A few days late on this, but Senators general manager Pierre Dorion appeared on TSN 1200’s ‘In the Box’ before Wednesday’s World Junior semi-final games that showcased four of Ottawa’s best prospects on the national stage.
For fans who love to indulge in prospect porn, this time of year is like Christmas.
To listen to the full interview, you can scroll to the bottom of the post where you will find an embedded audio player. A transcription of Dorion’s comments can be read below.
As always, my thoughts are in bold.
On how he must have received compliments from his GM counterparts on the performance of Thomas Chabot…
“I got quite a few compliments from my colleagues that are in attendance, former co-workers (and) scouts. A lot of people were (praising Chabot’s performance) yesterday when we were at the Finland/Latvia game, so hopefully he can continue on the path that he’s on right now and hopefully bring Canada to a gold medal.”
Every fan base tends to overrate or overestimate the performance and projectability of their team’s best prospects and as ill-advised as it is to romanticize or put a ton of stock into a player’s performance when it’s such a small sample of games, it’s impossible to not to get excited about Thomas Chabot’s performance.
Unlike any Senators prospect who has participated in recent memory, Chabot was head and shoulders above the competition. The blend of skill and poise was so transparent, that it’s difficult to accept the notion that he was not ready to contribute to the Senators’ this season.
Obviously ownership’s playoff mandate and the annual renewal of faith in a shittacular bottom four worked against Chabot earlier in the season, but by returning him to Saint John without affording him a larger sample size to prove his worth, the Senators essentially relegated themselves to the possibility that their best internal solution to their blue line ineffectiveness or injury could no longer be recalled.
Considering the organization’s playoff aspirations or the fact that it lives on the margins, the Senators need upgrades or improvement wherever it can get them. Like Ryan Dzingel reaping the benefits of the ice time created by Clarke MacArthur’s concussion, it’s hard not to reason that with time, Chabot could be a better player at some point during the season than what Ottawa’s getting from its bottom-four now.
Fortunately, it’s not often that a prospect’s development can be hampered from spending more time in the junior ranks and thanks to his Chabot’s MVP performance, he gives even the most cynical of fans a modicum of hope.
On whether this is the organization’s best group of young prospects right now even though Binghamton is struggling…
“Hey, (Binghamton’s) won two in a row. We’re on the right path, trust me. I think the guys down there are doing a great job. They’ve been a bit challenged. A few of our key players haven’t been up to par, but I was there against Syracuse the other day and we played well. So… no, I still have a lot of faith in a lot of players down there.”
Dorion got defensive about the farm system and cut the question short. The Binghamton Senators are playing better of late. They have won three in a row and are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, but it’s not like this string of success overshadows the fact that only four teams in the AHL have a worse record than Binghamton’s 13-17-2-1 (.439).
Conversely, it’s not like Ottawa’s best prospects on the farm are lighting it up either. Through the first 30 games, the play has largely been carried by older players who shouldn’t be counted upon to spend significant time as regulars with the Ottawa Senators. I mean, there’s a reason why fans are really invested in the performance of blue chip prospects like Colin White and Thomas Chabot, the farm isn’t exactly brimming with NHL-ready players who can be expected to perform at a high level any time soon.
On who’s playing well down in Binghamton…
“I was down there for Syracuse, I’ve got to say (Chris) Driedger is finally back on track. He was inconsistent through the year. I would have to tell you that a guy like Phil Varone has played great of late. We called up Casey Bailey, who was playing well. A guy like Max McCormick was producing and playing hard. Buddy Robinson is playing hard, so I think sometimes when those guys get a game and then they get sent down, there’s a natural letdown. But, I have to give a lot of credit to Kurt Kleinendorst and Steve (Stirling) and also Randy (Lee) who’s down there quite a bit to keep the spirits up of those guys because they get a bit of a taste of the NHL and sometimes they perform well or don’t perform well. Sometimes it’s just natural habit that they fall into a bit of a funk, but any team, you need good goaltending. At times this year it’s been good and at times, it’s been bad. I think that’s where my major area of concern was. When both of our goalies at a certain point in time were under a .900 save percentage, it’s tough to win games – whatever level you’re at.”
Goaltending has been a problem for Binghamton, but it’s not like the team is filling the net either. Only four teams have scored fewer than Binghamton’s 79 goals.
On whether this is the best group of young prospects that the organization has had at the World Junior Championships…
“Oh, without a doubt. Since I’ve been with the organization, this is the best group of prospects that we’ve had at a World Junior (Championship), especially when you look at the blue chip prospects, they’re guys that are leading their teams. They’re arguably their team’s best players, so obviously in (Thomas) Chabot and (Colin) White, I’ve said from the start that we’ve got two blue chip prospects that hopefully will be able to contribute at some point in time in the near future for our team. But, these guys are pretty special players.”
Dorion’s always been a hype-man, but you can’t disagree with the fact that Ottawa’s showing was pretty impressive. There have been other years where Ottawa had blue-chip prospects playing in the tournament but, this year had a nice blend of talent and performance.
Thomas Chabot wound up being named the tournament’s ‘most valuable player’. He and Colin White both finished in the top-10 in tournament scoring and with Jonathan Dahlen, all three players finished in the top-10 in goals.
Mix in some decent performances from the Filips – Ahl and Chlapik – and these junior age prospects help fans overlook the underwhelming performance of those prospects who are a little closer to the show. Granted, even for the blue-chip prospects, nothing’s guaranteed. You just have to look back at the Senators’ vaunted 2011 draft class to realize that, but at the very least, the Senators can sell hope with this group and when you’re not winning enough consistently, at least these players give fans something to keep their eye on and look forward to.
On draft eligible players at this tournament…
“So far it’s been pretty good. I’ve only been here for a few days, but (I’ve had) a chance to see Finland which have quite a few first rounders, obviously the Czechs have a first rounder, Slovakia has a pretty good player on their team, Sweden has a few guys that I think will be pretty good players down the road. Watching those guys on top of watching our prospects and other teams’ prospects, it’s been a really good tournament.”
The 2017 NHL Draft not only lacks the star power of previous years, but also carries the reputation for being one of the weakest in recent memory too. Without much separation between the top prospects at the top of the class and the middle, hopefully this fluidity can help the Senators net a good prospect who can help them in the middle of the first round.
On where the Senators stand philosophically on drafting Russian players…
“We’ve looked at it. We haven’t done that, I think, since my first year as chief scout and moving to director of player personnel and assistant GM where I ran the drafts. We’ve looked at it. Last year we looked at the guy that went before our pick. At times, it’s easier with Russians in North America because you know more about them than the Russians who play in Russia, but we would never not take a Russian just because he’s Russian. We always look at (the player) case-by-case. I think with Russians, it’s best to look at every player individually and then you have a better idea on if you want to take him or not.”
The Senators haven’t drafted a Russian since they selected Ruslan Bashkirov with the 60th overall pick in the second round of the 2007 NHL Draft. Who knows whether or how much Eugene Melnyk’s Ukrainian heritage and his outspokenness against the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea has played into the politics of Ottawa’s draft selections, but the current iteration of the Senators roster has a distinctly North American flavour. Obviously this sort of thing can be cyclical in nature, but the Senators really only have one regular – Erik Karlsson – who is of European descent.
The Senators have not been shy about picking players out of Sweden, but it’s hard to ignore how few players they’ve taken from Europe. Dorion mentions how the organization feels more comfortable taking Russians who play in North America because it’s easier to have more opportunities viewings, but given recent history, the same philosophy is being applied to other European nations. Players like Filip Chlapik and Jakub Culek, for example, are being drafted out of North American clubs.
Maybe the Senators’ amateur scouting staff isn’t as robust as that of their peers, but in a perfect world, you’d like to think the Senators would be willing to look everywhere for hidden gems instead of having players fall through the cracks because of where they play.
On whether the World Junior tournament has provided opportunities for him to have face-to-face trade negotiations with his colleagues…
“Oh yeah, there’s many guys here. I know I was here on the 20th. I came and saw Switzerland against Sweden. I had a chance to talk to, I think, six or seven GMs that day. I’ve been on the phone all day pretty much with my counterparts and as quiet as it was before Christmas, I think talks are heating up. But, it’s very difficult to make trades. Sometimes budgets come into (it) for other teams, sometimes it’s the number of contracts – two for one – so (I’m) working hard at it and we’re always looking to improve the team, but (there’s) nothing imminent or on the forefront right now.”
It’s funny when Dorion says that budgets come into it for others because for the past few seasons, it’s certainly felt like the Senators have operated on a money-in/money-out basis. The acquisition of Mike Condon felt like a rare example where the Senators took on extra money to make their team better – even if it was a relatively inexpensive salary that it absorbed – but, as Elliotte Friedman recently noted, the budget prevented the Senators from upgrading their bottom-six and putting in a claim on Teddy Purcell.
On what he’d like to add…
“Two points against Washington on Saturday.”
On what he’d like to add to the roster…
“No, I’ve said when we came into camp, I was a bit worried about our defence and that’s part of our game that I think under Guy (Boucher)’s structure has really improved. Up front, I always feel that you need more depth up front. I know a lot of teams feel that you need nine or 10 defencemen. For me, the way that our guys have fallen, we’ve had more injuries up front. If you could add a forward, it’s something that I would definitely look at and it doesn’t specifically have to be a frontline guy. It might be a fourth line guy, but adding a forward is probably something that we’re more looking at than a defenceman right now.”
Guy Boucher’s gets a lot of credit for what his structure has brought to the table, but the underlying numbers portray a situation wherein the team isn’t leaps and bounds different from previous years.
As I noted earlier in the season, the Senators were getting by thanks to their luck capitalizing on their scoring chances.
Through the first few months, the Senators were a bit of a statistical outlier: they were on the wrong side of the various puck possession metrics while they generated a greater percentage of the scoring chance opportunities.
It’s rare to sustain that over the course of a full season and as the Senators’ scoring chance generation has regressed to be more commensurate to their shot volume output. Although they currently sit in second place in the Atlantic Division, the tightly-packed nature of the standings could have the Senators looking in from the outside in quick order.
On whether the waiver wire could be a solution for solving the forward depth issue…
“Every day when the waiver wire comes through, I talk or email with all of our pro scouts and then follow up with a call if there’s something imminent. We talk (about) every player that’s gone through waivers and sometimes when guys are on waivers, they’ve got certain flaws. Other times, teams have a lot of depth. It’s something we look at every day, but nothing concrete right now.”
The player in particular who was waived on the date of the interview was San Jose’s Matt Nieto and although he represented an upgrade that Ottawa could have used, because of Ottawa’s position in the standings and their accompanying waiver priority, the likelihood of him falling to the Senators was low. Maybe a trade could have been facilitated, but with the organization apparently kicking tires on adding a depth forward, maybe they have someone better in mind.
On what he’s seen out of Curtis Lazar this year…
“I’ve seen a lot of good things. I know sometimes we emphasize the bad things, but I’ve seen a lot of good things as far as speed, work ethic, being in the right spot and giving us energy. Ideally, we probably could have left Curtis (for) a few more weeks in the minors, but we were getting injuries and we just felt it was time to call him up. But as far as, when he’s been on that fourth line with (Chris) Kelly and (Chris) Neil, I think they’ve been a pretty productive line. They’ve done what they’re asked to do. I think Curtis is finding his way on the (penalty kill). I know he made a mistake there that one game against the (New York) Rangers, I think it was. But, I think we see someone that is hopefully going to be a good player for us. I think it’s a lot of confidence with him as far as being able to produce. I think when you produce all your life and you get to a point where you’ve played 15 games and you don’t have a point, you start second-guessing yourself and that’s why we’re there for him. Hopefully we can help him get back on track as far as producing (points), but away from the puck, he’s been tremendous. At times when you prevent the opposition from scoring, it’s always a good thing.”
Thanks to sites like Puckalytics.com, it’s easy to figure out what a Kelly-Lazar-Neil line has done this season. In 39:26 of five-on-five ice time, the trio have: 1) been on the ice for zero goals; 2) generated 36.2-percent of the shots; and 3) been the opposite of productive.
I get not wanting to sandbag a first round pick publicly and ruin whatever’s left of Lazar’s confidence, but he’s been terribly unproductive and performed at a sub-replacement level.
For a team that has been handed a playoff mandate by its owner and is having its depth exposed, the shortcomings of this team’s third and fourth lines (in addition to the performance of the second and third defensive pairings) have helped submarine this team’s chances.
There’s something to be said about the organization’s loyalty to veterans like Neil or Kelly and hell, even the pedigree of a prospect like Lazar who they assuredly want to give as many chances to as possible, but it’s this repeated willingness to roster these unproductive players that works against this team’s playoff aspirations. Better alternatives were available throughout the course of the summer and even during this season, but the organization hasn’t brought them into the fold. Maybe the internal budget plays a huge role in that, but I’d like to think this organization is capable of being creative enough to find ways to make even the most modest of improvements.
On Nick Paul not having an opportunity to play at the NHL level this season and how has his season gone…
“Lack of consistency. He’s good one game and not good one game. For someone who had a chance to see what the NHL was about for the last 20 or so games last year, if I’m not mistaken, he’s got to be better. I think it would send the wrong message if we called up Nick Paul and don’t call up Phil Varone when Phil Varone is a dominant player down there. So I think players have to own up for themselves. We still think Nick Paul is going to be a very good NHLer one day, but he’s got to be more consistent and he’s got to battle through adversity, use his size and body to be more effective and once he starts doing that on a more consistent basis, he’ll be back with us.”
Nick Paul wasn’t really that impressive in the 24-games that he played last season and from all accounts, his numbers and performance in Binghamton don’t warrant much attention this season. He doesn’t deserve a promotion based solely on the fact that he represented Canada once at the World Junior Championships or that he’s the one piece that remains from the Jason Spezza trade. He has to earn a promotion.
On how surprising the inconsistency has been since his glowing offseason…
“I think they’re kids. They all have to grow and mature. It’s not like we want to trade him tomorrow. We’re not trading Nick Paul. He’s going to be a part of our future down the road, but it’s a process. Through that process, some of our prospects are going to face highs. Like a Thomas Chabot who’s facing a high point right now where he’s a dominant player at probably one of the most exciting tournaments in the world. But, there were times this year when Thomas played because one game with us, he wasn’t very good. So you’ve got to learn how to balance that and that’s why our development people like Randy (Lee) and Shean Donovan are so good. They communicate with these guys and they explain it to them. And Kurt (Kleinendorst) is really working with Nick Paul. We put him at the wing to start off, then we felt that he wasn’t moving his feet enough, so now we put him back at centre so he’s moving his feet more. We’re trying to do whatever we can to help our prospects be as good as they can be, but they’re not always going to be perfect right away. If so, we’d have a league of 20, 21 or 22-year olds. It’s a process. You’ve got to grow with him and you’ve got to mature with him. With Nick, we still have a lot of faith in him, it’s just he’s got to play with more determination.”
Seven minutes and nine seconds of ice time wasn’t really a big sample size to evaluate Chabot properly. I wish they gave him more time.
On Francis Perron’s first season as a professional and how his development is going…
“We see good things from Francis Perron. He’s someone… his skill level is one of our top two or three players down there without a doubt. But again, it’s about getting stronger and learning to play against men every night. He’s someone when you come off a season where you’re the MVP of a major junior league, things aren’t always easy for you, but they come naturally for you. Learning to adapt when you go into the corner and you’re going into the corner with someone who’s 220 lbs. as compared to someone who’s 170 lbs., it’s a bit different. It’s an adjustment and there are growing pains, as there are with Nick Paul, but you learn to live with them and hopefully if they have the character that you think they have, they battle through it and one day… I don’t think Francis will play for us right away, but within the realm of the next few years, I think he’ll be able to play with us.”
Mike Hoffman’s development path is probably similar to the one that they have in mind for Perron. They want him to be committed to self-improvement away from the puck and learning or adjusting how to play professionally. It may take some time, but the hope is that it pays off and someday we’ll have a chance to see Perron’s offensive skills be put on display in the future.
On Clarke MacArthur’s timetable for a return…
“I don’t want to put a date on it. You know what, the best scenario would be, I just show up to the rink, he does the morning skate and then he plays that night. I think with Clarke, it’s a situation where we know he’s on vacation with Dion (Phaneuf) and Erik (Karlsson) and they’re taking good care of him. Once he comes back, we’re going to keep going through what he’s going through right now and as I’ve said all along, he’s going to play for us this year. There’s no doubt about that. I knew that a week or two after the injury and once he plays for us, I think he’ll be alright. It’s just the doctors have to give him clearance and we’re going to wait for them to make sure that everything is 100-percent. I’ve said it all along and we’ve seen it this year: life is more important than hockey. As much as I want the two points against Washington, I think Clarke MacArthur’s life is more important and that’s what we have to (emphasize). We can’t derive from that and we’ve got to make sure that everything’s okay before he steps on the ice again for a game.”
It’s been the same message since last season and after MacArthur failed to disclose his symptoms last year, you know the organization won’t let MacArthur rush back. He’ll only get in once the doctors give him a clean bill of health, but as the months on the calendar keep flipping, you wonder if the optimism regarding the prospect of MacArthur playing this season will be realized.
On MacArthur’s availability and its impact the flexibility for what he can do to the roster…
“Well, when you can always improve your roster, you’re always going to look to improve your roster. To me, once Clarke is here, it’s a bonus for us. It’s an asset that we can hope that he can play not just one, but 30 games to the end of the year or to whenever he’s in the lineup. To me, it’s a bonus. A bonus player that has NHL experience that even if you watch him in practice, he’s flying out there and he’s scoring. It would be a great boost to our lineup, but we’re going to wait and see what happens. If he can’t play or if something happens in the meantime, we’ll look at a replacement for him or look to improve our forward position.”
If Clarke does play, it’s going to be hard to watch and not have this nagging feeling that he could be one hit away from having his career and long-term health be adversely affected.
On watching the team’s prospects play in the World Junior semi-finals…
“Four out of five guys and I’ve got to say, (Shean Donovan) will be down here and Randy (Lee) has been talking to them before the tournament and those guys don’t get a lot of credit. A guy also like Paul Boutilier who has worked with Thomas Chabot in Saint John on his shot, those three guys should (get a lot of credit). As scouts sometimes, we draft these guys, but to make them rise to the (top), those three guys should get a lot of credit too.”
They don’t get a lot of credit? Dorion credits the same guys in every interview!
On whether the front office knew from the outset that Chabot could skate and move the puck as well as he has shown…
“Yes, we always knew he could skate. Would I tell you that he’s been as dominant as we expected? No, but he’s teased us on occasion. He’s teased us and that’s why he made our team to start off the year. He was teasing us as to what he could do. I give a lot of credit to Randy (Lee) here because Randy gave him the gears after development camp because we all knew he could be better than what he (showed). And I think us keeping him to be around guys like Dion (Phaneuf), Erik (Karlsson), Marc (Methot), Cody (Ceci) and (Mark Borowiecki), I think was maybe the most beneficial thing we did – just to see both on the Western road trip to see how guys do it and how they are pros and when they play how they prepare. I think it opened up his eyes. When you develop someone as well as we’re doing it and he’s got all of the tools, well it just makes us look really good as an organization.”
Player development always looks good when cherry picked prospects pan.