Saturday, June 15, 2024

UFA targets, Carter Yakemchuk, LeBreton Flats and more: Senators mailbag, Part 1

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Alright Ottawa Senators fans, we’ve finally reached the month of June.

This is officially the calm before the storm, as we’re about to be hit with a tidal wave of Sens-related news in the weeks ahead.

The club has a pair of first-round picks at the draft later this month in Vegas. We’re less than a month away from the opening of free agency and Ottawa certainly has some roster spots to fill. Plus Steve Staios likely has some trade chips to play, which could make him one of the most active general managers this summer.

So it’s not surprising that when I opened up the submissions for this mailbag column, we immediately received 150 queries in less than 48 hours. There are a lot of different directions we can head with the Senators in the next few weeks.

To that end, I’m going to break up answering some of these into multiple columns since there are simply too many to try and stuff into a single article.

And if you haven’t had a chance to submit a question, please head over here and drop one in. I’ll try and revisit that page a couple of times to scan for fresh questions before dropping my next column.

So without further ado, here is the opening installment of our June mailbag column.

Some questions and answers have been edited for style and clarity. 


Who would be your ideal UFAs for the Sens? Maybe rate the likelihood, your contract projection, and team fit (playing style, and vibe check). You could reference Chris Johnston’s “Top 50 UFAs” article. — Neil W.

Well, I think we should go ahead and strike the biggest names off Chris Johnston’s list.

Claude Giroux chose Ottawa two summers ago because it was a perfect fit for him on the family side. But it’s hard to see any of the high-end UFAs like Sam Reinhart, Jake Guentzel or Steven Stamkos picking Ottawa if they end up testing the market.

Where Johnston’s list gets very interesting for me is right in the middle. He’s got three right-shot defencemen all in a row with Sean Walker (No. 23), Dylan DeMelo (No. 24) and Chris Tanev (No. 25). Many of you asked specifically about right shot defencemen in your mailbag question, so this will hopefully answer your questions as well.

Tanev is super interesting to me, because I think he could be a “culture shifter” in Ottawa. He could come in and shift the mood and tone in that locker room with his veteran presence. But he’s 34 years old and his penchant for blocking shots and playing a hard-nosed, physical style has probably taken its toll. Tanev has been paid roughly $4.5 million in each of the last nine seasons, so it’s hard to imagine his AAV will come down dramatically based on his age. If anything, he might even be in line for an incremental raise.

Here is the most likely contract for each of those three players — Tanev, DeMelo and Walker — using Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool.

Projected UFA contracts

Player Projected Term Projected AAV

5 years

$4.95 M

4 years

$4.89 M

4 years

$4.83 M

Based on age, I’d take a serious look at DeMelo, who is three years younger than Tanev and plays a quiet, defensive game. I thought he worked well with Thomas Chabot prior to his trade to Winnipeg, so I would be curious to see that partnership rekindled. When you’re mentioning vibe check, I think DeMelo would fit in here seamlessly.

If all three of those guys outprice themselves from the Ottawa market, I would take a run at Jalen Chatfield from Carolina. Evolving Hockey has his next contract pegged closer to $4 million per season on a five-year deal. Chatfield has played third-pairing minutes on a very good Carolina team and maybe he’s ready for an elevated role.

As for the forwards on Chris Johnston’s list, I think Ottawa could use a bit more jam and energy in their bottom six. I wouldn’t necessarily use the UFA market to try and land a big-name forward who can fill the net with goals. I think trying to do some bargain shopping for those bottom six guys is where the smart play is on July 1.

I was thoroughly impressed with Dakota Joshua from Vancouver during the Canucks’ playoff run and think he’d be a nice fit in Ottawa. And call this ridiculous, but if Connor Brown was willing to come back on a one-year deal — with a very low cap hit — I would absolutely take a flyer on him in my bottom six too.

Can you take a closer look at Carter Yakemchuk’s PIMs? He seems to have everything we need — right shot, big, skill, mean. But 120 PIMs in 66 games. Does this speak to his hockey IQ? Does he take reckless penalties? Please, I’d love a big, talented D, but not one who brings back memories of Cowen, Ceci, Zaitsev and Chychrun in terms of mental blunders. — Peter.

Carter Yakemchuk is certainly one of the most intriguing prospects in this year’s draft. In Corey Pronman’s latest draft rankings, he has Yakemchuk as the third-best prospect behind only Macklin Celebrini and Artyom Levshunov.

Other prospect analysts, however, believe Yakemchuk could be hanging around when Ottawa is picking at No. 7.

Chris Peters had a fun and healthy debate with Pronman in Friday’s edition of “The Athletic Hockey Show” podcast. (The discussion on Yakemchuk starts around the 26-minute mark of the podcast). I asked Peters — who is the draft expert for FloHockey — if he thought Yakemchuk would still be on the board for Ottawa.

“My sense is that Yakemchuk will be there and that he is very much among the tier of defencemen that would make sense to pick in that range,” said Peters. “But there are wild cards in the draft ahead of Ottawa, especially Anaheim and I think even Columbus there.”

His 120 penalty minutes are certainly an eye-catching number, which ranked fifth in the entire Western Hockey League in that category. So I went through his game log and broke down each of his penalties from last season.

Yakemchuk penalty breakdown this season

Penalty Type Number of Infractions

Roughing

15

Cross-checking

10

Fighting (Major)

5

Interference

4

10-Minute Misconduct

4

Closing Hand on Puck

2

Holding

2

Hooking

2

Tripping

2

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

2

Boarding

1

Checking From Behind (Major)

1

Delay of Game

1

Embellishment

1

High Sticking

1

Throwing Stick

1

Remarkably, Yakemchuk took 16 different kinds of penalties last season. This table almost reads like a list of every possible penalty a player can take. But if you remove his five fighting majors (25 minutes) and his four 10-minute misconducts (40 minutes), you’re down to a much more reasonable 55 minutes in penalties. And when you look at those penalties, it’s not like he’s taking a ton of holding, hooking, interference or tripping calls that would indicate he’s always being burned in the defensive zone.

I asked Peters about the red flags in Yakemchuk’s game.

“His defensive game is only OK. I don’t always love his reads and his angling defensively,” said Peters. “But I have come around on that more. I don’t think it’s as big a liability, especially with how his skating has improved and how good his puck game is. I don’t think his hockey sense is as good as Buium or Parekh or Levshunov.”

Peters went on to say that Yakemchuk reminds him a lot of Kevin Korchinski, who went seventh overall in the 2022 NHL draft. And he seems to agree with Pronman’s assessment that Yakemchuk — who scored 30 goals for Calgary — possesses elite offensive upside as a defenceman.

“His hand skills are high-end, especially for a player of his size,” said Peters. “The skating, especially his edge work and overall footwork beyond his straight-ahead stride has improved and has made him more effective when it comes to escaping pressure or getting up ice.”

I think the bottom line is that Ottawa should seriously consider Yakemchuk if he’s on the board at No. 7. He has a lot of the attributes they’re probably seeking as a right-shot defenceman. And given how much Pronman raves about him, snagging him with the seventh overall pick would seem like excellent value.


Senators center Josh Norris has undergone three separate surgeries on his left shoulder in his young career. (Marc DesRosiers / USA Today)

With Josh Norris already undergoing two major shoulder surgeries what are the chances that either: a) He makes a full recovery and returns as a productive member of the core or b) The Sens decide to cut bait and trade him for cents on the dollar because of his injury history? — Brooks H.

Well Brooks, technically Norris has now undergone three separate surgeries on his left shoulder in his young career. His first came in 2019 when he suffered a shoulder injury playing for Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. The second one came in January of 2023 and the most recent one occurred this past spring.

But I implore you to read this feature on Vladimir Tarasenko’s constant shoulder issues from my colleague Jeremy Rutherford from the summer of 2021. Tarasenko had also undergone three separate surgeries on the same shoulder in a 28-month span. There were all sorts of lingering questions about his durability, to the point where the St. Louis Blues actually left him unprotected in the Seattle expansion draft that summer.

Tarasenko wound up staying in St. Louis and notched 34 goals and a career-high 82 points in 2021-22. He was already 30 years old at that point, but it shows there is a path to recovery for a sniper with a history of shoulder issues.

Norris has a career shooting percentage of 17.2. Even this past season — when it felt like his game in the offensive zone was relatively flat compared to his 35-goal breakout season of 2021-22 — Norris still carried a 13.9 shooting percentage, which was third-best on the team. If he can come back healthy, I don’t think it’s a stretch he can carry a shooting percentage in the neighbourhood of 15 percent given his track record over almost 200 NHL games.

Give him 200 shots and he should score roughly 30 goals.

I think if you’re trading Norris now, you’re probably getting pennies on the dollar. I’d rather roll back with him for another season and see if he can stay healthy. I understand why you might consider moving him to the wing or reducing his workload a touch, but I still think he’s got enough upside that I wouldn’t move on from him unless another team was willing to knock my socks off with an irresistible trade.

Obligatory LeBreton question. Assuming (fingers crossed as hard as they can be) that the Sens and the NCC get a deal done by the early September deadline, how soon until shovels are in the ground? Do you think Michael Andlauer’s got a more or less finished arena design for that spot in his back pocket ready to go? — Alexander F.

I think even if they reach a tentative agreement on a lease at the end of this summer, there are significant hurdles before we get to the point where shovels are going into the ground.

For starters, there is expected to be a significant environmental cleanup cost associated with the site. When the initial LeBreton arena project was studied about eight years ago, estimates ranged in the $200-$300 million area just for the cleanup. So I think it’s legitimate to ponder who pays for that and how long a soil decontamination process will take.

The LeBreton Flats site is also located on traditional Algonquin territory, meaning local Indigenous leaders will be eager to have a voice to ensure the project will positively impact their communities before signing off on any agreement.

In other words, there could be some red tape to clear before we see shovels in the ground at LeBreton Flats to construct a new home for the Senators. I’m thinking that from the time the lease agreement is signed, we’re probably looking at three-to-four years until the building is complete and ready to go. Once shovels are in the ground, it’s roughly a two-year process to build the arena. For a little comparison, UBS Arena (home of the Islanders) had its groundbreaking ceremony in late September of 2019 and New York played its first NHL game there on Nov. 20, 2021.

So if I’m looking into my dusty crystal ball, I’m hoping the arena in Ottawa is ready to go at some point around 2028 — but that’s if everything goes smoothly. So since we know this process is anything but smooth, I’m going to revise my prediction and say I’m hoping the arena is ready to roll in time for the start of the 2029-30 season. If something gets done sooner than that, let’s just all be pleasantly surprised. As for the arena design itself, Andlauer didn’t exactly tip his hand on that when we had an in-depth conversation about this topic a few weeks ago. He did say that he’s visited Seattle, Detroit and Edmonton to study their arena designs, so those setups might offer a bit of insight into what he’d like in Ottawa. My guess is they’d like to incorporate a practice facility into the new arena somehow, but beyond that, I don’t really have too many specifics for what they’re looking at in terms of the design. I’d like to think we’ll see something in the 17,000 range of seats — maybe a touch more — but nothing close to the cavernous 20,000-seat arenas that were popping up a couple of decades ago.

Who should be the next Ring of Honour inductee? — Steven H.

Let’s close out this mailbag column by answering what I think should be a fairly easy question.

The answer to this has to be Jacques Martin, right?

Martin came out of semi-retirement last season to help stabilize a Senators season that was completely derailed in December. That brought back waves of nostalgia for older fans who recall Martin’s first iteration with the team, in which he launched them into a decade-long stretch of being a Stanley Cup contender.

The 71-year-old Martin is the epitome of class and exemplifies all of the attributes this organization should be striving toward. He exudes professionalism, calmness and sincerity.

I do think there are a handful of other very worthy candidates who should eventually be enshrined into the club’s Ring of Honour.

Jason Spezza deserves his flowers.

Craig Anderson was a rock in the crease for almost a decade.

The original owners group including Bruce Firestone should probably be recognized at some point too.

But if you’re telling me I have to choose the next addition to the Ring of Honour, I firmly believe that distinction should go to Martin.

(Top photo of Chris Tanev and Sean Walker: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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