The Ottawa Senators are quickly going about their business in the last few weeks ahead of training camp.
After inking Drake Batherson to a six-year contract extension four days ago, the organization announced today that they have signed general manager Pierre Dorion to a three-year extension that carries a team option for a fourth season.
From the team’s official press release, owner Eugene Melnyk had this to say about the news:
"We're very pleased to sign Pierre to a second extension as Senators general manager," said Senators owner and governor Eugene Melnyk. "Dating to when he was named GM in 2016, Pierre has worked tirelessly towards building an organization that can compete with the National Hockey League's best. He's dedicated, detailed and maintains a sound hockey mind. Under Pierre's leadership, we have the utmost confidence that this team will soon be recognized as one that is consistently meriting success."
Irrespective of anyone’s opinion of the job that Dorion has done to this point, today’s news brings some much-needed stability to the front office. That is not to say that there has not been any in the past. Going back to John Muckler’s dismissal in 2007 after the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Senators have only had two general managers — Bryan Murray and Dorion — over the last 14 years. What made Dorion’s situation this season unique was that he was entering the last year of his contract.
Between Dorion’s potential lame-duck status and his boss unilaterally hiring Pierre McGuire to be the team’s new vice president of player development this summer, I believed that Dorion’s uncertain future as the general manager was going to be one of the biggest storylines hanging over the franchise this season.
It had the potential to be another off-ice distraction. Had Dorion entered the year without a deal, it would have been pretty vogue to predict that McGuire would inherit the general manager’s reins by this time next year.
The Senators have done a fine job retooling their system. After giving the Senators the second-highest rating for their collection of players who are under the age of 23, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman published his list of the top drafted players who are under the age of 23. Of the top 194 listed players, Ottawa two of Pronman’s top 10 rated players and four of the top 30. (For what it’s worth, Buffalo, Vancouver and Ottawa were the only teams to have two players each listed in Pronman’s top 10.)
It’s an impressive array of young talent that the Senators have collected and it is shining light at the end of the tunnel for fans. After years of seeing its roster gutted and stomaching poor results in the pursuit of high picks, this organization is close to turning the corner towards competitiveness.
There certainly is something to be said about how easy it is to intentionally tank for high picks and tear down a roster and auction off pieces to the highest bidder. It is not a foolproof strategy, but it is a popular one that organizations employ to cut costs, lower expectations and gradually build a franchise back up. And to this end, the Senators have assembled a well-regarded base of young talent.
Management and the amateur scouting staff deserve credit for that.
Where management has struggled is on the pro side. Historically, this regime’s best trades have been the ones where the team was trying to dump salary (ie. Dion Phaneuf, Anders Nilsson/Marian Gaborik) or moving assets for picks or prospects. Where it has struggled is in its attempts to add players who were meant to make this team better competitively.
I have written about it recently, but with the exception of Artyom Zub last summer, all of Dorion’s moves bombed. Whether it is poor scouting, an overreliance on information from coaches — from Guy Boucher to D.J. Smith — to acquire players they were more familiar with, this organization has erred and invested quite a bit of capital (money and traded picks) on a lot of replacement or sub-replacement level value at a time when it was trying to make the team better on the ice.
No one will admit that Dorion has an easy job acquiescing to the demands of one of the most volatile and impulsive owners in professional sports. With that said, working for Eugene Melnyk should not give Dorion a ‘Get of Jail Free’ card. Acquiring professional talent should, in theory, be the easiest kinds of valuations to make. From the more easily accessible in-person viewings, game footage, and data, teams should not miss as much as the Senators have in recent years.
This willingness to ignore easily identifiable big risks is alarming but correctable.
Investing in the front office will help mitigate mistakes and maybe Pierre McGuire and his connections can help with that. A larger investment in data and analytics would help with that. Hiring more professional scouts would help with that.
As the team transitions from its rebuild stage to pushing for a playoff spot, the pressure on Dorion and his staff to make more efficient moves is going to be paramount. Not only to prove to Eugene Melnyk that he is capable of getting the job done, but proving to young talents like Brady Tkachuk that Ottawa’s a place worth sticking around in.