Thursday, July 18, 2024

1-on-1 with Senators GM Steve Staios: Linus Ullmark opportunity, trading No. 7 pick and more

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LAS VEGAS — Far away from the sweltering heat and the constant pinging of slot machines in the lobby, the Ottawa Senators are occupying two rooms on the convention centre level of their luxury hotel on the Vegas Strip.

The staff has neatly divided itself into two groups — the amateur scouts and pro scouts — with general manager Steve Staios and his key staff bouncing between the rooms as needed. Sitting on a couch in the hallway outside of those two rooms — where conversations about the draft and free agency are feverishly taking place — Staios has taken a few minutes from his hectic schedule to speak with The Athletic.

As he enters his first offseason as general manager of the Senators, Staios is well aware this week represents a rare window in which NHL clubs are looking to radically alter the chemistry of their rosters. 

“Draft time and trade dealing are times when teams are looking to reshape their rosters and add pieces. That’s when you get calls on your players. So there is more of an intensity leading into this week,” says Staios. “Things will probably pick up in the next couple of days.”

Staios already got the ball rolling earlier this week, when he engineered a significant trade with the Boston Bruins. And during his extended conversation with The Athletic on Wednesday, he touched on his thought process behind the trade, plus a wide range of other topics around the team. 

Opportunity to acquire Ullmark ‘was just too good’

The timing of Ottawa’s acquisition of Linus Ullmark was certainly surprising, with the official announcement coming as the entire hockey world was focused on Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Oilers and Panthers on Monday.

Staios explained the timing was not intended to serve as a distraction from the most anticipated NHL game in years. 

“It was a travel day for us as a group. I’m not fond of the timing of it in light of Game 7, but business has to get done and we moved forward with it,” Staios said. “This was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

In Ullmark, the Senators are acquiring a goaltender who is only one year removed from capturing a Vezina Trophy. As Staios puts it, “You can wait a long time to acquire a goalie of that calibre.”

While there had been reports that Ottawa was originally on Ullmark’s no-trade list, the netminder started his video conference call with the media by flatly shooting down that storyline. 

“Ottawa wasn’t on my list, so there was nothing to waive,” said Ullmark.

Ullmark played a career-high 49 games in 2022-23 when he posted a .938 save percentage and 1.89 goals-against average en route to capturing the Vezina. If everything goes according to plan, Ullmark should seize the majority of the starts in Ottawa, with Anton Forsberg — a longtime friend of his — serving as the primary backup. 

“It’s always something that I’ve dreamed about. Being a clear No. 1 and playing a lot of games,” Ullmark said. “I showed my skill level a couple of years ago. I’m hoping for this season to come that it’s going to be a great one.”

Ullmark will carry a $5 million cap hit this season — while being paid $4.5 million in real cash — and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Ullmark told reporters that preliminary negotiations between his camp and the Senators had not commenced. 

“Not yet. It’s only been 36 hours. It’s still very fresh,” he said. 

“The contract contract situation, that is something Steve and my agent will deal with on the side. Once there is something to be discussed, you can reach me,” added Ullmark. “That’s the situation right now. I try not to look too far ahead and worry about what may be or could be in the future.”

When asked by The Athletic about the state of contract talks with Ullmark, Staios said that his top priority is creating an environment where his netminder feels welcome on and off the ice in Ottawa. 

“The most important thing is that Linus and his family are comfortable. I’ve seen firsthand how our fans embrace our players in Ottawa-Gatineau and that gives me great confidence with any player that we bring into our organization,” said Staios “Those conversations will take place in the future.”

If there is some reason for optimism on this front, it’s that Ullmark has received glowing reviews about Ottawa as a city. 

“The thing that everybody has talked about is that Ottawa is a great place to raise a family. And that speaks volumes to me,” Ullmark said. “I feel comfortable settling into Ottawa.”

Ullmark says that in addition to speaking with fellow Swedes Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson, he also received welcoming texts from key members of the team like Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux and Drake Batherson

“There’s a certain level of confidence for our players with having someone like Linus part of our team,” adds Staios. “It’s somebody we identified would be a perfect fit for us. With the age of him and the age of the group, we were excited to see this one through.”

The 30-year-old goaltender says that being exposed to the Bruins’ winning culture — where they amassed a league-best .713 points percentage in Ullmark’s three seasons — will allow him to impart wisdom to the younger core in Ottawa. 

“I’m hoping to bring consistency, effort and attitude,” said Ullmark. “It’s a young, but exciting team. They really showed how dangerous and how good they can be. It’s all about consistency in my mind. Hopefully, going into this season with a new coaching staff we can get that ball rolling. Once we do that, it’s going to be a very dangerous team going forward.”

No buyouts on the horizon

The NHL’s window for teams to buy players officially opens on Thursday. But Staios told The Athletic that he was not planning on exercising that option during the 48-hour buyout window this week. 

The two players who received the most speculation on the buyout front have been Joonas Korpisalo and Travis Hamonic. Korpisalo was traded to Boston to acquire Ullmark, with Ottawa retaining 25 percent of Korpisalo’s salary over each of the next four seasons. Staios said he studied various options for how to move on from Korpisalo — including a buyout — but eventually landed on this route. A straight buyout of Korpisalo’s deal would have seen Ottawa pay the netminder two-thirds of his salary for eight more seasons.

“When you ask if it was the best option, the answer would be yes,” said Staios of Korpisalo. “As I did my work and gained information on the market on goaltenders, that was the best deal.”

As for Hamonic — who has one year remaining with a cap hit of $1.1 million — Staios says the veteran defenceman underwent a “minor procedure” on his knee during the offseason. The 33-year-old has a full no-move clause in his contract, which means he cannot be demoted to the AHL or traded to another team without his permission. 

If Ottawa wanted to enact the buyout option on Hamonic, it would cost the club roughly $366,000 per season in each of the next two years, according to CapFriendly. Staios stopped well short of saying Hamonic would be a fixture inside the club’s top six, instead highlighting the intangibles he can bring inside Ottawa’s locker room. 

“Travis is a veteran defenceman with great leadership qualities and we expect him to bring those to our team next year,” said Staios. 

‘Lots of interest’ in Ottawa’s No. 7 pick

After trading the 25th selection to Boston to acquire Ullmark, the Senators are back to only having one pick in the first round of Friday’s draft. Staios says teams are constantly phoning him to inquire about the availability of the No. 7 selection. 

“There’s lots of interest in the pick,” says Staios. 

While it’s virtually impossible to envision a scenario where Staios ships that pick off for immediate roster help, he did concede he is open to the idea of trading down a couple of spots. 

“The answer is yes — depending on what the return is and who the players is that is sitting at that pick,” said Staios. “You always have to be looking at opportunities to add to our group. And if the fit is right, then we would move on it. I don’t make deals, just to make deals. I’ll be patient. And if the right opportunity comes, we’ll move on it. 

Part of the reason Staios says he will be flexible to move back is that there is a lot of mystery and intrigue with this year’s draft. After Macklin Celebrini undoubtedly goes first to San Jose, the rest of the draft order appears to be completely up in the air. So if Staios sees that multiple players they like are available at No. 7, trading back a couple of spots, might be something worth considering — if they can still land one of their desired prospects. 

“Typically if you’re sitting at No. 7, you know 24 hours before what one through six looks like. I don’t think that’s the case this year,” said Staios. “The last thing you want to be is surprised on the draft floor. That’s why the preparation is so important.”

Staios spent the latter half of the season personally scouting some of the players who are on the Senators’ radar, plus he had a chance to connect with several of them at the draft combine in Buffalo earlier this month. He says he’s confident in the ranking system of the prospects headed up by Don Boyd, who is leading the amateur side of the hockey department. 

“You have to trust the staff that put the list in the right order,” added Staios. “We have certain things and attributes we want to see in an Ottawa Senator. There are a few players who fit the bill in that category at No. 7. You look at organizational need as well and that factors into the conversation.”

Senators centre Shane Pinto needs a new contract as a pending restricted free agent. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Sens ‘continue to work on’ Pinto contract 

Staios has a lot on his plate this week with the draft and free agency. But arguably one of his biggest priorities in this offseason is to ink Shane Pinto to a contract extension. The 23-year-old centre is scheduled to become a restricted free agent on July 1.

“It’s a priority and something that we continue to work on,” said Staios. “There’s been great dialogue and we’re working towards it.

The Senators clearly want to avoid a repeat of last season’s salary-cap crunch in which Pinto was left unsigned late in the summer. His 41-game suspension for gambling-related activities ultimately proved to be helpful on the cap front — but Staios certainly doesn’t want to get into training camp without Pinto under contract. 

Pinto told The Athletic at the conclusion of the regular season that he was hoping to get a contract done before the start of the world championships in May. That obviously did not materialize and the next true pressure point is probably as we edge closer to the start of training camp. 

‘It’s tough to say’ how aggressive Sens will be in free agency

The period for unrestricted free agents opens in five days and Staios currently has some holes to fill on the roster.

He’s addressed the goaltending situation by landing Ullmark, but there are still some notable openings. The club is desperately seeking a right-shot defenceman to play inside the top four. Ottawa could also use some help on the wings, as it will need to replace players like Vladimir Tarasenko and Dominik Kubalik who were regulars for most of last season. 

But Staios says he might be able to obtain those players via trades in the next couple of days, which would significantly lessen the importance of free agency. 

“I think it’s tough to say how aggressive we’re going to be. It depends on if there are any transactions that make sense in the next 48 hours or before July 1,” said Staios. “If there is a need and we can accomplish it over the next couple of days, maybe we won’t be as aggressive in free agency.”

During his conference call with reporters later on Wednesday, Staios said the notion of trading Thomas Chabot has not come up at all

After trading Mark Kastelic to Boston as part of the Ullmark deal, the Senators are potentially in line to add a fourth-line centre. Staios didn’t seem overly keen on the idea of using Ridly Greig in that spot, although he said that decision will be left up to new head coach Travis Green. If nothing else, Greig offers some versatility in the event that Staios doesn’t find a true No. 4 centre this week. 

“Ridly can play anywhere in our lineup. He knows what we think of him. He gives us everything whether it’s on wing, centre — the first line or fourth line,” said Staios. 

(Photo of Brady Tkachuk and Linus Ullmark: Richard T Gagnon / Getty Images)

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