July 1. One of the most enjoyable, exciting, and nerve-racking days of the calendar year. For many, July 1 marks the unofficial start of the summer and Canada Day, a national holiday in Canada. However, in the hockey world, July 1 marks the start of NHL Free Agency, more commonly referred to as Free Agent Frenzy. It also gets the ball rolling for NHL teams wishing to make transactions with high hopes of bolstering their rosters heading into a brand new campaign.
Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion did just that last July and managed to pull off a good-old-fashioned blockbuster trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
On July 1, 2019, Dorion and Kyle Dubas, general manager of the Maple Leafs, brought a trade to life that was weeks in the making. While other teams were writing cheques for unrestricted free agents (UFAs) across the league, Toronto and Ottawa had their sights set on the biggest trade of the offseason.
The swap saw Ottawa land Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, and Michael Carcone. Heading to Toronto on the other side of the deal were Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk, and a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. In total, the trade involved six players, one draft pick, and left the Senators with $27.1 million in projected cap space.
Trades at the National Hockey League level are seldom won in the first few weeks/months after completion. However, upon first glance, the Senators would appear to be the “winners” of the deal landing diminutive forward Brown, a former 20-goal scorer at the NHL level, and a physical right-shot defenseman in the form of Zaitsev, who can log 20-plus minutes per night on the blue line. Teams are always looking for a right-handed, physical defenseman, who can play elevated roles, and Zaitsev certainly checked all three of those boxes for Dorion and the Senators.
Surprisingly enough, Zaitsev even waived his limited no-movement clause to accept a trade to Ottawa. The acquisition of both Brown and Zaitsev fit the long-term need of the rebuilding Senators. It also gave the team some “sandpaper” and some much-needed experience both on and off the ice.
Brown has been everything the Senators would have hoped for and more during his brief tenure in Canada’s capital city. A Mike Babcock favorite in Toronto, Brown brings speed, forechecking ability, energy, work ethic, penalty-killing prowess, professionalism, and secondary scoring to the Senators and has emerged as one of the leaders on the team. Although Brown excels with regards to many of the game’s intangibles, he can definitely put the puck in the net as well. From his career alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) to the bright lights of Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in a Maple Leafs uniform, Brown has a knack for the net.
Prior to the NHL hitting the pause button on the 2010-20 campaign, Brown tallied 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points in 71 games played. After posting a 20-goal campaign as a rookie during the 2016-17 regular season, Dorion and the Senators management team hoped that Brown could regain his scoring touch with an elevated role and more ice time. 71 games into the trade, and it looks as though Brown definitely found his scoring touch and will be a key piece on the Senators roster for years to come.
After being somewhat run out of town after spending three seasons in Toronto, Zaitsev has enjoyed a fairly steady first six months in Ottawa. The soft-spoken defenseman with 281 career games under his belt has helped stabilize Ottawa’s defense core and has logged key minutes along with Brown on the Senators penalty-killing unit. Both Zaitsev and Brown were familiar with D.J. Smith’s coaching style, as the two played under Smith while he was an assistant coach under Babcock in Toronto. Currently under contract for four more seasons, Zaitsev is sure to be a key fixture on Ottawa’s blue-line for the foreseeable future, especially for a team in transition like the Senators.
The final piece of the deal for the Senators appeared in the form of right-winger Carcone, who has spent the entire season with the Belleville Senators in the American Hockey League (AHL). He has experienced some regression in his play scoring just 27 points in 59 games played. The jury is still out as to whether or not Carcone will ever suit up for the Sens at the NHL level.
Despite playing key minutes under both Babcock and Sheldon Keefe (who took over as head coach after Babcock was fired), Ceci, the main piece in the deal for the Maple Leafs, has had a tumultuous first season in Toronto. His injury/inconsistently-riddled campaign has allowed the ever-present Toronto media to find a new “scapegoat” or plenty of occasions. Like Zaitsev, Ceci was poised for a fresh start in Toronto, but his time in Toronto to date has been “average” at best.
The offensive side of his game has also faltered. After having four 20-plus point seasons in Ottawa, Ceci has a measly eight points (1 goal, 7 assists) in 56 games played in the blue and white this season. Currently playing on a one-year, $4.5 million contract, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Ceci returns to the Maple Leafs next season.
Ben Harpur, brought in to provide depth on the Toronto blue-line, never suited up for the Leafs. He played in 34 games for the Maple Leafs’ affiliate Toronto Marlies, before being shipped to Nashville in exchange for Miikka Salomaki. He was quickly demoted to their AHL affiliate club, the Milwaukee Admirals skating in seven games, and registering one assist.
Since being acquired by the Maple Leafs, centerman Luchuk has bounced around the ECHL and AHL, and currently plies his trade with Montreal Canadiens’ farm team, the Laval Rocket. The Maple Leafs also own a third-round pick at this summer’s NHL draft. Looking back, this was certainly not the return the Maple Leafs had expected when they dealt two, every-day, NHL players in the form of both Brown and Zaitsev.
The short answer to this question in regards to who won the trade that saw Zaitsev and Brown sport the Senators black, gold, red, and white is…the Ottawa Senators. This move saw Dorion improve his club, and carefully acquire players who were more sustainable, reliable, and indicative of their future plans as a team in the midst of a massive rebuild. One can make the argument that the acquisition of winger Brown alone, is enough to claim the prize from the Senators’ perspective. The Senators also added a top-four, reliable defenseman in Zaitsev, filling the void of the departed (and traded) Ceci, who has struggled in his first season in Toronto.
The Senators have a bright future ahead of them and are spearheaded in the right direction. When one looks back at this six-player transaction almost eight months ago to the day, it’ll be a time where Senators fans can recall them getting the better of their arch-rivals Maple Leaf counterparts.