Senators GM Dorion hopes to find pot of gold at end of distant rainbow

Pierre Dorion talks to the media following the NHL trade deadline that saw Mark Stone get traded to the Vegas Golden Knights, and outlines his vision for the future of the Ottawa Senators.

Another organization might have built a season ticket campaign on his image.

He could have become the next franchise icon.

Sadly, Mark Stone, the Ottawa Senators‘ leading scorer and de facto captain, didn’t come from any other organization, and so on Monday he was traded away to recoup “assets” for some theoretically brighter day in Ottawa. In the span of four days, the Senators’ forward ranks were bludgeoned – its top three goal scorers traded away: winger Stone, centre Matt Duchene and winger Ryan Dzingel.

For Stone, along with minor league forward Tobias Lindberg, at least the Senators got an A-plus prospect in return with Las Vegas sending Erik Brannstrom to Ottawa, along with depth centre Oscar Lindberg and a 2020 second-round pick (originally from Dallas).

Ottawa also got two conditional firsts for Duchene (along with prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson). For Dzingel and a seventh-rounder, the Senators picked up forward Anthony Duclair and two second-round picks, all of the above from Columbus. A big haul of futures, seeds in the wind, looking to take root.

Brannstrom, 19, a small (5-foot-10, 173-pounds), stylish Swedish defenceman, taken 15th overall by the Knights in 2017, was captain of Sweden’s world junior team. Still a teen, he has stepped right into the AHL and produced – seven goals and 28 points in 41 games. (Check out the Brannstrom stickhandling highlights on Youtube).

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Long term, the Senators may have found the partner for Thomas Chabot in the top pairing. That is, if we can talk with confidence that tomorrow’s stars will stick around when their contracts are up for renewal.

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was over the moon about getting Brannstrom, whom he views as “the top defenceman prospect in the game.”

“The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is pretty good,” an enthusiastic Dorion said at his post-trade presser. “We’ve acquired a lot of pieces … and the best piece we got is today. I can’t express to you how happy we are as a hockey group to get Erik Brannstrom.”

Brannstrom was a world junior all-star, and a “natural-born leader,” according to Dorion.

“Me, as a hockey guy, I’m elated about it. I know when I brush my teeth tonight when I go to bed, and I look at myself in the mirror, I’ll say, ‘that was a long day, but we did something good for the Ottawa Senators today.’

“I’m as convinced about that as I’m convinced about anything else.”

Waiting for Brannstrom, who joins AHL Belleville initially, is going to be an Ottawa pastime. Meanwhile, in one of his first exit interviews, Stone lauded Las Vegas ownership and its “commitment to winning.”

Ottawa fans will wonder if a similar commitment to winning here might have kept Stone and Duchene and Dzingel, and Karlsson …

Dorion says they tried to sign them all, but in the end it’s a player’s prerogative to leave when he has the option.

On his way to signing a deal (March 1) that will pay him US$9.5 million for eight years, Stone said his heart was in Ottawa, and his roots here. He seemed genuinely torn about leaving. But leave he did, on a 6 p.m. flight to Sin City.

A fabulous contract won’t be the only comfort for Stone in Vegas. Assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon coached Stone with the WHL Brandon Wheat Kings. Bob Lowes, the Knights assistant director of player personnel, was the one who famously scouted Stone for Ottawa and convinced the Senators to select him in 2010 (sixth round).

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Turnover is a thing in Ottawa. The Senators now have FOUR players left from the team that reached the Eastern Conference Final in May, 2017: Bobby Ryan, Zack Smith, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Craig Anderson. That once competitive team has been gutted.

Ottawa Rising is this season’s marketing theme.

May we suggest a new one for 2019-20: After the Exodus.

After the Exodus, what is left in Babylon, er, Ottawa?

A handful of journeymen and a band of kids learning to shave.

If Stone, home-developed in the only organization he has known, can’t see a way forward with the Senators, how are fans supposed to buy in? The organization will market the kids. And hope they grow up fast.

Minus the Big Three, rookie Chabot vaults to the top of Ottawa’s scoring list with 13 goals and 47 points. Chris Tierney is next at 40 points. Ryan has 35.

Without Stone, Duchene and Dzingel in their lineup for three games, the Senators have been outscored 9-1. Yet, they were a last-place team with those three, and they remain in last.

The Senators’ marketing staff insist the majority of its fans are still with the team, that the noise on social media comes from fans who don’t go to games, in many cases. Perhaps. Yet, the fan unrest has spread to the corporate world.

Dan Greenberg, whose Ferguslea Properties has been the title sponsor of the Senators Soiree, a major fundraiser for youth programs, recently shut down his Senators suite for two games in a form of protest and fired off a sternly worded missive to the front office about his concern over the team’s direction.

Prior to Friday’s 3-0 loss to Columbus, Duchene’s new team, on the news of the Duchene trade, longtime Ottawa businessman Frank Napolitano tweeted the following message:

“After 26 years as a season ticket holder, I’ve decided that I’m going into a rebuild of my own, restock my wallet for the next two years by not renewing and may ‘come close’ to buying tickets again in 2021. #MelnykOut”

The “come close” comment refers to owner Eugene Melnyk’s claim that the team will spend “close to the cap” by 2021. The MelnykOut hashtag is a campaign launched by Spencer Callaghan more than a year ago, a sort of plea to Melnyk to sell the Senators. Callaghan raised more than $10,000 on GoFundMe and he used the money to post #MelnykOut billboards around Ottawa.

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Napolitano is no Twitter King. He has a modest following of about 800. Yet his tweet generated more than 1,000 likes. Post-trade, blogger Graeme Nichols asked fans on Twitter if they were cancelling season ticket renewals due to Stone – he was inundated with responses – fans not renewing after nine seasons, after 26 seasons, etc.

For many, the loss of Stone represents another landmark moment of dissent.

On Sunday, Keith Tkachuk, father of Senators rookie Brady Tkachuk, practically begged the Sens to re-sign Stone, who has had such a positive influence on the teenage Brady, as a mentor, a line-mate and landlord.

What will prevent Tkachuk and Chabot and other blue-chip Senators prospects from moving on when they get the chance? Dorion insists the team will be in contention by the time the kids mature.

“We can control them (prior to UFA) for many years,” Dorion said. “They are going to be here.”

Chasing Pierre’s pot of gold.

That’s the hope, although Stone saw the rainbow in Vegas, not Ottawa.

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