As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Ottawa Senators’ offseason.
Ottawa Senators Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
The 2020-21 season was always meant to be a building season for the young Ottawa Senators and the results were better than expected. The rebuilding squad finished sixth in the North Division with a 23-28-5 record but still showed a lot of progress and promise. Youngsters Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Tim Stützle all shined in their first season at the helm of the “Sicko” Senators. As the team looks to continue to rebuild its way back to playoff contention there will be substantial turnover. Ottawa has three veteran UFA’s that they will likely move on from in Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov and Ryan Dzingel.
The main concern for general manager Pierre Dorion will have to centre his focus around the club’s younger restricted free agents. That group is highlighted by Tkachuk and Batherson and also includes Michael Amadio, Victor Mete and Marcus Högberg.
Salary Cap Outlook
Like most rebuilding clubs, the Senators and GM Dorion have a plethora of cap space at their disposal this off-season. CapFriendly has the Sens at a cap hit of $53,048,333 for next season leaving them $28,451,667 to spend as they see fit. This large amount of space gives them the flexibility to extend their young stars and potentially attract high calibre players to build around them.
Major Likely Departures
Following what is a lost season in Ottawa for Stepan after appearing in only 20 games, a split seems natural. At times Stepan was rumoured to be on the move from the nation’s capital. The trade rumour came from the fact that Stepan and his family were reportedly having a hard time adjusting to the move to Canada.
The 30-year-old has declined quickly over the past few seasons and is one of the least attractive UFA’s this off-season. There is nowhere else to go but up for the Senators from the Stepan experiment.
Following his second stint in Ottawa, Dzingel struggled in the COVID shortened season. With the role of a stopgap no longer needed in Ottawa because of the growth of their young guns, it may be time for Dzingel and Ottawa to separate. The 29-year-old has hit 20 goals twice and is extremely effective down the middle. But at the cost of taking ice time from a younger player or free agent, there is no need for a third Dzingel stint.
In the same boat as Dzingel, the stopgap role is no longer needed from Anisimov. The 30-year-old could benefit from playing alongside Ottawa’s young stars and return him to his 20-goal potential if he was willing to take a pay cut. More than likely the ship has sailed for Anisimov in Ottawa.
Major Likely Re-Signings
The Senators’ best player has earned himself a nice contract this offseason and if they’re smart, they’ll make it a long-term one. Ottawa has grown as a team as much as Tkachuk has gotten better every year since they took him fourth overall in 2018.
In three short seasons, Tkachuk has vaulted himself into the rare group of franchise wingers like Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Stone. Tkachuk is exactly what the Senators are trying to be with this rebuild — young, exciting and fun.
Signing him to an eight-year contract extension might be a tall order given the unknown economic landscape in the post-COVID world. Tkachuk signing would also represent his belief in the team’s plan. The Senators did a great job of negotiating Thomas Chabot’s eight-year contract extension and will hope the same holds true this time around.
Besides stroking Brady a massive cheque, the Senators should be prepared to name him the tenth captain in franchise history. Much like his father Keith, Brady has shown amazing leadership qualities and the ability to be a face of a franchise like the Senators. An extension for Tkachuk would be a huge win for the Ottawa Senators this offseason.
The Senators have built themselves up on the wings with Tkachuk and Batherson and both should sign for long-term this off-season. But with two long-term deals on the books in Chabot and Brady, both team and player may decide on a bridge deal. This would allow Batherson to grow upon a career season and also let Ottawa spend more on other supplemental stars.
Averaging roughly 16 minutes a night, it appears as though Batherson will not only be a full-time NHL’er but also a middle-six piece next season. This helps him earn a bigger payday than he would have been projected to nab at the start of the season.
Mete was a surprise addition to the Sens following a waiver claim on deadline day. But he took that opportunity and ran with it, to the point where he will get a deal in Ottawa. At 22 years old, he is young enough to fit in with the growing core and has worked hard to prove he deserves a spot on this squad.
When Chabot went down with an upper-body injury in the last few weeks of the season, Mete took over as the number one guy on the back end. He’s not going to be a number one guy in Ottawa but he can play on the power play, he can play on the penalty kill and most importantly, he has something to prove in that he belongs with an NHL club. That kind of infectious attitude is something Ottawa will want to keep around as a way to keep everyone hungry.
Potential Free Agent Additions
The Senators will look to bolster their backend as they already have their young crop of forwards to build around. If they want to spend some money they could go after the big fish in Dougie Hamilton. If we’re being more realistic, the Sens could add multiple d-men to supplement their current rotation of Chabot, (likely) Mete and Nikita Zaitsev(If he survives expansion). Additions of Jamie Oleksiak, Alec Martinez or Ian Cole could provide a strong veteran presence while shoring up the backend.
Speaking of the back end, Ottawa could see to improve in net this off-season as well. In his first season as a Sen, Matt Murray really struggled with a 3.38 GAA and the goalie rotation that Ottawa went through really held them back as the season progressed. They will likely look to keep Murray as he’s under contract for another three seasons, so bringing in a 1B type goalie could help him somewhat get back to his Pittsburgh prime. Former Maple Leafs James Reimer or Johnathon Bernier would both be good options alongside Murray and should cost no more than $2-$3 million.
Lastly, the Sens could add some veteran wingers to provide a bit of depth that would provide leadership and take some responsibility off of the young core. Guys like Eric Staal, Blake Comeau or Tyler Ennis could be brought in for the regular season and moved at the deadline for assets if the Sens are not yet a playoff team.
This last season was extremely positive and a real step forward for a young, rebuilding Ottawa Senators franchise this offseason. How they build upon that this off-season will decide how quickly they transition from rebuilders to a playoff team.