4 Senators That Need to Come Back Next Season

Last summer, Ottawa Senators general manager (GM) Pierre Dorion was the talk of the NHL after he acquired Alex DeBrincat without giving up a roster player, signed one of the best free agents in Claude Giroux, and dumped Matt Murray’s anchor of a contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs for just two low draft picks. He then followed up his “Summer of Pierre‘” by acquiring Jakob Chychrun at the 2023 Trade Deadline and moving another terrible contract in Nikita Zaitsev, putting the final missing piece into a team hungry to make the playoffs.

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This year, Dorion will have far less to worry about. The Senators have a dangerous top six, a great leadership core, a very solid defence, and a bright future in goal. Instead, management will have to take a good, long look at the team’s expiring contracts and, with an ever-tightening salary cap, judge who is worthy of remaining in Ottawa. Currently, there are 10 players set to become unrestricted free agents and 11 more who qualify for restricted free agency. Here are four that Dorion needs to bring back for 2023-24.

Alex DeBrincat

There’s been plenty of debate as to whether DeBrincat is worth his qualifying offer of $9 million. Currently, the 25-year-old sits at 24 goals in 74 games, which puts him on pace to post the second-lowest goal total of his career. It also doesn’t stack up well against other $9 million players like Kirill Kaprizov and Mikko Rantanen, who consistently produce over a point per game.

Alex DeBrincat Ottawa Senators
Alex DeBrincat, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

DeBrincat has made improvements in other areas, though, some of which imply that he’s primed for a breakout in 2023-24. His 24 goals rank fourth on the team and he’s been lethal on the power play alongside Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, and Drake Batherson. He’s also put up the second-best expected goals-for rate of his career in Ottawa, as well as a lower expected goals-against rate than he did last season, and he’s recorded the highest scoring chances percentage since his rookie season.

But when it comes down to it, the Senators need DeBrincat. Dorion paid too much for him to be a one-year rental, especially if they don’t make the playoffs, and to lose him now would be a massive organizational failure. That gives DeBrincat all the negotiating power and will likely drive up his asking price. Thankfully, neither side seems worried about the future, so fans shouldn’t be either, but don’t expect it to be a quick process.

Erik Brannstrom

No other player has improved more than Erik Brannstrom this season. After struggling to insert himself into the lineup regularly, he’s become one of the best defensive presences on the team. After 66 games, he leads the team’s defence with a 54.72 Corsi For percentage, 55.32 expected goals for percentage, sits at just 2.5 goals against per 60 minutes, and has an average of 26 scoring chances against per 60 minutes. The offensive side is still a work in progress, but he is on pace to set a new career high after putting up two goals and 12 assists so far this season.

When Brannstrom signed a one-year extension just before training camp last season, the message was clear – there would be no more chances to prove that he deserved to be part of this team after this one. Yet he’s done everything that’s been asked of him, and at just 23 years old, he has the potential to emerge as a competent top-four two-way defenceman. Several younger defenders are coming up through the system that could challenge him for a spot on the bottom pairing, but as of now, he’s the team’s best option and deserves to remain there.

Derick Brassard

If you had to pick the Senators’ seventh-best forward, chances are Derick Brassard’s name wouldn’t cross your mind for at least a few guesses. But that’s exactly what the 35-year-old has been since joining the team on a professional tryout this year, scoring 13 goals and 23 points in 61 games with Ottawa. He’s been a staple in the bottom six, providing leadership for the team’s young core while still being an effective two-way depth forward.

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But Brassard’s effectiveness goes deeper still. Of players who have appeared in at least 15 games this season, he sits first in goals-against per 60 minutes average with a measly 1.88; Giroux has the next-highest total from a player who’s played at least 600 minutes, and his average is a full goal higher at 2.88. It’s not like Brassard is not facing difficult matchups, either, sitting seventh among forwards with 123 high-danger chances against.

Derick Brassard Ottawa Senators
Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As he is currently on a league-minimum contract, Brassard would be an incredibly affordable player to bring back for another season, and with the impact he’s made on the team, the Senators shouldn’t have to think long about making the right choice here. With him in the bottom six, Ottawa is a more competitive team and has a much better chance of success in the playoffs.

Austin Watson

Another player who has endeared himself to the team and fans is Austin Watson, who joined the Senators in October 2020 after a trade with the Nashville Predators. A former first-round pick in 2010, he was hailed for his grittiness and defensive skills that were compared to Kris Draper. He was a big reason why the United States was able to claim gold at the U18 World Juniors, but in the NHL, those skills never really developed, which led to his eventual departure.

In Ottawa, however, Watson recaptured his rhythm. His first season with the team was marred with injuries, but in 2021-22, he chipped in 10 goals and 91 penalty minutes over 67 games, earning him a spot on the American World Championship roster. This season, he’s been just as effective but healthier, scoring nine goals and 113 penalty minutes in 71 games. On defence, he’s been one of the better depth players, facing an average of 11.5 high-danger chances per 60 minutes and 2.5 expected goals-against per 60 minutes.

Austin Watson Ottawa Senators
Austin Watson, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But what makes Watson so likeable is his journey. In 2019, he entered the NHLPA’s Stage 2 substance abuse program and recently celebrated four years of sobriety this season. “The guys are always good,” said Watson. “I’m not walking around proclaiming anything (about the anniversary). They all find out or they see things on (social media), and I’ve just found the way the world is now it’s great to see how much more open we are about these things and the guys are super-supportive” (from “GARRIOCH: Senators winger Austin Watson opens up as he celebrates four years of sobriety,” The Ottawa Sun – 25/01/2023).

Watson seems to have found a home in Ottawa, and given his grit and defensive skills, the Senators need to consider bringing him back. Eventually, he’ll be replaced by some of the younger players like Ridly Greig, Tyler Boucher, or Zack Ostaphcuk, but until then, he needs to be part of this team.

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There are several more players that the Senators should have their eyes on bringing back, such as restricted free agents Egor Sokolov, Jacob Larsson, Julian Gauthier, Dylan Ferguson, and Kevin Mandolese, but these five players should be the team’s top priority to sign to extensions before July 1. With them, Ottawa is much closer to a playoff team than without them, and that needs to be the top priority heading into 2023-24.