Senators GM Dorion: Injuries, COVID will make for 'a stronger team down the road'

Ottawa Senators' Thomas Chabot (72) kneels on the ice after Pittsburgh Penguins' Jake Guentzel scored an empty-net goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion says his biggest disappointment of the season to date was watching his team get rocked by its toughest opponent: the Delta variant in November.

Sometimes the wins and losses of a season tell just part of the story. After a middling October, with three wins and four losses, Ottawa had one lonely victory in November, a 1-11 stretch that derailed its season. Only behind the scenes, and after the fact, did the organization come to recognize the depth of this energy-sapping, COVID-19 variant called Delta.

Dorion, in an interview with Sportsnet.ca Friday, said he knew something was seriously wrong with his group when he oversaw a 5-1 loss to the visiting Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 4. He watched a team that couldn’t muster a response.

“I remember watching the Vegas game and I said to myself, ‘I’ve never seen a D.J. Smith team, in three years of working with him, be this flat at home.’ I never, ever saw it before," Dorion said. "But the Delta was in us. The Delta was in the guys.”

As he spoke over the phone from Washington, D.C., where the Senators face the Capitals on Saturday, Dorion might as well have been saying “the devil was in the guys.” Such were the ramifications of a virus that ultimately struck more than half the playing roster and members of the coaching and support staff.

The Senators and New York Islanders were the hardest hit by COVID-19 early on, and as Dorion noted, there appears to be a big difference between the symptoms of the latest variant, Omicron, from the earlier Delta variant that hit some players like a ton of bricks.

The players who recently tested positive for Omicron said the symptoms are more like a common cold, Dorion said.

Eventually, the Senators were shut down for a week starting Nov. 15, after a lifeless 4-0 loss to the Calgary Flames at the Canadian Tire Centre. But it was too little, too late. By then the Sens had a 1-7 November, and while recovering from the COVID outbreak dropped four more games in late November.

All in all, a devastating month for a young team that has otherwise shown signs of strength and growth among its young talent. The Senators are 7-5-1 since Dec. 5, and in their last two losses pumped more than 40 shots per game at opposing goalies.

“By the time of the Calgary game (Nov. 14), we couldn’t ice a competitive team any more,” Dorion says. “We never complained, the guys played hard. You look at some of those games, our compete level was always good ... but when you ask about disappointments, you wish you didn’t run into the injury problems, you wish you didn’t have the COVID situation we had, but you know – I think it’s going to make us a stronger team down the road.”

For the Senators, the reach of the coronavirus lingers still. On Thursday, the province of Ontario announced that strict crowd restrictions would continue in sporting venues, with only 500 fans allowed in arenas until Feb. 21. At that point, it is expected to jump to 50 per cent capacity and finally back to full capacity on March 14.

This represents a crippling blow to a budget team like the Senators, who essentially have had severe attendance limits in place for the better part of two seasons. Last year, no fans were allowed in the CTC for the home half of a 56-game schedule.

I asked Dorion how the millions of dollars in lost ticket revenues could impact hockey operations over the next year or two. The GM’s first thought was for all those who work at the CTC.

“I’m not one to get involved in politics,” Dorion said. “First and foremost, you think about people whose livelihoods are affected. Whether it’s people that work the concessions, the security people, ushers, etc. It’s extra revenue, and for some their only revenue – because with no fans, those people won’t be in the rink.”

The Senators haven’t played a home game with fans since Dec. 11. They agreed to postpone several of their scheduled home dates over the Christmas holiday period in hopes that fans would be welcomed back by February. Instead, Ottawa will play 11 home dates before its rink can even be half-full.

“It was great to have fans back in our building this year,” Dorion said. “And having no fans again, the players will tell you, it’s not the same. Our fans are passionate. They are about us. They encourage us. And when you have fan support, it’s a great thing for you.”

Any official discussion or push back against the announcement by the province will be looked after by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and president Anthony LeBlanc. Longer term, it stands to reason this will impact the team’s hockey budget.

“You know what, there are always ongoing (budget) discussions and we’ll see what happens in the future,” Dorion said. “We’ll be ready for any scenario. But, obviously, we much prefer to play with fans in our building.”

The new second-half schedule, which includes 15 revisions for the Senators, will see them play 49 remaining games in fewer than 100 days. This will be an interesting challenge for a young roster with no real shot at a playoff spot, but one that is trying to build toward something special in the years ahead.

Can they survive this grind? Can they stay healthy?

“It’s a lot of hockey for our players, but they’re professional athletes, they’re in great condition,” Dorion said. “We do a lot for recovery. Sleeping is important. Nutrition is important ... they take care of their bodies pre-game and post-game.

“It’s just the hand we were dealt and we’re going to do the best we can with it. And you know, the guys know what’s coming and I think they’ll be ready for it.”

Asked if he is likely to bring up more players from AHL Belleville to help share the workload, Dorion said the organization will remain careful about handing young players too much, too soon.

Defence prospects such as Lassi Thomson and Jacob-Bernard Docker have already had stints in the NHL, with JBD currently seeing lots of action (17:28 in the Senators wild 6-4 loss in Pittsburgh Thursday).

From here on, promotions will be based on need and development. There could also be roster spots open after the trade deadline.

“You never want to put a young player in a position where he’s not going to have success,” Dorion said. “At times, we bring up players to show them how difficult the NHL is to play in, it’s a man’s league. And you want them to understand what they have to do to get to that level.

“We want to give some guys looks, but at the same time it can’t just be given, it has to be earned. And it’s got to be planned ahead.”

Dorion added there is an “internal plan” on certain prospects that the organization would ideally like to see play a certain number of games. Add in injuries plus trades, and there is plenty of potential for movement.

Several UFAs could be in play

Dorion said that league trade chatter has been exceedingly quiet (“Teams just want to be able to put healthy players on the ice.”). But that could change before the March 21 trade deadline. Dorion could imagine talk accelerating after the NHL All-Star break in early February.

The Senators have several potential unrestricted free agents to move, from forwards Nick Paul, Chris Tierney, Tyler Ennis and Zach Sanford to defencemen Nick Holden and Josh Brown, plus goaltender Anton Forsberg.

Will Paul stay with the only organization he has known and offer a hometown discount? Or does he want to test the market?

Is Forsberg worth keeping around when starter Matt Murray has had so many setbacks?

When it was suggested that Paul and Forsberg are “interesting cases,” Dorion replied: “All of our pending UFAs are interesting. They’ve all helped the Ottawa Senators to a certain degree – all of them have us thinking about what role they could have for us, whether it’s next year or the following years to come.”

The Senators had internal meetings last week to go over the pending UFAs and a plan of attack. A lot will depend on outside interest in these players.

“People have to understand, when they’re UFAs it's also their choice, if they want to be here or not be here,” Dorion said. “We’re not going to overpay for certain players just to keep them here, but we’re also going to be smart. There’s obviously some players in that group we want to keep.

“We’re not going to tip our hand. And there’s some players we feel we’re ready to move on from. We’ll see, as the trade deadline draws closer, who draws more interest, and we’ve always got to do what’s best for the organization.”

With 10 draft picks in 2022, including likely a lottery pick and six picks overall in the top three rounds, Ottawa doesn’t have to stockpile a bunch more. But Dorion and his staff will be evaluating the deadline offers to “see what value we can get for some of these players” and then either keep the picks or flip for assets.

Top line, Formenton, Brannstrom lead the pleasant developments

If the COVID situation in November is cited as his greatest regret and disappointment, Dorion had plenty to say about the most pleasant developments he has seen from his team.

“You’ve got to be pleased with the play of our top line,” Dorion said of the emerging trio of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson.

The three have combined for 42 goals, 43 assists and 85 points. Norris leads in goals with 18. Batherson, the Senators' All-Star representative, is tops in assists, with 21. They are big, determined, and Batherson is the line elder at age 23, so this trio could be together for years.

“They have shown they can be a really good first line in the NHL,” Dorion said.

The GM also praised the development of speedy Alex Formenton as a second-line winger, and couldn’t help but mention defenceman Thomas Chabot, who logs more minutes than anyone in the NHL and is so smooth, he sometimes gets overlooked.

“Our good players for the most part have been our good players,” Dorion said. “Chabot is probably someone who would have been on the Olympic team right now (had the NHL not declined participation).

“I think everyone’s finding their niche, finding their role, contributing to the team's success. We’re still in 30th place, so there’s lots of room to grow, but you’re seeing our young core really taking a step forward and that’s probably the thing I’m most excited about.”

Dorion also cited the recent superior play of young defenceman Erik Brannstrom, alternating at left and right defence and looking cool and confident. Physical, even. Which was not something expected from the small D-man.

“He’s played some really good hockey of late,” Dorion said. “You could argue he’s been one of our best players, not just defencemen.”

It has been a journey – injuries and other setbacks have limited Brannstrom's playing time. But “Branny” has delivered in recent games, with offensive contributions and a few surprising body checks.

“I think there are expectations when a prospect comes into an organization, but with defencemen, it takes a bit more time,” Dorion said. “And you have to let them become the players that they are. He’s still just 22 years old. It takes some time, it takes some maturity of growth, whether it’s physically, strength-wise, but also mentally, with the grind of the NHL.

“You’ve always had the offensive tools or the offensive skill to transition the puck, whether it’s with your feet or your hands, your hockey sense, but it’s also understanding that as a defenceman, you’re defending as well.”

Has it been tougher for Brannstrom, considering he was the key piece in the trade of franchise winger Mark Stone to Vegas?

“I don’t think there’s much there,” Dorion said of that theory. “If you know Erik Brannstrom, he loves coming to the rink, he puts the time and effort into it. Maybe from the outside, people might think differently but from what we know of Erik Brannstrom that was never an issue.”

Matt Murray bounce back?

When No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray was unable to start games against Buffalo and Pittsburgh this week – including an anticipated return to face the Penguins team he helped win two Stanley Cups – the feeling in the fan base was: here we go again.

Murray missed a game early in the season with a flu/cold, got hurt and missed time and has twice been on the COVID protocols list (in Ottawa and AHL Belleville). He has appeared in just nine Ottawa games and missed a huge chunk of last season, so it is interesting to hear Dorion say he is “really happy with the way Matt Murray has bounced back” since returning from Belleville over the Christmas break.

To be fair, Murray looked terrific in road victories over Calgary and Edmonton last week, after getting rocked 6-0 by the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Jan. 1, a game in which he had little support. On the season, Murray is 2-6-0 with a 3.41 goals-against average and .892 save percentage.

“The Toronto game, we pretty much left him by himself, but in the next two starts he was a big part of those wins,” Dorion said. “No one likes to do what we had to do (sending him to Belleville), but we felt that it was maybe time for a little reset. And he didn’t get the number of games there that we wanted him to get (because of a COVID outbreak), but at the same time we’re really happy with how he has bounced back. His work ethic is there, a total pro.”

This latest cold virus has hit a few players on the team, and was tough on Murray, but Dorion believes Murray is ready to be good again. He should play one of the two weekend road games, against the Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Murray’s play will be just one of many Senators developments to watch into February and beyond. Dorion said he will be looking for a “constant, consistent improvement” with his young group.

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