There are a ton of moving parts and players as NHL general managers turn their focus to free-agent targets with the free agency signing period set to open on Wednesday. At The Hockey Writers, we’ve covered targets for the Ottawa Senators down the middle, on the wings, and on defence. Here’s one more potential signing that could come at a nice price and help the Senators at centre.
Senators’ Centre Scramble
On general manager, Pierre Dorion’s wish list is a reliable top-six centre, whether that’s a clear number one centreman or someone who can slot in on the second line. The Senators will likely put their faith in Josh Norris on the top line again and let their young stars, Norris, Brady Tkachuk, and Drake Batherson, continue to develop together. Shane Pinto was a surprising but welcome addition to the bottom six, but it’s the heavier contracts like Colin White’s ($4.750 million) and Chris Tierney’s ($3.5 million) that the Senators are hoping for either a much better season or to find a replacement.
The Senators also re-signed Clark Bishop to a deserved one-year deal worth $800,000. He will put pressure on the centres in the bottom six to play to their best because he plays a clean game and provides solid minutes on the penalty kill. Logan Brown’s future is not as clear after he only played one game for the club in 2020-21. He can provide some depth if re-signed, but he doesn’t seem to be on coach D.J. Smith’s good side.
What are the Senators’ options? I agree with fellow THW contributor Giovanni Siciliano that the Montreal Canadiens’ Phillip Danault is one of the best options for the second line, but he isn’t an offensive force. Maybe the Senators would consider going after Gabriel Landeskog if his camp is frustrated enough with the Colorado Avalanche and how they’re handling his extension. There’s an argument for it (Swedish leaders have a good history with the Senators), but he’d come at a much higher price than Danault or someone like Mikael Granlund, who still seems to be on everyone’s list after being one of the most rumoured-about players at the trade deadline.
So, if not Danault or Granlund, then who? If the Senators want to sign a free-agent centre, their best value would be to sign Alexander Wennberg.
Wennberg at a Reasonable Cost
Wennberg has played the bulk of his NHL career with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but after they bought him out and he signed with the Florida Panthers in 2020-21, he put up a career-high in goals with 17 and added 12 assists in 56 games. It was the sign of a return to form for an offensively talented player.
Despite Wennberg’s improved play, the Senators might have an opportunity to swoop in and offer him a reasonable contract. His offensive improvement might have made him too expensive for the Panthers, now that they’ve invested in Sam Bennett at a cap hit of $4.425 million for the next four seasons and are likely to sign the newly acquired Sam Reinhart; and Wennberg might be looking for another opportunity to run a top-six line and prove that he can still produce consistently.
The apparent risk is that Wennberg could drop off offensively again and be another centre on the books who’s not playing up to their contract. On the other hand, he should still be in his prime at 26 years old (turning 27 in September). He can play solid minutes; he averaged 18:10 of ice time (TOI) per game in 2020-21, and he led the Panthers in shooting percentage at 20.7 percent. He also finished seventh in points on a team that has some high-flying talent in its top six, including Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. For a basic (but flawed) comparison, last season, he would have finished second in points on the Senators among centres behind Norris. He also kills penalties (second on the Panthers in shorthanded ice time last season) and can play on the power play (sixth on the Panthers in power-play points and power-play TOI last season).
The Blue Jackets bought out Wennberg when he had three years left on his deal with a $4.9 million cap hit before the Panthers signed him at $2.25 million on a one-year contract. The Senators could offer him roughly $3 million and highlight the strength of their young team to lure him away from Florida. Other teams are likely to be in the mix, so the offer might have to be sweetened, considering the new taxes he’d have to pay and the unfamiliarity of playing in a new country. But the prospect of playing with Tim Stützle and the Senators’ leading scorer, Connor Brown, could be attractive.
The Right Move Down the Middle
The Atlantic Division is going to be tough in 2021-22. The Senators want to be competitive and have hopes of battling for a wild-card spot, perhaps against the Panthers if they can put together a strong season. If Wennberg can’t fit into Florida’s financial plans, why not try to bring him to the Senators to help boost their offensive production. He knows the Florida-based teams, especially after playing in 14 all-Florida matchups last season, including playoffs, which would be an asset.
With Wennberg, Ottawa could keep Tierney and White and hope they play up to their potential and have bounce-back seasons, but if there is heavy pressure to inject a new face at centre, Wennberg might not be the shiniest name on the free-agent list, but he could be the perfect fit.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.