Monday, June 17, 2024

The 10 most important quotes from the Senators’ season-ending media interviews

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One of the most frustrating exercises for a fan base is watching season-ending media interviews when your team isn’t headed to the playoffs.

You look with a great amount of envy at 16 other fan bases, who get to soak in the excitement of the start of the postseason. Their player interviews are infused with optimism, excitement and energy.

Meanwhile, your favourite players are answering the same questions they’ve been peppered with for months.

What happened this season?

What needs to change for next year?

Can you describe your frustration?

And when you’re a fan of the Ottawa Senators, a seventh straight season of watching these interviews becomes redundant and exhausting. You can almost predict the questions and answers at this point. 

But with a new regime in place, there were some different answers from players and management last week — answers that could shed some insight into how a crucial summer will play out in Ottawa. Here is a breakdown and analysis of the 10 most important quotes from the Senators’ season-ending season with the media. 

Thomas Chabot on Ottawa’s next head coach: “Somebody that can come in and hold all of us accountable. Teach us the game and teach us how to win games, will be very good for our group.”

Chabot is now entering his eighth season in the NHL, without ever having truly played any meaningful games in his career. And he’s been around so long that he’s actually played for four different head coaches in Ottawa: Guy Boucher, Marc Crawford, D.J. Smith and Jacques Martin. 

So it stands to reason that no player on that roster — with the exception of Brady Tkachuk — has a better idea of what Ottawa might require in a head coach. Chabot and Tkachuk have been here since the inception of the rebuild. To hear Chabot specifically mention the need for Ottawa’s next head coach to “come in and hold all of us accountable” is a significant comment. The standard needs to be raised in Ottawa and it’s refreshing to hear a player actually come out and publicly state it. 

And while that quote gained some traction among Senators fans on the weekend, the latter part of Chabot’s comment shouldn’t be overlooked either. 

The fact Chabot is looking for someone to “teach us how to win games” illustrates how difficult it is to break out of a losing culture. That’s all Chabot and Tkachuk have ever known. The Senators have a .448 points percentage since Chabot entered the NHL as a full-time player in 2017-18 — ranking Ottawa 29th in the league in that window. 

Losing has unfortunately been baked into the culture in Ottawa and somebody needs to step in and change it. 

“I agree 100 percent. That’s part of coaching — holding people accountable,” coach Martin said when told of Chabot’s comments. “I think it’s really important to have that.”

Steve Staios on his exit meetings with the players: “The frustration comes from not being able to meet expectations.”

The frustration has been palpable with the Senators this season. When they missed the playoffs in 2020, 2021 and 2022, there was a sense this was a young team with a bright future. When they finished with 86 points and stayed somewhat relevant in the playoff chase around the trade deadline last season, the feeling was the trajectory was pointed in the right direction. You could always sell optimism and hope. Better days ahead and all that. 

But this season, the exit meetings were brimming with more frustration and emotion. Staios allowed the players to speak openly and candidly, allowing for frank discussions about the state of this franchise. Even the media interviews with the players struck a markedly different tone. There is a sharper, harder edge to this group. Those good vibes — that were hanging around this group — have evaporated. 

I did like it when Staios said, “I do believe that we have an incredibly well-intended group of players. I do believe that they care.”

But one of my biggest takeaways from being around the Senators this season is there is growing anger with the inability to take this program to the next level. And the players absolutely need to own some of that failure. They’ve changed the head coach and general manager. Logic dictates the next step is to address the roster if this isn’t going in the right direction. 

So we’re reaching a breaking point where that frustration needs to be channelled into something positive. You can absolutely feel it around this group. 

As Claude Giroux said at one point, “Pretty much everybody is frustrated in the situation we’re in.”

“It’s pretty disappointing. Upset, frustrated — all the words you can use there,” added Brady Tkachuk. “Sick and tired of losing. I don’t want to be going home in April anymore. It’s frustrating.”

Jakob Chychrun is eligible for an extension on July 1. (Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

Jakob Chychrun on whether Ottawa is the place he wants to play for the next several years: “It’s a tough question. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t thought about that.”

This was probably the most shared and scrutinized interview clip from the season-ending media interviews. 

Chychrun’s answer coupled with his body language seemed to speak volumes about his future in Ottawa. But to be fair to the player, he’s been put in an awkward spot. His name has been inserted in the rumour mill for the past three months and it sounds like he hasn’t been given any assurances that he’s part of the core moving forward. 

Last month, Chychrun opened up to The Athletic about being the target of trade rumours. And after trying to orchestrate a trade out of Arizona, Chychrun made it clear the situation wasn’t repeating itself in Ottawa. 

“We were trying to get moved in Arizona, both the team and myself. That is just a different situation,” Chychrun said. “I was expecting to get moved. And this is obviously different.”

Chychrun added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s out of my control. But that’s just the reality of my situation.”

I don’t think Chychrun has any more clarity on his status and that likely explains his body language and tone. He wants to be guarded with his words.

Now to be fair to Staios, he’s spent the past five months in evaluation mode. If he feels like Chychrun — who was acquired by his predecessor Pierre Dorion — isn’t the right fit with the group, it behooves him to be as honest as possible with the player. Staios cannot guarantee or promise a player he’s going be in Ottawa long term if he’s seriously contemplating moving him.

This has been an awkward situation for the past few months and with Chychrun eligible for an extension on July 1, it seems we’re headed to a resolution here. It seems unlikely he would return for next season with the same lingering contractual doubts hanging over his head. 

Tim Stützle on being limited by injuries this season: “It shouldn’t be an excuse. I just wasn’t good enough throughout the year.”

During his session with the media, Stützle revealed he suffered a wrist injury in the fourth game of the regular season — an ailment that hampered him for the majority of the season. He also missed the final seven games with a shoulder injury. 

While Stützle didn’t want to use that as an excuse for a down season, he did say at one point, “When your brain is going, but your body isn’t doing the things, it’s frustrating.”

Stützle saw a dramatic drop in two categories from last season when he tallied 39 goals and 90 points in 2022-23. This season, Stützle’s production dipped to 18 goals and 70 points in 75 games. 

He appeared to be less confident and dynamic in the offensive zone and a lingering wrist issue is a very good explanation for the lower productivity. Still, in a down season, he was close to a point-per-game player. There is plenty of room for upward mobility in Stützle’s game and if he’s healthy for next season, a return to the 39-goal, 90-point version of himself should be the expectation. 

“I’m going to be good to go for next year,” said Stützle. 

Brady Tkachuk on where things are at with this franchise: “Everybody knows. Just finished Year 6 and haven’t done a thing. Haven’t played in those meaningful games that I’ve imagined.”

Tkachuk had another productive season, leading the Senators in goals (37) and points (74). And he had an excellent finishing kick, scoring 10 goals over his final 18 games. 

But he would trade that personal success for a taste of playoff action. Tkachuk seemed more polished and reflective in his media sessions down the stretch and last week’s season-ending availability was no different. 

When asked what went wrong this season, Tkachuk said, “I don’t think there was just one particular issue. At the end of the day, we didn’t make steps forward this year. We took a couple steps back.”

While admitting the team regressed this season, Tkachuk did state he has confidence in the new regime in Ottawa to help take this team to the next level. 

“I have full faith and trust in Steve and Mr. Andlauer,” he said. 

Staios on potentially using a buyout: “I would consider anything. I don’t believe that there’s any consideration for that for this group at this time.”

The Senators spent roughly $5 million in dead salary this season, paying the likes of Matt Murray, Bobby Ryan, Michael Del Zotto and Colin White to not play for them. Murray, Ryan and Del Zotto will come off the books this summer, giving the Senators a little more salary-cap flexibility.

Do they really want to rush back into paying players to not play for them?

Joonas Korpisalo’s contract comes up most often in conversation for Ottawa fans as a potential buyout option. But exercising the buyout mechanism on that contract would result in Ottawa having a small portion of Korpisalo’s salary count against their salary cap until 2031-32. The cap hit would be minimal in some cases, including just $333,333 for next season and $833,333 in 2025-26. For most seasons, the cap hit would be $1.33 million per year. That’s a significant amount of money to pay, even if the cap gradually ticks upward. 

That Staios said he would “consider anything” opens the door to the possibility of a buyout. And when he was asked specifically about his goaltending, Staios also said, “I would say that we’ll look at everything.”

Shane Pinto has universal support among the Ottawa fan base. (Marc DesRosiers / USA Today)

Shane Pinto on signing a new contract in Ottawa: “I want to be here. I love the boys, I love the community, I love the organization.”

Pinto seemed like the only Ottawa player radiating good energy last week. A major reason for that was he missed the first 41 games of the regular season due to his league suspension. Pinto was absent for a lot of the angriest and most frustrating moments of the regular season, including the December tailspin that led to the firing of D.J. Smith. 

Pinto reiterated how much he wants to stay in Ottawa and would like to avoid the contract drama that dragged well into the summer last year. 

As Pinto told The Athletic earlier this month, “I obviously want to get something done here soon. I want to be here for a long time. I’ve expressed that, and I think they’ve expressed that. It’s just about finding a middle ground here.”

Finding that middle ground might be a bit of a grind, but there should be every bit of optimism that Pinto’s camp will get a deal done this spring. He’s dealing with a completely different general manager and owner and this new regime seems to respect Pinto’s importance to the roster. 

If you were taking a popularity vote among Senators fans, Pinto’s name would be near the very top. He’s got almost universal support in Ottawa and hearing him speak so glowingly about his teammates and the city last week will only further endear him to the fan base. 

Staios on the coaching search: “If we feel like we have the perfect candidate, then we would move on it.”

Staios revealed he’s already spoken to multiple candidates about the head coaching vacancy in Ottawa. 

But “if we feel like we have the perfect candidate, then we would move on it,” sounds like they haven’t exactly interviewed their top choice just yet. Does that mean that person is still employed? They haven’t gotten around to interviewing him just yet?

It’s tough to say. Staios and his staff have done a remarkable job putting up a layer of secrecy around their moves.

But with Buffalo now also searching for a head coach that would presumably fit the same profile as Ottawa, the Senators are not alone in their pursuit to elevate their program. A veteran coach with a track record of NHL success — such as Craig Berube, Dean Evason or Todd McLellan — would be viewed favourably by the fan base in Ottawa. All those coaches have been on the market for the past several months but Ottawa hasn’t jumped on any of them. 

A hiring will likely come down in the next four to six weeks and, as Staios indicated, it sounds like they will pounce the moment they believe they have the perfect fit. 

Staios on Josh Norris: “He is going to be ready to go come training camp for us.”

For the second straight offseason, we’re headed into the summer with Norris trying to recover from shoulder surgery.

It’s a tough break for a young man who carries a 17.2 career shooting percentage when he’s healthy in the NHL. Norris has six more seasons with a cap hit of $7.95 million. 

Staios sounded optimistic the timeline for Norris’ recovery will put him on track to be ready for the start of training camp. But this situation played out last season and Norris just wasn’t quite comfortable with his shoulder during the entirety of training camp. He didn’t suit up for a single exhibition game and missed the first three games of the regular season. 

It’s been a physical grind for Norris, but Staios also acknowledged the emotional toll these injuries have taken on the 24-year-old centre. 

“Having mental support from us as an organization is going to be important,” Staios said. 

Claude Giroux on where the franchise sits: “Next year is going to be a big year for us. We feel we can be a playoff team with the players we have.”

I thought Giroux summarized Ottawa’s situation perfectly.

This is going to be a massive year for the Senators. If they don’t meet expectations, we should expect a sledgehammer to be taken to this roster. Even Giroux, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, may bolt for a better opportunity to win elsewhere if this situation doesn’t improve. 

But I liked Giroux stating his belief they could be a playoff team in Ottawa. There should be a glimmer of hope this organization can turn it around with a few minor tweaks and better goaltending. 

I also thought Staios did a nice job of raising expectations — in a reasonable manner — when he said, “There’s massive potential for internal growth with this group.”

When you look at the rosters of the teams that were chasing down the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, there is no reason why Ottawa shouldn’t have been hanging around Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The gap isn’t insurmountable. 

And if Staios and Andlauer can put their fingerprints on this organization — in their first full offseason in charge — it could bode well for optimism next fall. 

“We’re working towards building a culture here. And that doesn’t start and stop with the players,” said Staios. “That’s got to run through the entire organization.”

(Top photo of Brady Tkachuk: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

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