The “be-Leaf” is the Ottawa Senators’ rebuild is in full bloom.
In May, general manager Pierre Dorion hired Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith to become the club’s 14th bench boss. He then dealt d-men Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur to Toronto in a multi-player trade in exchange for forward Connor Brown and blueliner Nikita Zaitsev on July 1. But, he wasn’t finished there, inking Maple Leafs’ free agent duo Tyler Ennis and Ron Hainsey to one-year contracts hours later.
For the Senators, the 2019-20 campaign will be about player growth and making good on opportunities; All-Star defenseman Thomas Chabot and sophomore forwards Brady Tkachuk and Colin White expect to take another leap in their development. Rookies, such as Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom and Logan Brown, will have a chance to jumpstart their careers and players like forward Rudolfs Balcers and rearguards Christian Jaros and Christian Wolanin should earn more ice time.
Dorion’s main goal this offseason was to find a head coach fitting the bill of taking charge of a team in the midst of a rebuild — Smith checks all the boxes.
The Senators’ GM said this upon Smith’s hire, “D.J. Smith is a winner. We believe he is the best person to drive the development and success of the Ottawa Senators.
“D.J. is a great communicator and an exceptional strategist. His passionate approach, coupled with his ability to teach the game, is exactly what we were looking for throughout the process.”
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Dorion also wanted to bring in veterans to insulate the team’s youthful roster and get restricted free agent centre/right wing Colin White under contract prior to the start of training camp Sept. 12.
Coaching staff: Head coach D.J. Smith, associate coach Jack Capuano, assistants Bob Jones and Davis Payne
Artem Anisimov (F), Connor Brown (F), Tyler Ennis (F) Ron Hainsey (D), Nikita Zaitsev (D)
Cody Ceci (D), Mike Condon (G), Brian Gibbons (F), Ben Harpur (D), Oscar Lindberg (F), Magnus Paarjarvi (F), Tom Pyatt (F), Zack Smith (F)
In the morning hours prior to the free agent frenzy on July 1, the Senators pulled off a blockbuster swap with their Ontario counterpart sending Ceci, Harpur, minor-league forward Aaron Luchuk and the Blue Jackets 2020 third-round selection to the Maple Leafs for Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and American League forward Michael Carcone.
The trade was the end for Ceci, who spent the majority of his career playing in his hometown — spending three-plus seasons of junior hockey with the 67’s and another six with the Senators. Dorion and Ceci’s agent J.P. Barry appeared to be heading towards a collision course that would’ve resulted in back-to-back arbitration hearings. Last summer’s hearing left a bitter taste on both sides of the table.
MORE: Ready to turn a new leaf, Zaitsev expected to make an impact with Senators
Zaitsev brings familiarity to Smith’s blue line core; he was instrumental in the Russian’s decision to waive his partial no-trade clause to land in Ottawa.
“I’m looking for people to change the culture here, up the work ethic. It was easy for me. And I just explained how much I needed him and we needed him in Ottawa to help us with that,” explained Smith at Zaitsev’s initial meeting with the Senators’ media members in July.
The Senators also have high hopes for Connor Brown. The former Erie Otter notched only eight goals and 29 points last season while being slotted among the bottom six Maple Leafs’ forwards. However, with increased playing time, Brown should challenge his 20-goal total posted as a rookie in 2016-17.
As stated, Dorion wanted a veteran presence and he accomplished this by signing two unrestricted free agents: 29-year-old forward Tyler Ennis and 38-year-old blueliner Ron Hainsey. The versatile Ennis can play all three forward positions, bringing three 20-plus goal campaigns and 543 games of NHL knowledge to the team. Surpassing the 1,000-game plateau last season, Hainsey’s primary role will be to mentor a promising, but young, defensive core.
The trades of goaltender Mike Condon and the Senators’ longest-tenured player (612 regular-season games), Zack Smith, served several purposes. The two deals saved the team in actual salary payouts; in Condon’s case, Ryan Callahan, who was acquired in the deal from the Lightning, will head straight to Long Term Injured Reserve.
NHL trade grades: Senators win Anisimov-Smith deal
Moving Condon alleviated a potential three-headed monster in the crease — leaving Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson as the confirmed tandem. While picking up four-time 20-goal centre Artem Anisimov from the Blackhawks in exchange for Smith gives the club more creativity upfront, a facet the club desperately needs this season.
Dorion was also able to finally get White locked down, albeit leaving Senators’ fans sweating a little bit; White finally agreed to a six-year, $28.5 million deal on Aug. 21.
Armed with three selections among the first 37 picks, the Senators surprised all by selecting Finnish d-man Lassi Thomson at 19th overall. It was thought Thomson would’ve lasted until late in the first round or dip close to the 32nd spot, which also belonged to the team. However, who’s going to question Trent Mann’s decisions as the Senators’ chief amateur scout has been on a roll in recent drafts.
For all the misgivings surrounding Thomson’s selection, he has impressed Senators’ brass and fans alike this summer. The 18-year old was arguably one of the top three players at development camp, prior to making an even greater impression at the World Junior Summer Showcase with a pair of goals.
Thomson is also displaying his competitive side, deciding to play in the Finnish Liiga (Ilves) and giving up an opportunity to play in the Memorial Cup tournament for host Kelowna where he played last season.
Farm system rankings: No. 4 Ottawa Senators
The club is also high on Shane Pinto, selected 32nd overall who fresh out of the United States Hockey League left his mark at the Summer Showcase. The multi-sport athlete will attend the University of North Dakota in September, a squad which includes Senators’ prospect defensemen Jacob Bernard-Docker and Jonny Tychonick.
Goaltender Mads Sogaard was an intriguing pick. The six-foot-eight netminder represented Denmark at the 2019 world juniors and had a solid season with Medicine Hat (WHL). While Sogaard will return to junior this season, his presence brings potential healthy competition between goalies Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson, Marcus Hogberg down the road.
SN Q&A’s: Shane Pinto | Joey Daccord | Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Offseason grade: B+
Dorion couldn’t be any happier for what he’s accomplished this offseason.
The Senators GM hired the coach he had previously sought-after but was denied permission to interview and added two former NHL head coaches as assistants in Jack Capuano (Islanders) and Davis Payne (Blues). Ottawa also got marginally better defensively with the additions of Hainsey and Zaitsev and inked White to a six-year contract in Dorion’s first move to keep his young group together long term.
2019-20 season prediction
The Senators have nowhere to go but up after finishing No. 31 out of 31 teams last season; however, the team will be hard-pressed to rise in the Atlantic Division standings, let alone the entire NHL, and that’s not a bad thing in this instance.
The 2020 Entry Draft is already primed to be a strong one, highlighted by can’t miss forwards Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield. Tempting players, but if the Senators’ youngsters grasp their head coach’s system rapidly, catching the Red Wings or Sabres in the standings isn’t out of the question.
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Columbus and Los Angeles are also teams that’ll be in the Senators’ crosshairs all season. John Tortorella’s squad will have a tough time recovering from the loss of Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Artemi Panarin and netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. As for the Kings, it’s time for a makeover.
It may be a long season for Senators’ fans in terms of posting a few extra wins, but it figures to be an entertaining one — full of youthful exuberance on the ice.