With their reputation as a low-budget team in a rebuild, the Ottawa Senators weren’t expected to make a lot of noise during the free agency period.
Hold the phone. Week by week, general manager Pierre Dorion has been adding veteran players to supplement his young prospects, as well as to replace a wealth of experience that has departed since March.
Alex Galchenyuk, very familiar to Ottawa fans and the Senators pro scouts from his days with the Montreal Canadiens, is the latest to sign with the Senators -- a manageable, prove-yourself, one-year contract for $1.05 million.
The reaction on social media was swift -- Galchenyuk? Really?
What about those forward spots the Senators were supposed to be preserving for rising talent like Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton and Josh Norris, etc.?
It’s worth taking stock of Ottawa’s depth chart to see where Galchenyuk, still just 26, might fit and how it could impact the talent in the system.
Like everything else, the Senators' off-season game plan has to be considered with the pandemic in mind. What if it becomes more prudent to keep some or all of their European talent overseas and bypass what is sure to be an abbreviated NHL season with restricted travel and quarantine issues?
Bringing in a veteran like Galchenyuk, cheap, gives Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith options, including another experienced forward in case one or more of the prospects aren’t ready, or if a decision is made to keep newly drafted centre/winger Tim Stuezle in Germany a while longer for logistical reasons.
There isn’t much doubt Ottawa bought low on Galchenyuk. He had a pretty dreadful 2019-20 season split between the Arizona Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins, scoring a combined eight goals and 16 assists in 59 games. Dorion is hoping to find a semblance of the player who scored 30 goals for the Habs in 2015-16 and was a third-overall draft choice in 2012.
“Alex’s signing represents another good addition for us at forward,” Dorion said, in a statement after the deal was announced. “He’s versatile in that he can play both left-wing and centre. He’s gifted offensively, has been a solid power-play contributor and is a proven goal scorer in this league.”
After winger Connor Brown signed a three-year, $10.8-million deal to avoid arbitration last week, he joined the chorus of Senators who say they really like the direction of the Senators.
“I think we’ll be a tough team to play against, it’s going to be about scoring enough goals,” Brown said.
Suddenly, with the addition of Galchenyuk, the Senators now have five players who have been 20-plus goal scorers in the NHL: Connor Brown, Brady Tkachuk, Evgenii Dadonov, Artem Anisimov and Galchenyuk.
It’s safe to say Ottawa has effectively replaced the departed offence represented by Anthony Duclair, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Bobby Ryan. The bigger question is how this season sets up the years to come, which are far more important. At least a few of the Senators' veteran pieces look to be placeholders for the upcoming talent at forward and, especially, on defence, where Ottawa has three excellent prospects at the University of North Dakota alone.
According to the Senators’ long-term plan (112 pages!), the 2020-21 season is one in which the club threatens for a playoff spot, but builds toward true contention from 2021-25.
That makes the year ahead critical for developing all of the future core players -- make them earn their spots, sure, and play in a suitable league -- but don’t let them get discouraged by a lack of opportunity. It is a tricky balancing act.
Here’s a rundown of the some of the roster changes and the depth chart rounding into view:
Payroll jumps to $68.2 million as depth chart takes shape
With the chips settling on Ottawa’s roster for the upcoming NHL season, Dorion has spent more than US$26 million on 2020-21 salaries alone since Sept. 25, to bump the Senators' expenditures to $68.2 million from $41.9 million.
While Ottawa carried a payroll of $73.6 million last season, nearly $16 million of it was allotted to injured reserve players who never saw a minute of action.
Ottawa has just one player left on LTIR (Marian Gaborik, $4.8 million) plus the buyouts of Ryan ($3.5M) and Dion Phaneuf ($1.3M).
Dorion has been busy for a reason. Gone from the opening night lineup that faced the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 2, 2019 are forwards Ryan, Pageau, Duclair, Tyler Ennis and Scott Sabourin, plus defencemen Dylan DeMelo, Ron Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki and goaltender Craig Anderson.
Added to the roster over the past month: forwards Dadonov and rugged winger Austin Watson, defencemen Josh Brown and Erik Gudbranson, plus goaltender Matt Murray. For now, that leaves two to three spots for prospects, such as centres Norris and Logan Brown, and wingers Batherson, Formenton and Stuetzle to try to establish themselves in the NHL.
Without presuming we know how the lines will shake out weeks before Ottawa will be able to start a training camp, here is at least a list of how the Senators stack up at each position.
Centre: Galchenyuk, Stuetzle, Chris Tierney, Josh Norris, Colin White, Logan Brown. Something has to give here, obviously. Logan Brown or Galchenyuk could revert to the wing, although both are more natural centres. Stuetzle could be overseas, or here as a C or winger. Norris is still on his entry-level deal and could be in Belleville, although he deserves every chance to make the senior club after a standout 2019-20 AHL season.
Left-wing: Tkachuk, Formenton, Anisimov, Nick Paul. Paul has experience at centre, too, and could be a fourth line C.
Right-wing: Dadonov, C. Brown, Batherson, Watson.
Forwards in the mix: Rudolfs Balcers (currently on loan to the Stavanger Oilers of the Norwegian League), Vitaly Abramov, Filip Chlapik.
Defence: Thomas Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Mike Reilly, Josh Brown, Erik Gudbranson, Christian Wolanin.
Defencemen in the mix: Erik Brannstrom, Christian Jaros, Max Lajoie, Artem Zub.
Jaros, a restricted free agent, has yet to sign a new deal. He has an arbitration date of Nov. 7.
Goalie: Matt Murray, Marcus Hogberg.
Goalies in the mix: Anders Nilsson, Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson. Nilsson is still recovering from a concussion suffered in December, which was a factor in Dorion trading for Murray as his starter and then extending him on a four-year, $25-million contract.