Gymnastics are not only an Olympic event.
On the first day of free agency, NHL general managers and capologists were working financial gymnastics to accommodate roster needs while also juggling a flat salary cap.
Given that Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion was able to acquire two veteran defencemen on Free Agent Frenzy day and still pick up an extra $1 million-plus in cap room, Dorion deserves some kind of medal.
He did it by moving $11.5 million in salary due to winger Evgenii Dadonov over the next two years while acquiring a third-round draft pick plus defenceman Nick Holden, who will earn $1.4 million next season (average-annual value $1.7M) on an expiring contract. In a separate deal, the Senators signed free agent D-man Michael Del Zotto, 31, to a two-year contract with a $2M AAV.
How those two defencemen blend into a crowded D-corps is an issue for later on. For now, Ottawa has added experience on the blueline and committed very little term or money to the additions.
Holden, 34, is a steady, six-foot-four, 214-pound blueliner acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights along with a 2022 third-round pick (originally belonging to Vancouver).
The left-shot defenceman played just 17 games for the Knights this season and entered the playoffs on the taxi squad, but by Game 2 of the opening-round series against the Minnesota Wild, Holden was inserted into the Vegas lineup and was a steadying influence on their defence.
Playing either with Shea Theodore or Zach Whitecloud, Holden posted impressive underlying numbers while playing in 15 playoff games. His two goals and five assists were part of a vital offensive push from the Knights’ back end and blew away Holden’s regular season numbers of two assists in 17 games.
“He’s more of a defensive defenceman with a great stick, great range, just outlets the puck,” Dorion said. “He’s played a lot of playoff hockey over the last few years and with his experience is a guy I think fits in well for us.”
Holden, from St. Albert, Alta., has played 513 NHL regular season games with Columbus, Colorado, the New York Rangers, Boston and Vegas. Holden and Del Zotto are here to insulate a promising young blueline in Ottawa led by Thomas Chabot, although there already questions about providing opportunities for a player like Erik Brannstrom who didn’t play a lot in the first half last season with veterans like Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson getting ice time.
With a contract expiring in 2022, Holden might be ‘place-Holden’ a spot on the Senators defence corps until Jake Sanderson is ready to make the jump from NCAA North Dakota to Ottawa’s roster as early as next spring.
Unlike Holden, whose playoff performance caught Ottawa’s attention, Del Zotto, another left-shot D, has not seen playoff action since 2012-13 with the New York Rangers. The Senators will be Del Zotto’s 9th NHL team. He has played 710 NHL games, with 60 goals and 249 career points. In 2020-21, he played 53 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets, scoring four goals and adding nine assists.
Once a power play quarterback, Del Zotto, 6-0, 195, has not recorded double digit power play point numbers since 2011-12 with the Rangers, when he had one power play goal and 13 assists. He did play close to 18 minutes per game with the Jackets in 2020-21.
Dorion said that Del Zotto, who had other options, was one of Ottawa’s first calls on the day.
“He’s mobile, he’s got experience, he’s a great pro,” Dorion said of Del Zotto. “We just felt he was someone who could fit in with this group. He can mentor our younger players. He’s seen it all -- he’s been a first-round pick, he’s had to sign a two-way contract.
As for Dadonov, 32, he was brought in via free agency last summer to shore up the Senators power play but it didn’t work out. He failed to score a single goal with the man advantage and while Dadonov did contribute 13 goals and 20 assists in 53 games, it was well known the Senators were trying to move his contract.
Dorion said the veteran winger actually apologized for under-performing with the Senators, and was very professional when informed of the trade to Vegas. Why not? He is going to a good gig with a strong team.
While he has an AAV of $5 million, he is owed $6.5M in the third year of the deal.
The Senators entered the free agency period with about $29 million in cap space and saw it grow to $30.5M. How much of that money will Ottawa spend? On an early-evening Zoom call, Dorion hinted that his day would not be over before 10 p.m. ET, a tease that future deals could be imminent, if not Wednesday then down the road.
The Senators now have eight defencemen currently under contract:
Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Erik Brannstrom, Artem Zub, Holden, Del Zotto, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Josh Brown. Victor Mete is an RFA.
Dorion says you could talk about nine or ten with JBD and Lassi Thomson (both of whom will likely start in the AHL). The GM says he likes the versatility of the group “we have puck movers, we have guys who can play the power play, guys that can kill penalties.”
While he said he would be comfortable going into camp with this defensive group, he didn’t promise they would all still be here at that time. He does need forward help and it’s easy to imagine a defenceman or two going the other way in a trade.
“It’s going to be a battle to see who plays every night,” said head coach D.J. Smith on a Zoom call. “We have certain people we want to have here for a long period of time and they will get extra looks, but at the same time you want to win games and you have to dress your best lineup.”
One thing Smith noticed while watching this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs were the large defencemen, especially on the teams that were in the Cup final.
A D-corps that includes the small-ish Brannstrom, Mete and Del Zotto does not seem like a D.J. Smith kind of defence, although Smith praised Dez Zotto for having his game evolve such that he has improved away from the puck. Clearly, Ottawa’s blueline is still evolving.
The Senators did set out to sign a centre through free agency or trade and have now lost a top-six winger in Dadonov. So, expect more moves to come.
On the day, though, Dorion was pleased, and said Pierre McGuire, the new senior VP of Player Development, was a huge help on calls to players and agents and provided added knowledge on players.
D.J. Smith contract extended, Dorion next?
The Senators made more than just player moves on Wednesday. They also signed head coach D.J. Smith to a two-year extension, beginning in 2022-23. There is a club option for a third year as well.
It has been evident with many of the personnel moves and draft choices that Ottawa is trying to build a team that is tough, physical and relentless, to suit Smith’s style.
“D.J. Smith represents an integral component of our long-term vision,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk in a statement. “He’s a tireless worker who has done a tremendous job over the last two years in molding our core group of players into a cohesive unit.”
Melnyk said that Smith is the driving force in instilling the “culture” the organization would like to maintain for years to come.
Smith has led the rebuilding Senators to a record of 48-62-17 in his first two seasons behind the bench.
Smith thanked the owner and Dorion for showing faith in him two years ago and again on this day with the extension.
“We’re certainly in a way better spot than we were a couple of years ago, where you’re starting to see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Smith, whose team missed the playoffs but finished strong, going 10-3-1 down the stretch.
“I think we’re growing together as a group and it’s really exciting to be a part of it,” Smith said. “I think the kids are better . . . the additions today are going to make us better -- and there’s some more stuff that I know Pierre is working on as well.”
Having a coach who is not entering the final year of his contract will help everyone understand the plan, Smith added.
“There’s no grey (area),” Smith said. “You know how that coach wants you to play -- and you kind of form a bond as a group.”
Dorion called the D.J. extension the “biggest and best news of the day” for the hockey club.
“He’s a fantastic communicator, we play hard, we play with energy,” Dorion said. “He’s created a great culture, a culture that’s going to allow us to win in the future.”
As for when his own extension will get done, Dorion joked to a reporter that he would be the last to know. The GM did acknowledge publicly for the first time that there is a team option on his contract beyond this season.
Belleville adds Agozzino
In a minor move, Ottawa signed winger Andrew Agozzino to a one-year, two-way deal. He will earn $800,000 in the NHL and $400,000 in the AHL. Agozzino should help the AHL Belleville Senators, who could use some scoring. Agozzino had 13 goals and 14 assists with the AHL San Diego Gulls last season. The former Niagara IceDogs forward appeared in three games with the Anaheim Ducks, recording one assist.