| July 14, 2022, 12:27 PM
Don’t look now, but the Senators are making moves. Actually, definitely look because for a change Ottawa is making good moves.
The Senators have used more than just opening day of free agency to improve, though. Their efforts this off-season kicked off ahead of the draft.
It started with a game-changing trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, where Ottawa flipped the seventh overall pick, a second-rounder, and a 2024 third-round pick for Alex DeBrincat.
DeBrincat’s coming off a career year where he reached 78 points, partially fueled by his second 40-plus goal season at the NHL level. Based on his shot volume and quality, DeBrincat actually met expectations with his 41 tallies, which is impressive and shows a level of sustainability. This isn’t a player who was expected to score 20 and went on a hot streak; he’s a legitimate goal scorer — one with 160 goals since reaching the NHL, which ranks eighth in the league over the last five years.
This past season, on a weak Blackhawks team, DeBrincat shot the puck at the highest rate at 5-on-5. And he was best at getting to the quality areas, with about 54 per cent coming from the slot, both off the rush and sustained offensive pressure plays. His rate of 7.86 slot attempts per 60, for what it’s worth, would have led the 2021-22 Senators. So between him and Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa has two wingers who can generate a ton of shots from the dangerous areas of the ice at even strength — whether coaches opt to stick them together or split them up for lineup balance.
Shooting and finishing talent obviously highlight the winger’s game, but it’s not all he contributes. Obviously it’ll help to keep him paired with a skillful passer to set him up. In Chicago, that was often Patrick Kane, maybe in Ottawa, it’s Tim Stützle. But DeBrincat can help drive play into the offensive zone with controlled entries and he can move the puck to his teammates as well.
The risk is that DeBrincat doesn’t stick around past this year, seeing he’s an unrestricted free agent next summer. But the price of acquisition makes this a worthwhile add, especially because management could always flip him at the deadline — add in salary retention, and playoff teams will likely line up at the chance. If he sticks around, though, it definitely is a major upgrade to this offence.
So is the addition of Claude Giroux. The 34-year-old is obviously past his prime, but he’s still effective. Aging curves show players decline more rapidly in their mid-to-late 30s, but when the heights of that player are elite, their later years can still be above-average. That’s the case for Giroux, who obviously isn’t at the heights of years past but is still a very productive forward — even when he’s on a bad team.
The difference between Ottawa and Philadelphia, though, for an expected bad team, is that he’s not expected to be the guy with the Senators. That’s for Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Stützle, and DeBrincat. Instead, Giroux is expected to be one of those top-six contributors which takes some pressure off of his scoring. And those contributions include puck movement, passing, scoring chance generation, defensive support and all situation usage. Plus, the versatility of him being able to play centre or wing, which can ease the workload of Stützle if necessary. That’s important now that Connor Brown’s been moved, and even Nick Paul last deadline.
While Brown is a productive facilitator and the Senators honestly could have waited to move him at the deadline, they established their top-six now to avoid too much in-season shuffling.
Lastly, the other impactful move for Ottawa came between the pipes. No goaltender has had it easy behind the Senators’ defence, which was one of the worst in the league (again) this past season. Matt Murray played only 20 games, with an AHL stint in between, but he responded well to the chaos in front of him saving 3.19 goals above expected in all situations. That surely was better than his first season with the team, where he conceded 11 more goals than expected in 27 games. So it makes sense why management wanted to get out of his contract and move forward with Anton Forsberg who they already extended.
Obviously the team had to pay to shed Murray’s salary, but parting ways seemed like the best solution. Instead of relying on Filip Gustavsson to rotate with Forsberg, or push a goalie in their system who may not be ready for that workload, they acquired another veteran to round out the crease. Gustavsson was flipped to Minnesota for Cam Talbot, who isn’t coming off the best season of his career, but can be leaned on to share the workload.
Based on their off-season moves, the Senators are in a better position than they were when their dreadful 2021-22 season came to a close. The work isn’t done, though. This team needs to make changes on defence — both in terms of personnel and tactics — to become a more competitive squad. Maybe they make a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have quite a few defencemen on the roster and probably want to cut some cap space, whether it’s a player like John Marino or Marcus Petersson. Ottawa was also linked to MacKenzie Weegar, if the Florida Panthers try to create some financial flexibility. Jakob Chychrun has yet to be traded as well. That’s where the focus has to be now that offence and goaltending has been addressed.
Ottawa wasn’t the only Atlantic Division team to improve. While the Tampa Bay Lightning, Panthers, and Boston Bruins are the teams they have to stack up against if they want to make a difference, Detroit and Buffalo made some moves as well at the deadline. The latter two teams are the Senators’ competition now to determine who can be the best disruptor in the division, since the Montreal Canadiens probably are not a factor just yet.
There’s still an entire summer to go to tweak and retool rosters, but the Senators surprisingly got off to a pretty strong start.
Data via Sportlogiq.