It might take some getting used to, the new and brash Ottawa Senators.
The senators play the role of the hunter, not the hunted. The team is ‘going for it’, not selling assets to pile up concept picks and prospects. Instead of building for tomorrow, in an endless loop, the senators tell their fans and their young core what they all stand for today.
If you’re like me and live in Ottawa or are somehow connected to the Senators, you got text messages through the two days of the NHL Draft. Most along the lines of, “What’s up with the Sens? The Brincat? He’s legit.”
In case you missed it, the Senators traded their first-round pick, seventh overall, plus a second-round and third-round selection in 2024 for the 24-year-old Chicago Blackhawks sniper, a two-time 41-goal scorer. The transaction meant that for the first time since 2014, the Sens did not make a first round pick in the draft.
This team that had built a core of high-draft picks like Brady Tkachuk, fourth overall in 2018, Tim Stützle, third overall in 2020, and Jake Sanderson, fifth overall, 2020, plus sensible later picks like Drake Batherson and Shane Pinto, has passed in quite a significant way.
It has not escaped anyone’s attention that both general manager Pierre Dorion and head coach DJ Smith are under pressure to compete for a playoff spot for the first time in five years (six by the time the next playoffs begin). So there are some survival instincts at play.
Still, I’ve hardly heard a discouraging word about this aggressive approach from senatorial fans who were tired of always being that rebuild franchise at the bottom of the Atlantic (Division, not the ocean). Even the amateur scouts who had to part with their precious first-round roster are buying in, according to former chief amateur scout Trent Mann, recently promoted to assistant general manager (with Ryan Bowness).
“The scouts agreed with us (on round 1), Mann said after day 2 of the draft, where the Sens made nine selections.
“How often do you get a goalscorer of 40 goals? Our scouts, just like everyone else in the organization, just like everyone else in the city of Ottawa – we want to win. And it’s time to start winning.”
When you score at home, DeBrincat is just the tip of the iceberg. Even before that trade surfaced, striker Colin White was bought out, signaling an end to the selection malaise in favor of aggressive management, even with short-term financial costs. Good guy, White. But paid way too much.
Everything suddenly seems possible. Despite the DeBrincat takeover, the Senators are believed to still be active in free agency this week, including a chase of hometown hero Claude Giroux. The Sens aggressively push goalkeeper Matt Murray and Nikita Zaitsev out the door, one way or another. The Toronto Maple Leafs have shown serious interest in Murray (the Kyle Dubas OHL Soo connection) and now the name of winger Connor Brown has come into play. It’s like a bomb hit hockey operations in Ottawa.
Now what, a top-four defender, a female staffer in hockey ops and a former player to serve as a defensive advisor? Every day there is a new movement. On Monday, former D-man Wade Redden was hired as a development coach and was scheduled to skate with prospects in the afternoon. Stay tuned for more news.
When it comes to the new look Sens, the classic line of Butch Cassidy comes to mind, when he and the Sundance Kid were relentlessly chased by a posse: “Who are those guys?
Who indeed. Cue the song and video from The Heavy — How do you find me now? A song perhaps best revisited this week, after the launch of the free agency period.
As for that huge move with DeBrincat, whether he can continue his scoring in Ottawa will be tested on the ice, just as the team will get him used to the new room. There is a lot of time for both parties to determine if this is a marriage worth preserving. DeBrincat will have RFA status after this season, in which he will receive $9 million. With a qualifying bid of $9 million, he could become a UFA a year later.
But for the first time in a long time, there’s a belief that these Senators could realistically extend DeBrincat, if the fit feels right. The fact that they traded for a $9 million player is shocking in itself.
“I’m super excited to join this young group and hopefully do something special,” DeBrincat said in an introductory Zoom interview with Ottawa media. “That’s everyone’s goal: become a better team, make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. I think this is a good start and hopefully we’re moving in the right direction.”
Pretty much what we’d expect from a man, but no alarm bells went off either.
Let’s see where this is going. It shouldn’t be too hard to find happiness between a series scorer and a talent like Stützle.
Oh, and they drafted nine players
The Senators made such an impact on Day 1 with their acquisition of DeBrincat that it was easy to overlook a busy Day 2 at the draft, during which they made nine selections:
64: Filip Nordberg, LD
72: Oskar Pettersson, RW
87: Tomas Hamara, LD
104: Stephen Halliday, California
136: Jorian Donovan, LD
143: Cameron O’Neil, RW
151: Kevin Reidler, G
168: Theo Wallberg, LD
206: Tyson Dyck, California
Everyone except Nordberg will attend the development camp, starting Monday at the Sensplex in Kanata. The camp culminates in a 3-on-3 tournament Thursday at 10 a.m. All skating sessions are open to the public, starting with a 2pm skating session on Monday.
A few notes on the selections. The senators don’t mind that many of their choices are college-bound. Without the high-end talent of some checkers, and with Ottawa only picking number 64 from the second round, it will take some time for these picks to develop. Time will be an asset.
We recently did an article on Ottawa’s drive to find, develop and retain goalkeepers and the Sens drafted another goalkeeper — six-foot-six, 201-pound Swedish prospect Kevin Reidler.
Reidler needs time to develop and will probably stay in Sweden for a year or two. His grandfather, Hakan Wickberg, played pro in Sweden and was a two-time Olympian.
The Senators went heavy on the defense, with four picks, a development that just happened as the draft evolved, Mann says.
The feel-good pick of the day for Ottawa had to be D-man Donovan, the son of former Senator winger Shean Donovan, now head of the team’s development program and one of the most popular members of the Sens alumni. The club made sure that both Donovan and his father agreed that Jorian had a chance with his home team.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, it was special,” said Jorian Donovan. “As a Senatorial fan, it’s a huge honor to be chosen by a team I’ve always looked up to and always looked up to when I was a kid . . . I couldn’t be happier.”