In a manner of speaking, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion put out a giant classified ad during his closing media conference of the 2021-22 NHL season.
The ad reads: Wanted, experienced NHL players to complement a fabulous youth core. We want players of strong character, but talent, too. The future is fabulously bright. Come to Ottawa and help make it brighter, faster.
Dorion has said in recent months he would love to attract a top-four defenceman and top-six forward to Ottawa’s roster. On Sunday, Dorion openly admitted the challenges of recruiting top-end talent to a smaller Canadian market. He wasn’t joking when he said he is going to enlist captain Brady Tkachuk and alternate captain Thomas Chabot to recruit talent, let players know what a first-class operation this team is, even if it is not exactly on the doorstep of being a Stanley Cup champion. Not yet, anyway.
“When you’re not a team that’s at the top, unless you overpay, they will not come here,” Dorion said, during a free-wheeling 30-minute conversation with Ottawa media Sunday morning. “Whether we like it or not, some players don’t want to play under the media scrutiny of Canada. And, unless you can talk to Prime Minister Trudeau or Premier Ford about their tax structure, that’s another thing that comes into play.
“We are one of the most taxed places to play in North America,” Dorion added.
The general manager said that part of the long process of getting Tkachuk signed last fall was the issue of the Senators committing to building a winner.
“Mr. Melnyk made that commitment to him,” Dorion said.
Now that Eugene Melnyk has since passed, Dorion let on that not much will change in the short term. He met recently for two and a half hours with the team’s board of directors, and came away with an understanding of a continued, shared vision to build a contender.
While there is no interest in spending to the cap as early as next season (unless we can guarantee 41 home sellouts, Dorion quipped), eventually there is a commitment to spending what it takes to be a champion.
“As we move forward, we’re going to spend more money,” Dorion vowed.
“We’re going to now maybe go after higher quality free agents or higher quality players because that’s what we feel (we need). You talk to the players, and they feel that’s the direction we should be going.”
Dorion shared a funny anecdote about the themes of the Senators exit meetings. They were three common topics, he said. One, that the coaching, medical and support staff are first rate, as good as any in the league. Two, the post-game food is excellent (never underestimate the urgency of feeding young, hungry athletes – parents will know this). Finally, three – players want some experienced help on the roster.
Dorion noted that Chabot, in particular, has grown understandably weary of missing the playoffs during his first five full NHL seasons, which happen to coincide with the number of years it has been since Ottawa’s run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017. Chabot is now 25.
“Thomas is one of the better defencemen in the league,” Dorion said. “He definitely wants to play meaningful games.”
In Dorion’s view, Chabot had his best season to date and would have played for Canada had there been NHL participation in the 2022 Olympics. Chabot’s stature, as a long-suffering star, gives him the clout to speak up.
Among the interesting tidbits Dorion shared, he had an honest and open meeting with Chabot after the trade deadline, where Ottawa was once again a seller (although it also brought in Mathieu Joseph and Travis Hamonic).
“He (Chabot) said, ‘I’ve put a lot of faith in what you’re going to do to bring us to the next level,’” Dorion said. “‘But at the same time, picks and prospects only go so far.’”
Senators fans could appreciate that comment. In response, Dorion told Chabot that he might call on his help to land a player or two via free agency or trade. Help sell the player on what a tight group the Sens have, how there are no cliques here. Certain veterans here now (likely Nick Holden and Austin Watson) have told the organization this is the best ‘room’ they have played with.
Dorion’s goal for next season is for this team to play “meaningful” hockey to the very end of the season, challenge for a playoff spot, in other words. Like head coach D.J. Smith, Dorion said he could be more specific about goals once the roster is set in September.
To that end, he would like to have his roster set sooner and possibly play more exhibition games to help avoid the slow starts that have plagued the last two seasons. The Senators will also likely go on a pre-season bonding trip to bring the group together.
Tierney, Ennis and Mete gone; Sanderson wearing a cast
Other revelations from Dorion’s presser: Pending UFA forwards Chris Tierney and Tyler Ennis will not be back. Ditto for RFA defenceman Victor Mete.
Player injuries were more or less covered with the Saturday media availabilities, with the exception of this one: Defence prospect Jake Sanderson, who was operated on in mid-March, reinjured his hand this week and will be wearing a cast on the hand for six weeks. He is expected to be ready for camp.
On veteran Matt Murray, Dorion said he shares Murray’s view that when healthy, he has played well for Ottawa. The problem is, he hasn’t been healthy on a consistent basis.
Dorion named Anton Forsberg the team MVP while also heaping praise on the play of Tkachuk, Batherson, Norris, Chabot, Tim Stützle, Alex Formenton and Erik Brannstrom.
Dorion says he told goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson bluntly: “In 2021, you were probably the best goalie to play for the Ottawa Senators, this year, of the three, you were probably the worst. Find a way to get back to being the best.”
Gustavsson, by the way, was sensational in Belleville’s win over the Toronto Marlies Saturday.
Gustavsson has a one-way contract that kicks in next season.
“There’s a chance that we have three goalies next year,” Dorion said, alluding to Forsberg, Murray and Gustavsson.
Norris, Brannstrom contract talks
Dorion was pleased to hear centre Josh Norris say during his exit meeting that he hoped to get a contract done sooner rather than later, avoiding the kind of drawn-out process involving Tkachuk last summer. Norris, a pending RFA, led the team in goals with 35.
Expect talks with agent Craig Oster to begin very soon.
“Josh would like to get something done . . . we hope we can do something quickly,” Dorion said.
Similarly, Dorion hopes to have a contract settled with defenceman Brannstrom, and noted the 22-year-old had a breakthrough season while stepping in to fill holes in the lineup due to injuries, especially to Chabot.
Dorion’s overall assessment of the 2021-22 Senators: after a slow start, this group “took a big step in the right direction.”