Pierre Dorion needs this like he needs a hole in the head.
The Ottawa GM has yet another fan favourite to sign or deal before the trade deadline, and no one is going to forgive him whichever way he chooses, a familiar feeling for the Orleans native.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the locally born draft steal who has the distinct privilege of having his name sung by fans whenever he scores a big goal, needs a new contract or a new postal code and nobody seems to know what Dorion should do about it.
Well, maybe that’s not true. A lot of people claim to know exactly what should be done and say as much on Twitter, but let’s just say consensus has yet to be reached.
It’s a harder decision than most people think. Show me a Senators fan who doesn’t love J.G. Pageau and I’ll show you a Habs fan. From his clutch goals, screaming celebrations (just a touch less frightening than Mark Stone’s) and his boy-next-door “aw shucks” interviews in familiar Gatineau patois, Pageau is the definition of a hometown favourite.
The Senators have conspicuously lacked French-Canadian stars over their short history (apologies to Alexandre Daigle) but now they suddenly find themselves with two in Pageau and Thomas Chabot. Although Pageau is not considered a “star” around the league by any stretch, he does have a special place in local fans hearts for a few specific moments in time.
Most will remember the hat-trick against the vaunted Habs in the 2013 playoffs, Pageau’s rookie season. Dorion was telling everyone in hockey that the Sens had drafted a unique player in the 4th round of the 2011 draft, but nobody realized it until that clutch triplet in the midst of an overly violent game that saw more fights and cross-checks than your average 1970’s scoresheet.
Pageau was never able to break through offensively in the seasons after that, performing mostly in a checking role on the third line, but he magically had a 4-goal game in the 2017 playoffs against the New York Rangers, including two goals late in the third to tie the game and then the double-overtime winner that tested the titanium bolts keeping the roof on the Canadian Tire Centre.
But that was a long time ago, at least in the Senators timeline. So much upheaval and drama has happened since then that Pageau and Craig Anderson are basically the only core pieces left from that era. The playoffs are where Pageau shines the brightest, but the post-season feels like a couple of years away for this group of young guns currently toiling against the odds.
If you took a poll before this season started, my guess is 60% or more would have chosen to trade Pageau, not because he’s unpopular, but to make room for the next wave of kids. Fast forward to mid-November, with the Senators starting to show life as a physical, skating hockey team under new coach D.J. Smith, and Pageau scoring 5 goals in 4 games … suddenly the imaginary poll has gone pear-shaped.
While much has been made of the likelihood that either Chabot or Brady Tkachuk will be the next team captain, it’s clear that in “Year One” of the rebuild, Pageau is the guy right now. The singing in the stands has started up again and most people are at least starting to tolerate his haircut. That’s no small accomplishment.
The argument for trading Pageau is clear when you look at it from the perspective of future salary cap implications.
The Senators centre depth is crowded with prospects and current NHL players. Colin White, Logan Brown and Josh Norris are all capable of playing higher up the lineup than Pageau, particularly in two to three years. Any Pageau extension will be at a minimum of four years and his agent will likely seek north of that. Pageau is already commanding a 3.4 million salary and an extension will likely bring that past the 4 million mark.
Is it wise to pay a third or fourth line centre that much money? Of course not.
However, there is an argument to be made that you know exactly what you have in Pageau – a conscientious defensive centre who can pitch in offensively and oozes leadership. There’s always room for a guy like that on your roster.
What the Senators don’t know is what they have in the trio of Brown, White and Norris. White is fresh off a contract extension that will have him in the capital for the next five seasons at just under five million. That’s basically the contract Pageau will be looking for and both he and White play a similar style.
Okay, so the optimist might say “there’s always room for TWO guys like that on your roster”. Possibly, but not when it’s taking away cap space that you’ll need for a true number one pivot. Is Logan Brown that guy down the line? Early signs say “probably not”, but he has the potential. The skill is there but most franchise centers are already excelling at his age. Norris? He’s good, but not franchise centre good.
There’s a couple of those types of players in the upcoming draft, and presumably the Senators may be in position to pick one of them. Having Pageau on a middle-class contract when the middle-class NHL contract is going extinct, it might become an issue.
The recent signings of Chabot and White to long term deals went a long way to calming jittery nerves about this organizations financial capability to sign their own players. Many will see the rationale in trading Pageau as just part of the master plan to contend in a few years. The fan blowback will be there, but not in the way it was with Erik Karlsson or Mark Stone.
Dorion has the path wide open to trading Pageau and every salary cap justification to do so. It’s a done deal, right?
I don’t think so. Dorion was Director of Player Personnel and led the scouting department when the Senators drafted Pageau and no one seemed prouder when the diminutive forward worked his way into the NHL when many perceived him as an afterthought. Those attachments are real and make it hard to part ways, even when you know you should do it.
Bryan Murray had a hell of a time not showing his disappointment in having to deal Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher, players who preceded his time in the capital but whom he grew to love. Murray knuckled down and made the trades, but will Dorion have the same will?
Sure, Dorion showed no mercy when dealing Karlsson, Stone and others, but he was in a position where the players wanted to leave and he couldn’t meet their contract demands. The same does not hold true for Pageau.
It could be a misread but Pageau seems quite comfortable playing in his hometown with an increased role and a nightly chant with his name on it. His contract demand will be affordable in real dollars. It’s only the cap implications down the road that cloud the issue.
How happy do you think Coach Smith would be with the GM if his most consistent and competitive centre was shipped away for yet another high draft pick? As it is, the Senators own more draft picks than they can possibly integrate into their system.
Dorion already threw Smith a life preserver when he acquired Vladislav Namestnikov from the Rangers. The GM understands he can’t let a new coach hang out to dry with a squad of almost-there but not-quite youngsters getting trampled every night. Trading Pageau this season for a pick or prospect that won’t play for three or four years will be painful for the current coaching staff.
That’s the dilemma. A trade makes sense when you’re counting the dollars, but Dorion is accountable to that locker room and the coaching staff. Dorion has shoved so many bitter pills down their throats that you get the sense he may be a little hesitant with this one.
There are no answers here at the moment, but putting money on local Pageau to be traded isn’t as much of a lock as you might think it is. Singing “Borowiecki, Borowiecki, Borowiecki” just doesn’t roll off the tongue the same, does it?
By Jeremy Milks