Senators Mailbag: On Ryan Reynolds, Smith’s leash, DeBrincat, Heatley, and more

Actor Ryan Reynolds gestures towards a fan as he is recognized during a break in the play as the Ottawa Senators take on the Vancouver Canucks in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Reynolds is rumoured to be interested in buying the Senators franchise. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Thanks for the responses to our request for fan comment and questions. There is lots to talk about around the Ottawa Senators, with plenty more to come this summer. 

Do you think that Ryan Reynolds will be part of the new ownership of the Ottawa Senators? – Alyssa

It sure looks that way. Does anyone doubt he is now the face of a front-running bid? 

All along, I have felt that even if Reynolds wasn’t part of the initial winning bid group, that the successful partnership would circle back and include Reynolds anyway. It just makes so much sense from a business and marketing perspective.

 

Recent events, including Reynolds’ Welsh football club, Wrexham, winning a National League title to move up to the English Football League, have placed a brighter spotlight on Reynolds as he seeks to become an executive partner in the ownership of the Senators. 

Over the weekend, Postmedia reported that Reynolds and the Remington Group, a commercial and residential real estate company based in Vaughan, Ont., are prepared to bid more than $1 billion to buy the Senators from the estate of the late Eugene Melnyk. On Hockey Night in Canada Saturday, Elliotte Friedman said he expected further “clarity” on the Reynolds’ bid this week. Remington is operated by the Bratty family. 

The sale is being conducted through the Galatioto Sports Partners investment bank in New York. With a May 15 deadline for final, binding bids, the long process that began last fall is quickly wrapping up.  

Melnyk died last March and left the team in the hands of his daughters, Anna and Olivia, who could retain a small portion of the club as part of the sale. 

Reynolds’ very public quest to own the Senators has caught the imagination of hockey fans in Ottawa and throughout the NHL right up to the offices of commissioner Gary Bettman, who seems awestruck by the Canadian actor. 

Far beyond the usual cachet of having Hollywood credits like Deadpool and Green Lantern, Reynolds displayed his marketing and operational chops through the Welcome to Wrexham documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at the hard-luck Welsh club rising to bigger things.  

The parallels with the Senators are palpable. Ottawa seeks its first championship of the Senators’ modern era and is in need of the financial and management will to make it happen. 

The offshoots are many. A new arena for the hockey team and a marketing bonanza as the Senators brand goes beyond small-market Ottawa to make international inroads. The potential for ticket sales, merchandise and souvenir items is off the charts. 

The announcement to trot us off to Sweden and remove two home games from the fans is a bad decision. This team is badly misunderstood by the league. Our superstar is from GERMANY where the new talent is. Why not play in Mannheim for Stützle fans?  @nhl doesn’t like @Senators fans? – Andrew M.

It’s a fair point. And I think the NHL will get there, as far as a German trip. Picture the allure of a series of games in Mannheim, Germany — Tim Stützle and the Senators versus Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers. Though Draisaitl is from Cologne, he spent four years with Mannheim’s U16 and U18 programs. As an aside, check out the Draisaitl stat line as a U16 player in 2010-11: 29 GP, 97 goals, 95 assists, 192 points. Mannheim would go crazy over a Sens-Oilers matchup, and Germany is an up-and-coming hockey nation. 

Meanwhile, it is back to Sweden next November for the Senators, along with the Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild. The Sens don’t have the Swedish content they once did, with Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Magnus Arvedson and Andreas Dackell, etc. It will still be a thrill for Erik Brannstrom and Anton Forsberg to go to Sweden with their NHL teammates, but the storyline is a little tired; this marks the third time Ottawa has gone over to play games in Sweden, after series there in 2017 and 2008. The lasting impression of the 2017 trip to Stockholm: two wins versus the Avalanche in Sweden, followed by a terrible November losing streak once the Sens returned home. I don’t see that happening this time, but agree with Andrew that the Sens’ next overseas venture HAS to be to Germany. 

Why has D.J. Smith been given such a long leash? He’s the 7th longest tenured coach in the league and has no success to show for it. – Brody Fallon

You are right. Only six NHL head coaches have been with their current team longer than D.J. Smith, who was hired by the Senators on May 23, 2019. That probably says more about the instability of the profession than it does about the Senators. 

As for how long that leash is today, we can’t be certain. General manager Pierre Dorion, usually effusive in his praise of Smith — “he’s our coach!” etc. — was conspicuously circumspect at his wrap-up media conference. 

“D.J. has a contract,” was about as firm a commitment as Dorion would make, while adding that Smith did a good job developing Ottawa’s young talent during its rebuild. 

“I’m going to sit down over the next little while and debate things internally, but I think what we’ve asked of him he’s delivered on,” Dorion said of Smith. “And at that point in time I’ll make my recommendation.”

That comment leaves a lot of wiggle room to either bring Smith back or part ways with the only coach that many of these young Senators have known in the NHL. It could be as simple as this — Dorion wants to wait until the new franchise owners are in place, or let their feelings be known just prior to the official transition about the direction for next season as far as management and coaching staff. Dorion has two years left on his deal. At the very least, I think we can expect tweaks in the coaching staff, if not a complete overhaul. 

Smith brought the team to within six points of a playoff spot after missing by 27 points the year before, when 100 points was the wild-card barrier. At their best, the Senators could play with anyone. However, there were wild swings of inconsistency where Ottawa was outplayed and prone to defensive zone miscues during 5-on-5 play. 

Debrincat is a mistake. I know a lot of Sens fans don’t agree, but if they don’t sign him it’s all for nothing. If he signs, someone (maybe two) will have to go, otherwise they’ll be in cap hell. I don’t think he meshes well with the team, either – Scott

I think it’s too early to declare the Alex DeBrincat acquisition from Chicago a “mistake.” Let’s see how these chips play out. Dorion has said he would qualify DeBrincat (at $9 million) next season, even if the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal. 

However, if it becomes clear that DeBrincat doesn’t want to stay in Ottawa or can’t agree on terms, look for Dorion to try to get some assets in return, sooner rather than wait till the 2024 trade deadline. 

To get DeBrincat, the Sens gave up a first and second-round pick in 2022 plus a third-round draft choice in 2024. In a trade, Ottawa could at the very least get a package of picks and a prospect for DeBrincat, or could opt for taking a shot at a player of similar value to help the club right away. 

A long-term deal here is tricky, because of the $8M-plus salaries already committed to core players like Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle and Thomas Chabot. Plus, Jake Sanderson must be signed. 

Where does DeBrincat fit in, as far as the hierarchy of contracts? 

It’s tricky. And yet, these are the kind of pleasant problems Senators fans once dreamed about. 

Think back to the delirium in the marketplace last summer when the Senators picked up DeBrincat and signed Claude Giroux as a free agent. Finally, the Sens were taking a shot at elite players!

At 25, DeBrincat  is already a proven 40-goal scorer in the league and we have to think this season (27 goals, 66 points in 82 games) was an aberration. 

Consider his shooting percentage stats. Other than 2019-20 when he dipped to 8.7 per cent, DeBrincat scored on 15 to 20 per cent of his shots while with the Blackhawks from 2017-2022. This season, his shooting percentage with Ottawa was 10.3 per cent. 

In plus-minus, he was never worse than minus-13 with Chicago; this season he was minus-31. 

DeBrincat is going to bounce back. Somewhere. I don’t think there is much doubt about that. 

You say you don’t think he “meshes well” with the team. Now, we are only in the room for brief periods after practices and games, but from what we observed, DeBrincat meshes extremely well with his Ottawa teammates. 

A lasting memory from this past season: teammates making “meow-meow” cat imitations while DeBrincat spoke to the media following a big game. He couldn’t stop grinning about the background sounds. On the ice, DeBrincat meshed well enough to get glorious chances, which he didn’t convert often enough. 

In sum, DeBrincat wasn’t the cat’s meow all season, but he is going to be purring again in the near future. Will it be in Ottawa?

Any type of Heatley return to the fold is a mistake. Do you agree? – Jim Boone

To quote Daniel Alfredsson, “not really.” While I don’t imagine Dany Heatley coming back to work for the organization, I would like to see him return as part of a tribute to the 2007 Stanley Cup finalist team or to be honoured individually for his two historic 50-goal seasons. 

Heatley didn’t leave on the best of terms in 2009, but he was hardly alone on that score. The trade that Bryan Murray was forced to make that fall actually worked out pretty well, with Milan Michalek producing 115 goals and 224 points during his time in Ottawa. 

Time heals wounds. And the time is right for Heatley to be welcomed back. If Alexei Yashin could return in 2017 for the alumni game held in conjunction with the NHL 100 Classic game between the Sens and Canadiens at Lansdowne Park, then Heatley can certainly come home. 

Who doesn’t love the story of the prodigal son?

Other than salary investment, what are some of the biggest changes since former owner Eugene Melnyk’s passing — particularly off-ice? – Pat Byrne

A random staff member at the Canadian Tire Centre would give an interesting answer to this question. From my perspective, it is night versus day. A sweep of fresh air. Employees are more free to express themselves, to be themselves. Melnyk’s daughters, Anna and Olivia, made it clear they wanted the franchise to have more of a presence on social media and to be more inclusive. That was evident this year as the Sens held a successful Pride Night, embraced by the organization and its staff. Head coach D.J. Smith wore a rainbow cap at his morning availability and most of the players used rainbow tape on their sticks during the warmup.

These are all things that would not have happened in the Melnyk era. 

Alumni have been welcomed back in a way that wasn’t happening in previous years. Most notably, the hockey team got behind the endorsement of Daniel Alfredsson for the Hockey Hall of Fame and Alfie felt comfortable returning to the rink for the first time in years. Chris Phillips, who had left the team’s foundation group, returned to an executive position with the club, as VP of business operations. Alfredsson is likely returning soon in a new capacity under new team ownership. 

We could go on and on. In the next phase, the new owners will bring tremendous financial resources and a renewed push to return the Senators to Stanley Cup contention in the years ahead. What a time to be alive and live in Ottawa. 

Wayne, why has the trade of Nick Paul for Joseph gone under the radar so much? Surely it wasn’t the money why Paul was traded. – Owen Kelly

I’m not sure the Nick Paul-Mathieu Joseph trade has exactly flown under the radar. It has been a lively topic on social and mainstream media, and we certainly chat about it in the press box I can tell you. To review, Mathieu Joseph and a fourth round draft pick in 2024 were acquired by the Senators in a trade for Paul at the 2022 trade deadline. Initially, Joseph hit the ground running. He was fast, killed penalties and produced four goals and 12 points in the 11 games he played for the Senators to finish off that season. Who could have guessed he would only have three goals and 18 points the entire 2022-23 season?Joseph, 26, suffered injuries and only played 56 games, but when he was in the lineup Joseph was inconsistent and didn’t always display the best hockey sense. 

Paul, 28, slumped toward the end of the season and into the first playoff round, but scored a huge goal in Game 5 versus the Leafs and followed that up with a strong regular season with 17 goals and 32 points. As usual, Paul was a duct tape kind of forward: capable of myriad uses and able to play up and down the lineup as needed, averaging 16 minutes per game. Right now he’s Tampa’s second line centre. 

As for the question about money, it was pretty clear the two sides could not agree on term or dollars before Paul was moved at the deadline. Ottawa’s final offer was in the neighbourhood of four years, $10 million. Compare that to the deal Paul signed in Tampa: seven years at $22 million. His cap hit is $3.15M. 

Look around at contracts today and Paul at $3 million is great value. He is a proven playoff performer — five goals, nine points and 25 shot blocks in Tampa’s 2022 run to the Cup final. And isn’t Paul just the kind of bottom-six forward the Senators need to get to the next level?

I know that Connor Brown was injured and missed the entire season in Washington, but Brown and Paul — Canada’s golden duo at the 2021 World Hockey Championship — are the type of depth forwards that championship teams possess. 

With a strict salary cap, teams can’t keep everyone. Ottawa is going to be a cap team next season and will have some tough decisions to make in the years ahead. 

Second-guessing departed players is a pastime for fans and media. I’m one of those who had a soft-spot for the hard play of Nick Paul and Connor Brown. 

I loved our season. Rarely did the players disappoint. It was certainly difficult losing so many players to injury throughout the year, especially goaltenders. I love how our players have so comfortably and generously integrated into our community. Keep it up. Looking forward to next year! – Hajo Versteeg

Leave it to thoughtful loyal reader Hajo to put a bright bow on the season. Couldn’t agree with you more, sir. Considering the Senators missed the playoffs for a sixth year, which brought a measure of disappointment for sure, there were still more reasons to be excited about the future of the team than at any time in the past decade. A good young core of talent has committed long-term to living and thriving in Ottawa, with a vow to become a winning team for this growing legion of fans.  

Combine that with deep-pocketed new ownership injecting cash and aspirations into the operation and this has the makings of a potent mix. To borrow from newly acquired defenceman Jake Chychrun: “It’s going to be a really special few years with this group. The sky’s the limit for this team and the potential we have in here.”

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