The Ottawa Senators made just one signing as free agency signing opened up.
But fans are not complaining - not when it was likely the biggest free agent signing in the team’s 30-year history.
The addition of local hero Claude Giroux caps off a stellar week for general manager Pierre Dorion, one in which he added 41-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat, unloaded oft-injured goalie Matt Murray to Toronto, and brought in Cam Talbot to shore up his club’s goaltending.
Giroux was the icing on the cake, a player that fans in Ottawa and Gatineau once hardly dared dream could sign with the home team. Clearly, the player, his agent and the Senators had imagined this moment for a while – as Giroux’s three-year, $19.5-million contract (AAV $6.5M) was all wrapped up in a bow shortly past noon as the NHL free agent period launched.
Giroux said he was nervous and excited about the move.
Dorion took it all in stride, as one does when on a great heater.
Giroux, 34, who makes his home in Ottawa with his wife and two sons, made it clear he has big plans with his new team.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think we had a chance to win a Cup,” Giroux said in one of his TV interviews, adding that it might take a couple of years.
Meeting Ottawa reporters for the first time as a member of the Senators, Giroux expanded on how good he thinks this young team can be, calling them a “pain in the butt” to play against, with their character and skill.
“With the pieces that Pierre was able to add, and all of those young players had great years last year and they’re only going to get better,” Giroux said, as son, Gavin, fidgeted beside him. “Are we going to win the Cup next year? Probably not, not saying we won’t. But I’m just saying probably not.
“But we have a full year to build on, to work on our game, to get an identity,” Giroux added. “And I think when we do that, that’s when we’re going to start being dangerous. You don’t get an identity within 10 games of the season. But when you start getting an identity and you know how you want to play and what kind of team you want to be, that’s when you start winning games.”
For his part, Dorion said he has been awaiting this moment for years. He told the late Senators owner Eugene Melnyk four years ago that he would love to sign Giroux when his contract ended in Philly and he became a free agent.
As a fellow french-Canadian and native of suburban Orleans, Dorion has felt a kinship with Giroux, citing a dinner the two had in an Orleans East Side Mario’s restaurant years ago.
Finally, Dorion feels safe out in public again.
“Everywhere I’ve been going in the last two months, everyone’s asking me – are you signing Claude? – I can’t go to the grocery store, I can’t go to the beer store, I can’t go to the liquor store. I can’t go anywhere,” Dorion said. “So, thank you (Giroux), you pretty much saved my life.”
The Senators have certainly come up in the world. Notorious penny-pinchers during this long rebuild, they are suddenly spending like a competitive team. Naturally, Dorion was asked if this was related to a different way of thinking post-Melnyk, or was part of the plan. Melnyk had said, years ago, that the Sens would start spending on payroll again when the time was right.
“It was always part of the plan,” Dorion said. “The board that I was reporting to, even when Eugene was alive, they’ve been great as far as support.”
According to Dorion, the team’s board of directors, headed by chair Sheldon Plener, signed off on Giroux and asked Dorion good questions about his roster intentions and spending. He says Plener queried him about Giroux: “Is he a Hall of Famer?”
“Without a doubt,” Dorion answered.
Melnyk’s daughters, Anna and Olivia Melnyk, have also been supportive, Dorion added, and were at the Senators draft table last week in Montreal.
“I called them after the (signing) call got done today and they were very happy for the organization,” Dorion said. “We’ve had a few difficult years here. Whether it’s Alex, Cam Talbot or Claude, they’re impactful players . . . so for us to be able to do this was always part of the plan.”
Giroux, a longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain and former Gatineau Olympiques star in the QMJHL, can play centre or right wing. He was one of the NHL faceoff leaders last season at 60.3 per cent, and is bound to help Ottawa’s young centres in the dot.
Dorion cautions that while Giroux is not the 100-point player of several years ago, he remains productive (21 goals, 65 points with Philadelphia and Florida in 2021-22). And will be a huge influence on Ottawa’s young talent.
“You know, it’s the package – the skill, the leadership. It’s the intangibles as far as wanting to win, someone that’s had long playoff runs,” Dorion said. “As of last year he was almost a point-per-game player. He was the one player a lot of the contending teams were after (at the deadline). To add a player of this calibre to the lineup, when we feel we’ve already improved, was just something that excites us as an organization.
“Let’s not fool ourselves, Brady (Tkachuk) is the captain here, but having someone of Claude’s leadership will help those younger guys, not just on faceoffs, it’s every other thing Claude brings to the table.”
Giroux said he is looking forward to working with young guns like Stützle and the newly acquired DeBrincat, among others.
“I wish camp was tomorrow,” Giroux said.
If Ottawa fans and the team’s hockey operations department are excited, imagine that you are head coach D.J. Smith, penciling in your top three lines that look something like this:
Alex DeBrincat Tim Stützle Claude Giroux
Brady Tkachuk Josh Norris Drake Batherson
Mathieu Joseph Shane Pinto Alex Formenton
The defence already includes Thomas Chabot, incoming rookie Jake Sanderson, Artem Zub and whomever Dorion can find, as he moved Connor Brown to the Washington Capitals in exchange for their second round pick in 2024.
Plus improved goaltending with Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg.
Now, depending on Dorion’s future moves, you could have a roster that won’t just be expected to compete for a playoff spot, it should be in the post-season, making noise upon arrival.
The Senators have not been a playoff team since 2017, but that could change by 2023.
Talbot move was smart
So rapidly have the Senators been grabbing headlines, they keep outdoing themselves to the point that yesterday’s news gets buried. The trade for DeBrincat already feels like it happened ages ago, instead of last Thursday.
And on the day before FA Day, Dorion made another shrewd move by picking up an experienced goaltender to work alongside Anton Forsberg this season.
Subtracting Matt Murray (to the Maple Leafs) and adding Cam Talbot, in exchange for goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson?
In Ottawa, these transactions were viewed as Win and Win.
Talbot is the sort of solid, dependable veteran netminder the Senators haven’t had since Craig Anderson left town two years ago. A little miffed that he had lost his starting job to Marc-Andre Fleury at playoff time, Talbot was ripe to move and Ottawa is a good fit.
Dorion said on Ottawa radio that he thought the team needed a slight “upgrade” in goal. In a statement following the trade, Dorion cited the “greater goaltending stability” Talbot helps provide.
As well as Forsberg played last season for the Senators, the 29-year-old hasn’t been a regular starter in the NHL, having played in just 102 NHL games. Talbot is ideal as an insurance policy and Talbot-Forsberg should be an excellent tandem. The two will compete in camp for the top job.
Talbot, 35, has played 397 career NHL games with a win-loss-tie mark of 201-143-34. His career save percentage is .915 and goals-against, 2.63.
After his recent moves, Dorion still has roughly $16 million USD in cap room, but still has to sign restricted free agents Norris, Formenton, Joseph and Erik Brannstrom.