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Senators free agency primer: Patience key to Dorion’s strategy

Nearly everything else in 2020 is off-schedule and online, so why not the NHL free agency period as well?

Don’t look now, but the free agent frenzy is coming soon, to a Canadian Thanksgiving weekend near you. With the unique September Stanley Cup Final over with, it’s time to get on with the NHL “off-season” business of the draft and free agency.

In Ottawa, a lot of ink has been spilled discussing the Oct. 6-7 draft, with the Senators holding nine picks over the first three rounds and 13 selections in all.

But what, if anything, will the Senators do in free agency, which kicks off Oct. 9?

While they have enough salary cap room to drive a Brinks truck through it, the Senators don’t have riches in that truck, and are still a year or two away from being a serious contender, according to their much-mentioned “plan.”

General manager Pierre Dorion said in a recent Zoom call that he will try to fill open roster spots from within, as much as possible. The telling comment: “We won’t do a signing that is going to shock people.”

At the same time, Dorion vowed he would add some veteran pieces to support his young talent, including players expected to be promoted from AHL Belleville, such as Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, Josh Norris and Logan Brown.

Patience might be a key to Ottawa’s free-agent strategy. With a number of NHL teams in salary cap hell due to a flattening cap and shrinking revenues because of the pandemic, free agents won’t be able to command the dollars they have in previous free agency runs.

The Senators should be able to grab some useful veterans on short-term, budget contracts. At least, that will be their plan. Also, look for Ottawa to use some of their draft picks as chips to acquire players via trade at the draft.

Salary cap space: $43.2 million

Roster size: Nine players under contract

Salary committed to forwards: $10,225,000

Salary committed to defence: $14,900,000

Salary committed to goalies: $3,300,000

Salary committed to injury reserve: $4,875,000 (Marian Gaborik)

Salary committed to buyouts: $4,937,500 (Dion Phaneuf, Bobby Ryan)

Team needs

You know how we all love those vague injury descriptions of “upper body” and “lower body” (thanks, Pat Quinn) and our personal favourite, “general body soreness?”

Well, that last expression sort of sums up Ottawa’s needs: generally all over.

While they have a deep pool of prospects, at the NHL level they are inexperienced down the middle with a roster at centre that shapes up like this at the moment: Colin White, Josh Norris, Chris Tierney (RFA, still to be signed) and Nick Paul (RFA, still to be signed).

Once their RFA contracts are done – wingers Anthony Duclair and Connor Brown are also expected to be extended, plus AHL-proven Rudolfs Balcers and Filip Chlapik – the Senators roster picture will be a little clearer and they will be closer to the $22 million Ottawa must spend to reach the salary cap floor.

Let’s start from the net out. At one time, the Senators seemed comfortable going with a tandem of Anders Nilsson and Marcus Hogberg, with Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson waiting in the wings as needed. Ottawa also has younger prospects in Kevin Mandolese and Mads Sogaard.

However, Nilsson suffered a concussion in December and has not yet returned to the ice. There is hope he can be ready when the season starts, but Dorion is looking for experienced help. That could come in the form of a trade, for someone like Matt Murray of Pittsburgh, Petr Mrazek of Carolina or Joonas Korpisalo of Columbus. Or, Dorion could look at free agent options.

On defence, the Senators have good prospects in the system, including Jacob Bernard-Docker and Erik Brannstrom. But again, they are thin at the NHL level with only Thomas Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Mike Reilly and Christian Wolanin under contract. Ron Hainsey, 39, who is a pending unrestricted free agent, could be brought back as a veteran mentor. There will be other free agent options as well.

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Up front, lonely Brady Tkachuk will have his work cut out “putting the team on his back,” as head coach D.J. Smith likes to say. Once the in-house RFA deals are completed, the forward lines will start to take shape. Ottawa could also be picking two high-impact forwards in the draft, but they may not be ready to jump in this season.

Having bought out Bobby Ryan and lost other veterans, chiefly Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Tyler Ennis, at the trade deadline, the Senators could use some experienced hands at forward.

Ennis was a great example of the type of contract that Ottawa would do again. In fact, Ennis has UFA status and wouldn’t cost a lot of money if the Senators want to go that route again.

Last summer, Ennis was signed to a one-year deal for $800,000. He fit right in with the Senators, played a solid two-way game, killed penalties and was productive (33 points in 61 games). At the deadline, Ottawa flipped him for a fifth-round pick from the Edmonton Oilers.

Dorion and Smith will want to give their young talent opportunities on the scoring lines, but could use some depth experience on the roster as part of a supporting cast.

Potential UFA targets

Zdeno Chara, D: Leading with my heart here, but how great would it be for the “Big Z” to close out his long and fabulous career with a final season in Ottawa? At 43, Chara isn’t the force he was with the Boston Bruins when he was captain of the Stanley Cup champions in 2011, but he would be an outstanding example of professionalism for Ottawa’s young defencemen. Even the blossoming Chabot could learn from Chara, who had four good years with the Senators from 2001-06 (he spent the lockout year in Sweden). Chara would like to re-sign with Boston, but that may not happen. At the right price, he would be a great fit in Ottawa. Chara’s last Bruins contract was for one year at $2 million.

Tyler Pitlick, F: Along the lines of Ennis, Pitlick brings energy, can kill penalties and won’t break the bank. The 28-year-old chipped in 20 points in 63 games with the Philadelphia Flyers while on a $1-million contract. At six-foot-two, 200 pounds, Pitlick is physical but disciplined with just 12 penalty minutes last season.

Thomas Greiss, G: The New York Islanders are among the many teams with cap issues, which means the 34-year-old Greiss, who has been a solid performer for the Isles over the past five years, will likely go to market. Greiss earned $3.3 million on his last contract but won’t command that in this market. Just a thought, but if the Senators end up drafting Germany’s Tim Stutzle in the upcoming draft, he would have a countryman in the dressing room in Greiss.


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