There are generally two kinds of NHL rebuilds. One is sparked by the will to compete. Your roster is aging, unlikely to contend at any point, so you breakout the sledge hammer and get started.
The other is sparked by finances. Either a team can’t or won’t pay the huge money required to retain certain players. This is more of a fire sale disguised as a rebuild. But for the Ottawa Senators, turning the page on these players – regardless of motivation – has also turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
May 13th is the Sens’ 5-year anniversary of Game One of the NHL Eastern Conference Final. And every single player from that great Ottawa playoff run is now playing elsewhere or retired.
So, let’s look at the Top 5 players from that team, each traded by the Sens after failing to sign new contracts. We’ll look at what the Sens got in return, and whether their contracts today would make any sense at all.
The Vegas Golden Knights captain turns 30 today and has always been an easy player to love. He’s such a character guy – hard working and skilled – and something of an underdog. He’s never been the prettiest skater and so the former Brandon Wheat King was overlooked 177 times in the 2010 NHL draft. Sens GM Bryan Murray didn’t have a first or second round pick that year, but he and his staff still managed to find a future star in Stone, scooping him up in round 6.
Four years later, he was a fan favourite, scoring one huge goal after another – and with legendary goal celebrations. He’d have made the perfect mentor for Ottawa’s youthful core. Brady Tkachuk’s father, Keith, even publicly lobbied to keep Stone around.
But when Stone hit unrestricted free agency in 2019, the Senators either couldn’t or wouldn’t sign him to the long, big-money extension he’d get elsewhere. So in February of 2019, they traded him to Vegas in exchange for defenceman Erik Brannstrom, forward Oscar Lindberg (played 20 games here), and a 2020 Second Round draft pick (Egor Sokolov).
Hockey-wise, it wasn’t a great deal. But you need to include finances in your assessment. The Sens also received the right not to have to pay Mark Stone $9.5 million for each of the next 5 years, starting now. And remember, this is now a 30-year-old with a year-long back issue that may require surgery – a decent skater who simply can’t afford to lose a step. If he were still here, it would be that much harder to take care of the Sens’ youthful core.
For nine seasons, Karlsson was an offensive wizard on the Ottawa blue line, nailing down two Norris Trophies. He was a beast in the 2017 playoffs, leading them to the Conference Final with 18 points in 19 games. Most Sens fans were heartbroken when the Sens traded their captain to San Jose for picks and prospects.
But very few fans would want to reverse that deal today.
The Sens dealt Karlsson and prospect Francis Perron (now in Sweden), in exchange for Chris Tierney (4 seasons in Ottawa), Rudolfs Balcers (back in San Jose), Dylan Demelo (1.5 seasons in Ottawa, now in Winnipeg), Sharks first rounder Josh Norris, as well as a 2020 first-round pick (Tim Stutzle), a 2021 2nd round pick (Zack Ostaphuk, who’s currently tearing up the Western Hockey League playoffs) and a 2019 2nd rounder (traded to Carolina so the Sens could draft goalie Mads Sogaard).
Norris and Stutzle will be top centres in the league for the next decade. Ostapchuk and Sogaard are both very intriguing.
Again, part of the deal is finances. The Sens don’t have to pay Karlsson, who’s almost 32, an average of $11.5 million over each the next 5 seasons. Karlsson has already lost a step, almost certainly due to ankle surgeries and he’s missed 25-30 games in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in San Jose. And again, if he were still here, that results in another young star you can’t lock up.
A few months after the Senators’ amazing 2017 playoff run, it was becoming clear that, money-wise, Kyle Turris and the Senators weren’t on the same page. He’d be a UFA at season’s end and so in November, when Colorado made Matt Duchene available, Turris was included as a big part of the trade package. Certainly, the skill and promise of Duchene, who still had almost two years left on his contract, took the sting out of losing Turris. But it was still disappointing to bid farewell to a good player and even better person who was so active in the community.
Another perk of the deal was not having to pay Turris market value, which Nashville set at $36 million over 6 years. Turris never came close to producing the way he did in Ottawa and two years into his new contract, the Predators bought him out. They will continue paying Turris $2 million a year until 2028.
Everyone loves J.G. Pageau. We wrote glorious, uncomplicated songs about him. At the 2020 deadline, the hard-working, hometown centreman was rolling along with 24 goals. But once again, free agency was looming. So, at the deadline, the Senators traded him to the Islanders for their 2020 first rounder.
Again, Ottawa also retained $30 million over 6 years they could use toward their rebuild. That’s what the Islanders handed Pageau and even his biggest fans would suggest that’s probably an overpayment. He’s now almost 30 and still has 4 years left on the deal. When you factor in what Ottawa did with that first rounder, choosing Brandon star Ridly Greig (63 points in 39 games), they again did well to turn the page here, maximizing the asset.
After the 2017 run, the Senators re-signed Dzingel to a club-friendly two-year contract worth $1.8 million a season. It paid off big time. Dzingel scored 23 and 26 goals over those two years, apparently setting himself up for a big pay day in unrestricted free agency.
But it wouldn’t be with Ottawa.
At the deadline, Dzingel was traded to Columbus for Anthony Duclair and two 2nd rounders. That’s a deal the Sens won outright. But Ottawa also dodged having to spend $6.75 million over the next two years on Dzingel. That was the deal he got from Carolina that summer.
Dzingel scored just 8 times the following season. Before his two-year deal ended, the Sens re-acquired him at the end of last season for Cedric Paquette and Alex Galchenyuk, then let Dzingel walk in the summer.
Trading away these types of players isn’t easy in the moment. With only a few exceptions, no matter how popular the player is, it’s generally a bad idea to try and outspend the entire NHL and go big on unrestricted free agents in their late 20s. And it only works as a strategy if you can maximize your return on the assets. Looking big picture, the Karlsson deal alone may have accomplished that. It now looks like it’ll go down as the best trade in Ottawa Senators history.
Re-signing these five players might have made the last 5 years a little better…maybe. But the Sens wouldn’t have been close to contending at any point in that window. And they certainly wouldn’t be tracking toward excellence the way they are now.