Senators Should Relaunch Their Search for a Defenceman

It’s the NHL All-Star Break and the Ottawa Senators have turned a corner. Pierre Dorion’s squad are unbeaten in four, have climbed above the Detroit Red Wings in the Atlantic Division standings, and are closing in on the wildcard spots.

The Senators’ season isn’t over. They have clambered back from the abyss, entered the All-Star Break with a spring in their step, and approach an important stretch of the campaign with warranted confidence.

D.J. Smith Ottawa Senators
D.J. Smith, Head Coach of the Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Senators return to action on Saturday (Feb. 11) at home versus the Edmonton Oilers. After that, they have a four-game week versus the Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues to navigate. If Ottawa continues to play above the .500-mark and teams above them falter, they will have a true shot at the playoffs. Dorion should reinvigorate his search for a defenceman as a result.

Senators’ Have Clear Area of Need on the Blue line

The Senators have wanted to add a defenceman to their roster for a while and it would make sense for them to address that area of need as soon as possible. Travis Hamonic and Nick Holden are both set to become unrestricted free agents in the offseason, with pending restricted free agent (RFA) Erik Brännström also due a contract extension.

Whatever happens down the stretch, there is a blue line reshuffle in the works in Ottawa and Dorion should take a proactive approach. The Senators have a couple of weak points on defence, starting with Nikita Zaitsev. The Russian counts $4.5 million against the salary cap and is in the middle of a poor season. He is error-prone, unable to recreate his best performances from earlier in his career, and has never looked comfortable at the Canadian Tire Centre.

Nikita Zaitsev Ottawa Senators
Nikita Zaitsev, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dorion could also improve the upper section of his defence. Is Holden a bona fide pair-one defender? Could the Senators bump Hamonic down the depth chart, and into easier minutes, with a high-calibre addition? Both of those questions – or concerns – are valid.

Ottawa’s defensive core of Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, the injured Artem Zub, and Brännström is solid, but the franchise evidently needs help on the right side. With that, let’s explore some of the franchise’s potential targets and reasons why now is the right time to invest.

Senators Must Avoid Selling at the Trade Deadline

There are a couple of ways to look at the trade deadline for the Senators. They could throw in the towel on the season, flip pending RFA Alex DeBrincat for futures, and turn their attention to 2023-24. Alternatively, they could acquire a defenceman and stay in the race a little longer.

While there are merits to both approaches, the Senators would be wise to take the second option. Ottawa’s core has already experienced enough defeats for a lifetime and would benefit from playing meaningful hockey down the stretch.

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In other words, Dorion should resist the temptation of a deadline sell-off and focus on boosting his young stars instead. While the 2022-23 season is unlikely to yield a playoff appearance for the Senators, the likes of Sanderson and Tim Stützle would learn plenty from just being in the race for postseason qualification.

It’s Time for the Senators to Invest in their Defence

Back in November, when Chabot and Zub were unavailable through injury, Dorion told reporters that he was “very active” in the search for a defenceman. Since then, not much has changed. The Senators have muddled through ill health with help from promising rookies like Jacob Bernard-Docker but remain on the lookout for full-time improvements.

“I think we’re just going to keep looking,” Dorion told reporters. “If we can add externally, we’ll look at that. But internally, players that we’ve called up have performed well.”

There are a number of skaters the Senators could pursue at the trade deadline, with Arizona Coyotes defender Jakob Chychrun the prime example. The 24-year-old is attached to a team-friendly cap hit, comfortable playing on his off-side, and produces positive results on the power play.

Jakob Chychrun Arizona Coyotes
Jakob Chychrun, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Chychrun is also acquirable. The Coyotes are committed to the race for Connor Bedard, with their timeline to win pencilled in for the mid-to-late 2020s. The Senators should be all over the Florida-born defenceman as a result.

But what if Chychrun is traded elsewhere? The Senators would still have a multitude of options that would significantly improve their blue line, whether that’s a bottom-pair upgrade like Luke Schenn or a risky top-four pick like Matt Dumba.

Time is of the essence for the Senators. If they have an opportunity to improve their squad before the trade deadline, they must take it. Dorion should capitalize on his squad’s positive form and reward them with a jolt of defensive support in time for the final weeks of the campaign.

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