As Senators extend GM Dorion, contract still looms for beloved Tkachuk

Pierre Dorion explains why he is excited to sign an extension as GM of the Senators so he can see the rebuild through.

Any minute now, my ship is coming in
I'll keep checking the horizon
And I'll check my machine, there's sure to be that call
It's gonna happen soon, soon, oh so very soon
It's just that times are lean

— Colin Hay, longtime Australian-American songwriter

Brady Tkachuk’s ship is coming in soon, right?

It isn’t often that a team’s fan base is hung up on getting a new contract for a restricted free agent — RFA players are generally considered to hold few real options and little leverage — but in Ottawa, this is where we are. And where Senators fans have been all summer, waiting on Brady.

Brady, Brady . . . to borrow from the title of a young reader hockey series written by Mary Shaw.

With the calendar counting down the days to a Sept. 22 camp launch, the two sides have yet to come up with a deal — the Senators discovering just how much leverage the kid truly has. General manager Pierre Dorion said on a Zoom call Tuesday that negotiations with the Tkachuk camp continue.

“We talked as recently as Friday,” Dorion said, as he spoke to reporters about his own contract extension. “We’re not going to negotiate in public, but talks are ongoing and they’ve been very positive so far.

“So, hopefully the next announcement is definitely more important than this announcement.”

Who is Brady Tkachuk?

In case you have been living under a rock for the past couple of years (or don’t watch Senators hockey), Tkachuk is a player beloved in this marketplace almost beyond reason. A six-foot-four beast of a left winger who doesn’t turn 22 until Sept. 16, yet has the kind of trench-forged reputation and opposition loathing of a veteran Mark Messier or Gordie Howe. No one wanted to tangle with their elbows, either.

A fourth overall draft choice out of Boston University in 2018, Tkachuk is no sniper, yet he led his young Senators team in scoring last season with 36 points in 56 games. Not many of his 17 goals were things of beauty, they were more like rewards from the hockey gods for Tkachuk’s willingness to dine so regularly on the blue tablecloth of the goal crease.

When Tkachuk lost a couple of front teeth in the line of duty one night, he smiled and carried on, laughing at his good fortune that the loose teeth were stuck inside his transient mouthguard for safekeeping, to be reconnected the next morning by team dentist Dr. Bill Henry. Tkachuk wasn’t home from the dentist five minutes before he was on the phone with this Sportsnet reporter, fulfilling an obligation he had made. Typical Brady. Answering the bell.

For his bravado, for his swagger, for his lust to compete, for his ‘Frank the Tank’ shimmy-shake goal celly, for his willingness to “drag his teammates into battle,” as head coach D.J. Smith says so often, Tkachuk wouldn’t be able to pay for a beer in this town over the next eight years if he should happen to sign a contract for that length — for terms likely close to teammate Thomas Chabot’s current eight-year, $64M deal.

Or, perhaps higher than $8M per, given Tkachuk’s importance to the franchise/fan base and the time that has elapsed since Chabot’s deal.

The organization would love to have Brady locked up for eight years, to the point where management has publicly dangled the captaincy in front of Tkachuk. That is, as long as he is willing to go long, as they say on the football sandlot fields.

“You can’t have a captain on a bridge deal,” Senators owner Eugene Melnyk famously said on a Toronto-based broadcast in May. “You can’t have a captain there on a bridge contract, it’s not going to happen.”

Some context to Melnyk’s stipulation. The Senators have had a history of seeing their captains walk.

Daniel Alfredsson wore the ‘C’ for more than a decade, but opted to finish his career in Detroit after a contract dispute in Ottawa. Jason Spezza was captain for just one year (2013-14) before he asked for a trade, feeling he bore too much of the blame for team defeats. Erik Karlsson took on the captaincy from 2014-18, but was traded away during the 2018 camp when no contract extension was worked out. Mark Stone, Brady Tkachuk’s Ottawa landlord, was thought to be the heir-apparent as captain, but left for Las Vegas riches at the 2019 trade deadline.

So, you can understand a touch of sensitivity where the captaincy is concerned. Ottawa hasn’t had a captain since Karlsson, but coach Smith has said he feels it is time to appoint one.

Both Tkachuk and Chabot would make fine captains. In fact, you could make a case that Tkachuk should be left to wreak havoc and do "Brady" things while the calm and steady Chabot speaks on behalf of the team in both official languages.

I would be fine with that. Most would.

But if Tkachuk IS your guy, he is your guy. Whether he signs for three, four or eight years, if he is the guy you want leading, he should wear the ‘C.’

Otherwise, the Senators are sending two clear signals to players and fans: 1. The organization doesn’t believe it has the ability to sign Tkachuk to a second contract, after a bridge deal. And 2. That Chabot is the backup choice.

Chabot as Plan B for the ‘C’

After waiting three years to name a captain, this is no way to begin this critical next phase of growth into contention — by letting on that you opted for Plan B as punishment to Tkachuk for not playing ball in negotiations.

In a perfect world, that point will be moot, as Tkachuk signs a long-term deal and puts on the No. 7 jersey with a ‘C’ stitched on the front.

GM Dorion extended through 2024-25

While it wasn’t the contract fans were longing to hear — the Brady one — few would dispute that Pierre Dorion earned the added security that came with the three-year contract extension announced Tuesday. As with most GMs, there have been trades and acquisitions that didn’t work out, but Dorion’s record as a scout and draft overseer is excellent. As the architect of this deep rebuild, Dorion and draft guru Trent Mann have drafted the likes of Chabot, Tkachuk, Tim Stützle (part of the Erik Karlsson trade windfall), Jake Sanderson, Shane Pinto and more.

Dorion feels his young group is ready to take the next step.

End of the rebuild?

“To me, this is going to be the fun part,” Dorion said. “The rebuild is over. Now we’re stepping into another zone and I’m excited about the group of players we have, with the maturity they’ve brought or gotten over the last few years. I’m excited about some of the veterans and how they’ve taken a big step.”

Dorion, 49, would have been entering the final year of his contract, although there was a team option for another year. Now, that option is tacked on to the end of this extension.

The move gives Dorion the freedom to operate without worrying about his future with the organization, or looking over his shoulder at Pierre McGuire, who was hired this summer as senior VP of player development. Dorion deserves a chance to see this plan through.

Now entering his 15th year with the Senators, Dorion moved into the GM role in April of 2016.

“Stability is the message that it sends to the players,” Dorion said. “I’m going to be the GM here for the next four or five years. As the head of hockey (operations) I’ve brought in most of these players as the GM, chief scout or director of player personnel, and I’ve had a big say here in many of these players coming along with many of our quality staff members.”

“Stability is important,” Dorion added.

Considering the recent extensions for Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith, plus the hiring of McGuire, owner Eugene Melnyk certainly has his staff lined up for the next several seasons — years that should involve Stanley Cup playoff contention for the Sens.

Batherson skates in Ottawa

Fresh off his new six-year, $29.85M deal he signed last week, winger Drake Batherson was in Ottawa Tuesday, skating with about 15 of his Senators teammates before speaking to media on a Zoom call.

Batherson said that signing long-term was an “easy decision,” considering how welcome he feels in Ottawa, and how bullish he is about the team.

“I think we are just going to keep building and hopefully have a great year,” Batherson said. “We’re all competitive guys in there, we all want to win, so we’re definitely not going to go down without battling every night and obviously try to push for a (playoff) spot.”

With 17 goals last season, the 23-year-old Batherson was tied with Tkachuk and Josh Norris for second in the team’s goal-scoring department, behind Connor Brown’s 21. Tkachuk, Brown, Norris and Batherson were also jammed together in points -- 36, 35, 35 and 34. The essence of Ottawa’s top six forwards is an ability to make plays, but with that shooting element as well.

Last week, Dorion said he could see Batherson hitting the 30-35 goal range if he shoots a bit more.

Batherson doesn’t expect the weight of the new, albeit back-loaded, contract to slow him down.

“I’m pretty hard on myself to just be good every night,” Batherson said. “Every single game, every practice, I’m always trying to get better. I hate to lose — super competitive guy — that’s the driving point for me.”

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