Things have never looked better for the Ottawa Senators heading into the 2023-24 season. The team has two bona fide stars in Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle, a burgeoning top defender in Jake Sanderson, and the most capable duo of goalies since Craig Anderson. Add in former All-Stars Vladimir Tarasenko and Claude Giroux and you have a team that is a legitimate playoff threat for the first time in six years.
However, all eyes are on unsigned sophomore Shane Pinto. Last season, he scored 20 goals from the third line, including six goals in his first eight games, cementing his place in the team’s young core. He deserves a pay raise from the $925,000 he made as a rookie because of it. However, the Senators have less than $1 million left in cap space, meaning they can’t afford to give him that raise at the moment. Unsurprisingly, that’s led to a standstill in negotiations and both sides remain far apart. If general manager Pierre Dorion wants to get his young center to training camp in a week, there are three ways that this can end.
Free Up Cap Space
The simplest solution for addressing limited cap space is to make space, but as always, it’s far less straightforward than it looks. Using players of a similar age and calibre, Pinto should expect to make around $2 million per season with an upper end of $2.5 million. That means the Senators need to clear – at the very least – $1 million in cap space. That should be easy enough, and Elliott Friedman on NHL Tonight reported that the Senators are trying to make a move or two ahead of the start of the season. But who makes sense to move?
One name that keeps coming up is Mathieu Joseph, who has a cap hit of nearly $3 million for three more seasons. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the end of the 2021-22 season, he was expected to solidify the Senators’ middle six, but last season he was a liability. His possession numbers were some of the worst among all regular forwards, and only one other player had a lower expected plus/minus, which measures where shots were coming from when he was on the ice. He still has value as a depth player, but the Senators could easily replace him with another rookie or minor-league player.
However, it’s hard to believe that there will be many takers for Joseph around the NHL after the season he just had and the cap hit he carries. But there aren’t many other viable trade options. Dominik Kubalik, expected to be on the third line, has a $2.5 million cap hit, while Erik Brannstrom, who signed a $2 million one-year extension in July, will compete for a spot on the bottom defence pairing. Both players would generate more trade interest, but taking them out of the lineup makes the Senators a worse team in the short term.
Latest News & Highlights
That leaves just one option left to make some cap space – dump players on waivers and risk losing them for nothing. Sending Joseph down to the Belleville Senators would clear a massive chunk of cap space, allowing them to sign both Pinto and fellow restricted free agent Egor Sokolov. Yet, the team also risks losing him for nothing, which will be another black mark on Dorion’s record alongside the Matt Murray and Cam Talbot deals. It’s not a great option, but it may still be one of the easiest to make room for a more impactful player.
Wait Pinto Out
As the 2020-21 season wound down, everyone was anxiously awaiting the announcement of Tkachuk’s extension. Already the face of the franchise, he was set to earn a hefty raise from his entry-level deal, but negotiations had ground to a stand-still as he and his family pushed the Senators for every cent they felt he should earn. The stand-off turned into a hold-out, with Brady missing all of training camp, but thankfully, he only missed the beginning of the season after inking a deal the day before the 2021-22 season opener.
After dealing with the notoriously difficult Tkachuks, it’s fair to say that Dorion can handle anyone. In the negotiations that have followed, he’s done amazingly well to keep the deals reasonable; Stutzle’s $8.35 million per season is even starting to look like a steal. So, if Pinto is planning on waiting for a better deal, he might be in for a very difficult fight. He already doesn’t have a lot of bargaining power in that he isn’t eligible for an offer sheet, so if he wants to wait for a better deal, Dorion may just let him. That’s a daunting proposition for a player who could quickly find himself outside the core group very quickly.
That doesn’t mean it won’t end up becoming a war of attrition, though. It’s become a common tactic for young stars to sign their extensions well into training camp or later for them to get the best deal for their future. Usually, it works out for both parties, as it did with Tkachuk, but there have been a few occasions where the waiting game hurt the player far more than the team. With his injury history, Pinto likely knows that waiting isn’t his best bet, but if negotiations fail to progress, he might be forced to hurt himself in the short term to benefit his long-term career.
The last option, and most unpleasant, is to trade Pinto. The Boston Bruins have reportedly shown interest in acquiring him, which makes sense after losing centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. The price, according to the report, would be multiple NHL-ready prospects, with Fabian Lysell and John Beecher being listed as the most likely candidates. Lysell is an especially intriguing target and would address Ottawa’s lack of depth on the right wing. However, the reports don’t make a lot of sense considering the Bruins have even less cap space than the Senators at the moment, and the type of player they need is a top-line center, which Pinto is not.
Still, it’s rumoured that Dorion isn’t opposed to fielding offers on his young center, and if he is serious about moving him, then there won’t be a lack of offers. Pinto is a relatively cheap option that has the potential to become a solid second-line center. Both the Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, and Seattle Kraken are lacking some depth in that area and both have several intriguing prospects that could entice the Senators. However, trading Pinto sets Ottawa’s rebuild back slightly, which isn’t an option at this time.
The Senators are in an unwinnable situation with Pinto; either they cut ties with an expensive but valuable veteran to make room, or move on from a promising prospect before he hits his prime. That’s sadly the reality with a competitive team, as there will be players that simply can’t make the lineup and have to find opportunities elsewhere. Ottawa just has to decide whether Pinto is a player that they want to keep around, or whether they think he can be easily replaced on the open market. It’s not easy, but building a winning team never is.