It took double overtime in Game 7, but the Ottawa Senators‘ thrillingly boring, wildly vanilla playoff run has finally reached a conclusion.
While pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to within one goal of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final cannot be viewed as anything less than a tremendous accomplishment, Ottawa — the only playoff squad to qualify with a negative goal differential — still has work to do.
Pierre Dorion, a finalist for GM of the Year in his first season on the job, and his front office have improvements to make and players to sign — and only $6.67 million in projected cap space to make it work.
Here are six things the small-market, big-heart franchise needs to figure out this summer.
Put fans in the dang seats — all of ’em
Something is wrong when your team president and CEO feels the need to take the marketing of playoff hockey into his own hands.
Yet that’s what happened when Ottawa’s Tom Anselmi tweeted out there were still “lots of tix” available hours before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.
“Very disturbing,” owner Eugene Melnyk said.
Yes, the Canadian Tire Centre sits an uncomfortable distance from downtown, where they’re working on relocating; coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap doesn’t exactly lend itself to edge-of-your-seat action; and prices can get steep for nose-bleeders in a major-league city with a comparatively low population.
But, c’mon: This is hockey team in the hockey-rich capital of a hockey-obsessed country within two wins of a Stanley Cup Final.
After a couple of slow-selling Sens playoff games made embarrassing headlines across Canada and the U.S., an extensive look into ticket pricing and the club’s marketing strategy must be made, while the push for a downtown rink continues.
Erik Karlsson‘s fractured heel alone is worth the price of admission.
Re-sign Pageau and nail down depth forwards
No Senator scored more goals or swallowed more chicken parmesan sandwiches during Ottawa’s eyebrow-raising run to the conference final than Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Pageau is 24. He carries a humble $613,333 cap hit. As a checking centre, he was also tasked with defending elite centres like Sidney Crosby, who was limited to two even-strength assists over seven games. Despite his difficult assignments, Pageau still managed a plus-5 rating, best among all Sens centres.
“We’ve got some chemistry,” star forward Bobby Ryan said. “He’s easy to play with. He goes to work. He likes going to the corners. He likes going to the front of the net.”
Chances are, he also likes raises, and the Senators will need to give Pagaeu one this summer.
While the bulk of the Sens’ top nine forwards and all of their top seven defencemen are under contract for 2017-18, a few depth slots need filling.
Like Pageau, Ryan Dzingel is a restricted free agent who chose a good year to break out and make an impact. The versatile 25-year-old deserves a bump from his current $715,000 cap hit after his 32-point season, but his two-goal showing in the playoffs will keep his pay in check.
Veteran pieces Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly, Tommy Wingels and Tom Pyatt are all wrapping up expiring deals and are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Expect the Sens to replace most of them with younger, cheaper options. The prospects, they are a-coming.
Work toward a fair but shrewd Kyle Turris extension
To think that Turris was viewed as a gamble when he was traded out of Arizona as a poor fit in 2013. Or that Ottawa had intended for Mika Zibanejad (since traded to New York) to steal the No. 1 centre role from Turris.
Now 28, Turris is an alternate captain, playoff overtime hero, and the kind of guy who has entrenched himself in the community. His 27 goals topped all Sens this season.
In 2017-18, Turris will enter the fifth and final year of his $17.5-million deal and will be worthy of a sweet pay bump up from his current $3.5-million cap hit.
Mark Stone, 25, is two years younger than Turris and carries an identical cap hit. A takeaway fiend, Stone will hit restricted free agency next summer, too.
As a budget team, the Senators must keep expected raises for Stone and top-four defenceman Cody Ceci (RFA 2018) in mind when negotiating Turris’ extension.
Looming over all long-term deals given to this roster is Karlsson’s break-the-bank free agency in 2019. Dorion will be mindful.
While Turris may be more valuable than Bobby Ryan, giving him Bobby Ryan money ($7.25-million cap hit) is too risky. Something around $6 million per season seems reasonable.
Decide how desperately they want to keep Mike Condon
Starter Craig Anderson may be one of the world’s 10 best goalies. He’s also 36 years old and will be entering the last year in his deal.
Andrew Hammond, 29, is under contract, too, but he’s been spotty at best.
Mike Condon, 27, appears to be entering his prime. The No. 2 played 27 consecutive games for Ottawa this season when Anderson attended to his wife, Nicolle, who is battling a rare form of cancer. We believe the Senators would not have made the playoffs had Condon’s performance over that stretch not been spectacular.
Condon will turn UFA on July 1 and is due a raise from his $680,000 salary.
How badly does the Massachusetts native want to test the open market in search of a franchise where he could battle for a No. 1 role?
How badly does Ottawa want to keep him around as a security blanket and possible successor for Anderson? (That answer should be “very.”)
If playing time is Condon’s priority, only a handful of better opportunities, outside of Ottawa, might be out there: Calgary, Vegas, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Winnipeg.
Who’s to say remaining patient and playing behind a defence-first system like Ottawa’s isn’t the best play here?
Build off Chabot interest to inject hype around October
A late first-round draft choice in 2015, defenceman Thomas Chabot is a prospect to drool over.
En route to a QMJHL championship, the 20-year-old led the Saint John Sea Dogs with 23 points in 18 playoff games from the back end, logging more than a half-hour some nights.
“My goal at the start of the [2016-17] year was to play in the NHL,” Chabot told the Sportsnet panel at the Memorial Cup (watch below). “[The Senators] told me I’m a good player with the puck, but the thing I gotta work on is in my own zone, playing stronger on pucks and harder in the corners.
“I’m trying to be a better two-way defenceman.”
Add Chabot to highly touted centres Logan Brown and Colin White, and the Sens are blessed with exciting talents that will push for jobs in training camp.
Their entry-level deals can be used to keep costs low, but their fresh energy should also be leaned upon to market the 2017-18 season.
Prepare the Neil retirement ceremony
The hard truth is fan favourite Chris Neil is slow and hardly used, even when the Senators are besieged with injuries. The tough, passionate winger will be 38 when the 2017-18 season kicks off and doesn’t have a job yet.
We’d be surprised to see Neil extend his playing career but wouldn’t blink if, like long-serving peers Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips, he remained employed by the club in some sort of office capacity.
“I want to be in the lineup, contributing and helping out,” Neil told Sportsnet’s Dan Robson. “But I look back on when I first came into the league, and there were older guys who were sitting out. It’s just the way the clock goes.”