This has been another interesting summer for the Ottawa Senators, a team that finished dead last in the NHL in 2018-19 and fired head coach Guy Boucher before it was over. Despite their finish, Ottawa only drafted 19th overall in Round 1 because it surrendered its own pick to secure forward Brady Tkachuk in the 2018 draft.
In a one-on-one interview, general manager Pierre Dorion discussed with Sportsnet’s Wayne Scanlan his off-season moves, his notoriously low roster payroll and why he is so bullish on the upcoming season with new coach D.J. Smith behind the bench.
Sportsnet: Pierre, how would you characterize this off-season as far as the Ottawa Senators are concerned?
Pierre Dorion: It’s been a very productive off-season. I think we’ve made a lot of changes. Right from the end of the year until now, the first and biggest thing was the hiring of (head coach) D.J. Smith. We hired someone we feel is going to grow with these players. And someone who’s going to set the culture where we need it to be for us to have a lot of success going forward.
I think the other thing we’ve done, while we’ve created opportunity for young players, at the same time we’ve brought in veterans, guys we feel are going to help these young players grow and develop. And we made some trades that will help us short term but also in the long term — the trade we made with Toronto in getting Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown (for Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur), as well as the trade for Artem Anisimov, who we feel will play really well in our system.
SN: Is your work nearly done for the summer?
Dorion: Honestly, I don’t think your work is ever done as a GM. We don’t expect to be too busy right now. The Anisimov trade (for Zack Smith) came pretty quickly, in the second week of July we really started getting into the details of it. And just a week ago or so the Ryan Callahan trade (for Mike Condon). We’re about a month away from rookie camp. I think it starts Sept. 6. So, we’re looking forward to it, but our work is never done.
SN: What is the latest on the Colin White contract discussions?
Dorion: Respectfully, I don’t think we want to get into details about our negotiations for the simple reason that for us, it makes it harder negotiating through the public. But we want to tell our fans we know the importance of keeping our young core here for the long term. And we know that includes (Thomas) Chabot, White, (Brady) Tkachuk.
SN: Is there a chance Chabot could also get done this summer or fall, despite the fact he doesn’t become an RFA until next summer?
Dorion: I’m pretty much going to give you the same answer, but we’ve had discussions.
SN: A lot of fans feel the organization isn’t constructing a true rebuild until some of these young players sign long-term deals? Would you concur?
Dorion: Our fans are really important to us. We all want the same things. We all want our young players to be here on long-term deals. We want them developing and growing together. Winning together. But the most important thing for us this year is making sure our young players do grow, and are surrounded by good veterans. And whether they’re here in the NHL, or the American League, they’re always progressing. That’s the most important thing we’re trying to do here … so when they get to the NHL, they’re ready to contribute and help us win.
SN: As a competitive hockey guy, how much does it pain you to have an actual payroll in the neighbourhood of $47.5 million (plus three LTIR players, including Callahan), when you have to compete against payrolls as high as $80 million-plus?
Dorion: First and foremost, the most important thing to us is the Ottawa Senators and making sure our team continues to improve and get better. I think you’d agree with me, spending to the cap right now would do us no good. We have the cap flexibility to sign this core group of young players going forward and that’s what we have to focus our attention on.
SN: How soon can that happen? Owner Eugene Melnyk has mentioned 2021 as the start of Ottawa’s higher spending and what he termed a run of “unparalleled success.”
Dorion: Eugene has put it on me to determine when the time will be to spend to the cap. He has been extremely supportive. The one thing with the plan that we have, we can’t rush it, we can’t take shortcuts, as tempting as they may be. We talk regularly, and when it comes time, we will pay our younger players.
SN: What excites you the most about the upcoming season?
Dorion: That’s probably the most fun question to answer in all this. First and foremost, D. J. Smith, he’s got an infectious personality. He’s going to make these players play hard, he’s going to make them accountable. I talked to him this morning for about 45 minutes, and I don’t think I’ve been more pumped about doing what I have to do today. He just brings a joy to the game of hockey with his personality.
The other thing that excites us is the turnover on our roster. Not just the young players but the veterans. It’s a significant difference, and we’re trying to do this the proper way, adding quality, character core guys. Their mentorship can be valuable for our team success moving forward.
SN: How big a difference can Smith and his staff make in the team’s overall play?
Dorion: I think it’s going to be a massive difference. D.J. and his staff are going to bring — they’re not going be radical changes but they’re going to be changes, where our players play for one another and we’ve got a team that’s going to play with a lot of energy.
I don’t think it’s going to be measured all the time with wins and losses. But what we want to see from a management side, and what I think our fans want to see, is significant progression and we feel that’s going to happen this year.
SN: Smith has been talking about improving the way Ottawa players “track the puck” (citing the Boston Bruins as an example). Is that something that registers with you?
Dorion: Yes, it definitely registers with us. I think you’re going to see a big difference with our back-checking, in our tracking. How we play in our own end, with our centremen almost being like a third defenceman down low. Our scoring chances, I think, are going to come from different areas than they have in the past. But when you track the puck, and get on the opposition quicker before they get in the zone, or when they’re entering the zone, I think it’s going to really show to our fans that we are committed to a winning type of hockey and better defensive hockey. And we need to do that. When you give up the most goals against (302) last year, and we were pretty high up there the previous year (291), we have to really bear down on play without the puck.
SN: What are your expectations for this group this season?
Dorion: For us — our management group and me as GM — this is probably the most excited I’ve been. I just feel with the turnover we’ve had, the veterans we’ve brought in, combined with the young players, the new coaching staff, the chance for our young players to grow, whether here or in Belleville — personally I don’t think I’ve been more excited about a season. This is one summer I feel is dragging on. I almost wish it was Sept. 6 today so we could start with rookie camp and get on with training camp and exhibition games and play our first game against Toronto on Oct. 2.
I know good things are ahead. And we feel really positive about this group of players.
SN: This isn’t on the hockey side, but the departure of Aimee Deziel as chief marketing officer is the latest in a long line of club executives who have come and gone. Do you expect her to be replaced?
Dorion: That’s not my place to answer, the only thing I know from being in the office this summer is that our business side is really working hard to get ready for this season and I think we’re going to have a lot of new and exciting things.
SN: How would you market this 2019-20 team? Give us your best pitch.
Dorion: The first thing is, our fans can grow with us, can see the growth of our players. I think there is going to be as much accountability as I’ve seen in the past five-to-10 years. I think we are going to see a totally different team as far as work ethic, systems. The biggest thing is a different mindset. We have a lot of faith in this coach and I think we are really going to see these players progress.
SN: With the veterans added, including Ron Hainsey and Tyler Ennis as free agents, there may be less room for some of your young talent to make this roster, but fair to say it’s not the worst thing to have them develop in AHL Belleville a while longer?
Dorion: Exactly. Let’s say Player X, whomever that may be, one of our best prospects, doesn’t make the team out of camp and is in Belleville til Christmas time. He’s getting valuable experience. His mistakes won’t be shown on Sportsnet every night and he’s getting that experience in the minors so when he comes up here he’s ready to contribute and help us have success. If you put them in the NHL too early, they lose their confidence and you set them back. It varies from prospect to prospect.
The importance of the veterans is twofold — they mentor the younger players and they ensure we don’t have too many young players at the NHL level. If we had 20 players under 25 we’d finish in last place and then you create a losing culture. We have to be careful to balance a winning culture with developing them properly, progression, all these things. We’ve planned for this.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.