Senators won’t be competitive until they prioritize talent over finances

Tim Micallef questions the Ottawa Senators motives after trading for Ryan Callahan and sending Mike Condon to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the prime of their careers, they might have formed an interesting forward line.

Combine the tenacity and heart of Clarke MacArthur with the relentless grit of Ryan Callahan and the effortless skating of Marian Gaborik, whose smooth strides could make short work of a long, frozen pond.

Today, this trio is linked for reasons completely unrelated to the sporting side of hockey. They are a capologist’s chess pieces. Teammates in the ether. They are business place-holders on an Ottawa Senators hockey roster that is systematically surging past the NHL salary cap floor without actually improving the team on the ice. At least, not yet.

Come October, new Senators head coach D.J. Smith won’t be tapping Callahan on the shoulder to go out and make life difficult for Mitch Marner or Paul Byron.

Acquired by the Senators on Tuesday in exchange for backup goaltender Mike Condon (plus a swap of late-round picks in 2020, a fifth-rounder to Ottawa and a sixth to Tampa Bay), Callahan, the former Lightning and New York Rangers warrior, can’t play any more due to a degenerative disc in his back.

In moving Condon, who was injured nearly all of last season, the Senators effectively clear up their goalie logjam. Ottawa has Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson under contract, with several prospects in the minors.

“We believe we have the right mix of goaltenders both for the upcoming season and the future,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion in a statement.

As with Gaborik and MacArthur, the value of Callahan is a function of bean counting. Tampa Bay sheds Callahan’s $5.8-million cap hit for the lesser cap hit of Condon at $2.4 million, freeing up $3.4 million in cap space for a contending team. Condon’s actual salary in 2019-20 is $3 million.

For the Senators, as usual, there are cash savings (about $2 million) while adding Callahan to their Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR) list. Ottawa is only responsible for $940,000 of Callahan’s $5.8-million salary, insurance covers the bulk of it.

Combined, the Senators are liable for just $2.52 million of the $15.325 million owed to Callahan, Gaborik and MacArthur, their LTIR Line. None of the three is expected to ever play hockey again.

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According to CapFriendly, the hockey writer’s favourite summertime source, the Senators are saving $10.1 million from injury insurance payments and another $5.5 million in salary bonuses paid by rivals before trading players to Ottawa (Artem Anisimov, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown).

Are you sensing a pattern here?

The Senators don’t make moves without taking their bottom line into consideration. While their total cap hit is a pedestrian $65.9 million, well above the cap floor of $60.2 million, their actual payout is an astounding $47.5 million. The cap ceiling is $81.5 million. So much for the salary cap structure ensuring league parity in the payroll department.

On the face of it, this is a general manager’s dream, having enough salary cap room through which to drive a Brink’s truck.

“Our cap flexibility allowed us to proceed with this trade,” Dorion said, “which will also benefit us as we continue making adjustments to create a hard working, exciting team.”

The question is: When does Ottawa start spending some of that room on players who will actually wear equipment and be assigned a jersey?

As has been the case over the past 15 months or so, skeptics outnumber believers 10 to 1 on the streets of the nation’s capital. Asked to name the greatest rivalry in hockey, some wiseacre tweeted: “Eugene Melnyk vs. the salary cap floor.”

This latest move, which makes nearly 25 per cent of Ottawa’s payroll accounted for by the LTIR Line, is surely an unconventional way to spark a season’s ticket campaign. (Possible slogan: Give us your lame, your chronically injured).

On the bright side, imagine that these financial shenanigans were designed to clear the decks for the next chapter, when a more competitive mandate and perhaps new ownership were to kick in. This is the annual daydream exercise in Ottawa, while lying in the grass and staring at summer cloud formations — imagining the next phase of Senators hockey, when the team gets real again.

The hockey club can plant seeds toward that possibility by signing centre Colin White and defenceman Thomas Chabot as soon as humanly possible.

Ottawa Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot. (Paul Sancya/AP/CP)


White, a restricted free agent who has become a fixture on the rebuilding Senators, is expected to be first up. He needs a deal now, but will it be a bridge contract or something more lasting?

Chabot, 22, is the more intriguing case. Though he’s not an RFA until next summer, Chabot is the most important defenceman in the organization, and the kind of player a rival team might target with an offer sheet on July 1 of 2020.

If you’re Dorion, or you’ve been hired to peddle season tickets for 2019-20, you want Chabot signed soon. Lock up your best D-man and send a message to the fan base that hockey operations is more than just a cost-cutting enterprise.

Keeping Chabot makes it easier to eventually sign forward Brady Tkachuk, and some of the other key prospects that Melnyk and Dorion crow about.

Of course, if you’re Chabot or his agent, you are in less of a hurry to commit in today’s uncertainty, knowing there are endless possibilities and massive paydays ahead. The Chabot Watch will occupy our time this summer and fall, much as last year at this time it was all about Erik Karlsson, then a pending UFA.

Since July 1, the Senators have added some useful players in ex-Maple Leafs Zaitsev, Brown and Tyler Ennis. But for fans in Ottawa, they represent a ripple in the stream compared to the losses of Karlsson, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene this past season.

Dorion can promise excitement.

Smith’s enthusiasm could make a third-liner run through a wall.

In reality, the Senators won’t be competitive until they put their money where their prospects are and become kings on the ice instead of in LTIR .


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