Senators Rebuild Threatened by Strange Trade Deadline

Where exactly are the Ottawa Senators headed?

Before the 2022 Trade Deadline, the answer to that question seemed simple – they are slowly rebuilding their franchise through youth and the draft. For the past several seasons, the Senators have been active sellers at the deadline, shipping out anyone with an expiring contract for future assets. While it led to a team that struggled to win games, it also resulted in the additions of Erik Brannstrom, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, and Filip Gustavsson, while also allowing the team to lock up Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot, and Brady Tkachuk to long-term contracts. The majority of the core was in place, and if they stayed the course, they would be back in the playoffs in a season, maybe two.

Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Though, some red flags began popping up in 2021-22. First, general manager Pierre Dorion infamously claimed that the Senators’ rebuild was over, only to rephrase it a few months later after his team plummeted to a 5-15-1 record to start the 2021-22 season, stating that the team was maybe one piece away. That felt closer to reality, and the rough start could be attributed to the team battling bouts of COVID, but it still seemed a bit too optimistic. TSN writer Travis Yost looked at the team’s advanced stats and found that most of the team was still not reaching their expected production. That implied there was more than a gap or two to fill.

Then came March 21, 2022. Dorion warned fans that this year was going to be a much quieter deadline, but when the day arrived, he picked up defenceman Travis Hamonic, defensive forward Mathieu Joseph, struggling prospect Zach Senyshyn, and depth goaltender Michael McNiven. Yes, he got some picks back, too, but nothing higher than a fourth-rounder. Those are not the typical moves of a team still in a rebuild but are far more similar to a team looking to upgrade for the playoffs.

Related: 2022 NHL Trade Deadline Deal Tracker

So what exactly is going on with the Senators? At one time, they had the best farm system in the NHL, and yet are still struggling to finish with a winning record. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a deeper look into their deadline moves to see what the team expects from their new additions and whether it will be enough to propel them to the playoffs next season.

Mathieu Joseph Has Second-Line Potential

The best deal of the day was easily flipping Nick Paul to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round pick in 2024. It’s not a big move, but it offers the team exactly what they needed this year – a young, talented forward who can play both ends of the ice and potentially slot into the second line. Joseph is two years younger than Paul and has a higher career-high with 26 points, which he put up in his rookie season in 2018-19. The two-time Stanley Cup winner also has been used on the penalty kill, and with the Senators struggling defensively, he’ll likely help shore up things.

Mathieu Joseph, Tampa Bay Lightning
Mathieu Joseph, formerly with the Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, to say that the deal was good may be overselling it a bit. Paul, who was acquired in the Jason Spezza trade back in 2014, had essentially been part of the Senators’ organization for his entire professional career. He wanted to stay in Ottawa, but couldn’t agree on a contract, turning down a four-year, $10 million contract. He later told The Athletic’s Ian Mendes, “I love the fans. I love the city. I love the support from everyone. And I wanted to make it work here, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work with the numbers” (from ‘Nick Paul opens up on Lightning trade: ‘I’ve been betting on myself for my whole career. And I’m not going to stop now,’ The Athletic, 20/04/22).

In all honestly, Joseph doesn’t add a whole lot more than Paul. They both are at similar scoring paces this year, with Joseph sitting at eight goals and 10 assists, while Paul has 12 goals and nine assists. Paul also was a mainstay on both the penalty kill and the power play, while Joseph hasn’t logged any power-play time yet this season. Even their advanced stats are similar, with both sitting at a Corsi for % of about 45, meaning that the other team had the puck slightly more when they were on the ice (not surprising given their defensive deployments).

Nick Paul Ottawa Senators
Nick Paul, formerly with the Ottawa Senators, could become a big part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s playoff run (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Adding a skilled depth player with playoff experience like Joseph makes more sense if you’re a team looking to win a Stanley Cup rather than simply not ending up in last place. He’s a restricted free agent this summer and he’ll likely ask for a similar pay raise to Paul, around $2-3 million per season. Will the Senators commit to him long-term after their history of refusing to give out big raises to depth pieces? Or did they simply trade away a fan favourite for a mid-round draft pick?

Zach Senyshyn Offers Intriguing Upside

One thing the Senators needed to do was dump as many of their underperforming players for picks. They did manage to trade away Zach Sanford for a fifth-round pick, as well as Josh Brown, who was sent to the Boston Bruins for a fifth-rounder and prospect Zach Senyshyn. The two picks are pretty inconsequential – there’s a very low chance they find another Jamie Benn or Brendan Gallagher – but Senyshyn is an interesting acquisition. Although he’s much more well known for being the third of Boston’s three first-round picks in 2015 and being picked ahead of Mat Barzal, Kyle Connor, and Chabot, he’s still a talented scoring winger, which the Senators desperately need. So far this season, he has 19 goals in 53 American Hockey League (AHL) games.

It’s also worth noting that Senyshyn is an Ottawa native and played his minor hockey in the city until he left for the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds in 2013-14. At 24 years old, it’s unlikely he becomes much more than a secondary scoring option, but on a young team like the Senators, he’ll have a much better opportunity to showcase his style of hockey. It reminds me somewhat of when Anthony Duclair joined the team in 2019-20 after the Ryan Dzingel trade. Given a bigger role on a weaker team, he erupted for a career-high 23 goals in 66 games. It’s a low-risk, high-reward move that is exactly what a rebuilding team should be trying to do.

However, the fact that the Senators were unable – or unwilling – to move pending free agent Chris Tierney, restricted free agents Dylan Gambrell and Victor Mete, or underperforming players like Nikita Zaitsev, Austin Watson, or Michael Del Zotto was somewhat concerning. In 2020-21, The Hockey Writers‘ Peter Baracchini ranked Ottawa’s farm system sixth overall, and although that dropped to 22nd this season, they still have several top prospects waiting to earn a regular spot in the lineup. Defensive defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker has been fairly solid this season, as has offensive defender Lassi Thomson, yet they remain in the AHL while the Senators struggle to put together a reliable defence corps at the NHL level.

Adding Hamonic Doesn’t Make Any Sense

Adding Joseph and Senyshyn may not have been the greatest moves, but they at least had an eye towards the future. There is potential for those moves to benefit the growing franchise, and they also got something from some expiring contracts. The trade for Travis Hamonic, however, is the complete opposite. The 31-year-old was once a solid two-way player, putting up 33 points in 2014-15 and recording a plus-21 in 2018-19, but he has been on the decline ever since then and has become little more than a depth option.

Travis Hamonic Ottawa Senators
Travis Hamonic, Ottawa Senators (Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

So, with the Senators in the market for a top-four defender, they turned to…Hamonic? Sure, at one time he was that guy, playing big minutes with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames. Since then he’s become somewhat of a pariah following his departure from the 2020 playoff bubble and his hesitancy to follow NHL vaccination mandates, which resulted in a personal leave of absence from the Vancouver Canucks during training camp. Making it worse was his contract – a two-year, $6 million deal he signed to start the season – which quickly became one of the worst contracts on the team. The Canucks’ cap situation was dire, too, so they placed the defender on waivers before the season, where he went unclaimed and was assigned to the Abbotsford Canucks for about a month.

Ok, sure, Hamonic isn’t the guy he once was, but with a young core, one could make the argument that the Senators wanted a veteran presence to help guide their team. With a terrible contract and poor play as of late, it should have been a cheap trade. Yet it wasn’t, with Ottawa ponying up a third-round pick to bring him aboard. With all those factors listed above, the Senators should have received a third-rounder in the deal rather than have to pay one. It’s not like there was a bidding war on him, either; according to The Athletic’s Rick Dhaliwal, the Senators were the only team who inquired about Hamonic. Add the fact that former defenceman Marc Methot has heard that this may not be the player you want around a young core, and you have to wonder what the team’s management was thinking in this trade.

Dorion, of course, was optimistic after the deal, stating that Hamonic is someone who could end up in the top-four, but stumbled on questions regarding making a waiver claim despite also claiming he was a player they had their eye on for quite some time. He also was tripped up slightly about calling up Del Zotto sooner, who is in a similar situation to the Senators’ newest defender. That’s not something you want to hear from your general manager, especially with a rebuilding team. Nor do you want to hear that it will be tougher for the team’s best prospects to find a place in the lineup, but with seven blueliners on one-way deals, five of which are multi-year contracts, it will be very difficult for Bernard-Docker or Thomson to sneak into the lineup. They can’t develop in the minors forever.

Now, with Jake Sanderson signing his entry-level deal and expected to join the team in the coming days, the defence is just as crowded as it was before, but not at all more skilled. Sanderson will need time to adjust to the NHL pace, but so do the other defenders. Does that mean Erik Brannstrom is looking at a move? It’s certainly the last thing the Senators should be thinking about, but with so many big contracts, they may not have enough money to re-sign him this offseason and may opt to trade him for more futures. That certainly wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t trade for Hamonic, who didn’t even want to come to Ottawa, or at the very least, wanted to keep his family out west.

The only way this trade makes sense is if Dorion has some cards up his sleeve regarding trades this offseason, namely for fellow overpriced defenceman Nikita Zaitsev. Having both players combine for $7.5 million on the cap for two more seasons is frankly unacceptable. One of them needs to go, and if Hamonic eventually pays the price, it will be another black mark on Dorion’s resume.

Where Are the Senators Going?

The 2021-22 season was supposed to be a season of growth and development, and if not see the team push for the playoffs, at least see them emerge out of the league’s basement. However, that hasn’t happened, and at the mid-point of the season, they were almost exactly in the same place they were in 2020-21. You can add any sort of excuse you want, from inconsistent goaltending to a team-wide bout with COVID, but fans still should have seen some growth, and they simply haven’t.

It’s starting to look like management may not be able to see the forest for the trees. Yes, Stutlze, Norris, and Batherson have taken steps forward, as have their best prospects, and Anton Forsberg has stepped up when Matt Murray faltered. But this is still not a team just a player away from contending. You can’t just add a Hamonic or Joseph and expect to be knocking on the door of the playoffs. Yet they keep doing this same trade, seemingly expecting different results; Del Zotto, Murray, Derek Stepan, and Erik Gudbranson all came in, expected to compete for top minutes despite being on the back end of their careers, and they expectedly flamed out and were moved, either to the minors or out of the city.

However, the worst part is, that most of them cost a future asset. Sure, first-round picks are great, and the Senators could use another one this year, but what they need is to hit on early and mid-round picks. That’s where you find the likes of Batherson, Alex Formenton, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and countless others. Taking that away from a rebuilding team hurts their ability to add inexpensive talent, which is what we’re starting to see in Ottawa. That responsibility falls to management, and after this year’s trade deadline, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Senators just don’t know how to finish a rebuild.

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