The Ottawa Senators are rebuilding. If that much wasn’t evident by now, it most certainly was by the publishing of a nearly six-minute, sit-down interview with Eugene Melnyk and the open letter that followed.
The Senators' rebuild was announced in no uncertain terms, either. This is a full-scale, start-from-scratch operation. In the video posted Monday to the team’s Twitter account, Melnyk outlined how Ottawa plans to have 10 fresh faces in the lineup this season, meaning either rookie players or those with limited NHL experience. Next season, Melnyk said, an additional five or six players will meet those criteria.
The pressing question, however, is who stays and who goes if the Senators plan on undertaking the kind of scorched-earth rebuild that appears to be in the works. A cursory glance at the roster would suggest that there are at least three or four players currently slated to take part in training camp who might not be around much longer than the first month or two of the 2018-19 campaign. In fact, using a roughly outlined 23-player roster, it could be argued that no more than four or five players fit Melnyk’s mandate. That group consists of Logan Brown, Colin White, Brady Tkachuk and Christian Wolanin. Sophomore-to-be Thomas Chabot can likely be included, as well.
With less than a half-dozen projected roster players fitting the bill, though, sweeping changes will still need to come if the lineup is to meet the apparent requirements for Year 1 of what is certain to be a long rebuild. Somewhere in the neighborhood of five to six more roster spots will need to open, and an additional five slots will need to be free come the 2019-20 campaign. So, how do the Senators get there?
This season, more than half of the current roster. The Senators may only need to shuffle the deck and make one or two moves in order to fulfill the parameters of their self-imposed youth movement. The two-season outlook seems to suggest, however, that there will be a maximum of eight players who remain in Ottawa and start the season as Senators in 2019-20. But what makes paring down the list somewhat easier is that there are only eight experienced NHL regulars who remain under contract through to next season: Bobby Ryan, Marian Gaborik, Mikkel Boedker, Zack Smith, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Borowiecki, Craig Anderson and Mike Condon.
Ryan, Gaborik and Boedker all seem likely to remain by virtue of having contracts that are difficult to move. Ryan in particular has been on the trade block for a couple of seasons at this point without much in the way of interest. Meanwhile, Borowiecki, who conducted the interview with Melnyk, appears to be targeted as a dressing room and on-ice leader for the franchise going forward. His contract is up in two seasons’ time, but it feels as though he’s destined for an extension. As for the crease, which is currently manned by Anderson and Condon, both remain viable options for the time being, though Anderson’s reported trade request earlier this summer might signal a potential departure in the near future.
Of the list, though, Smith and Pageau hardly feel like locks to remain. Pageau’s name has been thrown around in the rumor mill previously, and the same goes for Smith. Teams with interest in a depth pivot would probably kick the tires. Trading one or both could get the Senators a mid-round pick and mid-range prospect, and if the aim is to use the draft to pave the way to a brighter future, Ottawa should be stocking up on futures.
Truth be told, the list of eight might need some trimming, anyway. Cody Ceci has been an organizational favorite for a while now and some consider him an organizational cornerstone. His contract is up at the end of the season, but Ottawa is going to want to keep him around. If we’re to hold Melnyk to his word, though, retaining Ceci means someone else has to get the axe.
There are six projected roster players who are no-brainers. At the end of this season, Ryan Dzingel, Tom Pyatt, Magnus Paajarvi, Max McCormick and Chris Wideman will become unrestricted free agents. However, astute readers will note that was only five names. That’s because any list of departures truly begins with Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson, like the others listed above, will become a UFA at season’s end but is almost assuredly on his way out of Ottawa before he reaches that point. He’s been long rumored to be on the move, and with the Senators all-in on this new direction, moving Karlsson can be what kickstarts the rebuild. His value is as high as ever and he remains the best pure offensive defenseman in the NHL. He’s a game-changer that should garner a sizeable return for Ottawa that includes picks, prospects and potentially a young player who can enter the lineup this season.
Trading Karlsson will assuredly have a domino effect that impacts Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, both of whom will be UFAs at season’s end.
Duchene, who is about to enter his first full season in Ottawa, has said publicly that he wants to see how the situation with Karlsson plays out before deciding on his future, while Stone’s one-year, pre-arbitration deal with the Senators doesn’t exactly inspire faith in his willingness to commit long-term to the type of rebuild Ottawa is about to tackle. If the Senators can’t get commitment from either Stone or Duchene early, too, it wouldn’t be all too surprising to see Ottawa cut bait and see the kind of returns they could fetch on the trade market. That’s particularly true around the trade deadline, when the going rate for one or both could be exponentially higher. Pulling in a promising prospect or two by way of trading Stone and/or Duchene, as well as the possibility of a high-round pick, would give the Senators a much better base to pull from in their efforts to fill out the roster with youth.
That doesn’t necessarily mean one or even both Stone and Duchene depart. There are players who’ve decided to stick it out through these kinds of massive rebuilds before. But it seems increasingly unlikely that either will be willing to stay and spend prime years of their careers on teams that won’t sniff Stanley Cup contention for several years. Stone has tasted playoff success before, too, and one would imagine he wants that again. Duchene came to Ottawa seeking a chance to experience similar success, and instead he’s gone backwards.
With Karlsson heading up the group of departures, a total of eight players from this season’s projected roster then seem likely to leave by the 2019-20 season. Even if Stone or Duchene stay, Pageau or Smith could fill the spot on the list of skaters saying sayonara. That’s one-third of the roster gone by next season.
First thing’s first for Ottawa: deciding who can make the cut and skate with the big club this coming season. The five aforementioned fresh faces — Brown, White, Tkachuk, Wolanin and Chabot — would appear to be locks at this point if the goal is to comprise half the roster of relative newcomers. Finding a sixth to add to the group isn’t all that difficult, either, given Filip Chlapik was already believed to be a player on the cusp. He saw 20 games with Ottawa last season and performed well in a half-campaign with the AHL’s Belleville Senators. That still leaves four spots to fill, however, and no obvious, ready-made NHLers to fill them.
That’s not to say the Senators are entirely bereft of candidates for those jobs, even if it may mean accelerating the development of certain players. Blueliners Ben Harpur, who played half of last season in the NHL, and Christian Jaros, who spent most of last year in the AHL, are among those who could find work on the back end as early as this season. Andreas Englund and Julius Bergman could also be depth options in a pinch. Over the next two seasons, those four could add to a core that is headed up by Chabot and Ceci.
Up front, the next to join Brown, White and Tkachuk are likely Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton. However, inserting either into the lineup this season could mean rushing along their development when another year of seasoning could be what’s best. Add Gabriel Gagne to the list of current prospects who could be vaulted into an NHL job sooner than expected, as well.
But that’s only a dozen new skaters, which falls short of the 15-skater goal. In all likelihood, though, the Senators are preparing to add NHL-ready up-and-comers by way of trade. The departure of Karlsson, of course, should net Ottawa such a player. Trades of Stone and/or Duchene will fall into the same category, as well. And with high picks — though probably not the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 draft given the Senators sent their lottery-likely first-round pick to the Avalanche to acquire Duchene — Ottawa could find itself stocking the cupboards and potentially netting a player who can make an immediate NHL transition.
All told, it’s evident that the type of rebuild Melnyk wants to put into action is a massive undertaking, one which GM Pierre Dorion will have to approach with the utmost caution. There are any number of pitfalls which can set the franchise back even further. That doesn’t mean it can’t be successful, of course, but for every Toronto Maple Leafs, an organization which blew up its roster and bet big on its youth, there is an Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres or Arizona Coyotes, teams whose rebuilds have turned into near decade-long treks that haven’t yet reached a state of perennial playoff contention. There’s no knowing which one the Senators will become, but they have to hope it’s the former, not the latter.