Discover more from "Rome in a Day"
Thoughts in Bold: Dorion's End of the Season Wrap on TSN 1200
As part of Pierre Dorion’s end of the season media availabilities, the general manager appeared on TSN 1200’s ‘In the Box’ with Steve Lloyd and Steve Bunda to add some thoughts on his team’s performance during the 2020-21 season.
For those unfamiliar with the ‘Thoughts in Bold’ posts, I have transcribed the entire interview below. After each of Dorion’s reflections, I’ve added my own thoughts which are highlighted in bold. For those interested in listening to the full interview, I’ve provided a link at the bottom of this post.
On Artyom Zub’s negotiations and how quickly they came together…
“This one wasn’t a very long one. We talked multiple scenarios and we just felt that for both parties, the term and the dollar were the right amount. And we liked what we saw in a short sample size of Artyom this year and we just felt that two years was the right term. For the biggest reason is also what we have coming up in (Jacob Bernard-Docker) and Lassi Thomson, who we feel will both be top-four defencemen. I think when (Zub’s) term ends, it is almost at the same time as Zaitsev, so there might be a little interlap there and we can look at what we can continue with that. But, we just felt that the dollars and term really made a lot of sense for both sides.”
I mentioned this in yesterday’s article breaking down Zub’s deal, but it’s not a surprise to hear Dorion bring up the sample size issue. Having been burned by the length and contract value that the organization gave out to Colin White after his first season, on one hand it is good to see that the front office has learned some lessons and can be suspicious of small sample sizes. On the other hand, Zub’s situation is totally different from White’s. I think if you look back at White’s season, playing the better part of a year between Brady Tkachuk and Mark Stone is going to do wonders for your production and underlying numbers. Even at that time, projecting out, White was not a first-line centre and eventually, he was going to be passed on the depth chart by a more talented option as the rebuild progressed. It was inevitable.
With Zub, it sounds like the organization believes that a similar situation could happen as Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker develop. Nikita Zaitsev is signed through the next three seasons, so it creates a situation wherein three years, Dorion projects the Senators’ right side to be those three players. The problem arises if Zub continues his strong performance. As I wrote yesterday, according to some defensive metrics on Evolving-Hockey.com, Zub had the 10th highest total defence rating in the entire league last season. Should that defensive impact continue or improve as the team around him gets better, Zub will have put himself in the driver’s seat for the next round of negotiations. And if he establishes himself as a core piece of the blue line, it will inevitably put the Senators in a position where they simply cannot afford to lose this player at this juncture of their rebuild.
On the flat cap and how it affects contract negotiations as everyone is trying to figure out what the financial picture will look like in a few years…
“Well, the thing is for us, we always have to be fiscally responsible. That’s the one thing we’re always going to be here in Ottawa. But more importantly, we have to be cap responsible. We’ve got a lot of young players that we’re going to have to sign… that we hope to sign coming out of entry-level (contracts) to contracts with some term on them in (Brady) Tkachuk, (Tim) Stützle, (Josh) Norris, (Drake) Batherson, and we’re also looking at possibly in a few years from now Sanderson and Pinto. So, to sign all these guys, they’re not going to sign qualifying offers of $925,000. And, we all know where the restricted free agent market is going, if you look at all the comparables. So, in doing this, we have to think in every contract we do moving forward, we have to think about making sure we can keep all our young stars for cap reasons more than anything. I hope and want to be here for the next 10 years, so I’m always trying to be in everything we do here thinking about the cap. And, we don’t know where the cap is going to be. We have an idea for the next three years, but at the same time when you’re thinking about the cap, you’ve got to think five, six, or seven years down the road if you’re signing these players to that type of term.”
My philosophy on the cap is that if you’re paying your best players market value or less, you should be in good shape. I suppose having too much talent could impact your ability to sign depth players down the road, but that’s a good problem to have and Ottawa’s years away from that. What kills a team’s financial flexibility is awarding or taking on contracts where teams overpay for name recognition and past performance. Last summer, the Senators had big-ticket deals belonging to Matt Murray, Derek Stepan, Erik Gudbranson and Evgenii Dadonov and got nothing out of it but sub-replacement value. Fortunately, a few of these deals were short-term in nature and allowed the organization to get out from under the players, but the team still traded picks and gave out big money for bad players. Moving forward, the organization is going to have to do a much better job of targeting players to supplement the young core because mistakes like these ones cannot keep happening.
On acknowledging that the pandemic may have changed things, but the owner did promise to be spending close to the cap ceiling starting in 2021…
“Yeah, I don’t think we’re a cap team now. I think we’re going to continue along the same path of doing this rebuild in the proper way. I think we’re going to be looking at… if we are adding, a different type of player than we added last year. But, at the same time, we want to make sure that anyone we bring in, we want to make sure that they’re high-character people and high-character competitors. But, we’re not at that stage right now of where we’re going to be a cap team. But, we’re still going to be a competitive team. Don’t get me wrong here. Being a cap team doesn’t always necessitate that you’re a competitive team. The first and foremost thing is to be a competitive team.”
The effects of the pandemic or not, this is a clear example of why owners and managers should never throw out arbitrary timelines to the public and media. It gives people something that they can hang over the organization’s head if things don’t fall into place as promised.
On whether he has started contract negotiations or talks with Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson…
“Well, you’re forgetting Victor Mete. On Victor, we’re moving along on a contract. We’ll see where that takes us over the course of the next few weeks. With Brady and Drake, we just felt that with such… being in the Canadian division this year with so many eyes and so much pressure, we just felt that for both parties, it would be better to have discussions after the season.”
With Zub’s contract done, all the offseason attention is going to be on the deals belonging to Drake and Brady. Considering how Zub’s deal was short-term in nature, I wonder if the players’ representatives will push for bridge deals banking on the fact that the Senators have a chance to improve significantly over the next few years. To maximize the money coming in, the players should bet on themselves and cash in on another contract in two to three years. For the organization, it should want to extend these players for as long as they can, but who could blame the players if they only want to sign bridge contracts?
On informing Marcus Hogberg that he would not be qualified as a restricted free agent…
“Most likely. You never know what can happen. We always owe it to the player, especially a good human being and a guy that works hard. The guy’s been in the organization, I think he told us eight years. Most likely we wouldn’t be qualifying him, but as we told him, things can change quickly. He’ll even admit that he had a terrible start to the season, but he was better once he went back in after the injury. Most likely we would not be qualifying him.”
It is interesting that Dorion told Hogberg that things can change quickly. Reading into that, maybe there is a chance that the Senators work out a deal with Seattle in which they move an asset or two to ensure the Kraken take Anton Forsberg in the expansion draft. With Mads Sogaard’s emergence in Belleville and the way that Filip Gustavsson and Joey Daccord played in Ottawa down the stretch, I’m surprised that the Senators would not plan to have one of those two back up Murray in Ottawa next season.
On how much he likes the organization’s depth at goaltender that they can afford to move on from a restricted free agent like Hogberg…
“Yeah, well, you talk to every GM and most GMs think they’re going to lose a goalie in the expansion draft. Let’s not worry too much (about losing another). I think we’ve shown that we had a pretty competitive team this year that we could lose another piece. But, we’ve got (Matt) Murray and (Anton) Forsberg as the two NHL guys. The two up and comers though, Joey (Daccord)’s still about 24 years old if I’m not mistaken. Daccord and (Filip Gustavsson) had really good seasons. I think Gus probably gave us… of any goalie that played for the Ottawa Senators, the guy that probably if you looked at just performance had the best performance of all the guys, his numbers show us that. Joey, I think, would have challenged him for that if not for the injury and we weren’t playing our best hockey when Joey went in. And then you look at (Mads) Sogaard or I’ll start with Kevin Mandolese. He had some ups and downs, but has played really good games. He was the goalie of the year in the Quebec league last year. We know he’ll take a bit longer, but he’s someone who’s shown he can be the best goalie at his level. Then you’ve got Mads Sogaard who’s come in and won four games. We felt he’s been our best player on the ice. He had a good year in Denmark playing with men. He’s looking, as Troy (Mann) said the other day, like the real deal. Then we’ve got (Leevi) Merilainen that we took in the third-round last year who was the best goalie in the Finnish under-20 league there. He’ll be a strong candidate to be the goalie for the world junior team for the Finnish team next year. As far as goaltending, I think we’ve got the quantity, but more importantly, we’ve got the quality as far as depth.”
The depth and quality that the Senators boast are impressive. The attrition rate for goaltenders is so high that it doesn’t hurt to horde a bunch of prospects and hope that one or more pan out. Given the depth that has already played at the AHL level this season, it was somewhat surprising to see the organization award Anton Forsberg with another one-year deal – especially so, with how a young prospect like Filip Gustavsson outplayed everyone down the stretch. Joey Daccord also looked like a competent and athletic netminder while he was healthy, so it is a bit weird to see the organization commit to Forsberg without there being any news on the possibility of teams carrying three goaltenders next season.
It is possible that the organization views Forsberg as a decent veteran option who can step in for Murray should his struggles continue, but he’s not the most talented option that the Senators’ depth has. Hearing that you’re likely destined for Belleville next season isn’t much of a reward to Daccord or Gustavsson. At least in Daccord’s case, he will be coming off knee surgery. But, for Gustavsson, he looked and played the part of a goaltender who can handle himself at the NHL level. Between his angles, squareness to the shooter and athleticism, there weren’t really any moments while watching him where I believed his success was a fluke.
On Josh Norris’ season and progression through the season…
“We’re very happy with the development and progress of Josh Norris. I think D.J. (Smith) handled him well. At times, I think for a game or two, he went down to the fourth line, but for the most part, he was playing a predominant role against the centres in our division. They are some of the best centres in the league and he went head-to-head against them. We knew we had something really good in him with how he played last year in the American (Hockey) League – First Team All-Star as a rookie. But, to do it in the best league against the best players, that is something pretty special. At the same time, I’ll be honest, I didn’t think it would come that quick. But, that’s a credit to him and a credit to D.J. putting him in situations where he could find his confidence. But, mostly (that’s a credit to the player) on the player himself rising to the challenge. And we know we have, whether it’s a first-line centre or a second-line centre… if he’s a first-line centre, good. But, if he’s a second-line centre, he’ll be one of the best in the league that we’ve got something special there when he reaches his maturity. There’s still room to grow.”
Norris played in every single one of Ottawa’s 56 regular season games and finished third in rookie scoring with 17 goals and 35 points. Projecting that across a full 82-game slate, Norris would be in line for 24.9 goals and 51 points. To put that kind of production in perspective, only Alexei Yashin, Mark Stone, Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Hoffman put up more points in their rookie campaigns. Of those four players, only Yashin was younger than Norris during his rookie season. Hopefully that bodes well and there is still a ton of future growth in Norris.
One of the knocks on Norris, if you want to call it that, was that the offence may not play up at the highest levels because he doesn’t display the dynamic flashiness that many of the games best talents do. Norris generates a lot his offence through his positioning, ability to read plays and his underrated shot. In a way, it’s almost reminiscent of Mark Stone. He would never wow anyone with his individual offensive talent, but he generated a ton of his offence in a similar manner to Norris. If a player can contribute in the neutral and defensive zones and get that puck transitioning quickly back to the offensive end, good things will usually follow.
On whether Tim Stützle is a winger…
“You know what, I think D.J. tried him half a game in Edmonton this year. I think the player is more comfortable on left wing. Again, sometimes becoming a centreman is when you get more comfortable with the league. Let’s never say never. I think he’s better on the wing. He can fly the zone. He can attack from either side compared to the middle offensively with the way he penetrates the zone. I think there are less defensive responsibilities as a winger which can help him be as good offensively, but at the same time, he’s such a smart player and he’s so driven. On top of being someone who’s going to be an elite talent, he’s someone we believe will be a superstar. He’s so driven that any challenge we put in front of him, you can never know what will happen. But, we’ve got Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, Colin White who’s still fairly young. We’ve got a guy like Mark Kastelic and Ridly Greig…”
So, there we have it. Tim Stützle is going to be a dynamic offensive threat off the wing. Things can change and as Dorion mentions, he seems like a pretty driven young talent. Keeping that in mind, you can never write off the possibility of Stützle making the transition at some point. Considering how Stützle’s defensive metrics this season were pretty disappointing; it is easy to understand the hesitancy to allow him to play centre and handle more defensive responsibility. At least those numbers are explainable, however. Playing big minutes as a teenager on one of the worst teams in the league will inevitably sink your numbers.
Stützle has not played the centre position in two years and the further removed Stützle is from that time, the less likely it will be that he ever makes the change. If there was ever a time to afford him the opportunity, it was this year when the team had no expectations and could experiment. As the team improves around him and the expectations grow, there inevitably will be less opportunity to afford Stützle an extended chance to play centre.
On how good Ridly Greig has looked…
“Another guy that D.J. said, ‘Can I put him in the lineup for the last game?’ I said, ‘No,’ when we watched the Belleville game together on Tuesday. And there’s always Logan Brown also in the picture. So, I think our depth at centre and we’ve still got Chris Tierney under contract for another year is really good. I think for Tim (Stützle) to be the best NHL player possible, moving forward, he’ll most likely be a winger.”
I can’t emphasize how hilarious Dorion’s laugh was leading to answering this question. If you have not listened to the interview, stream it immediately.
The Senators are armed with depth down the middle, so there is less pressure on Stützle to ever make the transition to the pivot position. With young talent like Norris, Pinto, Paul, White, Brown, Greig, Kastelic all being able to play down the middle, I wonder if it not only affects Stützle’s position but impacts what the Senators do with their 2021 first-round pick as well.
On whether the Senators have a plan for Logan Brown…
“No, I just think we’re going to continue the path with him. He’s a bigger guy. He’s a talented guy. He still needs to get better, get stronger, get quicker. But overall, his pace wasn’t bad against one of the faster teams in our division. They might not be as fast as Edmonton, but he handled the pace fine. For us, keep progressing and next is the fourth year. The fourth-year is the biggest year as a pro and for him, it will be a big year.”
I have written quite a bit about Logan Brown’s upside and how a series of unrelated injuries have essentially derailed his progress as a prospect. Looking at Brown’s trade value, it is as low as it has ever been. It is to the point where Brown’s more valuable to the Senators to develop themselves than trade him for two cents on the dollar.
A number of Ottawa’s centre prospects have leapt past Brown on the depth chart, but provided that Brown can put his injuries behind him, he can still be a valuable piece of this hockey club’s future.
As I write this, it was announced that Logan Brown injured himself in warmup and will be unable to dress for tonight’s Belleville Senators game.
On how D.J. Smith fared as a coach and progressed through the season…
“I never give a perfect grade to anyone, but I’ll give him a 9.5 out of 10. I think if you look at what our goals were this year… Take a big step forward? We did. Make sure the young players are put in situations they can succeed in? They did. Make sure the veterans that we brought in teach the young players how to do right while they do it in practice, how they do it in games? They did that. Make sure no one takes liberties on our young players? There may have been one game where I was mad, but the other 55 games, no one took any liberties on our young players. In the game of hockey, as in competitive sports in general, when it’s physical… when it’s football… when it’s hockey… teams can intimidate younger talented players. For the most part, that did not happen this year and it allowed our young players to grow in confidence and D.J. never allowed it to happen.”
I’m going to jump in here because it’s worth mentioning that the team started faring better once the roster was rid of players that D.J. kept putting in the lineup. In the past, Dorion has explained the decision to bench Zub for the first stretch of the season because the team didn’t have exhibition games and he only had an “okay” camp. Even though the team’s record was horrific and the underlying numbers justified it, these character veterans often held their place in the lineup.
“Can I give you an example? Josh Brown, we’ll all admit that Josh Brown did not have the greatest start to the season. Okay? I’m going to give you guys a concrete example. Maybe I’m breaking the code here, but it’s important for our fans to understand the importance of having character people in your lineup. So, Brady (Tkachuck) didn’t mean to hurt Blake Wheeler in the Winnipeg game. I think it was accidental what happened. (Logan) Stanley is running all over the ice trying to fight Brady. Josh Brown steps in there and says, ‘You’re not going to touch Brady anymore.’ Wins the fight against Stanley. Brady was able to do what he needed to do. We don’t want Brady fighting, okay? Next game, Stanley starts pushing (Alex) Formenton around the net. Josh Brown just stands up on the bench and says, ‘You’re not going to do it anymore or something will happen to you.’ Whether we like it or not, the physical part and intimidation are still part of the game in the NHL. And guys like Josh Brown and other veterans we have made sure that our younger players would have the confidence and room to grow and develop. That was a big part of what we were trying to accomplish this year.”
I feel like Ottawa’s players would have developed regardless. With the exception of Stützle who’s a teenager playing in North America for the first time, the majority of Ottawa’s roster had some kind of professional experience. Playing up the character of these veterans helps gloss over the fact that many of these acquired players played at a sub-replacement level this season.
On whether there’s an offseason focus on trying to improve the power play…
“Well, I think both our special teams need to get better for us to be a team where we want to be. It just says where we want to be as a team. But obviously, except for Thomas Chabot, our first power play (unit) was all players on entry-level (contracts). Three of them were rookies. You’re going to have times where they make younger mistakes. We tried a lot of things, but this was a year to try things. But, our power play definitely has to improve next year. As far as the penalty killing, your best penalty killer is your goaltender. We saw that as our goaltending got better through the year that our penalty killing went from bottom-five to the middle of the pack.”
Stop. The. Drop. Pass. Breakout.
On the list of impending unrestricted free agents that the team has and whether he would circle back on any of them…
“I think (Artem) Anisimov won’t be coming back. As far as (Ryan) Dzingel and (Derek) Stepan, we’ll probably have conversations to see where they’re at in their careers or if they want to continue being here. No certainty, but we know we have a lot of good, young players – especially upfront – that could play the same role. But at the same time, I think Ryan coming back here showed a maturity level that I had never seen from him. Derek, from day one here, was the type of veteran that we wanted in our lineup. He’s someone who loved the game of hockey and protected some of our younger centres at the start of the year. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much of a camp and he started slow, but he was really coming on before he got hurt. So, we’ll have to circle back with their agents to see where they’re at.”
It could simply be lip service to two veterans that the organization liked having around, but it makes no sense to bring either of these players back given the performance of the youth on the roster. This team doesn’t need veteran depth, it needs an infusion of higher calibre talent.
On the volume of players hitting restricted free agency in the next year or two and whether the organization will try and get ahead of the issue and sign a few players before their contracts expire…
“We did it with Thomas (Chabot) because I think Thomas wanted to. It’s not that we don’t want to get ahead of it, but sometimes some players don’t want to do it. They want to play in the last year of their deal and sometimes they want to wait until the end of the season. I’m not going to say who the players were, but it’s happened in the past. Under Bryan (Murray), I did a lot of contracts and as general manager, I do all of the contracts. So, sometimes you do want to try and get ahead of them, but sometimes, it’s the players choice to want to play it out and see where he’s at. I think you’ve got to be careful with the sample size you get what the player’s age, what his role is, what his future role will be. We’ve always been on the side that it depends on the player. Some players we’d prefer to do bridge deals. Some players we’d like to do more term deals, so it all depends. Every situation is different.”
With the way the flat cap should impact contract negotiations, it only makes sense for players like Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson to bet on themselves and prefer bridge deals. That neither player signed an extension with one year remaining may be a good indicator that the bridge is the preferred term, but there is going to be a lot of pressure on Dorion to eventually get both players locked up long-term.
On how the season in Belleville has gone…
“I’m really happy with the progress. On the day we did the Ryan Dzingel trade, I missed that afternoon game and I missed one or two games around the trade deadline. So, I missed a few there, but I’ve pretty well watched every game. I know Peter (MacTavish) watches every game, so Troy (Mann) has done a tremendous job. It’s a different team this year. It’s a way younger team as compared to… a lot of first-year guys that maybe aren’t as high-end, but if you look at the emergence of (an Igor) Sokolov, you look at what Parker Kelly’s done, you look at what (Cole) Reinhardt’s done. You look at how Lassi Thomson, like the last few games, compared to where he was even a month ago, you see something special. D.J. turned to me and goes, ‘After Chabot, I don’t know how many guys pass the puck as well as (Thomson) right now.’ I know (Artyom) Zub can move it, (Jacob) Bernard-Docker can move the puck and (Erik Brannstrom) can move the puck, but it was just how good (Thomson) was. I think you see how some of those guys have improved through the year with the work that Troy has done, the work that Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester have done with them. Sometimes the extra work… Belleville looks good. I think a lot of those guys will be back in Belleville next year and I think they’ll have a pretty good team.”
If Lassi Thomson can take a huge step and develop into a second-pairing/power-play guy for this team, that kind of inexpensive depth makes a huge difference when you already have Artyom Zub and Jacob Bernard-Docker playing NHL games right now. Throw in Erik Brannstrom and Jake Sanderson with Thomas Chabot and that’s a really young mix that should have a ton of potential. Earlier I mentioned that the Senators’ depth down the middle could impact their decision for their 2021 first-round pick. Well, with the blue line stacking up like it currently is, maybe that influences whether the Senators will take one early in the first round.
On being able to improve the team through trade…
“Well, Bruce (Garrioch) always writes that I’m one of the most active GMs. I think once Jim Rutherford resigned this year, I think we were the team that made the most trades in the last five years. So, making trades is not something that we’re afraid of doing. It’s got to be the right trade.”
If I had to predict what would happen this offseason, I would not be surprised to see the Senators examine what they could fetch for young players who have played NHL games but have been passed on the depth chart by other prospects. Players like Colin White, Logan Brown or maybe Erik Brannstrom could be packaged to fetch something that the Senators believe to be more valuable.
On whether the Senators need a bridge on left defence until Jake Sandeson arrives…
“So, I’m going to answer this with a question to you. When you play chess, do you tell your opponent what the next move you’re going to do before you do it? Here’s how I can answer. I’m going to answer it with what we did last year because I talked about this during my availability. Last year when we brought in veterans, we knew we weren’t bringing in the most talented guys. Not that I’m taking anything away from them. The Tampa deal was a lot about saving some money and getting a second-round pick. We knew those two guys were character guys. Every other deal that we did was to bring in… where we felt at a rebuild… was to bring in… I looked at what the last 10 or 15 years what teams had done in rebuild. Who had been successful? where did they veer wrong? We felt along the lines that we needed to bring in the highest character people so our young players could see exactly how it was done. Guys that had been through it. Guys that could make sure that everything was done the right way. This year, our additions will probably be a bit different. We still want to bring in high character people, but it probably won’t be the most important thing. We knew we weren’t going to make the playoffs, but we wanted to set the foundation that everything is done through hard work. Everything is earned. Those are the types of veterans that we brought in. Guys that like hockey. Guys that play hard. Guys that had that impact to make sure that our kids could grow and would be protected at the same time. This year, the younger players have grown. Now is the time to bring in, if we’re going to bring in anyone, a maybe higher quality of NHL player.”
The Senators’ young players proved that they did not need to be insulated. That was true from the time that the team played its first regular season game. Adding quality characters is fine, but talent should prevail. It was frustrating watching D.J. Smith’s hesitancy to dress Christian Wolanin and Erik Brannstrom in the same lineup. Braydon Coburn is a Stanley Cup champion and he’s probably a quality leader, but intangibles should never box promising young players out of the lineup during the rebuild.
With that said, it is exciting to hear that the Senators will put talent first when it comes to adding players this offseason. Dorion can wax poetic about the character vets he added last offseason, but with the exception of Artyom Zub, the majority of his move last summer bombed. The progress and development of the kids helped overshadow that problem, but the pressure is going to be on the front office to prove that it has learned from its mistakes. Or at the very least, looked into addressing why they made some of the mistakes they did and what new mechanisms or measures have been implemented to ensure that future mistakes will be mitigated.
On D.J. Smith and him entering the last years of their respective contracts and whether there is any movement there…
“No, they know where I am. As I said in my availability, the last time we did my contract, I used a lawyer out of Toronto. Him and Eugene shelled in and got the deal done. I’ve got a good friend here in Ottawa that takes care of my own personal business. The two smartest people I know are my two lawyers that I deal with a lot. As far as D.J., he’s done a tremendous job. At some point in time, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to do it. I want to be here. Through the rebuild, we knew the first few years would be more difficult. I want to be here for the next 10 years. I really believe in what we’re doing and I hope to be here.”
Listening to Pierre speak enthusiastically about his lawyers is like listening to him give glowing reviews of the team’s prospects.