Senators Open Space for Youth on Defense at Deadline

After noting in mid-March that it could be a quiet trade deadline, Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion made a few straightforward but notable deals within the final 48 hours. Dorion may have felt that it was a quiet deadline after all when compared to years past, but the few moves he made shook up the defensive group and brought the team a step closer to the future.

Related: Trade Deadline Tracker

On Sunday, Dorion first traded Mike Reilly to the Boston Bruins for a 2022 third-round pick and then shipped out 15-year veteran Braydon Coburn to the New York Islanders for 2022 seventh-round pick. Coburn only played 16 games with the Senators and had a tough go after having a role in a Stanley Cup-winning run with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019-20. His veteran presence was invaluable to a young and rebuilding team, but his on-ice role had diminished and made him a better fit for a contending team needing defensive depth.

Dorion would have likely wanted to make similar moves with Austin Watson and Derek Stepan, two offseason veteran signings that might have been ideal to move to contenders for picks at the deadline, but unfortunately, both are on the injured reserve list. 

Pierre Dorion Ottawa Senators
Pierre Dorion added more draft picks at the 2020-21 trade deadline. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Reilly has never played a full season in the NHL, but he has appeared in games for the Minnesota Wild, Montréal Canadiens, and the Senators over five seasons. He might not have had the authority and influence of Coburn or Erik Gudbranson, but Reilly’s experience allowed him to serve as a helpful guide to the young defensive group, particularly playing alongside Artem Zub, who started to see more action as the 2020-21 season has progressed.

He finishes his time in Ottawa with 31 points in 70 games over two seasons. He has 19 assists in 40 games this season, putting him second among defensemen in points on the Senators. He had value for a contender, and Dorion was able to move these veterans with the knowledge that he has other players ready to take on the ice time.      

In a deal at the end of the deadline, Dorion dealt nine-year NHL veteran Gudbranson to the Nashville Predators for AHL defenseman Brandon Fortunato and a seventh-round pick in 2023. Gudbranson led Senators’ defensemen in hits this season and was clearly passionate about playing for his hometown team. Senators fans should appreciate his desire to play hard every game for this team.

Gudbranson becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of this season, and it’s not outrageous to believe that he could end up in Ottawa and continue to play for his hometown team as a veteran presence. He would certainly have a limited role, which may cause him to look elsewhere, and the Senators would likely push for a bit of a hometown discount in terms of a contract. Something along the lines of Jason Spezza or Wayne Simmonds’ deals with the Toronto Maple Leafs could work if Gudbranson wants to play in Ottawa.

Defensive Additions   

The key addition and potential fan favourite on deadline day was the move to claim Victor Mete off waivers from the Montréal Canadiens. Mete has 34 points over 185 games with the Canadiens across parts of four seasons. He has only skated in 14 games this season, however. With Alexander Romanov establishing himself, and the acquisition of another veteran presence on the back end in Jon Merrill as the Canadiens try to load up for the playoffs, Montréal didn’t have space for Mete.

Mete can now enter the lineup for the Senators and has up to 14 games left to make a case for a spot in the future of Ottawa’s defensive group. Mete has plenty of potential, even if he hasn’t been lighting up the scoresheet. He’s still quite young at 22 years old and can continue to develop alongside the Senators instead of sitting on the sidelines for the Canadiens. Of course, he will still have to battle Josh Brown and Jacob Bernard-Docker for the remaining ice time.

With the assumption that the top pairing consists of Thomas Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev, and the second pairing consists of Erik Brännström and Zub, Brown and Mete may get the first look as the third pair since they have more NHL experience, with DJ Smith rotating in Bernard-Docker until he outplays one of the former. Bernard-Docker put up 18 points in 27 games for the University of North Dakota this season. 

Mete and Zub will be restricted free agents (RFA) this offseason. Zub has certainly made a case for re-signing and even a pay bump after his play this season, which includes 9 points in 33 games, but he’s more about his defensive play and puck-moving abilities, and Bernard-Docker will be on his entry-level contract. This leaves Mete on the bubble, contractually speaking. DJ Smith will want to allocate ice time wisely through these final 14 games in order to see what they have in these young players. Dorion will deal with the contracts when the time comes, but for now, this is a great pickup and opportunity for the Senators and Mete. 

Eyes to the Future

The mantra for this season has always been about building toward the future, but the crystal ball got a bit clearer in the past week or so, including on deadline day for the Senators. Moving out veterans opens lineup spots for the young group that is going to run this team over the next few seasons. We’ve seen some great moments from the young forwards during the rebuild (Drake Batherson’s scoring streak, Brady Tkachuk’s heart and soul and not so subtle bid for the captaincy), but it’s time we get a chance to see what the young defensemen might be able to do for a team that is certainly trending in the right direction.

Jacob Bernard-Docker Ottawa Senators
Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ottawa Senators 2019 development camp (Courtesy Ottawa Senators)

Having Brännström back in the lineup, picking up Mete, and getting Bernard-Docker into games will add a spark of excitement and look more approachable than some of the pairings from earlier this season. Regardless of whether Mete re-signs with the Senators (though you always want to see a young player with potential play well with a new team), we’re at a point now where it’s ok to start to get to know and feel more comfortable with the defensive group. The Senators are still in rebuilding mode, and it’s still about the future, but we’re about to see more of the players in the coming weeks that will be a part of the future of Ottawa’s defensive core.

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