Ottawa Senators Enter Crucial Offseason

This is not where the Ottawa Senators thought they’d be during the opening week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Only one year removed from a deep playoff run, the Sens finished the season with only 67 points, giving them the second-worst record in the NHL and the organization’s worst record since 1996.

After the wheels fell off in November, there was speculation that general manager Pierre Dorion would make some major trades to signal the beginning of a full rebuild. While there were some significant moves, the Senators still enter the offseason with a solid core of players in their prime. However, there are still a number of questions surrounding each of these players.

Mark Stone is an impending restricted free agent due for a significant raise. Stone’s consistently strong play was one of the few bright spots in an ugly season for the Sens, as the 25-year-old winger was playing at over a point-per-game pace before his season-ending injury.

Matt Duchene has one year remaining on his contract and will also be looking to make more than his current annual average of $6 million. Duchene has said that he is interested in being a Senator for the long haul, but this doesn’t change the fact that he came to Ottawa for the chance to play in the postseason.

Matt Duchene #95, Ottawa Senators
Senators centre Matt Duchene – Feb. 3, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Sens can convince Duchene that they will be competitive going forward, they should be able to keep their number-one centre. However, a big part of making the Senators competitive again relies on their captain.

Karlsson Contract Looms Large

Speculation about Erik Karlsson’s future was already rampant, but the star defenceman’s decision to keep the puck from the Senators’ final home game of the season added even more fuel to the fire. While Karlsson has since talked about his desire to stay in Ottawa and noted that he hopes the puck he picked up won’t be his last, the situation is still very much up in the air.

Contract negotiations between the two parties cannot officially begin until July, and Dorion has said that the plan is to offer Karlsson a contract as soon as they can. Until the team knows for sure if Karlsson will be a Senator long-term, they’ll have a hard time actually figuring out whether or not they’ll be competitive next season. This isn’t just relevant to contract negotiations, but also to the team’s draft-pick dilemma.

The Senators have to give up a first-round pick to the Avalanche either this season or next as part of the Duchene trade. Finishing 30th this year means that they are guaranteed at worst the fifth overall pick in this June’s draft.

Erik Karlsson #65, Ottawa Senators
Senators captain Erik Karlsson – Feb. 3, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If Karlsson is on the team next year, it isn’t likely that the Senators will have quite as bad of a season as they did in 2017-18. However, trading the cornerstone of the franchise would drastically change things, and depending on what other moves the team makes, another bottom-five finish would be a legitimate possibility.

Dorion Expects Improvement

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Karlsson’s future in Ottawa, Dorion has repeatedly said that he expects the team to be better next season. It’s for this reason that the GM said he is almost certain that the team will keep its first-round pick this year and instead give Colorado next year’s selection.

If this is indeed the case, Dorion has even more incentive to make sure this team will contend for a playoff spot in 2019. Should the Senators finish at the bottom of the league standings again next year, Dorion’s recent moves will look even worse. Unfortunately for the Senators’ general manager, he’ll have a hard time orchestrating any big moves until the Karlsson situation is sorted out.

Based on Dorion’s comments from his end of season media tour and season-ticket-holder town halls, the plan is to ice a younger roster next year. The hope is to improve the team from within, and for a budget team like Ottawa, it’s a plan that fans might be able to get behind.

Pierre Dorion Ottawa Senators 2015
Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

Dorion will have to carefully balance his objectives this summer, trying to convince impending free agents that the team will be competitive while also staying within the team’s tight internal budget. However, if Dorion really wants the Senators to be better next season, he will need to do more than just hope for the best from the team’s rookies.

Ottawa’s ownership makes it difficult to orchestrate trades, but for better or worse, this summer could be looked back on as a key time in the history of the Senators franchise.