Senators GM Pierre Dorion exudes optimism ahead of critical off-season

Senators GM Pierre Dorion touches a bit on his off-season plan, says he's done the research on how to successfully rebuild, and says he will continue to surround this young, talented core with quality character pieces.

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion is known to be a cup half-full kind of guy.

Only rarely does that cup get tossed in reaction to an overtime disappointment.

On balance, Dorion is effervescent about the state of his team’s rebuild — and that optimism was on full display in his closing media availability Friday morning.

“I think, as a team, we took a big step forward,” Dorion said, on a Zoom call with reporters. “We feel we’re definitely headed in the right direction. We had a difficult start, faced a lot of adversity, but through that adversity I thought we built a lot of character.

“The biggest thing for us was the development of our young players, which happened. At the same time we became a very difficult team to play against, which was one of our goals this year.”

Dorion made a point of sharing the message he delivered to Ottawa players the previous day before they left the Canadian Tire Centre for the summer. He told them he was extremely proud of how hard they practised all season, and how hard they played despite missing the playoffs — through to Game 56 of the regular season, an overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In an upbeat, wide-ranging dialogue with media that approached 40 minutes in length, there were several interesting storylines. And a few news items.

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Zub gets a two-year deal

Dorion used the availability to announce a new contract for defenceman Artem Zub, the KHL veteran but NHL rookie who stepped in to be a pillar of stability on Ottawa’s blueline. Zub’s two-year deal has an AAV of $2.5 million.

“He’s a very good defensive defenceman,” Dorion said, while admitting the organization wasn’t sure what they were getting when he first arrived in camp. “Once he got into the lineup, I think he just brought some stability. I think he’s going to be on the Russian Olympic team . . . he’s a good penalty killer, he gaps up extremely well and he can play against the other teams’ top lines. He was a good addition.”

No argument there.

Help for Matt Murray

Dorion also announced the team would likely not offer a new contract to goaltender Marcus Hogberg, a pending restricted free agent. Quite simply, Hogberg fell behind in the great goalie audition in Ottawa this season.

For next season, Matt Murray and Anton Forsberg are expected to be the NHL tandem to start, while prospects Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson, Mads Sogaard, etc. will push for playing time at various pro levels. If 2021 was any indication, those young goalies better be ready to step in at a moment’s notice due to injury or puck stoppage issues.

Gustavsson was cited by the GM as the best performing goalie in a season that saw incoming starter Matt Murray falter, get hurt, then rebound under new goalie coach Zac Bierk before getting injured again.

What version of Murray will the Senators see next fall?

“I think we saw someone of elite calibre once the goalie coach change was made, and it’s nothing on Pierre Groulx (the outgoing coach). Pierre Groulx is one of the best goalie coaches I’ve ever worked with in the NHL . . . he did a great job with Anders Nilsson, Craig Anderson and Marcus Hogberg the previous year,” Dorion said.

“All his time in Ottawa he did an unbelievable job, but it wasn’t working with Matt Murray and DJ (Smith) and I felt it was the right decision to make.”

Under Bierk, Murray had the organization thinking “this is the guy who won two Cups (with Pittsburgh), this is the guy who can be our leader in the back end,” Dorion said. “We have to make sure we give him every possible tool to succeed, but at the same time he’s got to come in here and not have the start he had this past year.”

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Different summer plan

Dorion was extremely busy during the last off-season, bringing in veterans like Erik Gudbranson, Braydon Coburn, Derek Stepan, Cedric Paquette and Austin Watson. The reason he needed those seasoned players was to add leadership to a young room, Dorion says.

Past the trade deadline, Watson was the only one still in the picture, although he was injured. Those vets helped bridge the gap to the youth surge at season’s end, Dorion says.

“On a scale of ten as far as character, they were 9 or 9.5,” Dorion said.

Now that the young core has taken a big step, from Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot to Josh Norris and Drake Batherson among others, Dorion expects to fine-tune his off-season moves. He will look for more skill this summer, to go with that character.

Asked if he might specifically seek a veteran defence partner for Chabot, Dorion said it’s possible, but more likely he would stick with Nikita Zaitsev (“he’s an elite defender”) or Zub in that role.

Dorion said that rookie Jacob Bernard-Docker will also get an opportunity on right-D, and raved about the recent play of righty prospect Lassi Thomson with AHL Belleville.

He added this interesting comment. When Jake Sanderson leaves the University of North Dakota to join the Senators, possibly as early as next spring, the Senators see Sanderson eating up some of the left-side minutes Chabot plays against the best enemy forward lines. That will free up Chabot to be the offensive defenceman he can be.

Not a cap team

How will quickly will the Senators spend to the salary cap?

It won’t happen overnight, Dorion suggests. With so many core pieces on entry-level contracts, the Senators plan to ease their way to a full hockey budget by being responsible in the coming year to allow room for deals for Tkachuk, Batherson, Norris and so on.

Beyond Zub, Dorion didn’t have any specific updates on discussions with his RFA players, including key forwards Tkachuk and Batherson, but he did say on Ottawa sports radio that he is close to a deal with young defenceman Victor Mete, a pending RFA. Tkachuk and Batherson he expects to get done this summer.

With so many prospects in the system, Dorion did agree that he ultimately can’t keep them all, and when the Senators get closer to true contention, the club could package a few prospects to acquire a key asset for the playoffs.

Dorion cited a quote from long-time baseball executive Dave Dombrowski.

“He said, prospects are good, prospects are nice, but they’re not all going to play and at some point in time you have to move some of them to take the next step,” Dorion said. “I don’t know David Dombrowski at all but I respected that quote and it’s something that always stuck with me.

“At some point in time, we might need to do something like that. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

As for the Seattle expansion draft, Dorion expressed doubt in moving players to avoid exposing his roster.

“Why lose two or three assets when you’re going to lose one,” Dorion said, pointing to the club’s philosophy regarding the 2017 Vegas Golden Knights draft. That one cost Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot, who was flipped to Dallas.

“I’m not saying that’s exactly what we’re going to do but that’s the way we’re thinking about it,” Dorion said.

‘Süperstar’ Stützle

Dorion hinted that he feels rookie forward Tim Stützle will remain on the wing next season, instead of moving over to the centre position of his youth hockey days in Germany.

“I think we saw someone who will be a superstar,” Dorion said, admitting the 19-year-old hit a bit of a wall in the second half of the season. “He never stopped working.

“What we like a lot about him is that, on top of being a top talent, he’s got a lot of character — he’s really driven to be the best player he can be.”

Dorion, Smith need deals

Both Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith are heading into the final year of their contracts. Dorion heaped praise on Smith’s work developing Ottawa’s young talent and creating a culture steeped in work ethic and aggressive play. So, you know the GM wants to extend Smith.

But Dorion may wait until his own deal gets done. While there have been no discussions, Dorion said during a radio interview that he was here for the difficult part, the depths of the rebuild. And he would certainly like to remain in charge as the team gets more competitive.

“I want to be here for the next ten years,” Dorion said.

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Safe harbour in Atlantic Division?

Dorion thinks the Senators have a better chance to be more competitive as they move back to the more familiar Atlantic Division, after a temporary stay in the Canadian North Division, due to the pandemic.

His argument is based on the fact that all the Canadian teams were at or near the salary cap, which made it difficult for a rebuilding team like the Senators to compete (tell that to the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, who had losing records against Ottawa).

Both Dorion and Smith consider the Atlantic, which includes the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings, as having teams that are “rebuilding and retooling” more along the lines of the Senators.

“I think it gives us a better competitive advantage playing in the normal Atlantic Division next year,” Dorion says.

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