Euphoria in Ottawa: Senators are willing to spend, changing course from the past

Ottawa Senators centre Josh Norris (9) celebrates a goal against the Nashville Predators during third period NHL hockey action in Ottawa, on Thursday, April 7, 2022. (Justin Tang//CP)

In their darkest moments, all that Senators fans really wanted was to have a normal NHL franchise. 

A team that spent money on free agents, but not foolishly. A team that traded and drafted well, assembled a competitive roster and had a chance to win its share of hockey games. 

For many years, what fans got was something very different. They suffered through ownership comments that the franchise could be moved, embarrassing videos that went viral, the Uber ride disaster, a Melnyk/Out billboard campaign and ultimately a gallows humour approach to the blunders and losses that delivered us the dark ‘Sickos’ theme -- Senators fans loyal to the cause, not because of what the Senators represented, but despite what they had become. 

And now, in a two-week span all of that has been turned on its head. The Senators have altered every preconceived notion about how this franchise operates.

Pierre Dorion, who had been the Clark Kent of general managers, put on a cape and went to work. A Superman-esque bit of business that resulted in moving the contracts of goaltender Matt Murray (minus 25 percent) and Colin White while stealing sniper Alex DeBrincat in a deal with Chicago, signing Claude Giroux as a free agent for three years at a $6.5M AAV, adding veteran goalie Cam Talbot via trade and then locking up their young centre Josh Norris on an eight-year deal ($7.95 AAV).

After five years of missing the playoffs, of never signing the big free agent and of seeing stars like Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson leave town, this was stunning stuff. 

In the big picture, these transactions were not so much Herculean as they were the moves of a normal, thriving franchise, rather than one that was handcuffed in the name of a deep rebuild after 2017. It is the contrast of yester-Sens to today’s Sens that makes it feel like the workings of a superhero.

The ‘Summer of Pierre’ has been a long time coming. 

And if management wants to insist that the recent moves and spending spree were all “part of the plan,” and would have been this way even if late owner Eugene Melnyk were still alive and running the team, instead of daughters Anna and Olivia and a board of directors, that is fine. 

Regardless, the wave of euphoria that has swept through the Nation’s Capital, Gatineau and the Ottawa Valley is unmistakable.

The fun, lively and inclusive messages on the social media channels of the Senators are a breath of fresh air. The ticket office is reporting a brisk bump in season tickets (not to mention the sales of No. 28 Giroux jerseys and from fans online, ‘Hot Pierre Summer’ t-shirts. For the first time in many years, people in the region are feeling optimistic about their team, beyond the overloaded expectations placed on their young talent acquired through trade and draft during the bottom-out years. 

Now comes the challenge of putting it all together. Of seeking chemistry on lines that include newcomers Giroux and DeBrincat, with a defenceman still to come. 

As Norris noted in a Zoom call with reporters late last week after signing his long-term deal, the Senators won’t be sneaking up on anybody anymore. 

“We’re going to be a lot better on paper, that’s for sure,” said Norris, a 35-goal scorer in 66 games last season. “And with that comes a lot more expectations. I’m not going to get into playoff talk or anything like that, but obviously, there’s some buzz around that and everything. I guess that comes with the territory when you acquire better players and your team is stronger.

“We’re going to have to gel and figure it out along the way and grow together as a group,” he said. “It’s so encouraging and refreshing to see some of the pieces we’ve added.”

This is all new territory after the sad-sack days, and yet, again, not out of the ordinary for good and thriving NHL franchises. It just means the Senators are pulling away from the Arizona comparisons. 

On the first day of free agency, even after taking on the DeBrincat contract ($6.4 AAV), the Senators had an expected cap hit of US$53 million. Today that cap hit has surged to $70.8M. Still south of the league’s biggest spenders, but with contracts still to come for RFA players Mathieu Joseph, Erik Brannstrom and Alex Formenton, plus likely another D-man contract, Ottawa is heading north quickly. 

The beauty of the Sens spending is that it made all these additions without messing up the core contract structure. Captain Brady Tkachuk ($8.2M AAV), Thomas Chabot ($8M), Norris ($7.95M) and Drake Batherson ($4.975) are all tied up long term in a tidy, reasonable hierarchical fashion beneath the captain. The bottom line – $29M for four key young pieces (with centre Tim Stützle to be added over the next year or so).

Compare that to the Toronto Maple Leafs with $33.5M tied up in three players – Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Matthews can become an unrestricted free agent in 2024. Tavares is 31 and in apparent decline. 

It’s easy to see how the window for Ottawa to be a contending team in the Atlantic Division is open wider, longer, than that of its provincial rival. 

There will be financial challenges down the road. What will Stützle get? DeBrincat is due a qualifying offer of $9 million after this coming season. Does Ottawa re-sign the scoring winger – just 24 – or get something for him before he can be UFA in 2024? There is lots of time to sort that out. 

In the meantime, Senators fans are going to bask in this glorious summer in which their team came up in the world. They are proud of what their precious Sens have been able to do in the off-season and cannot wait to see it take shape on the ice. 

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.