What’s the Game Plan if the Senators Can’t Acquire Another Top Four Defenceman This Summer?
Senators’ GM Pierre Dorion has almost done it all this summer. He needed another top six forward, so he went out and got not one, but two outstanding options in Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux. He needed an upgrade in goal, so he swapped out Filip Gustavsson for veteran Cam Talbot. Dorion needed to get money off the books, so he let a number of free agents walk, bought out Colin White and Michael Del Zotto and basically gave away Matt Murray and Connor Brown.
For all of Dorion’s well-deserved accolades, the fact remains the Senators’ biggest off-season need has not yet been addressed. If they hope to get back to the playoffs this season, most people believe they probably need to acquire another top four defenceman. Entering the off-season, Dorion admitted it was on his shopping list.
Rookie Jake Sanderson is a truly elite prospect, and many analysts have labelled him NHL-ready for a long time now. Assuming his hand injury heals completely, he’s definitely playing for the Ottawa Senators next season. But the jump directly from college to a top four NHL role is huge and no one knows for sure if Sanderson will stick the landing. He may need to lean heavily on Zub for a while, but he’s such an elite prospect, it shouldn’t take him long at all to adjust.
Assuming he does, that leaves just Sanderson, Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub as the only obvious top 4 defencemen on the roster. So, what happens if Dorion can’t upgrade the defence this summer? Does it mean the Sens can’t compete for a playoff spot? How exactly would they try and caulk up that hole in the top four?
For starters, the Sens will be a much-improved team no matter what. With Sanderson, an impressive group of top six forwards, and a return to full health, they should take a massive leap in puck possession time. This just in: every blue line looks better when their team has the puck. Goalie Cam Talbot’s addition over the sometimes-skittish Matt Murray should also bolster the blue line’s confidence and performance.
As for personnel choices in the top 4, perhaps it’s Hammer Time. It wasn’t that long ago Travis Hamonic was regarded as a top four NHL defenceman – and a good one. In fact, when Calgary acquired him from the Islanders in 2017, they gave up a 2018 first-rounder (Noah Dobson) and a pair of second-round picks.
Hamonic isn’t where he once was but he’s not 41, he’s 31. And because he was playing hurt, we probably haven’t seen his best yet in Ottawa.
“(Hamonic) has fit in great here,” said Dorion at his season-ending press conference. “As far as his approach, how he’s fit in and how he’s played, we’ve been very happy about it. He wasn’t 100%. He battled, he played hurt. Trust me, he played really hurt. But he wanted to play. He could have just pulled the chute.”
After a good long summer of training, perhaps Hamonic can further elevate his game and slide back into a comfort zone, riding shotgun with Chabot or Sanderson. He’s also a former winner of the NHL Foundation Award for exemplary work in the community and with kids and families. Yes, working with kids will come in very handy in Ottawa and he’s clearly another positive, quality character in the room.
If the Hammer drill fails (and I’m out of Hammer references now), there are younger, internal options that could surprise, unless you believe the development of an NHL defenceman ends at 22. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
Along with Sanderson, the Senators have three other defencemen – all under 23, all first rounders. They’ve paid their dues and done the work in the minors. And in theory, they should be getting close to living up to their draft pedigree – ready to contribute in the NHL.
Erik Brannstrom was Vegas’s first rounder, the 4th defenceman selected in the 2017 NHL Draft. Dorion thought enough of Brannstrom to acquire him as the key piece in a trade that cost him the popular Mark Stone, a pending free agent. Brannstrom’s puck skill is excellent, not that far off Chabot’s level. But do they want another non-physical, offensive defenceman in the top four? If he is seen as the best available solution, head coach D.J. Smith needs to be all-in, focused on bolstering Brannstrom’s confidence – restoring the kid’s swagger. As it stands, even from an outsider’s view, it’s feels like Smith isn’t really a Brannstrom guy.
Jacob Bernard-Docker was a Sens’ first rounder, the 10th defenceman selected in the 2018 NHL draft. Bernard-Docker isn’t ever going to bring you out of your seat but he’s poised, makes good decisions with the puck and positionally smart in both ends – exactly the virtues Chabot or Sanderson could use in a partner. JBD may be NHL-ready this fall, but will he be top four ready?
In 2019, Lassi Thomson was the Sens’ first rounder, the 7th defenceman selected in the 2019 NHL draft. When the Sens called Thomson up for 16 games last season, there hadn’t been much public discussion about his development. He showed excellent poise and vision with the puck, frequently skating it out of trouble and making some fantastic stretch passes. As with most rookies, there were occasionally defensive positioning errors.
Processing and reacting to the speed of the league – going from the AHL to a top 4 NHL role – would be the primary challenge for both Thomson and Bernard-Docker.
The final option is Nikita Zaitsev, included in this discussion because Smith continues to be such a fan of the player and that can often go a long way. It seems fairly clear that Zaitsev is an average, bottom-pairing NHL defenceman. At his price tag, that makes him an annual buyout candidate, not someone you want in your top 4, mentoring and insulating one of the defencemen you hope will compete for a Norris trophy someday.
Of course, there’s plenty of summer left – still lots of time to sign a free agent or two or pull off a big trade. But if the Sens don’t do anything, they still have some opening night options that could turn out better than we think.