Unlike the formative days from his appointment as general manager, the frequency of Pierre Dorion’s media availabilities has dropped substantially over the past few seasons.
A major contributing factor in this development is obviously the precipitous drop in team performance coupled with the organization’s dissatisfaction with the media’s willingness to poke holes into the Senators’ explanations for why and how things have unraveled as they did.
So when Dorion appeared on TSN 1200’s ‘The Drive’ to discuss his organization’s preparations for the 2020 NHL Draft and speak on some of the developments that the league announced as part of its return to play mandate, it offered a rare opportunity to put down some thoughts in bold.
If you’re unfamiliar with the format, it’s quite simple. I’ve transcribed the bulk of Dorion’s interview with Ian Mendes and Steve Lloyd below. After each of Dorion’s answers to a question, I’ll include my own thoughts which will be highlighted in bold.
For anyone wishing to listen to the audio of the interview, it can be found embedded at the bottom of this post.
On the league’s announcement that the Senators’ campaign is over and how he would assess it…
“I’m not going to lie to you, it felt a bit short. I don’t think I’m making light of the current situation, but it was still a pleasure to watch us play every game. Those 11 games we’ll never get a chance to get back, but at the same time, I think in this world, there’s way bigger and more important things to be done. As far as the team, I think we really enjoyed our progress. I really enjoyed how the team competed. I really enjoyed seeing the development of some of our younger players, some of our middle-aged players, some the veterans on this team… really… of all the people in this organization, we’re really happy with the job D.J. (Smith) and his staff did. I really know a year after we made this decision that we made the right decision to hire D.J. We just feel that the plan’s in place – the plan that both Eugene (Melnyk) and I put in place in February of 2018 is starting to look real good and with this upcoming draft, we know it’s going to be real good.”
I understand why the league elected to end the season for the seven teams that were out of the playoff picture, but if this is the end of the line for Craig Anderson’s career, it’s disappointing that there isn’t a proper send-off for the 38-year old goaltender. Mind you, without fans being in attendance and able to watch these games live, proper recognition would have to wait anyways.
Anderson’s last game in Ottawa as a Senator was a 37-save performance in the team’s 4-3 win over the Islanders on March 5th. His last game is the Senator was the team’s important 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on March 11th that helped secure the team’s advantageous draft lottery odds.
On it being the right decision to hire Troy Mann as the head coach in Belleville and how pleased he is with the development of the prospects within the organization…
“Oh, we’re elated if I can be as honest and forthright as anyone can be with how our prospects developed – especially our prospects up front in Belleville. You talked about obviously Josh Norris winning (AHL) rookie of the year as a 20-year old. I think it’s something spectacular. Just his game, how it got better and how it matured through the course of his year because he’s got tremendous skating ability and tremendous skill – how he scores goals from the inside and how he can make plays on the inside or outsides, his compete level. Obviously, he needed to learn how to play away from the puck – which got better under Troy Mann. But, then you add all the other guys – (Alex) Formenton, who had a great rookie season; (Drake) Batherson, who was a dominant player; (Vitaly) Abramov, who took a big step. Those are just some of the four guys that went in the right direction. Parker Kelly went from a marginal AHL player to someone that we feel is going to be able to play for us in upcoming years. So we know that we’ve got a lot of prospects up front, but then you look at the back end and you’ve got (Erik) Brannstrom that we know is going to be a big part of our future, so we know we’re really in good shape with the work that Troy did in Belleville this year.”
With the exception of Kelly, the four forwards Dorion listed were the team’s four-highest scorers. An interesting omission, who I would have loved to have heard more about, was Logan Brown.
The big centre was over a point per game with 28 points in his 25-game season, but it was the fourth consecutive season for Brown that was cut short because of injuries. Obviously, no one should blame Dorion for Brown’s omission given the abbreviated year for the player, but I would love to hear more about the organization’s regard for the player and his future outlook.
There is no question that the player is talented and ultimately has a future at the NHL level, but it hasn’t been the easiest development route for Brown and after his agent spoke out last fall about how other players from Brown’s draft class have already been playing NHL games, it’s easy to wonder whether Brown could be an asset that the Senators could move to address another need – especially if the team is able to land a natural centre or two at the top of the 2020 NHL Draft.
Brown will never be mistaken for a fleet or exceptional two-way player, but he has the size and excellent playmaking and puck-protection skills that reminds me a bit of the way that Joe Thornton plays the game.
I don’t know the player, so I can’t speak to whether things like ego, a sense of entitlement and or a perceived work ethic have hampered Brown’s standing, but it’s hard to ignore this organization’s history with talented young players who have had their temperament or commitment challenged by the organization before. I look at the success that Robin Lehner and Mika Zibanejad have had elsewhere in recent seasons and hope that the organization doesn’t cool on Brown too soon.
Although he may ultimately get pushed off the centre position by a more complete 200-foot player like Josh Norris or by whomever the Senators land in this year’s draft, having a big-bodied winger who has the level of skill that Brown has adds significant value to the organization. At the very least, sliding him to the left wing position would give the Senators a lot of projectable youth at the position with Brady Tkachuk and Alex Formenton there. The presence of Brown conceivably could afford the Senators leverage when it comes to negotiating Anthony Duclair’s contract or at the very least, it should give Dorion the flexibility to explore Duclair’s trade value and whether he could be used to address a position of weakness.
On the unconventional draft lottery and his perspective on how the NHL is handling it…
“We’re happy with it. We’re going into the same situation with the same odds with the number one pick, number two pick or number three pick. When the season ended, the worst we could be if they stayed with the current rules was going to be five and six. We had an inclination that probably the season would end and go right into a playoff. So we’re happy with the scenario. We know we’re going to get two good players — whether it’s one or two or five and six – it’s a degree of difference between one and two and five and six, but we know we’ve got two good players coming to the Ottawa Senators for a long time to come. With the way that the NHL decided to do it, we’re more than okay with it and we’re going to be ready for it.”
Being one month out from the June 26th Draft Lottery, the NHL draft simulator at Tankathon is going to get a workout.
On where the Senators are at with their final list and the possibility that the Islanders’ first round selection will be in the top 15 picks…
“The one thing we have on our side is time. We know the draft won’t be for quite a few months and it’s such an important draft that we’re going to take time to really build as good as a list as possible. We’re very fortunate. I’ve said it on multiple occasions. I thought I was a very good chief scout, but I think Trent Mann is even better. We have the right guy leading us into this very important draft. Both myself and Peter (MacTavish) have listened in on the preliminary meetings. We’re going to keep doing these meetings and we’ve still got a few more interviews to do. But, we’ve had a lot of Zoom interviews conducted and we know we’re going to build a great list. The depth of the draft is so good. Just listening to the (scouts) in the preliminary talks… area guys about their specific area how they get excited not after the first five guys, but guys get excited after the first 15. So that tells you that the draft, we feel, is pretty deep until the third round and we’ve got nine picks in the first three rounds, so we’re really looking forward to this upcoming draft.”
With the Florida Panthers set to face the New York Islanders as part of the NHL’s play-in qualification process, every Senators fan needs to be on the Panthers’ bandwagon. An elimination of the Islanders will relegate them to that pool of eight non-playoff teams that will be included in the Draft Lottery.
The Islanders’ 2020 first rounder is lottery protected, meaning that if the Islanders secure one of the top three picks, the Senators would then receive the Islanders’ 2021 first round pick as part of the Jean-Gabriel Pageau trade return.
Should the Islanders lose their series, they could very well giftwrap the Senators a top-15 selection, but in the event that the Islanders win the draft lottery and pick top-three, there is a chance that their team may fare significantly worse next season.
Although the Islanders finished this season with a 35-23-10 record for 80 points, their success was largely predicated on the performance of their goaltenders and a middle of the pack penalty kill (80.7 percent, 15th).
According to NaturalStatTrick.com’s five-on five data, the Islanders ranked 29th in their share of shots (46.45 CF%); 26th in their share of shots on goal (47.94,SF%), 23rd in goal share (48.65 GF%), 20th in expected goal share (48.84 xGF%) and 22nd in their share of scoring chances (47.91 SCF%). Their goaltenders did however stop 92.33 percent of the five-on-five shots for the 10th best rate in the NHL.
Eight of the team’s highest-paid forwards are locked into contracts through the 2021-22 season and they already have a projected cap hit of $71.38 million according to CapFriendly.com. Their best player, Mat Barzal, needs a contract extension as a restricted free agent this summer and one of their best young defencemen in Ryan Pulock is in need of a new contract as well, meaning that the Islanders’ budget could be stretched thin without a ton of room for internal growth.
CapFriendly lists their roster as having an average age of 29.2 years and should their goaltending regress without seeing any significant improvement in their territorial shot and goal share rates, this Islanders team could be considerably worse next year and potentially land the Senators a high pick in the same way that San Jose delivered one this season.
It is interesting that Dorion emphasized how much time the organization has to get its master list right considering how important this draft is to the team’s rebuilding efforts. Having more time isn’t necessarily an advantage that other teams aren’t afforded, but with one of the smallest scouting staffs in the league, it gives the Senators more time to view the available talent and hopefully make more informed decisions.
I wish the hosts would have used Dorion’s answer to follow up with a question about the incongruity of this draft’s importance and how that isn’t reflected by the number of European scouts the Senators employ (one), but, it probably would have led to some lip service that celebrates his amateur scouting background and the ability of Trent Mann. (As an aside, this isn’t a dig at Trent Mann. His staff is small and the Senators’ draft history reflects a situation where they simply aren’t comfortable drafting prospects out of Europe who aren’t playing in Sweden. The Senators simply need to boost their presence overseas because focusing almost exclusively on talent playing in North America isn’t much of a market inefficiency.)
On how the surplus of picks gives him a lot of flexibility to get creative with trades…
“Well, we have to think about the plan. When you’re trying to build a championship calibre team or when you’re building a championship calibre team, you know that at a certain time that making a pick is the smarter decision than trading for a very short-term asset that won’t be beneficial for you when you’re going to be competing for a Cup. We’re going to look at every scenario. We’re not going to tip our hand, but we knew this would be a very deep draft and we stockpiled a lot of picks. We’re going to look at every situation possible, but we’re not going to tip our hand in what we’re going to do for next year, but what I can tell you is that we’re going to field a very competitive team next year.”
It’s smart on Dorion not to say much of anything. In the past, he’s been guilty of putting his foot in his mouth and delivering messages that contradicted things that he had said in the past.
It is in Dorion’s best interests to keep fan expectations low so that there is less pressure on him and management to deliver a more competitive team sooner. Towing this line of answers should afford him and the organization time and should the Senators exceed expectations, they can attribute it to the work that they have done in the rebuild.
Make no mistake however, the easiest part of the rebuild is done. Tearing down the roster to secure a bunch of prospects and picks was not difficult. The transition from rebuilding to signing contracts and making hockey deals and moving assets to support the young pieces that the Senators have accumulated is going to be paramount to this team’s future success – especially being aware of the overt pressure that ownership has put on his general managers to put playoff revenues ahead of the interests of a more patient approach.
And if I’m being frank, Dorion’s trade history and contract work before the rebuild started isn’t particularly flattering. The organization and him are going to have to be better moving forward, but hopefully that he has learned from his short-sighted mistakes and based off his answer here, he acknowledged that the Senators don’t want to sacrifice young assets for some short-lived success.
On whether the playoffs are a possibility next season or whether they might be a more realistic goal the following season…
“We don’t feel that you should put a timeline on the playoffs or where we feel we’ll be. We just feel that we have to get better. We know we’re going to field a very competitive team. The tougher two years that we’ve had, we feel that it’s really going to start paying dividends as soon as next year.”
It’s a funny answer in the sense that the organization already outlined its patented strategy that will involve years of unparalleled success, but again, it does not serve Dorion’s interests to outline any timeframe for success since it would only give fans and the media something to measure the team’s success against. All Dorion has to do is keep the expectations low right now and continue to build organically while avoiding the pitfalls of bad contracts and trades.
On Connor Brown’s agent indicating that his client is willing to sign an extension with the Senators and how important it is to surround the youth with good veterans…
“Yeah, exactly. We just can’t put a bunch of players 23 and under together to field an NHL team. We know that we’d probably finish in 31st place. We have a lot of great youth coming up – whether it’s three, four or five players from Belleville impacting our team next year – we feel that we have a lot of talent that can come up and help us. But at the same time, we have to make sure we surround them with quality veterans and it’s making sure we keep those quality veterans. If some don’t want to stay here, we’ll find replaceable parts. But at the same time, it’s making sure that we have the right mixture of youth and our youth keeps on progressing and we have some good veterans that can show them the way.”
I’m not sure if it was intended or not, but when Dorion said, “It’s making sure we keep those quality veterans. If some don’t want to stay here, we’ll find replaceable parts,” it sounded like a dig at some of the team’s impending UFAs. Mikkel Boedker has already signed a contract in Europe and given the age of players like Craig Anderson or Ron Hainsey, I don’t think either player was going to be brought back anyway… which leaves Mark Borowiecki.
Given Borowiecki’s development story, character, toughness, and work ethic, he’s the type of player the organization would have locked up long ago. For a sixth or seventh defenceman, he seems like a natural fit and someone who should theoretically be easy to sign, but I’m surprised that the Senators and Dorion haven’t locked him up yet.
On whether it is tricky it is to engage in contract talks right now given the uncertain economic landscape facing the league right now during this pandemic…
“We’re not going to get into contract discussions. We have a good idea of what the landscape will be down the road. The NHL has been very good to advise us and we just don’t feel… no one gains anything talking about possible contract negotiations. Everyone was happy when we announced Thomas Chabot not out of the blue but… we want to continue down that path or down that direction that whenever we have a contract to announce, we’ll announce it.”
There is certainly a difference between the Senators taking heat for failing to progress in contract talks with impending unrestricted free agents like Mark Stone or Erik Karlsson and signing RFAs like Thomas Chabot and Colin White to long-term extensions when these young players did not have a ton of leverage.
On there being any clarity for what the organization can do if the 2020-21 season does not start until next January…
“Obviously, the NHL has smart people running the league. They know that 24 teams will have a certain advantage going into the next season and they’ll have to look into the matter of the seven teams that aren’t going to play until October, November, December, January or whenever the 20-21 season starts and there’s going to be some kind of solution found where we can be more on an even-playing field. But right now, we don’t have those guidelines or protocols. Once we get them, I’m sure you will probably know before me and we’ll make sure to implement them and that we do everything in accordance to Public Health Canada or whatever the quarantine (guidelines are)… we’re going to follow all the guidelines and make sure that our player safety is one, the staff safety is also very important, but at the same time, we want to make sure that we can compete with the other teams once the season starts.”
It certainly will make for an interesting study on whether teams with short layoffs during this pandemic will benefit from playing than a team like the Senators which will be well-rested by the time the 2020-21 season begins. There is already so much parity within league as it is, it would not be hard to envision teams like the Senators taking a big step forward if they strike gold at the 2020 NHL Draft or get big gains from some of its best young prospects who may crack the Senators’ lineup.
On providing an update to Anders Nilsson’s concussion recovery…
“Yes, there is actually. He’s feeling great, exercising, working out. He’s in Sweden. He just needs to get back out on the ice. Once he gets back on the ice and starts stopping pucks, he’ll be back to 100-percent.”
With the cancellation of the Senators’ season and Nilsson’s health still in question, I wondered whether it would be in the Senators’ best interests this offseason to target the addition of a free agent goaltender. On Twitter, I specifically mentioned that it may be worth the Senators’ while to target Robin Lehner on a multi-year deal and the explanation is simple.
The organization is likely moving on from the 38-year old Craig Anderson, Anders Nilsson has not played since sustaining a concussion in December and the jury is still out on what kind of upside Marcus Hogberg has. To date, Hogberg’s only had one North American professional season at the AHL level or higher in which his save percentage was above .904 (.917 in 39 games with the Belleville Senators in 2018-19).
I understand the low expectations accompanying the Senators while recognizing the goaltending depth that they have within its system. Goaltenders like Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord or Mads Sogaard may have the highest upside within the system, but the attrition rate on goaltenders is incredibly high and if these players can’t earn their spot on the roster by eventually passing Nilsson or Hogberg on the depth chart, that isn’t a great sign.
Lehner is probably looking for a multi-year deal that makes him a de facto number one goaltender and in four of his last five seasons, his save percentage at five-on-five was above .920. Lehner has talked openly about his addiction and bipolar disorder at length and with sobriety, his on-ice results have spiked.
Over the last two seasons, his goals saved above average and goals saved above expectation rates have been well above average and simply put, he represents a significant upgrade at the position in Ottawa.
Although it would be tempting to roll the dice on average goaltenders again in hopes that the Senators could tank just one more season to net a high prospect, it may be in the team’s mid-range interests to secure a good goaltender who turns 29 this summer and can likely come at a reasonable cost. (Note: the rest of this year’s UFA goalie crop isn’t that impressive. Lehner’s essentially the only candidate I believe would fit in the team’s plans.)
On the Senators’ season being over and how the organization intends to handle exit interviews…
“Well, next week I know we’re going to work on our preliminary list. Probably… we haven’t done Belleville yet, so we’re looking at the week of (June) 8th to do some Belleville exit interviews and then probably later on in the middle of the month in June, we’ll do our exit interviews. We’ll do them obviously through Zoom. The one good thing compared to other years where players want to get in and out – players want to get out because they want to get home after the exit interviews – both D.J. and myself, if we want to talk an hour to a guy, we’ll have that hour. So we might extend those into not just a five, 10, 15-minute process, but it might be, if a player wants to talk to us an hour about our team, about him or where we’re headed, we’ll have a lot of time to do that. We’ll probably do that sometime during the month of June.”
Usually there is an extensive accompanying media availability for the general manager and head coach, so hopefully the Senators do both in mid-June to help break up the monotony of the summer as we await the June 26th Draft Lottery.
On Josh Norris’ season and whether he’s a prospect that the organization is looking to pencil into its lineup next season…
“It’s up to Josh. He’s got to come here to camp and impress D.J. and impress myself. He definitely did that as the season went on in the AHL, but there’s a difference between the AHL and the NHL. But, we’re really excited that whenever Josh Norris plays for us, he’ll be an impact player down the road.”
Given his progression in the AHL over the course of the season, I have a really hard time believing that the Senators will not have him pencilled in as one of their top three centres next season.