It was another active trade deadline around the NHL and the Ottawa Senators were once again one of the busiest teams, making a total of four moves on Feb. 24, plus an additional two trades in the days leading up to it. A total of six players were sent away to acquire seven picks, including a first-round selection. It was arguably another success by general manager Pierre Dorian, who has stuck to his plan to completely rebuild the Senators into a top team in the NHL.
While it was difficult to part with some of the players who were having great seasons, especially those who had connections to the city, it’s undeniable that the moves made will help the Senators in the long term, something Dorian has been very focused on. Along with plenty of picks in a strong 2020 draft, the Belleville Senators in the AHL have been one of the best squads and several of their top players will earn call-ups to Ottawa in the coming weeks.
The deadline occurred a week ago, and already the Senators are seeing the impact of their moves on the team. Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of who left, who came back, and what the future could hold for the team.
Continuing to Rebuild With Picks
The biggest news on deadline day was the acquisition of another first-round pick from the New York Islanders in exchange for Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The deal gave the Senators three first-round picks, tied with the New Jersey Devils for the highest number at the 2020 Entry Draft. Although the pick is top-three protected, the Islanders currently sit atop the wild card race in the Eastern Conference and are hoping to make a deep playoff run this season. Thus, the pick is unlikely to fall much below the 20th spot, giving the Senators a solid option later in the draft.
Also acquired in the Pageau trade were a 2020 second-round pick and a conditional third in 2022 if the Islanders win the Stanley Cup this season. The Senators also acquired a third-round pick from the Winnipeg Jets for Dylan DeMelo, bumping their total picks in the 2020 Draft to 14, a franchise record, with nine in the first three rounds alone. Using the current draft projections and NHL standings, the Senators could end up with Tim Stutzle, Lucas Raymond, William Wallinder, J-J Peterka, Ridly Grieg, Ozzy Wiesblatt, and Connor McClennon, all players who have great NHL potential.
Barring any draft day trades, 2020 will be the second time that the Senators have taken three players in the first round. The first time came back in 2011, when they selected Mika Zibanejad sixth overall, Stefan Noesen at the 21st spot, and Matt Puempel 23rd. While the latter two have not lived up to their status as first-round picks, Zibanejad has blossomed into a dangerous forward with the New York Rangers. He’s currently on pace for a career-best 86 points centering Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich.
The Senators also added a fourth-round and a fifth-round pick in 2021 from deals that sent Tyler Ennis to the Edmonton Oilers and Vladimir Namestnikov to the Colorado Avalanche. While it seemed as though Namestnikov could have had his value bumped up after the big trades for Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and Ondrej Kase, the mid-round pick is a fair return for an inconsistent rental player. The Senators have also done well with lower picks, finding gems like Pageau (fourth round, 2011), Mark Stone (sixth round, 2010), and Mike Hoffman (fifth round, 2009).
Who Replaces Pageau?
Although it was the biggest return from any Senators’ trade, it was not an easy decision to part with Pageau. Growing up in Ottawa, he had every reason to want to stay and help the team grow through their tough years, and he had the talent and leadership to guide a new wave of young stars. Contract talks picked up right before the Feb. 24 deadline, but the term and price was too great for the Senators in the end, and he was traded to the Islanders, who promptly signed him for six years at $5 million per season.
As one of the team’s most used forwards and the Senators’ point leader, Pageau will not be easy to replace. Already, several players have been slotted into the top-line spot in the week since he left, including Chris Tierney and Artem Anisimov. Bobby Ryan, who recently returned from the NHLPA player assistance program, looks to be back to his regular high-scoring self, marking his first game back with a hat trick. He’ll return to the top-line wing slot and help take the pressure off whoever fills the center role.
That leaves a big gap for some young players to come in and show what they can do. One of the easiest picks is Josh Norris, who is leading Belleville in both points and goals, having scored 30 goals and 58 points in 52 games. A rookie in the AHL this season, he was one of the biggest pieces to come over from the Erik Karlsson trade and so far, he seems to be worth it. Although he went scoreless in three NHL games and was sent back down to Belleville on March 2, it’s likely he’ll return later this season.
Drake Batherson could also earn another call-up. He’s already played 23 games with the Senators this season and scored 10 points. He is also scoring at over a point-per-game with Belleville and promises to be a top-six player in the NHL. Logan Brown has also played a good chunk in the NHL this season, appearing in 23 games, but has not looked quite as ready. Of the three aforementioned centers, he’s put up the least points, scoring 28 in 21 games in the AHL. He’s also struggled with injuries and may need more time to get back to full strength.
The only player acquired by the Senators on deadline day was Matthew Peca from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Aaron Luchuk and a seventh-round pick in 2020. Although a prolific college playmaker, he’s struggled to find consistency in the NHL and mainly served in the minors. His best season came in 2018-19 when he played 39 games for the Canadiens and scored 10 points. While he does play the same position as Pageau, he’ll likely take up a bottom-six role, replacing Ennis on the third line.
Rudolfs Balcers is likely the Senators’ first choice to fill in for the departed Namestnikov. He’s appeared in over 40 games over two seasons, scoring 5 goals and 16 points. This season, he has 17 goals in the AHL, although he is still scoreless with the Senators. Alex Formenton could also get an extended look. Belleville’s top-scoring winger, he’s been very good in his first professional season, scoring 47 points in 55 games. He also has some NHL experience despite being only 20 years old; he made the Senators in 2018-19 and appeared in nine games before being returned to junior.
The departure of DeMelo leaves a gap on defense, too, and Christian Jaros has been called up to fill in on the bottom pairing. He played nearly all of 2018-19 but has spent the majority of this season in the AHL. He is not an offensive blueliner, instead of using his 6-foot-4 frame to shut down opponents. Max Lajoie, who also spent much of last season in the NHL, could earn a call-up, as could Jack Dougherty, who was signed by the Senators out of the AHL. Erik Brannstrom could also return to the Senators’ lineup, but management may be more cautious than to rush him into anything after the rough start he had this season.
A Best-Case Scenario Future
The long-term core has already been set. Thomas Chabot and Colin White are signed long-term to big contracts, and Brady Tkachuk will likely also be signed to a huge extension when his entry-level deal expires in 2021. With Dorian focused on the future, it’s possible the upcoming Tkachuk contract forced his hand with Pageau, as the owners generally do not like to spend much over the cap. Bobby Ryan, signed until 2022, provides veteran leadership that the young team needs and now appears more ready than ever to take on that role.
Top prospects Jacob Bernard-Docker and Jonny Tychonick could sign with the Senators once their 2019-20 college season finishes, appearing in a few games in April like Cale Makar did last season with the Colorado Avalanche. Jakov Novak, another college star, could also join the team at that time, although he’ll likely need some seasoning in the AHL before he becomes a regular with the Senators. Lassi Thomson, who’s been playing in Finland, will return from his loan for the 2020-21 season, which adds another all-around defender to an already dangerous up-and-coming defense.
As for the draft, it’s entirely possible that the Senators end the season with two lottery picks: their own and the San Jose Sharks’, who are having an awful season. It’s also possible, albeit less so, that the Islanders miss the playoffs and move up the draft due to the lottery. So, in a best-case scenario, the Senators could have the first, second, and fourth-overall picks, meaning they would end up with Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield, and one of Stutzle, Marco Rossi, Jamie Drysdale, Alexander Holtz, or Raymond. Just one of those players could turn a franchise around, let alone two or three.
So while it was sad to say goodbye to veterans Pageau, DeMelo, Ennis, and Namestnikov, the Senators are closer than ever to turn around the struggling team. With a little more patience and continued focus on the long-term future rather than short-term gains, there is finally a real hope for this franchise.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.