Senators Swing for the Fences and Land Alex DeBrincat
With all apologies to Erik Brannstrom, Thursday may have been Pierre Dorion’s proudest day as the general manager of the Ottawa Senators.
Reports earlier in the day had Senators fans up in arms after learning the team had essentially finalized a deal with the Buffalo Sabres that attached the seventh overall pick to dump Matt Murray’s contract. Although all the pieces involved never reached the public realm, Murray’s refusal to waive his no-movement clause killed the deal and saved the organization from itself.
Just hours later, Dorion pivoted to landed Alex DeBrincat from the Chicago Blackhawks hours before the draft.
Talk about a wild swing of emotions.
From cursing the earliest reports that the Senators would use one of their most valuable assets to dump a short-term contract to getting excited about acquiring one of the best goal scorers in the league, the two trades were about as diametrically opposed from an asset management perspective as you can get.
What started as a terrifying experience turned into one of the best outcomes and it’s crazy to think that we all have Matt Murray to thank for refusing to waive his limited no-trade clause to go to Buffalo.
The way the rumour mill is going, it may be Murray’s last save representing the Ottawa Senators. And if it is, he certainly saved the best for last.
In getting DeBrincat, the Senators added a 24-year-old scoring winger who shoots right, but has a lot of experience playing on his off-side. In five seasons in the league, DeBrincat has averaged 32 goals a season and has cracked the 40-goal mark twice already in his young career — including the 2021-22 season in which he tallied 41 goals and 78 points.
Using Evolving-Hockey’s ‘Wins Above Replacement’ (WAR) metric, DeBrincat has been one of the most valuable forwards in the league (6.4 WAR, 26th in NHL). Although DeBrincat will never be mistaken for a power forward, he is not afraid to go to the high-traffic areas on the ice.
JFresh Hockey’s visual just emphasizes how good DeBrincat has been.
As an undersized player who is listed at 5’7” and 165 lbs on Hockey-Reference, DeBrincat’s willingness to engage the opposition and compete need to be at a high level to have the kind of success he has enjoyed. But, what is equally impressive is that it has not taken a huge toll on his frame. Chalk it up to good fortune or consistency, but DeBrincat has managed to stay in the lineup. Of Chicago’s 372 games over the last five seasons, DeBrincat has appeared in 368 of them.
DeBrincat should also become a significant factor on Ottawa’s power play. With Josh Norris’ emergence as a productive shooting threat from the right circle, adding DeBrincat to the left side will force teams to respect the dual threat and spread out their defensive coverage so they cannot predominantly focus on Norris. Over the last three seasons, only seven players (Draisaitl, Kreider, Pastrnak, Zibanejad, Matthews, Ovechkin and Stamkos) have more power-play goals than DeBrincat’s 33.
By introducing DeBrincat to the mix, something will have to give however. The Senators regularly deployed Stützle on that left side wall and that spot should fall now to DeBrincat. With Batherson, Norris and Tkachuk occupying the other forward roles, it may relegate Stützle to the second unit barring some unforeseen decision to load up the first unit with five forwards instead. (As an aside, if there is one criticism of Thomas Chabot’s ability as a defenceman, it is his body of work on the power play. For whatever reason, despite his ability to break the puck out and distribute the rock, he just has not been an impactful creator from the blue line position on the power play.)
For as good a player DeBrincat is, there is some risk to this deal for Ottawa. DeBrincat only has one season left on his contract and another year of restricted free agent status after that. Considering how Pierre Dorion stressed the importance of acquiring players who come with some certainty, acquiring DeBrincat does not really fit that philosophy.
Considering how the fallout of the Matt Duchene trade played out for the Senators, no one would have blamed Dorion for balking at moving a significant opportunity cost while taking on some similar risks — especially with the organization’s struggles to keep significant talents as they exit their restricted free agent years and are poised to test unrestricted free agency for the first time.
The good news is that the departures of many of those players took place at a time when the organization decided to rebuild and overhaul its roster. Ignoring the debate about whether that decision was spurred by the team’s finances or if it was motivated principally by hockey decisions, the reality of the situation now is that this team as it is presently constructed is more appealing to stick around than it has been at any point in the last five years.
With the presence of a young core that features a lot of talented American-born players, I would not outright dismiss the possibility that DeBrincat would re-sign. Thanks to the prospect of a new downtown arena, the possibility of new ownership down the road, and an emerging young team, there are a lot of encouraging reasons to stay in Ottawa.
The opportunity cost that the Senators paid was not insignificant, but it was palatable given the upside here and the chance the team could re-sign DeBrincat. After watching the Philadelphia Flyers essentially package the same kind of offer sans a first-round pick to acquire defenceman Tony DeAngelo, it certainly helps makes Ottawa deal look like a fleece job.
We will see where things go when Ottawa is first allowed to open new contract negotiations with DeBrincat on July 13th.
Unlike Josh Norris, who was in his NHL career’s infancy when he refused to negotiate a new extension ahead of the 2021-22 season, DeBrincat’s a proven commodity. He will earn $9.0 million in real dollars ($6.4 million AAV), which means that provided he does not sign a contract extension before the end of the 2022-23 season, his qualifying offer next summer will need to come in at that figure. The hope is that Ottawa can get an extension down at a lower figure than that, but the reality here is that all of the leverage belongs to DeBrincat right now.
Make no mistake, he is in the driver’s seat.
The Senators will have a window to convince him to stay. From the general manager down to the coaches and players, the pressure to deliver a convincing sales pitch and extension will be enormous. DeBrincat and his representatives clearly understand that the organization paid a significant opportunity cost without any assurances, so that will only help his camp in negotiations.
But, even in the event that DeBrincat does command an expensive contract, this is essentially the price of insulating the team’s young core with a similarly aged player with a proven track record. Inevitably, there will always be concerns about the salary cap, the team’s internal budget, and whether the organization will be able to keep all of its top talents together. For me, the concerns are overemphasized. Thanks to a salary cap ceiling that is expected to rise in a few years, the Senators should be able to get out from underneath their remaining deadweight contracts by then. And perhaps most importantly, the chances of Ottawa’s other young players commanding expensive deals that will overshadow what a player like Brady Tkachuk is making seems unlikely. The team should have no problem keeping this young group together for the foreseeable future.
If there is any genuine concern about DeBrincat’s play, it is going to stem from how he will fare after he logged significant minutes playing alongside one of the league’s most dynamic offensive players in Patrick Kane.
Using NaturalStatTrick’s line tool, it is easy to check how DeBrincat’s underlying numbers look when he does not share the ice with Kane.
During the 2021-22 season, it is easy to elicit concern that DeBrincat’s shot, goal and scoring chance metrics suffered when playing away from Kane. The percentage of total shots (49.71 CF% with, 47.46 CF% away), shots on goal (50.44 SF% with, 48.85 away) and goals for (54.43 GF% with, 39.02 GF% away) all skewed in favour of the Blackhawks faring better when DeBrincat played with Kane. If you are looking for an encouraging sign, the scoring chance and expected goal data demonstrates that the Hawks generated a greater percentage of expected goals and scoring chances when DeBrincat did not play with Kane.
Across a larger sample size like the last three years, all of the numbers skew closely together.
DeBrincat has played 1,669 five-on-five minutes with Kane and 1,208 five-on-five minutes away from him.
While playing together, the Blackhawks generated 47.86 percent of the total shots (CF%), 47.56 percent of the shots on goal (SF%), 53.42 percent of the goals (GF%) and 45.97 percent of the scoring chances (SCF%). While playing away from Kane, the Blackhawks generated 47.97 percent of the total shots, 48.69 percent of the shots on goal, 46.79 percent of the goals, and 48.52 percent of the scoring chances with DeBrincat on the ice.
Looking at those numbers, the Blackhawks actually performed better under every shooting and chance metric when DeBrincat was away from Kane. The only difference was the percentage of total goals let in, but the Blackhawks generated 50.60 percent of the expected goals when DeBrincat played away from Kane.
Although it is true that the Senators currently do not have a dynamic offensive talent like Kane, stylistically speaking, the hope is that Tim Stützle can eventually provide many of the similar elements.
For a time, it looked like the Senators were trying to model their franchise off the way the St. Louis Blues built their championship team by targeting bigger two-way talents who are not afraid to play a physical brand of hockey.
DeBrincat’s obviously not the biggest of players and Jimmy Stü is not one of the most physical either, but the belief is that these two players will get the opportunity to develop chemistry early on in the season. If there are eventual stylistic concerns about the lines, the good news is that Ottawa has finally accrued enough top-six talent where they can get creative with their matchups to find different fits.
One concern that bears monitoring is DeBrincat’s even strength impact has historically not been as significant as his production indicates per HockeyViz.com.
For an offensive talent, one would have assumed that the impact would have been greater, but fortunately, last season demonstrated significant gains. Just as importantly, DeBrincat has never really been a liability defensively on the ice, which should help Ottawa’s top-six.
Provided the Senators can extend DeBrincat, this trade will be a win for the Senators. Without knowing his intentions of being willing to open up contract negotiations before his current deal expires, even if DeBrincat is hesitant to re-sign, at the very least, the Senators will easily be able to trade him to another team to recoup some assets.
They may not be able to recover the top-10 pick that they gave up in this deal, but Pierre Dorion took a swing on a two-time 40-goal scorer who should fit in well with this young core. DeBrincat may not come with the controlled term that the organization sought, but at least they took a shot to improve the club’s talent level now and have an extended window to sign the player to a new extension. It is also a significant signal to its young core and prospective free agents **cough,cough** Claude Giroux **cough, cough** that this team is serious about moving the needle in a positive direction.
And for Dorion, going from dumping Matt Murray to landing one of the best talents available is a tidy piece of business. The general manager literally went from fans calling for his immediate dismissal to praising his work just hours later. We may never know or understand the thought process for why the organization originally preferred the Buffalo deal if this trade with Chicago was concurrently available, but it does not matter now.
The deal was a desperately needed win for Dorion and it is a great first step for the organization this summer.
The work is not done however and the Senators certainly need to address their defence — an area of weakness that has plagued the organization for the better part of the last two decades.
For the organization to really be considered a threat for the postseason, it is going to have to add another defenceman or two to its mix. The addition of Jake Sanderson should certainly help improve the blue line, but another talented veteran to throw into the top-four with Artyom Zub, Thomas Chabot and Sanderson will be necessary.
The Senators still have some trade chips and a decision to make on Connor Brown’s future, so there should be more opportunities to add. Provided the organization can offload Matt Murray and Nikita Zaitsev’s contracts, there could be some intriguing ways to reallocate some of this money to improve the team.