After a frantic few days, free agency has ground to a halt. Several big names remain on the market, such as P.K. Subban, Nazem Kadri, and Phil Kessel, but they’ll likely have to wait until September to ink deals, as teams have turned their attention to signing depth pieces and restricted free agents before they add any more players who will command top dollar.
The Ottawa Senators were one of free agency’s big winners, landing skilled veteran Claude Giroux, re-signing Josh Norris to an eight-year deal, and acquiring Cam Talbot in a trade after parting ways with Matt Murray’s anchor of a contract. Journalists lauded their big-name acquisitions, praising general manager Pierre Dorion for giving the franchise a new outlook after years of failure. While he deserves all the praise he’s receiving, it shouldn’t only be for just the big-name players he brought in, but also for some of the minor deals he made during free agency. These players may not crack the lineup, but if they do, they could pay dividends worth far more than their league-minimum contracts.
Jacob Larsson was drafted in the first round, 27th overall, in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Anaheim Ducks. He was ranked third among European skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and earned praise for his intelligence and consistency in all three zones, promising to be a reliable two-way, puck-moving defender in the NHL.
He first arrived in North America late in the 2015-16 season, joining the American Hockey League’s (AHL) San Diego Gulls for a single playoff game, but wouldn’t play a full season with the team until 2017-18, suiting up for 50 games and scoring 16 points. Despite being the youngest player on the roster, he was the third-highest scoring defender, undoubtedly a sign of great things to come.
Unfortunately, that vision never came to fruition. Although never expected to be an offensive dynamo, Larsson has never topped his rookie AHL totals and in 165 NHL games, has just three goals and 24 points. The Ducks gave Larsson a long leash, hoping he’d turn his development around, but now at 25 years old, the team decided to part ways, allowing him to sign a one-year, two-way deal with the Ottawa Senators this offseason.
Although he’ll start the season back in the AHL, there’s a good chance that Larsson could find his way back into the big leagues before too long. The Senators were abysmal defensively last season, allowing the eighth-most goals and the sixth-most shots in the NHL. For now, the group largely remains unchanged — the team still hasn’t acquired a two-way right-handed defenceman who can take a top-four spot right now despite reports claiming Dorion is looking for one, and Nikita Zaitsev remains the team’s second-best option on the right side.
Larsson, on the other hand, had the second-best Fenwick For stat on the Ducks last season with a 52.6 percent, which measures team puck possession while the player was on the ice. While the six-game sample size is admittedly small, it still shows that there are some noteworthy defensive skills at play here. He was also a defensive favourite of coach Dallas Eakins in 2020-21, starting nearly 60 percent of his shifts in the defensive end. While he’ll still need to prove himself in Ottawa, there’s a chance that he could solidify a shaky defence from the third pairing.
Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 227 pounds, Kristians Rubins is an imposing figure on the ice. His size likely caught the attention of the Senators, who have shown a penchant for drafting and acquiring big players. However, the Latvian defenceman is far from just another big blueliner. He’s put in the effort to continually improve at every level he’s played, which resulted in a three-game call-up to the Toronto Maple Leafs this past season and a spot among the organization’s best prospects — a far cry from his humble beginnings.
Rubins moved to North America in 2016-17 after the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Medicine Hat Tigers selected him in that year’s Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Import Draft. He spent two seasons with the team, putting up 51 points in 106 games and establishing himself as a smooth-skating two-way defender. After going undrafted, he signed with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers, an affiliate of the Maple Leafs, and just a few months later, earned an AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies after they saw the impact he had on the team. He finished the 2018-19 season with 18 points in 56 ECHL games, plus his name on the league’s trophy.
He continued to improve with the Marlies in 2019-20 and convinced the Maple Leafs to offer him a two-year, two-way deal after scoring 14 points in 47 games. He finally got the chance to play a few NHL games in 2021-22, and he made a fairly positive impact in his three-game stint, recording 12 hits, a 57.5 percent Fenwick For, and six shot attempts. Like Larsson, it’s a fairly small sample size but implies that there are some strong instincts at play. He’ll also start the 2022-23 season with Belleville, but if his previous career is any indication, he will sneak into some games with the Senators sometime this season.
Rourke Chartier may be familiar to some fans as he joined the Belleville Senators after a successful tryout midway through the 2021-22 season. Before his tryout, he had primarily spent his career with the San Jose Sharks after a very successful junior career with the Kelowna Rockets, where he scored 110 goals in 230 games, including a 48-goal, 82-point season that helped the Rockets capture the WHL Championship in 2014-15. Despite being a fifth-round pick, great things were expected from him, and it would be a matter of time before he carved out a role for himself at the NHL level.
However, in 2016-17, during his rookie season with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda, he suffered a concussion in May, then another one in November of the 2017-18 season. He missed months in recovery, plagued by unbearable headaches and anxiety. When he finally returned for the 2018-19 season, he made the Sharks’ roster out of training camp, spending 13 games in the NHL before getting sent down to the AHL. One of his career highs was quickly followed by a career-low — in February of that season, he suffered yet another concussion, which brought back all the symptoms he experienced before, but far worse. He missed the rest of the season with concussion symptoms and was not surprised when the Sharks failed to qualify him, letting him become a free agent.
Although he received several offers, Chartier refused them all, instead choosing to sit out for an entire season to fully recover, deciding, “I’m going come back from this, however long it takes…But I don’t want to be under any pressure from anyone else” (from ‘Rourke Chartier lost two years to concussions. Now he has a second chance with the Marlies,’ The Athletic, 06/03/2021). The recovery time took nearly two full years before he signed with the Marlies in October of 2020. It wasn’t his best season by far, and he finished with just eight points in 28 games, but it was his first professional season fully healthy, and he knew he could improve, and he did. Last season with the Belleville Senators, he had 10 goals and 25 points in 33 games. Now back with an NHL deal, he’ll be fighting to secure a spot in Ottawa, and he certainly has the skill to get it.
Another familiar name to some, Jayce Hawryluk returns to the Senators organization after spending last season in Sweden with Skellefteå AIK. Originally the 32nd pick by the Florida Panthers in the 2014 NHL Draft, he demonstrated some impressive offensive skills with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, scoring 278 points in 232 games over four seasons. However, in the professional ranks, he established himself as a gritty, depth player who wasn’t afraid to mix it up with opponents.
While his on-ice persona earned him plenty of fans, it didn’t go far in NHL front offices; he was placed on waivers by the Panthers and subsequently claimed by the Senators in 2019-20. In 11 games, he scored seven points, but even after showing such promise, he’d become a free agent that offseason. He was scooped up by the Vancouver Canucks but struggled to secure ice time, which prompted him to sign in Sweden for the 2021-22 season.
Now Hawryluk is back in the NHL, and although he has a two-way deal, he won’t settle for playing a depth NHL role, and at 26 years old, he’s from over the hill. Still, he’ll start the season in the AHL and likely will have to wait for an injury or trade before he can sneak onto the Senators’ roster, but once he’s there, he’ll almost certainly make a compelling case as to why he should stay. His gritty style will blend well with Brady Tkachuk and others already on the team. If he can stay healthy — he’s struggled with injuries in the past — he’ll be tough to keep in the minors for too long.
Who Has the Best Chance to Make the Senators?
The Senators’ top-nine forwards are locked in, but the same cannot be said for the fourth line, nor much of the defence corps. There will be several tightly-contested training camp battles for just a handful of spots, and while some players will have a leg up, there are several prospects and newcomers who will also be vying for those positions.
Of the four aforementioned players, Hawryluk likely has the best chance to secure an NHL spot out of training camp. He plays right wing, which is one of the Senators’ weakest forward positions. He’s familiar with the organization and has the most NHL experience of any other forward in the system. If he can demonstrate that he brings more to the table than Dylan Gambrell, he’ll get the chance to form one of the most annoying fourth lines in hockey alongside Austin Watson.
There is still plenty to be done to ensure the Senators take a significant step forward and compete for a playoff spot, but with these minor signings, the team has put themselves in a perfect position. Either these four players will provide leadership and stability in the minors or prove that they can improve the NHL team, reviving their careers and helping the team push for the playoffs.
Stats from hockey-reference.com