There is a certain rhythm to the wrap up of a hockey team’s season.
The end comes suddenly, either in a playoff or game 82, and then the little bits of the season get broken down, analyzed with a detailed look back and a brief glimpse ahead, first by players, then the coach and general manager. All in the flesh.
In this year of COVID-19, all of that is out the window. For the Ottawa Senators, the season ended, not as scheduled on April 4, but on March 12, effectively, although the official announcement came from the NHL commissioner two months and two weeks later, on May 26.
Instead of the usual clear-out session with players in the dressing room, media instead lined up on Zoom calls to catch a summary of the strange season that just passed with a look forward to an uncertain schedule as the coronavirus continues to change lives daily.
So it was Senators general manager Pierre Dorion that met with media, not in the usual conference room just inside Gate 3 of the Canadian Tire Centre, but online from his home.
Dorion was relaxed, excited about having two lottery picks in the upcoming draft, pleased with the growth of his program this season, bullish about the Senators next season — whenever that might begin — and decidedly zen about the uncertainty of scheduling during a pandemic.
Asked how his young roster might handle sitting out for months before a start to the 2020-21 NHL season, which could be as late as December or January, Dorion sounded fatalistic. And he believes the NHL will keep in mind that seven clubs are NOT part of the “play-in” and playoff plan announced by commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday. There is no date yet for hockey’s playoff return, either.
“We have to accept that is just the way it is,” Dorion said in a conference call when discussing the ongoing delays. “The world is a changing world.
“We know 24 teams will have a certain advantage of playing before we will have a chance to play. But I’m sure the NHL will look at it, what can be done, and we are confident a plausible solution will be had for the seven teams that aren’t playing.”
In fact, Bettman did mention a proper “pause” after any playoff, allowing teams to prepare for the next season. Dorion expressed no concern about his young players keeping sharp in the summer and believes the NHL will ensure time for development camps and a training camp prior to the season.
“We know we can’t go into a season without them,” Dorion said of the annual camps and pre-season games.
In the meantime, hockey lives on through video conferencing, the game within the game. Strength coach Chris Schwarz and his staff will get players working on their conditioning programs and Dorion will be meeting with chief amateur scout Trent Mann and other team scouts to plan the upcoming draft — largely online. At least for now.
Dorion expressed no issue with the format decided on for a draft lottery on June 26. The draft itself won’t be scheduled until the NHL determines if it can return to the Stanley Cup playoff series, and when. Sitting in 30th place based on the standings of an abbreviated season, Ottawa has the best overall odds of drafting first overall at 25 per cent. The Senators have a 13.5 per cent shot with their own pick and 11.5 per cent with the pick of the San Jose Sharks, acquired in the Erik Karlsson trade. The Detroit Red Wings have an 18.5 per cent chance.
“We are very happy with how this draft lottery will proceed,” Dorion said. “And we know we are going to get two players in the top six, in the worst case scenario. And best case, [Nos.] 1-2.”
Dorion feels the top 15-20 draftees will be “really good NHL players.”
Draft is key to future
Dorion says the franchise stockpiled picks for this draft — Ottawa has three picks in the first round and nine through three rounds — because he knew this was going to be one of the best drafts in years. Whether Dorion might deal some of those picks to move up in the draft, he wouldn’t say. But the established “plan” is to build for the future.
“We are going to follow that plan, we are not going to rush things, we are going to do things properly,” Dorion said. “And that is part of having long term success and building a championship calibre team in Ottawa if we do the right thing here with this draft.”
The GM says the delayed draft will give his group plenty of time to be as prepared as it can be.
“It’s not a race here, we want to build the best list possible and have a proper plan going into this draft,” he said.
Dorion also provided comment on a range of other topics, including the coaching of D.J. Smith and the outstanding season of the young Belleville Senators, led by centre Josh Norris, named Thursday the winner of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the 2019-20 AHL rookie of the year.
Norris “man among boys”
Norris of Oxford, Mich., was the AHL’s top scoring rookie with 31 goals and 61 points in 56 games with the B-Sens. He also appeared in three games with Ottawa. Acquired in the Karlsson trade in 2018, Norris was named to the AHL first all-star team and the all-rookie team. The crafty centre with a heavy shot turned 21 on May 5.
“For us, Josh Norris just became a man among boys at the American League level,” Dorion said. “For a 20-year-old to win rookie of the year tells you something about where we feel he will end up for us. He is someone who plays the game at an extremely high pace. His puck handling, his skating, execution, shooting ability. He has offensive flair, he does everything the right way.”
“Once he joined our organization after the shoulder surgery, he spent extra time in Ottawa to get ready for the 2019-20 season. He comes from a hockey family (dad Dwayne was a 15-year pro) … and we know we have a future star in Josh Norris whenever he joins the Ottawa Senators.”
Dorion hinted that three or four members of the B-Sens could graduate to the NHL as early as next season.
Pleased with development
While the Senators didn’t have the talent to contend, especially on the road, Dorion was pleased with his team’s style of play and feels the young players in Ottawa and Belleville progressed well as a group. The Senators overall record was 25-34-12 in 71 games.
“It wasn’t a full season but it was close enough that we got a very good evaluation of what was going on with our team,” Dorion said. “We feel we made great progress, we were a very competitive team.”
Dorion said the plan he put together with owner Eugene Melnyk in February of 2018 “has us on the right path and is on schedule for bringing us a lot of success down the road.”
Quiet on UFAs?
Dorion declined to discuss any contract discussions with his pending unrestricted free agents, but hinted that if the team adds any free agent talent it will be for the short term only.
“Last year we added veterans (in free agency and trade) because we felt it would help the growth of our young players and the growth of our team. And it is something we could look at in the short term,” Dorion said.
Smith and staff earn praise
Dorion couldn’t be happier with the coaching effort of head coach D.J. Smith and assistants Jack Capuano, Davis Payne, Bob Jones and Mike King, plus goalie coach Pierre Groulx.
In his first season as an NHL head coach, Smith was a treat to work with, Dorion said, while setting his players up with a relentless style of play the GM believes will pay off as the roster improves.
“D.J. has done a tremendous job,” Dorion said. “First and foremost he makes it a pleasure for all of us to get to the rink every day. I don’t think I have met a person with more positive energy than D.J. Smith. As a coach, he brings great structure, he is a fantastic communicator, he knows how to talk to the older players, how to talk to the younger players, he knows how to get the maximum out of them. And if we can give him the right pieces here, we know he is going to bring this team to a championship calibre team in a very short span.”