Among the many curiosities of this Ottawa Senators season is the hot run of pending free agents.
The list of the team’s top scorers is dominated by players in need of contracts: Mainstay Jean-Gabriel Pageau (UFA) leads the club with 13 goals and 19 points in 24 games.
Connor Brown (RFA), one of four ex-Leafs on the roster, has 14 points.
That ties him with defenceman Thomas Chabot, extended in September to an eight-year, $64-million contract and Brady Tkachuk, who does not reach RFA status until 2021 but the sooner he is signed the better.
Herein lies the dilemma for general manager Pierre Dorion as this critical season progresses, with an eye toward a slew of incoming 2020 draft picks: Who stays and who goes on this current place-holding roster? For those considered part of the future of the rebuilding team, how long should he commit?
Getting Chabot done was significant, as it sent a signal to the fan base that the organization would keep its brightest young stars. Never mind that Chabot has had some ups and downs this season, including just four power-play points and zero goals with the man advantage despite being the power-play quarterback. Chabot is too skilled, too smooth a skater not to rebound.
Some are already questioning, though, the six-year, $28.5-million contract for Colin White, 22, Ottawa’s second first-round pick of 2015 (21st overall).
Pencilled in as a top-line centre to start the season, at least until Logan Brown matures, White was coming off a 14-goal, 41-point season in 71 games played in 2018-19, his first full NHL season.
This year has been hellish for the young centre, recently shifted to wing on the third line as a way to get him going. White did see 16:48 of ice time in Monday’s 1-0 loss in Columbus and had a couple of shots on goal. He took five faceoffs and lost four of them.
Overall, he has two goals and three assists in 17 games, while losing time to a hip-flexor injury. He has played one game in Belleville as a conditioning stint. Some feel he could use a development stint in the AHL as well, although it would take some guts to send him down with that new contract.
The White signing is a good example of how tricky it can be to extend very young players to long-term deals. There is the risk of a player getting surpassed by other prospects in the system.
This brings us back to Ottawa’s pending unrestricted and restricted free agents, more than a dozen in all. Add in players like Tyler Ennis (UFA), Dylan DeMelo (UFA), Mark Borowiecki (UFA), Chris Tierney (RFA), Nick Paul (RFA) and more, and it’s easy to see Dorion playing that old hockey- and baseball-cards game from the schoolyards: “Got ‘im, need ‘im, don’t want ‘im.”
Most of the UFAs are predictable, either a hard no or a short-term add. Pageau, though, in his prime at 27, remains a fascinating case. The organization would love to keep this fan favourite who is breaking out with a career year, but has to consider that the future role for Pageau would be further down the lineup than his current top centre role by default.
At the right price and term, Pageau could be a gem as a two-way centre and penalty killer with a playoff pedigree and penchant for scoring short-handed goals. But from his perspective, who would blame him for trying to cash in his current hot streak with a longer contract, even if it means moving?
With the RFAs, Dorion has options, of course. Even here, though, there is intrigue. What if he is able to sign Duclair to a contract for a few years at a club-friendly rate because Duclair recognizes this is the first team and coach (D. J. Smith) to believe in him? Just 24, Duclair is so well-travelled he would have earned the name ‘Suitcase’ in a different era. Ottawa is his fifth NHL team. It would make sense for him to settle in a place where he has found his game, earned his coach’s trust.
From management’s side, the price has to be right. Like an investor in the stock market, Dorion would do well not to “buy high.” With Pageau and Duclair firing up goals and points among the league’s best during the month of November, patience is a wise course of action at the moment.
If the GM can set the groundwork for a judicious signing or two of his pending free agents before the late February deadline, he will have a better idea which assets to part with in trades.
In other words, we suggest a cooling-off period, in more ways than one.
Going nowhere, slow
Late last week, the National Capital Commission revealed its master concept plan for developing LeBreton Flats, but there remains little chance the Senators would move to a new downtown arena anytime soon. While the NCC did leave room for a so-called “events centre” that could one day house an NHL arena, there is an understanding that the current Senators owner, Eugene Melnyk, has no intention of moving his team from Kanata.
City of Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said it would take a change in ownership, a change of heart by Melnyk, or the NHL stepping in to steer the club to a more central location.
The LeBreton Flats, a 55-acre block of land west of Parliament Hill, is expected to be developed in phases over the next decade or more. As always, stay tuned for future developments.