It has been a busy few days for the NHL. With the college season ending and the April 12 trade deadline looming on the horizon, teams have been scrambling to make moves to prepare for the playoffs or ensure they lock up top free agents. Despite having few veterans that teams are asking for, the Ottawa Senators have been right in the thick of it, making several moves this week in preparation for the trade deadline.
It’s no wonder that the Senators have been able to swing some deals. Since their Mar 28 game against the Montreal Canadiens was canceled due to COVID-19, the team had nearly a week-long break before taking on the Canadiens again on Apr 1. Ottawa finished March on a strong note, winning two of their last three, and though they’ll definitely be rested coming into April, they may also have lost their momentum. With only a month and a half left of the season, the Senators will be striving to make it count, even if the playoffs are out of the picture.
Item One: Wolanin Headed to Kings for Adamio
Christian Wolanin’s time as a Senator has come to an end. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, the defenseman joined made his NHL debut in 2017-18 after starring with the University of North Dakota. Despite several injuries that limited his playing time to 43 games over three seasons, he showed promise in the minors, prompting many to predict that he would finally make an impact in 2020-21.
However, things have not gone according to plan, and after 15 games, he had just three assists and was playing less than 10 minutes a game by the end of March. It was clear that this was not his year, and rather than wait another season, the Senators decided to move him. On Mar 29, it was announced that Wolanin had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for forward Michael Amadio, barely a week after he passed through waivers unclaimed.
Despite his potential, it became increasingly obvious this season that Wolanin was not in the Senators’ long-term plans. With the likes of Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson, and Jacob Bernard-Docker waiting for their opportunity to make the team, he wasn’t going to get any better of a chance than now to make an impact. Yet coach D.J. Smith seemed to have little faith in the defender and avoided giving him important minutes. The emergence of Artyom Zub sealed his fate. After his quarantine, Wolanin will report to the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ AHL farm team.
“It’s a very weird feeling. This year wasn’t working out the way I or Ottawa had hoped. Being sent down to Belleville, I was fully expecting to finish the year there…When the trade happened, I was excited. It’s a fresh start, a new chapter in a city like L.A., and if I can I find my game and play the way I can play I think I’d have no problem calling that home.”Christian Wolanin on being traded (from ‘SNAPSHOTS: TSN’s Craig Button gives his thoughts on the Senators’ North Dakota prospects … Christian Wolanin making his way to L.A. … The Arty Party clears waivers’, Ottawa Sun, 30/3/21)
As for Amadio, he also needed a change of scenery. A third-round pick in 2014, he joined the team in 2015-16 after a successful stint with the OHL’s North Bay Battalion. But after 168 NHL appearances, he has just 39 points to his name. He showed promise last season when he scored six goals and 16 points in 68 games, but with several prominent young stars breaking out this season, he soon found himself relegated to the minors. In Ottawa, he’ll likely be given a chance to play on the bottom six, especially if there are any more trades in the near future.
Item Two: Anisimov Placed on Waivers
Another Senators trade could be coming soon, as Artem Anisimov was placed on waivers on Mar 29. The veteran forward missed the last seven games with an injury but hadn’t been especially effective before going down, appearing in 14 games, scoring two goals and four points. As expected, he passed through unclaimed, largely due to his $4.55 million cap hit, and was assigned to the taxi squad. But with his contract up at the end of the season, it’s possible that, like Wolanin, this move is signaling that another trade is in the works.
There are a number of bad contracts that have passed through waivers already this season as teams look for cap flexibility and try to cut costs as revenue plummets. While the Senators are likely still looking at acquiring some more draft picks, few payrolls could accommodate Anisimov’s salary. But, if they flipped him for another bad contract, a deal could be struck. One player with a comparable cap hit is Shayne Gostisbehere, who was placed on waivers on Mar 30 and carries an AAV of $4.5 million.
No matter what happens, it’s clear that, like Wolanin, Anisimov doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans anymore. During his injury, the Senators called up Clark Bishop, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes for Max Lajoie. Never more than a depth forward since turning pro in 2016-17, he found his niche on the fourth line with the likes of Alex Formenton, Ryan Dzingel, and Auston Watson before his injury. After seven games, Bishop has three assists – one more than Anisimov – tying his career-high in points. He’s been a perfect fit in that role, forcing Anisimov out.
Item Three: Murray Close to a Return
When Matt Murray went down with an upper-body injury mid-March, the Senators’ goaltending situation was thrown for a loop, and only made worse when backup Joey Daccord went down just a few days later. The duo of Filip Gustavsson and Anton Forsberg has been surprisingly solid in their absence, but there are questions about how long the team can rely on that pair. Thankfully, they won’t have to find out, as Murray has finally been activated off the injured reserve and was practicing with the team on Mar 29, while also rocking some new equipment.
As of now, Murray is still listed as day-to-day and there’s no timeline for his return, but the Senators may have a dilemma on their hands when he’s fully healthy. Prior to his injury, he had a record of 7-12-1 and a save percentage (SV%) of .880, the lowest of his career. It’s also the lowest SV% on the team; Gustavsson leads with a .973 over two games, followed by Forsberg’s .927 in a single appearance, and Daccord’s .897 in eight games. After such strong performances, it may be in the Senators’ best interest to explore a tandem situation, which will give Murray some rest and allow the others to get a few more starts.
Item Four: Bernard-Docker and Pinto Sign With Senators
Thursday ended in the best way possible, with the Senators announcing that they had signed two of their top prospects in Jacob Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto. Both were stars with the University of North Dakota (UND) this season, propelling the team to their second straight National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) Championship, and are slated to report to Ottawa once their seven-day quarantine.
Bernard-Docker became a defensive stud in his three seasons on the team and was named the NCHC’s Best Defensive Defenseman. He finished his college career with 60 points in 95 games, including a 25-point 2019-20 season. Although he took a step back offensively this season, he became much more consistent on defense and played a large part in UND’s success. Pinto was with the team for just two seasons, but the 2019 second-round pick erupted as a top NHL prospect this season. He led UND in goals with 15 in 28 games and raked in the awards, winning the league’s Best Defensive Forward, Forward of the Year, Player of the Year, and was named an NCAA Hobey Baker Finalist.
The departure from North Dakota is bittersweet for the pair; although they secured back-to-back championships for the school, they were unable to find success at the NCAA’s Frozen Four Tournament. Last season, they would have qualified, but it was canceled due to concerns over COVID-19. This season, they were defeated by the University of Minnesota-Duluth 2:13 into the fifth overtime period, setting a college record for the longest game in NCAA tournament history.
Now the focus is on the NHL, and the question on everyone’s mind is – will they make the Senators this year? There are valid arguments on either side. Right now, Ottawa has a weak right side defense, and the addition of Bernard-Docker should stabilize a shaky core. But would adding him change the team all that much? Defensemen generally take longer to develop, and at just 21 years old, the 2018 first-rounder has a lot of growth and development left. It’s possible that he could make an immediate impact, much like Brady Tkachuk, but it’s also possible that the Senators’ struggles prove too much for the youngster.
The same goes for Pinto. The Senators need goals, and most of the players they’ve brought in haven’t been able to provide them consistently enough. But there’s no guarantee that the 20-year-old could provide that, either. There’s also the problem in that the team has a log-jam of signed centers, and though the demotion of Anisimov frees things up slightly, adding Pinto clogs it right back up. Many believe that both players would be better served by playing bigger minutes in Belleville this season, rather than limited minutes on a struggling Senators team.
Still, everyone on this team has had to earn their spot on the roster since the beginning of the season. If Pinto and Bernard-Docker arrive and prove that they are able to handle the big minutes, then they will likely be given them, just like Josh Norris and Drake Batherson, and more recently, Zub and Bishop. If not, they’ll still likely get a taste of NHL action, but spend the majority of the remainder of 2020-21 in the AHL, preparing for 2021-22.
What’s Next for the Senators?
The trade deadline is fast approaching, and rumours are beginning to fly around nearly every player on a bad team. In seasons past, the Senators have been big sellers, and they likely will try to add some more picks and prospects, but don’t expect them to clean house again. Their rebuild has finally begun to show fruit, and for the first time in several seasons, their best players are the young core they’ve built around, with the veterans playing more supporting roles. Still, several players could be moved for extra picks and prospects as the deadline creeps closer.
Many fans are also wondering about Jake Sanderson, the fifth overall pick from the 2020 draft. He also was a key member of North Dakota and is eligible to sign an NHL contract. It seems unlikely the freshman decides to turn pro this season, though, as he would become the university’s top defenseman next season and play some big minutes as they seek to claim their third title in as many years.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.