Rebuild over? Senators beaming after DeBrincat splash: ‘We’re in the next phase now’

Ottawa Senators general manager, Pierre Dorion, joins Elliott Friedman to discuss the process of acquiring Alex DeBrincat from the Chicago Blackhawks and where they might set their sights next.

Hours before the NHL draft began, the Ottawa Senators did their best to steal the show – swapping three draft picks for arguably the best forward available on the market. 

Alex DeBrincat, a two-time 40-goal scorer for the Chicago Blackhawks and still just 24, comes to the Senators in exchange for Ottawa’s seventh-overall draft pick this year, plus the 39th-overall pick (Saturday) and a third-round selection in 2024.

Speaking to reporters in Montreal just a few minutes before the draft coverage began, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was beaming about his new acquisition.

“The ability to add someone who’s a consistent goal scorer, who fits in with our core … a competitor with a proven track record,” proved irresistible, Dorion said. 

“We’ve said since the end of the year we were looking for someone who could play in our top six, and he’s playing in our top six!”

Needless to say, Dorion and his staff were in good humour, even though his scouts didn’t get to make a pick in Thursday night’s first-round presentation. For the moment, the Sens and their fans could forget about all those years of losing top players, from Mark Stone on down. 

“If I can quote someone from my staff today who has been with us for a few years, it’s way more fun adding than deleting,” Dorion said. 

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On a day that started with Senators fans irate over reports the team was going to sacrifice its seventh-overall pick as part of a deal to send goaltender Matt Murray (and most of his contract) to the Buffalo Sabres, the news on DeBrincat had them over the moon. In the end, Murray declined a move to Buffalo via his no-movement clause. 

At his availability in Montreal, Dorion hinted that even if Murray had moved to Buffalo, a three-way deal was possible with the Sabres’ first-round pick (at No. 16) shifting to Chicago with DeBrincat coming to Ottawa, likely with a Sens prospect included. 

The Blackhawks, incidentally, used that No. 7 pick to draft Saskatchewan defenceman Kevin Korchinski. 

Adding DeBrincat to an exciting young roster that features Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot, Josh Norris and Tim Stützle means the Senators suddenly have the makings of a very dynamic offensive team. Ottawa hasn’t had a natural goal scorer like this since Dany Heatley 14, 15 years ago. 

A right-hand shot who can play either wing, DeBrincat was Chicago’s team leader with 41 goals last season and was second in points with 78 in a full 82-game season. He was also a 41-goal scorer in his sophomore season, 2018-19, during which he scored 76 points in 82 games. 

With the Blackhawks, DeBrincat, a native of Farmington Hills, Mich., was typically on a first line with Dylan Strome at centre and Patrick Kane on the right side. 

In Ottawa, DeBrincat would slot in nicely alongside the 20-year-old Stützle, who hasn’t had a scoring winger to work with over his first two seasons. 

Dorion says he has spoken with head coach D.J. Smith, who likes the idea of Stützle and DeBrincat. Dorion then joked that with coaches, lines can change after two practices anyway. 

Smith does have familiarity with DeBrincat, however. When Smith was head coach of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, he coached against DeBrincat’s Erie Otters. 

“D.J. says he can score goals, but also that his hockey sense was off the charts,” Dorion said. “He can make plays in tight areas.”

With a current top line of Tkachuk, Norris and Batherson, it’s easy to see the potential for a potent top two lines. Not to mention the power play. 

“It’s going to be good,” Dorion enthused. 

Beyond DeBrincat’s talent and scoring ability, the best aspect of the deal is that the Senators did not have to surrender any assets. 

That leaves Dorion with plenty of options should he decide to make a trade for a top-four defenceman, which he says he intends to acquire, either via trade or free agency. 

The only downside of the DeBrincat acquisition is the business aspect. DeBrincat has a contract that expires after the 2022-23 season. His average annual value is $6.4 million but his actual salary is $9 million. Next summer, he would be an RFA and could become an unrestricted free agent in 2024 if he just signed a $9-million qualifying offer in order to walk. 

This was Chicago’s reason for letting him go, and now becomes Ottawa’s challenge – convincing him that this city and this franchise is the place to be over the next several years. 

“We can control him for two years,” Dorion said. “Obviously we would like to extend him at some point in time, but you’ve got to make sure the fit is alright. And, you know, he was pretty excited. He talked to myself and D.J. and he was really excited.

“Once July 13 passes, we can start talking with his representative and we’ll do that.”

Don’t underestimate the potential for the young core of the Sens – Tkachuk, Batherson, Norris and Stutzle are all under 25, to win over DeBrincat with their famously fun environment, on and off the ice. 

Even if DeBrincat does leave in a couple of years, the Senators would have the option of getting a nice return for him, perhaps more than the three picks they just surrendered. 

All of that talk, though, is for another day. 

For now, the Senators are relishing the fact they went to a legendary hockey town like Montreal and hit a massive home run, like Vlad Guerrero Sr. at the old Big O. 

“I said at the end of the season, we want to play meaningful games late in the year (in 2022-23), and I think we’re one step closer to doing that,” Dorion said. “Obviously, the rebuild has been going on, we feel we’re in the next phase now.”

The Sens’ bold new acquisition period is just heating up. Onward to day two of the draft and then free agency next week. 

As Dorion says, the roster that finished the season could look very different by this fall. 

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