regardless of whether or not they are able to consolidate the goalie, Dorion needs to start focusing on some winning moves now. They’re not going to go from being near the basement to being a competitor right away, but now is the time to start shopping for the veterans who are going to help turn the tide.

Up front, that means looking for a top-six winger. Ottawa’s front line seems to be established with Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson accompanying Joshua Norris. However, with Tim Stutzle anchoring the second line, his options on the wing aren’t as strong and have been a collection of youngsters looking to establish themselves in the NHL or a veteran like Connor Brown who has been more of a two-way player than a constant offensive threat. Bringing in a quality scoring wing would elevate Stutzle’s game and really give the Senators a second line that can produce with consistency.

There is also work to be done on the back-end beyond the tenders Victor Mete and separate from Michel Del Zotto. Travis Hamonic was brought in to try and stabilize a back end that is bleeding shots allowed (over 33 per game after allowing just over 32 per game the year before) but despite being a stable veteran, that alone doesn’t will not change their fortunes. A full season of Jake Sanderson probably doesn’t hurt, but another impact defender would make a big difference.

Ottawa doesn’t have $60 million in commitments for next season yet and while that will change once they re-sign their restricted free agents, they will have plenty of room to try to add more. If they choose to redeem White Quail (at a cap of $3.75 million in total spread over six seasons), they’ll also have nearly $4 million more to work with this summer.

Re-sign Norris

Last summer, it was Tkachuk who was in contention for a big deal following his entry-level contract. This year it’s Norris. The 23-year-old had a breakout campaign, leading Ottawa with 35 goals while finishing third with 55 points. Dorion’s preference has been to sign long-term contracts on expiring entry pacts like he did for Tkachuk, Batherson and Thomas Chabot so he’s probably going to want to do the same here.

One of the challenges both sides will face here is Norris’ shorter record. His first season lasted just three games and he has just 125 career NHL appearances under his belt, the equivalent of a year and a half. It’s not a large sample size and it doesn’t have arbitration eligibility, so it has the potential to be a particularly lengthy negotiation. If Ottawa wants to skip the bridge contract and seek a long-term pact, Norris’ camp is likely to point to Nick Suzukiin Montreal (eight years, $7.875 million AAV) who would also remain in their salary structure as he would sit a bit below Tkachuk and Chabot.

Extension talks

Speaking of long-term contracts given to players coming out of their entry-level contracts, Ottawa could be in that situation next summer with the end of Stutzle’s contract. After a stronger second year, Dorion will likely want to kick the tires on what an extension might now cost, knowing that a stronger rig season would result in a higher asking price the following year. He’s likely to fall into the range of Tkachuk, Chabot, and probably Norris in terms of AAV.

Ottawa also has an intriguing pair of players who will be unrestricted next summer and therefore eligible for extension talks at the start of the league’s new year in mid-July. Brown has been a solid performer since arriving from Toronto, but is his role more likely to stay where it is now or do they envision him being more of a third line on the road? The answer to this question will go a long way in determining whether talks about a new deal make sense or not.

The other UFA of note in 2023 is the defender Artem Zub. His numbers don’t jump off the page (22 points in 81 games) but he’s logged more than 21 minutes a night and is a right-handed defender who will hit the open market in 2023 at the age of 27. In other words, it’s going to be a lot of interest if it gets to this point. Dorion moved quickly to extend Zub at the end of his entry-level contract and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him try to make an early extension again. If yes, his teammate Nikita ZaitsevThe ($4.5MM AAV) contract is a possible comparable.

In recent seasons, the Senators have been near the bottom when it comes to spending on the cap. As their young core matures and more veterans are added or brought in to deepen the roster, that will change quickly. The more certainty they can have on the spending front, the better, which is why being proactive on the contract discussion front should be a priority for Dorion.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Salary figures courtesy of CapFriendly.

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