The Ottawa Senators are in a bit of a pickle heading into the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. They began the season with general manager Pierre Dorion claiming that the rebuild was over, only to backtrack a couple of months later after putting up a 5-15-1 record to start the season and placing starting goalie Matt Murray on waivers. Instead, he rephrased it by saying that all the core pieces are in place and that his excitement got ahead of him. Many fans were with him in that, projecting this team, with a strong, young core of Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Thomas Chabot, and Drake Batherson, to potentially lift them to become fringe playoff contenders.
Now the belief is that this will hopefully be the last year of being sellers at the deadline, and much like the previous statement, it’s not a wildly outlandish claim, but a lot of things will need to happen for that to become a reality. Having Batherson, rookie Shane Pinto, and Colin White out long term hasn’t helped, nor has their bout with COVID-19 quarantines, but their abysmal 19-31-5 record can’t be placed all on that. There have been some huge gaps in their game that need to be addressed for Ottawa to make some improvements next season. Otherwise, they will be right back where they are, looking at a top-10 selection and forced to rephrase previous claims again.
1: Acquire Another First-Round Pick
As of right now, the Senators sit fourth-last in the league and have the fifth-best chance to pick first overall. Even with White back in the lineup and Batherson getting closer to a return, it won’t change the fact that Ottawa is guaranteed to pick within the top-10. While that’s not the situation management was hoping for this season, it’s the perfect place to be if they want to move their rebuild forward. A top-10 pick will certainly help things, but they are not just a player or two from becoming a championship-worthy team, and the easiest way to add cheap, young talent is through the draft.
Sure, it’s never a guarantee that a draft pick will succeed – Olli Juolevi, picked fifth overall in 2016, was just claimed off waivers by the Detroit Red Wings – but having more picks increases the odds that one of the picks will pan out. That’s why the Senators need to add at least one more first-round pick at the upcoming draft. If they can grab someone like Brad Lambert, Juraj Slafkovsky, David Jiricek, or any of the other high-profile prospects with their first pick, they can take a bigger risk on someone like offensive defenceman Denton Mateychuk, power forward Marco Kasper, or goal-scoring winger Liam Öhgren, to name a few, with their second.
Adding another first-round pick or two is even more necessary after last year’s draft, in which they failed to grab a high-impact player 10th overall. Now, that’s not saying Tyler Boucher is a bad pick, as he could very well develop into a capable top-nine option who can add grit, physicality, and secondary scoring, similar to Tom Wilson but with less offensive upside. But that’s not who the Senators needed at 10th overall. Cole Sillinger, selected right after Boucher, already has eight NHL goals with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Isak Rosen, taken 14th overall, is eighth in points among U19 players in the Swedish Hockey League, and Fyodor Svechkov, taken 19th, is already earning praise as the draft’s best defensive forward.
So, if Dorion wants this to be the last year of the rebuild, he needs to grab multiple top prospects in the first round. The Toronto Maple Leafs are reportedly shopping their first-round pick for immediate help, and someone like Connor Brown or Nick Paul may convince them to part with that. However, the Senators don’t seem willing to part with those players. They may have to get creative to find another team looking to part with theirs, but it has to be a high priority regardless.
2: Make Room for the Young Guys
Fans have been anxiously waiting for Jacob Bernard-Docker, Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson, Jonas Gustavsson, and Egor Sokolov to grab a full-time roster spot on this team. They’ve all been given chances and glimpses over the past couple of seasons and have done well in their brief showings, but in the end, they are returned to the minors to wait for their next cup of coffee in Ottawa. That’s because the Senators currently have too many one-way contracts on their roster, and since their young, talented players can pass through waivers untouched, it’s them that pay the price.
With players like Zach Sanford, Tyler Ennis, Josh Brown, and Anton Forsberg all on the last year of their contracts, and Dylan Gambrell, Victor Mete, and Adam Gaudette becoming restricted free agents, there may be a few opportunities to make some room on the roster. Brown in particular has been one of the team’s least impactful defenders and it would greatly benefit the Senators if they could move him and open up a space for either Bernard-Docker or Thomson, who have both performed better than the 28-year-old this season despite their limited showings.
Then there’s Nikita Zaitsev, who still has two more seasons at $4.5 million each on his deal. He’s been fine this season, ranking below average in expected goals against per 60 minutes, but right in the middle of the Senators’ roster. However, ‘fine’ isn’t worth nearly $5 million per season, and he may be able to be moved if the Senators agree to take on salary or pay part of his deal. That shouldn’t be a problem, even for the cash-strapped franchise, and it additionally opens up a spot for Jake Sanderson to take when he arrives, which could be as early as the end of this season.
The defence is arguably the biggest problem, but opening up some forward or goaltending spots would also benefit the Senators. Parker Kelly has certainly deserved a full-time roster spot as a bottom-six defensive forward, and Ridly Greig will push for a spot next season. Mark Kastelic, Roby Jarventie, and Angus Crookshank also look like they could fill certain spots on the roster, and with the team performing as they are, they should be given some trials at the end of the season to see how ready they are.
3: Bring in a Young Impact Forward
There’s a lot to like about the Senators core, but the players surrounding it are either too young and inexperienced to make much of a difference, or just not good enough to help the team win games. These issues can be seen at every position, and it’s a big reason why Ottawa failed to take the step forward that many expected them to this season. Yes, injuries and COVID haven’t helped, but a competitive team shouldn’t be completely rocked by a couple of injuries to key players.
Some of these issues will work themselves out over time. Sanderson will stabilize the blue line alongside Bernard-Docker, Thomson, and Brannstrom, who all can learn from Chabot. Gustavsson will eventually compete for the starting job with either Sogaard or Merilainen, depending on how their development goes. After applying some patience, most of the issues can be addressed through minor moves; signing Nick Holden and claiming Anton Forsberg off waivers are two perfect examples of small additions that have had positive impacts on the team.
However, when it comes to the forward group, the Senators may not be able to be patient. They have plenty of players who can fit comfortably in the bottom six like Kelly, Paul, and Austin Watson, but in the top-six, there are a lot fewer options to play alongside Batherson, Norris, Tkachuk, and Stützle. Brown has been fine on the right side as a second-line winger, and Alex Formenton should eventually either take his place or join him on the opposite side. Though, neither are long-term top-line options. So, if they want to compete as soon as next year, they need to add an impact player that can bolster the first line.
Admittedly, Dorion may be a bit gun-shy when it comes to adding an offensive-minded winger to play first-line minutes. Evgenii Dadonov was a bust in Ottawa, as was Derek Stepan, although he was never expected to be a top unit option. Rumours have swirled around Minnesota Wild forward Kevin Fiala, and they may be able to pry away either Conor Garland or Travis Konecny who have both appeared on the trading block this season. A more impactful but less realistic addition is someone like J.T. Miller, who also has been rumoured to be headed out from the Vancouver Canucks due to salary cap issues. He’ll cost more than the Senators should give up, though, and likely would hurt more to add him than to not.
No matter what they do, though, the Senators need to be active this trade deadline. The only way that Dorion fails is if he does nothing; he doesn’t need to make any blockbuster moves, or bring in a ton of picks, but sitting back while teams are looking for ways to shed expensive contracts while letting Ottawa’s free agents walk free would be massive mismanagement of assets. The Senators are almost out of the woods, but as of right now, they’re still well in the trees and need all the help they can get to push past these tough times.
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.