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The Ottawa Senators will return to work on Sunday afternoon for practice at the Canadian Tire Centre, their eight-day break ready to come to a close.
But don’t be surprised if some of the players are a bit distracted with the clock now ticking loudly towards the NHL trade deadline set for Feb. 24 at 3 p.m.
While there’s been no shortage of talk about the future of the club’s high-profile unrestricted free agents since training camp opened in September, that’s about to get louder with the deadline to make decisions for the future of this team just around the corner for owner Eugene Melnyk, general manager Pierre Dorion and the hockey staff.
This deadline will go a long way in shaping the future of this rebuild because the Senators currently have 10 UFAs and you can be guaranteed the team will receive calls on four or five of those players depending on what the contenders want.
Dorion is overseas right now, getting a look at the top European prospects in the 2020 NHL draft and he won’t return to North America until the Senators face the Washington Capitals on Friday night at home.
Speaking with TSN 1200 earlier this month, Dorion stated he will sit down and have serious contract talks with some of the club’s UFAs before deciding on a trade deadline game plan.
Ideally, he’d like to avoid all the speculation that went on prior to last year’s deadline and keep the focus of his players on what’s happening on the ice.
“Instead of being focused on playing the game, everyone was focused on everyone else’s contract,” Dorion said.
“You create a circus atmosphere and one thing we want to do is be as respectful to our fans as possible. They have the right to know the direction we’re going, but I think they understand the process.
“At the same time, we’re just going to do things quietly and we’re going to move forward. The one thing we can do, if you’ve been in this game a little while, is you can do contracts quickly.”
That’s why Dorion is being tight-lipped and it’s a common-sense approach because the Senators don’t need the distraction of players trying to figure out whether they’re staying or going with the deadline.
The Senators are in the process right now of trying to find out where everybody fits in down the road when they are contending again for a playoff position. If the talks haven’t already started, it’s expected Dorion and his staff will have serious contract talks with centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau along with defencemen Mark Borowiecki and Dylan DeMelo to see where they stand.
All three have been in key roles for Ottawa and the thinking is there’s an appetite by the organization to try and re-sign them. Still, if management can’t get deals in place, then those UFAs will have to be moved for future assets.
When TSN’s Frank Seravalli released his first list of top-20 players on the ‘Trade Bait’ list earlier this week, Pageau was ranked No. 4 and veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey was at No. 13. The club has to determine what it wants to do with Hainsey because coach D.J. Smith is a strong believer in the leadership he’s brought to the dressing room and may want him back.
Last year, the Senators tried unsuccessfully to re-sign Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel before the deadline, but had to move on and get some pieces for the rebuild in return. Naturally, the approach would be the same here if Pageau, Borowiecki, DeMelo or Hainsey don’t sign.
Dorion had a strong performance at last year’s deadline and, coupled with the deal that sent former captain Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks, helped put the club back on the road to respectability.
Right now, it’s been easy to keep the discussions quiet because the Senators haven’t really put any of their players out to market yet. Yes, teams have called to express their interest and that’s only natural because the contenders have to let Dorion know that, if a decision is made to move on, then please pick up the phone.
It will also be interesting to see how big the marketplace is this year.
The Senators aren’t the only team in the league that’s willing to sell off its assets. The Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils are both prepared to make moves while the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Sharks are all working the phones well ahead of the trade deadline.
General managers with the Buffalo Sabres (Jason Botterill), Montreal Canadiens (Marc Bergevin) and New York Rangers (Jeff Gorton) are also working the phones and they have pieces that are going to interest the buyers. Really, at this point, it feels like there are a lot more sellers than there were at this stage of the season last year.
The Nashville Predators likely have to accept reality as well, because it certainly doesn’t look like they’ll make the post-season.
Of course, a big part of the motivation for Dorion and the Senators will be to make room for the club’s top prospects down the road. The reality is they can’t keep everybody with the organization while trying to get younger and getting back to being competitive.
Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Colin White are already factoring into this rebuild. Others aren’t ready right now, but eventually the expectation is the likes of Drake Batherson, Filip Chlapik, Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Christian Wolanin and Erik Brannstrom will also have full-time roles in Ottawa while Christian Jaros remains a question mark along with Max Lajoie.
Batherson, Balcers and Formenton will participate in the AHL all-star game on Monday in California.
The Senators will have to recall two or three players from Belleville to suit up against the Devils on Monday because Balcers, Batherson and Chlapik were all sent down before the break kicked in and Smith is spending the weekend watching the AHL team to get a feel for the prospects.
Lassi Thomson (from Finland) along with Jacob Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto, both at the University of North Dakota, have all shown potential to make the jump to the NHL down the road. The club also has five picks in the first two rounds of the draft in June and two of those could be in the top 10 if San Jose continues to struggle.
Not all of those players are going to be ready to perform at the NHL level next season, which is why Dorion will be selective in which veterans he wants to re-sign before the deadline and what the club will do in free agency.
As for the restricted free agents — Anthony Duclair, Connor Brown, Chris Tierney and Nick Paul — Dorion will likely deal with their situations in the summer and attempt to re-sign them, though the latter two could be available at the trade deadline.
There are important decisions ahead and there will be no shortage of speculation between now and when the deadline passes, but the next month will be interesting.
TRADE BAIT: The Sens’ unrestricted free agents
Craig Anderson, G: Veteran goalie is in the final year of his contract and could be a backup for a contender so there may be interest.
Mikkel Boedker, F: Hasn’t played much this season but does have playoff experience. Slim chance he gets moved, however, could play more here after deadline.
Mark Borowiecki, D: An Ottawa native, he means a lot more to this team that just his role on the ice. If he goes to market, there will be no shortage of interest.
Dylan DeMelo, D: His return is hard to predict because he has fit nicely into his role here and where would a contender see him fitting on their blueline? Interesting to watch.
Cody Goloubef, D: Was a healthy scratch in the early part of the season, however, he’ll be needed here for depth especially if DeMelo and/or Borowiecki get dealt.
Ron Hainsey, D: The veteran blueliner hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2017 and he’ll be able to help a contender if he’s moved.
Vlad Namestnikov, F: Picked up by Dorion to start the season, he’s been good and could help a contender looking for a role player.
J-G Pageau, C: Sens’ most valuable trade chip, there will be no shortage of interest in him. He can help a playoff team.
Tyler Ennis, RW: He’s been a nice surprise with 11 goals and 26 points in games this season, however, if there’s any interest it will likely be mild.
Scott Sabourin, RW: Has brought an element of toughness to the Senators, but has been a healthy scratch lately. The expectation is he finishes the year here.
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