No more rebuilding talk: Finally, the future is now for the Senators

Newly acquired Ottawa Senators forward Alex DeBrincat speaks on his new team, expressing excitement about joining the young core and tight locker room in Ottawa.

They may take some getting used to, the new and brash Ottawa Senators.

The Senators playing the role of the hunter, not the hunted. The team “going for it,” not selling off assets to pile up draft picks and prospects. Instead of building for tomorrow, on an endless loop, the Senators are telling their fans and their young core they are all about today.

If you’re like me and either live in Ottawa or are associated with the Senators in some way, you were getting texts through the two days of the NHL Draft. Most along the lines of, “what is up with the Sens? DeBrincat? He’s legit.”

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In case you missed it, the Senators swapped their first-round pick, seventh overall, plus a second round pick and a third-round selection in 2024 for the 24-year-old Chicago Blackhawks sniper, a two-time 41-goal scorer. The transaction meant that for the first time since 2014, the Sens did not make a first-round pick at the draft.

This team that had been building a core out of high draft picks like Brady Tkachuk, fourth overall in 2018, Tim Stützle, third overall in 2020, and Jake Sanderson, fifth overall, 2020, plus judicious later picks like Drake Batherson and Shane Pinto, has transitioned in a pretty significant way.

It isn’t lost on anyone that both general manager Pierre Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith are under pressure to compete for a playoff spot for the first time in five years (six by the time the next playoffs roll around). So, there are some survival instincts at play.

Yet, I have scarcely heard a discouraging word about this aggressive approach from Senators fans who had grown weary of always being that rebuilding franchise in the bottom of the Atlantic (Division, not the ocean). Even the amateur scouts who had to forego their precious first-round selection are buying in, according to the former chief amateur scout Trent Mann, recently promoted to co-assistant general manager (with Ryan Bowness).

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“The scouts were on board with what we did (in Round 1), Mann said after Day 2 of the draft, where the Sens made nine selections.

“How often do you get a 40-goal scorer? Our scouts, like everyone else in the organization, like everyone in the city of Ottawa – we want to win. And it’s time to start winning.”

If you are scoring at home, DeBrincat is simply the tip of the iceberg. Even before that trade cracked the surface, forward Colin White was bought out, signaling an end to roster malaise in favour of aggressive management, even with short-term financial cost. Good guy, White. But way overpaid.

Suddenly, everything seems possible. Despite the acquisition of DeBrincat, the Senators are still believed to be active in free agency this week, including a pursuit of hometown hero Claude Giroux. The Sens are aggressively pushing goaltender Matt Murray and Nikita Zaitsev out the door, one way or another. The Toronto Maple Leafs have shown serious interest in Murray (the Kyle Dubas OHL Soo connection) and now the name of winger Connor Brown has come into play. It’s like a bomb has hit hockey operations in Ottawa.

What’s next, a top-four defenceman, a female staff member in hockey ops and a former player to serve as a defensive consultant? Every day there is a new move. On Monday, former D-man Wade Redden was hired as a development coach, and was scheduled to skate with prospects in the afternoon. Stay tuned for more news.

When it comes to the new-look Sens, the classic line from Butch Cassidy comes to mind, when he and the Sundance Kid were being relentlessly pursued by a posse: “Who are those guys?

Who indeed. Cue the song and video from The Heavy — How You Like Me Now? A song that might best be revisited this week, after the free-agency period launches.

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As to that massive move with DeBrincat — whether he can continue his scoring ways in Ottawa will be tested out on the ice, just as the team will let him adjust to the new room. There is lots of time for both sides to determine if this is a marriage worth keeping. DeBrincat has RFA status after this season, in which he will be paid $9 million. With a qualifying offer of $9 million, he could become a UFA a year later.

But for the first time in a long time, there is a belief that these Senators could realistically extend DeBrincat, if the fit feels right. The fact they traded for a $9-million player is in itself jarring.

“I’m super excited to join this young group and hopefully do something special,” DeBrincat said in an introductory Zoom call with Ottawa media. “That’s everyone’s goal — to become a better team, make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. I think this is a good start and hopefully we’re headed in the right direction.”

Pretty much what we’d expect a guy to say, but there were no alarm bells, either.

Let’s see where this goes. Shouldn’t be too difficult to find happiness between a serial scorer and a talent like Stützle.

Oh, and they drafted nine players

The Senators made such an impact on Day 1 with their acquisition of DeBrincat it was easy to overlook a busy Day 2 at the draft, during which they made nine selections:

64: Filip Nordberg, LD

72: Oskar Pettersson, RW

87: Tomas Hamara, LD

104: Stephen Halliday, C

136: Jorian Donovan, LD

143: Cameron O’Neil, RW

151: Kevin Reidler, G

168: Theo Wallberg, LD

206: Tyson Dyck, C

All but Nordberg will be attending development camp, starting Monday at the Sensplex in Kanata. The camp culminates in a 3-on-3 tournament Thursday at 10 a.m. All skating sessions are open to the public, starting with a 2 p.m. skate on Monday.

A few notes on the selections. The Senators don’t mind the fact that many of their picks are college bound. Minus the high-end talent of some drafts, and with Ottawa not picking until No. 64 of the second round, it will take time for these picks to develop. Time will be an asset.

We did a feature recently on Ottawa’s push to find, develop and keep goaltenders and the Sens did draft another goalie — six-foot-six, 201-pound Swedish prospect Kevin Reidler.

Reidler will need time to develop, and will likely stay in Sweden for a year or two. His grandfather, Hakan Wickberg, played pro in Sweden and was a two-time Olympian.

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The Senators went heavy on defence, with four picks, a development that just kind of happened as the draft evolved, Mann says.

The feel-good pick of the day for Ottawa had to be D-man Donovan, son of former Senators winger Shean Donovan, now head of the team’s development program and one of the most popular members of the Sens alumni. The club made sure that both Donovan and his dad were OK with Jorian taking a shot with his hometown team.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, it was special,” Jorian Donovan said. “Growing up a Senators fan, it’s a huge honour to be picked by a team I’ve always looked up to and always watched when I was a kid . . . I couldn’t be happier.”

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