After a Six Year Absence, Are the Senators Finally Ready to Return to the Playoffs?
By Steve Warne
Back in July, Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion made an off-season radio appearance, where he was given a chance to tell the audience whether it was time to start openly talking about making the NHL playoffs.
“How about I say this?,” Dorion said on TSN Radio. “I’ll go and make bold statements at training camp when I know what our team looks like, if that’s fair. But I think last year I said, ‘Let’s play meaningful games at the trade deadline. And that’s exactly what we did.
“So I’ll say, let’s play meaningful games until April, and let’s just see what our team looks like when camp starts. Then I’ll give everyone our expectations.”
Everyone understands the concept of managing expectations, but the Senators playoff drought is now six years old – the NHL’s third longest – and no one wants to hear about meaningful games, rebuilds or moral victories anymore.
No one in the NHL is on the hotseat quite like Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith. With a competitive new owner coming in, who’s passionate about the game, the stakes are high and the leashes are short.
So, it’s all very simple now. If they don’t lead Ottawa to a playoff spot, Michael Andlauer will lead them to the exit.
The Senators’ 2023 off-season plans were basically pulled into an orbit around DeBrincat. The tiny winger became a restricted free agent July 1st, but didn’t want to sign more than a one year contract. The fact is, DeBrincat didn’t want to be in Ottawa long-term and signing a one year deal would allow him to coast into unrestricted free agency next summer and his choice of a new address. Had Dorion known that, he certainly wouldn’t have traded for him last summer.
So Dorion went to work, trying to mitigate the damage. Rather than lose DeBrincat to free agency next year and get nothing, the Senators eventually traded him back home to Detroit for winger Dominik Kubalik, defenceman Donovan Sebrango, a conditional first rounder (Detroit or Boston’s pick in 2024 or 2025), and a 2024 fourth rounder.
With the money they saved by not re-signing DeBrincat (he would have gotten as much as $9 million on a one year deal), the Senators then went out and signed winger Vladimir Tarasenko, a six-time 30 goal scorer in the league. The 31-year-old isn’t quite the player DeBrincat is, but he’s close. And he clocks in with a salary that’s $4 million cheaper.
As someone who’s battled shoulder injuries his whole career, Tarasenko should fit right in with the Senators. Shane Pinto and Ridly Greig have both had a hard time in that area, but no one – not until Tarasenko – can touch Josh Norris in that department. Norris has had three shoulder injuries in four years, with two of them requiring surgery.
Norris’s return this fall is as big an addition as any on the team. A healthy year from Norris would more than erase the loss of DeBrincat, before we even discuss Tarasenko and Kubalik’s contributions.
In goal, the Senators are hoping they’ve made things right by signing Joonas Korpisalo. After the recent misreads on Filip Gustavsson, Cam Talbot and Matt Murray, the Sens are betting $4 million over each of the next five years that Korpisalo will be their answer between the pipes.
Back in 2016, Korpisalo won the AHL Calder Cup with Lake Erie (Columbus’ top farm club) in a timeshare with Anton Forsberg. Perhaps that duo can now rekindle some of that championship magic in Ottawa.
After being acquired at the deadline, Jakob Chychrun returns for his first full season in Ottawa. The only question is which of the Sens’ top three left-shot defencemen – Chychrun, Sanderson or Chabot – will play on the right side? In his rookie year, Sanderson looked like a 10 year pro and fans are eager to see what he can do in year two. Given how comfortable Sanderson was with Travis Hamonic last season, it’s at least possible they remain a duo for one more year,
With some teams in the Atlantic beefing up on fighters and grit, Dorion went out and signed tough guy Zack MacEwen to a three year deal. MacEwen got great reviews from his former Flyer teammate, Claude Giroux, and should handily replace Auston Watson at half the cost.
The idea is that MacEwen and Mark Kastelic will now both be available to take some pressure off Tkachuk, although it’s hard to imagine Tkachuk not fighting every single one of his own battles.
There have certainly been some bumps and potholes along the way, but the Sens, with their fully rebuilt engine, now seem like they’re ready for a good long stretch of paved highway. Their fan base is certainly ready for it. And if all or most of their key players can stay healthy, this is a team capable of great things – certainly a lot more than just “meaningful games.”.