Back in May 2021, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk went onto a local podcast to talk about the team’s season and what to expect going forward. As always, he dropped some controversial quotes that the media gobbled up, most notably the team’s plans for free agency. He stated that, in conversations with coach D.J. Smith, the team was set for the future but had some notable gaps, specifically in regards to a top-line center and a good defensive defenceman.
Yet, it’s been nearly two weeks since the NHL’s free agency opened, and the Senators have not added either of those two types of players. They also haven’t re-signed restricted free agents (RFA) Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson, which was the team’s top priority in 2020-21, and a deal has yet to get done. However, it’s not all bad news for Ottawa, who did make some substantial moves in free agency that addressed some crucial issues they faced last season.
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So, with the league now in the dog days of the off-season and many of the top players waiting for the right deal to come along before they sign, let’s take a look at what the Senators have done so far and what they still have yet to do.
The Senators were in a good situation entering free agency with very few major contracts expiring (apart from Tkachuk and Batherson). They still lost three roster players, though, with the biggest loss being Evgeny Dadonov, who was 2020-21’s big free agency splash. However, the addition didn’t go according to plan, and by the end of the season, the streaky Russian was a fixture on the third line. In 55 games, he had just 20 points, which put him on pace for a measly 29 points over 82 games, which would have been his lowest total since 2011-12. With the emergence of Shane Pinto and the expectation that Alex Formenton will challenge for a top roster spot, the Senators felt comfortable in moving the veteran, shipping him to the Vegas Golden Knights on the first day of free agency.
Ryan Dzingel is another forward who found himself relegated to a depth role. However, there never was a real expectation that he was going to challenge for a top-line spot. The Senators acquired him from the Carolina Hurricanes after getting off to a disappointing start last season. Additionally, he helped the Senators shed two of their own disappointments in Alex Galchenyuk and Cedric Paquette. But in 29 games, he never rose above the bottom-six and put up just nine points. There was no reason to bring him back for 2021-22, so he signed a one-year show-me deal with the Arizona Coyotes.
Finally, the Senators lost Joey Daccord, who the Seattle Kraken selected in the expansion draft. In his first season as Ottawa’s backup, he put up solid numbers and even outplayed starter Matt Murray on several occasions. However, a poorly-timed injury forced him into a goalie battle with Filip Gustavsson and Anton Forsberg, both of whom put up better records in their brief appearances. It simply left Daccord as the odd one out heading into the 2021-22 season, and while it hurts to lose such a talented goaltending prospect, it does make the Senators’ situation between the pipes much easier next season.
Several other minor-league players will not be returning in 2021-22. Restricted free agents Michael Amadio, J.C. Beaudin, Jonathan Davidsson, Jack Kopacka, Brandon Fortunato, and Marcus Hogberg did not receive qualifying offers, while unrestricted free agents Michael Peca, Andreas Englund, and Zach Magwood were not re-signed. Of that group, Amadio is the biggest loss, as the Senators acquired him at the deadline from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Christian Wolanin. With that said, he only managed to play five games with the Senators, recording one assist, and leaving very little mark on the organization. The Toronto Maple Leafs decided to take a chance on him, signing him to a two-way deal, but it didn’t make sense to hold on to the 25-year-old forward with so many prospects pushing for roster spots.
So, while the Senators’ AHL team takes a significant hit, the NHL roster is still mostly intact. Dzingel and Dadonov had been all but pushed out of the lineup by the end of the season, and Daccord’s departure is more of a relief than a problem, especially if Gustavsson takes another step in his development. Better yet, it leaves Ottawa with over $30 million in projected cap space, plenty of room to sign their two top forwards.
Joining the Senators
The first acquisition came in the form of 34-year-old Nick Holden, who they acquired from the Golden Knights along with a 2022 draft pick. While the veteran two-way defenceman isn’t exactly what the team was looking for, he does bring stability and leadership to a very young blue line. Before his arrival, no one was over 30 years old; 29-year-old Nikita Zaitsev was the elder statesman of the group, and frequent healthy scratch Josh Brown is the next eldest at 27. Erik Gudbranson was supposed to fill that role, but the team shipped him out at the trade deadline for a late-round pick after sinking to one of the worst plus/minus ratings on the team.
However, the biggest thing Holden brings is savings. Set to earn just $1.7 million and with only one more year left on his deal, he offers a huge discount when compared to Dadonov’s massive $5 million contract that didn’t expire until 2022-23. It’s a smart move by general manager Pierre Dorion and gives the team the most wiggle room possible when negotiating with their RFAs. While Holden could earn a letter on his sweater, much like Gudbranson, it’s more likely he was simply acquired for one year and will be let go to make room for one of their talented young defencemen.
The next acquisition was a bit more confusing. With six defensemen on one-way contracts, the Senators went out and signed yet another defenceman in Michael Del Zotto to a two-year deal at $2 million per season. The offensive-minded defender had 13 points in 53 games while averaging over 17 minutes a night in 2020-21. By no means is he a bad addition, especially for the Senators, who struggled on defence last season and often had to be bailed out by their goalies. But his arrival creates a log jam that will ultimately prevent Erik Brannstrom or Jacob Bernard-Docker from earning meaningful minutes in 2021-22.
The Senators added one more defenceman in Dillon Heatherington, who played last season in the KHL and signed a one-year, two-way contract. It’s unlikely he plays much in Ottawa and instead will provide the Belleville Senators with leadership, but he does have a decent track record as a reliable defensive defender. They also signed Pontus Aberg from the KHL to a two-way deal, who had shown brief flashes of offensive dominance with the Nashville Predators, Edmonton Oilers, and Anaheim Ducks, but has struggled with inconsistency. It’s a low-risk move that could pay off in a big way, but at the very least, it gives the B-Sens another veteran presence to help develop the Senators’ top prospects.
Joining Aberg in Belleville are Andrew Agozzino and Kole Sherwood, both minor-league forwards with some NHL experience under their belt. Sherwood has the higher upside at 24 years old, but both are just on one-year deals and likely won’t play too much in the NHL this season, especially if the Senators’ top prospects take steps forward to secure roster spots. These are purely depth additions that give Ottawa a bit of a safety net.
Senators Have More Work to Do
According to Melnyk and Smith, the Senators needed a top center and defensive defenceman. But they didn’t address either position this offseason, and at this point, it’s unlikely they find someone who can fit either role. The best defensive defenders available in free agency have all signed already, and other viable options would come from trades. As for a veteran center, the best still available is probably Casey Cizikas, but the defensive forward is not a top-line option on any team. Ryan Donato or Dominik Kahun are intriguing, but they’re not veterans and haven’t shown enough to be considered first-line players.
Do the Senators turn to the trade market? Both Jack Eichel and Vladimir Tarasenko have yet to be moved and likely will be before the season starts. But both players are likely far too expensive for Ottawa, who kept a tight grip on their top prospects and are unlikely to part with any of them. The team’s depth has definitely improved, but there are still some significant gaps on the top lines that have not been addressed and likely won’t be until their restricted free agents re-sign. While the future is still bright, the outlook for the 2021-22 season — at least thus far — seems to be very similar to that of 2020-21.