Friday, July 19, 2024

What a perfect week would look like for Senators GM Steve Staios

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Before embarking on a crucial week for the Ottawa Senators, we need a very quick history lesson to serve as a cautionary tale.

It was just two summers ago that Ottawa had what many experts perceived to be the best offseason of any NHL club. The Senators landed Alex DeBrincat in a splashy pre-draft trade. They enticed Claude Giroux, one of the most sought-after free agents on the market, to sign a three-year contract. And they added a calming veteran presence in net by obtaining Cam Talbot from the Minnesota Wild.

Toss in dumping Matt Murray’s salary along with contract extensions for Josh Norris and Tim Stützle and Pierre Dorion enjoyed what the kids referred to as “The Summer of Pierre.”

The arrow was pointed firmly in the right direction. The vibes, as they say, were immaculate.

To be fair, the fan base and market were parched for any type of excitement 24 months ago. They would have settled for a teaspoon of optimism. Dorion instead quenched their thirst by delivering excitement by the bucketload.

Then the regular season started and that hopefulness evaporated, leaving Ottawa fans with that familiar bitter, dry taste in their mouths. A seven-game losing streak that started in October unraveled the goodwill in the snap of a finger.

And so it’s with the summer of 2022 as a backdrop that we should approach this offseason with a degree of caution and hesitancy. No matter what Steve Staios accomplishes this week, or doesn’t accomplish, the time to judge Ottawa’s new general manager will truly come once the regular season starts. There will be natural delineation points to assess Staios along the way.

The 20-game mark around U.S. Thanksgiving.

The midway point of the season and the All-Star break.

The trade deadline.

And the conclusion of the regular season.

It’s tempting to hand out letter grades in the offseason because that’s what we do in the absence of games. If 2022 taught us anything, however, it’s that you don’t win games in July and August.

Still, there is an opportunity for Staios to make significant improvements to his roster over the next seven days, with the draft in Vegas and the opening of free agency on Monday.

So what would a perfect week look like for Staios?

Here are six things the Senators general manager can do over the next seven days to ensure he’s hit the right notes in his first offseason at the helm in Ottawa:

Make the No. 7 pick

There is virtually no scenario in which the Senators should consider trading the No. 7 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. Remember that in addition to trading away their top pick in 2022 and 2023 to acquire DeBrincat and Jakob Chychrun, the Senators also need to forfeit an additional first-round pick by 2026 for the botched Evgenii Dadonov trade fiasco.

Their prospect pool is simply not deep enough to withstand missing out on four first-round picks in a five-year span. That would be ludicrous for a team languishing in a seven-year playoff drought. Bona fide Stanley Cup contenders can justify losing four first-round picks during their window of contention. A team stapled to the other end of the standings cannot.

And so Staios and his new amateur scouting director Don Boyd need to step up to the podium on Friday in Vegas and take the best player available. Is there a scenario where they could possibly trade back a couple of spots because they know the player they want will be available? Sure.

But they cannot dilute this draft pick to the point where it diminishes the upside. This organization desperately needs an injection of high-end, blue-chip prospects. You generally only get those by drafting inside the top 10 and Ottawa should have a handful of terrific options to choose from in the No. 7 spot on Friday.

We can debate if they should choose Zayne Parekh or another defenceman in that No. 7 spot. (I posed that question to our draft experts Scott Wheeler and Corey Pronman over the weekend in case you missed it). We can also study the idea of the Sens drafting a forward like Tij Iginla or Beckett Sennecke, as there will be a good collection of young forwards available at No. 7 as well.

But what we can’t argue is Ottawa’s need for an impact player at No. 7.

As long as Staios and Boyd make that pick without going off the board too much, they should be in a very good position.

Ottawa’s second first-round pick, the 25th overall selection, should absolutely be considered in play for immediate roster help. But that No. 7 pick should be off limits.

Address the goaltending situation

If the Senators received better goaltending last season, the tone of this column would be drastically different. They could have pushed themselves into that wild card derby in the Eastern Conference if their goaltenders had performed near the league average, which was just a shade under a .900 save percentage. Instead, Ottawa’s trio of netminders — Joonas Korpisalo (.890 in 55 games), Anton Forsberg (.890 in 30 games) and Mads Sogaard (.859 in five starts) — ended up with the worst save percentage in the league. Part of that could be attributed to sloppy defensive zone coverage, but Ottawa’s goaltenders simply did not play up to an NHL standard last season.

This week is one of those rare instances when a general manager can actually address his goaltending situation. Staios has three options at his disposal inside the crease:

  1. Pull off a significant trade for Linus Ullmark or Juuse Saros. As long as Ottawa isn’t touching one of its core players or the No. 7 overall pick, this should be a road Staios is willing to travel down. Ullmark is just one season removed from a Vezina Trophy and even when he played behind a less stingy team in Buffalo, he produced a .912 save percentage in 117 games with the Sabres. Saros has played so well that he’s received Hart Trophy votes and been a Vezina finalist. He’s a workhorse who has averaged 65 games per season in each of the last three years. Both goalies have one season left on a $5 million cap hit, so if Staios is going to expend significant capital to acquire them, having an extension worked out for July 1 would be paramount.
  2. Sign a free agent netminder. The prize free agent in this year’s crop might be Laurent Brossoit, who posted a .927 save percentage in 23 games with the Jets. Evolving Hockey pegs Brossoit’s value in the neighbourhood of $3.5 million per season on a three- or four-year deal. Anthony Stolarz might be a good option in the free-agent market too. He sported a .925 save percentage in 27 games with Florida. The issue with Brossoit and Stolarz is that neither has ever played 30 NHL games in a season, so bringing one of them in comes with some inherent risk.
  3. Exercise a buyout on a goalie. If the Senators are going to use one of the options above, it may require a buyout of an existing goaltender. Doing so on Korpisalo would require paying him roughly $1.3 million per season over an eight-year window. (The exact parameters of a Korpisalo buyout can be found here via Cap Friendly). Forsberg only has one year left on his contract, so buying out his $2.75 million contract would be a lot less complicated. It would seem more likely that Ottawa could also find a taker for Forsberg, but it may have to eat some salary there.

If Staios can pull off one or two of these options, this should be considered a step in the right direction.

Standing pat in the crease is also an option, but one that will require a fair amount of explanation from the general manager when he speaks to the media following the opening of free agency on July 1.

Trade at least one left-shot defenceman

Take Jake Sanderson out of the equation and the Senators still have three left-shot defencemen in the mix with Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun and Erik Brannstrom. Chabot has four years left on a contract that carries an $8 million AAV, but he’s owed $10 million in real cash in each of the next three seasons. He’s also missed 68 games over the past three years with a myriad of injuries. That’s a pretty big risk for any team to ingest, plus Chabot has a 10-team no-trade clause that kicks in on July 1. If Staios is going to deal him, logic dictates it happens before that clause kicks in and the market narrows for his services.

But given that his contract and durability might mitigate the return for Chabot, Staios’ best path may come from dealing one or both of Chychrun and Brannstrom. With Chychrun, it’s impossible to recoup the value given to acquire him in the first place, which was a first-round pick and a pair of second-rounders. He’s on a very reasonable contract for $4.6 million for the 2024-25 season and any team looking for help on the power play could stand to benefit from acquiring Chychrun.

Brannstrom has finally carved out a niche as a full-time NHL defenceman, but it’s clear he won’t ever see significant power play time in Ottawa. He’s still shy of his 25th birthday, which could mean another team might see value in him as an underused defenceman. He’s a restricted free agent this summer after making $2 million last season.

Staios has an awkward log jam on the left side of his blue line. We’ve known about this for months, but this is the week where he can address the imbalance. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where all three of Chabot, Chychrun and Brannstrom are property of the Senators by the end of the week. If Staios can flip out one of these defencemen to create flexibility to land another one of his targets, he’ll have done his job.

Add a right-shot defenceman via free agency

About two-thirds of the NHL is desperate to find a right-shot defenceman who can play inside the top four. The Senators are certainly not alone in their pursuit of this mythical defender. But this week is when these types of defencemen actually tend to shake free.

The trade market is more open, as general managers are keen to alter the chemistry of their teams in the offseason. But in Chris Johnston’s most recent list of trade targets, not a single one was a right-shot defenceman. The free agent market, however, is going to be littered with them starting on July 1.

Top RHD unrestricted free agents

Player Age Projected Contract

30

$6.5 M AAV (3 years)

29

$6.1 M AAV (5 years)

29

$5.5 M AAV (6 years)

29

$4.9 M AAV (5 years)

31

$4.9 M AAV (4 years)

34

$4.8 M AAV (4 years)

27

$4.4 M AAV (4 years)

29

$3,8 M AAV (3 years)

33

$3.1 M AAV (3 years)

31

$3 M AAV (3 years)

34

$2.4 M AAV (1 year)

32

$1.8 M AAV (1 year)

28

$1.8 M AAV (1 year)

32

$1.5 M AAV (1 year)

30

$1.5 M AAV (1 year)

36

$1.1 M AAV (1 year)

(*Projected contract courtesy Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool)

The Senators grabbing one of the four defencemen shaded in green above — Sean Walker, Dylan DeMelo, Chris Tanev or Alexandre Carrier — with an AAV under $5 million would be a tidy piece of business from Staios.

Add more veterans to the team

At a season ticket holder event earlier this month, senior vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin made it clear the team is going to be targeting some proven veterans to inject some experience into the Senators locker room.

Poulin specifically mentioned the Dallas Stars, who have augmented their young core of Miro Heiskanen, Jason Robertson and Wyatt Johnston with some established veterans.

“You see an (almost) 40-year-old Joe Pavelski, a 39-year-old Ryan Suter, the age of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. We have to add more of that to the mix to help our young stars,” said Poulin.

This offseason, some established veterans like Trevor Lewis (37 years old), Patrick Maroon (36), Kyle Okposo (36), Cal Clutterbuck (36), James van Riemsdyk (35) and Max Pacioretty (35) are all unrestricted free agents who might be available to sign on one-year contracts.

Ottawa’s bottom six was underwhelming at times last season. Angus Crookshank might be able to push for a spot and Parker Kelly should be part of the mix after having a strong showing under Jacques Martin.

But there are definitely some openings and the Senators should try and add one proven veteran to help in a leadership capacity.

Sign Shane Pinto to his contract extension

If we’re talking about Staios pulling off the perfect week, signing his most important RFA would be a huge step toward accomplishing that goal. Shane Pinto is entering another summer without a contract, which must certainly be frustrating for the player and his camp.

His situation dragged out for months last season, before a gambling-related investigation put a halt to negotiations. Back in April, Pinto told The Athletic he wanted to get his contract situation solved quickly so he didn’t have a repeat of the uncertainty that plagued him last summer.

“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,” Pinto said. “It’s just about finding a middle ground here.”

That middle ground is clearly a tricky area to find. In April, I wrote that a bridge deal felt like the most likely outcome for all parties here.

There is no tangible pressure on Staios to get anything done this week, but he certainly doesn’t want to follow in Dorion’s footsteps where he paints himself into a corner with no salary cap space to sign Pinto after all of his other moves are completed.

(Photo: Marc DesRosiers / USA Today)

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