The Ottawa Senators were the surprise of the Eastern Conference during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were thought to be the underdog by many against the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, yet they ousted the Bruins, defeated the Rangers and pushed the Penguins in a competitive seven-game series before their own elimination.
As successful as the Senators may have been, and as much as they exceeded expectations, there were a number of flaws in the lineup that needed to be tweaked. Those issues were added to after suffering offseason personnel losses.
The Senators did not make any drastic changes to their roster during the 2016 offseason or during the 2016-17 season.
Mika Zibanejad was traded for Derick Brassard, and while they maintained a similar playing style, Brassard is older and came with a steeper cap hit. Mike Condon was acquired, too, which gave them the flexibility in net that allowed them to extend breaks to Craig Anderson for personal reasons.
Depth players were acquired closer to the deadline, including Tommy Wingels and Viktor Stalberg, which helped them roll four skilled lines the rest of the regular season and postseason.
So far this offseason, they’ve followed a similar pattern of making minimal changes, which is questionable on general manager Pierre Dorion’s part. It makes his General Manager of the Year nomination seem like even more of a stretch.
A few of the Senators’ free agents were re-signed. Tom Pyatt’s extension kicked off their effort to retain their free agents, with a two year, $2.2 million deal. He is a known commodity to the Senators, but that’s not to say that he was the best option available to them for their bottom-six. If he’s kept to a fourth-line role, it’s not a concerning signing nor anything remarkable.
Ryan Dzingel re-signed as well, on a low-risk contract that carries a $1.8 million cap hit for the next two seasons. He’s a middle-six player who extended for a reasonable price, which will look even more favorable if he continues to improve.
Condon was also given an extension, but his $2.4 million cap hit for the next three seasons seems like a high cost for a backup goaltender — especially when weighing his skill and what other backups around the league cost. So, until the Senators reveal their intentions, like shifting the starting role to Condon since Anderson is already 36-years-old, it seems like a questionable decision on their part.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s new contract is noteworthy for the Senators. He’s proven himself as a capable middle-six forward with strong penalty-killing skills. Plus, he’s only 24-years-old, so his $3.1 million cap hit for the next three seasons will take him through his prime.
Pageau (3×3.1m) is a third liner with relatively tough deployment, kills penalties well. pic.twitter.com/gqPDVvaOtZ
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) July 17, 2017
As for free-agent signings, two stick out: Nate Thompson and Johnny Oduya. Thompson signed for two years, with a cap hit of $1.65 million and a modified no-trade clause. Of all the depth players available to sign, they chose Thompson. The free agents they had, including Stalberg, would have been superior options, yet they chose to part ways with him, and he left to play in Switzerland. They could have re-signed Wingels too, who instead signed a $750,000 contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
If their intention was to find a new face for the bottom six, they could have looked to Benoit Pouliot, Jussi Jokinen, Josh Jooris, Brandon Pirri or any other inexpensive depth player. Instead, they chose Thompson, and not only gave him too high of a salary but a modified no-trade clause.
The reason Oduya was signed was to replace Marc Methot on the top defensive pair. Speaking of Methot, let’s backtrack to the expansion draft when he was left exposed instead of Cody Ceci.
Cody Ceci, so-called "shutdown defender", has only marginally tougher QoC than QoT; and the only offence he shuts down is Ottawa's. pic.twitter.com/Z9FsQP9Fn4
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 17, 2017
Even if they wanted to move Methot to find Erik Karlsson a new partner, as the Dallas Stars expressed interest, teams saw value in his game and would have traded for him. Instead, they kept Ceci, either because they believe he’s an asset to the team or has trade value – and either seems like a stretch. Because of that, they had to find a replacement for Methot.
Losing Methot wasn’t the worst possibility for the Senators, since he had a significant contract ($4.9 million cap hit) and is already 32-years-old. It’s the fact that they chose to lose Methot for nothing over Ceci that made it such an odd decision.
Best case: Oduya is rarely needed, providing veteran depth on a cheap contract.
Worst case: Oduya assumes Methot's role as EK65's anchor. pic.twitter.com/VvW6HnIN5f
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 24, 2017
Oduya could assume Methot’s position on the team’s top pair, and for a one-year contract that has a $1 million cap hit and $1.25 million in performance bonuses, he’s an inexpensive option. Is he the best person to play with Karlsson? Maybe not, but could it be worse? Yes.
It’s not clear if he’s going to earn a place on the top pair. Fredrik Claesson could expand his role and push Oduya lower in the lineup. Either way, the Oduya signing isn’t egregious, especially when there wasn’t the strongest free-agent market for defensemen this year.
All in all, the Senators offseason wasn’t awful by any means, but it really wasn’t particularly noteworthy, either. For the second straight offseason, other than re-signing some of their own free agents, it seems that Dorion didn’t do enough for his squad. While they made it further than anticipated last season, a repeat doesn’t look likely based on this roster.
The Senators enjoyed their underdog status all last postseason, and as it stands they again look like underdogs — even more so than before. Last season, that title may have motivated them to push further than they were expected to go, but this upcoming year they’re going to need a lot more than that to make a return to Conference Final.
Dorion’s nomination the for top general manager is only looking more and more perplexing since he’s done little to retool his team into threats in the Atlantic Division that’s evolving around it.