As his team was set to embark on its five-game road trip to Winnipeg and Toronto, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion joined Steve Lloyd and Lee Versage on TSN 1200’s ‘The Drive’ yesterday to discuss the latest happenings with his hockey club.
I have transcribed the entire interview below, but after each of the general manager’s comments on a topic, I have included my own thoughts which are highlighted in bold.
To stream the full interview, scroll to the bottom of the post for the embedded audio.
On the latest roster transactions…
“We have recalled from Belleville, Matt Peca. We have sent Logan Brown from the taxi squad back to Belleville. The reason for that is, Logan has not played since February 15th. At some point in time in the future or near future, he will be playing for us. And with Belleville playing two games on the weekend and two games next week, at that point in time, we will call him back to the taxi squad. So just a quick update for your listeners.”
It was a weird sequence of events seeing the Senators waive Artem Anisimov so that they could promote Logan Brown to the taxi squad on February 7th only to return him to Belleville three days later.
As the CBC’s Jamie Long pointed out, the only sensible explanation is that it afforded Brown the opportunity to practice with the parent club for a few days. Although, some cynics may point to the fact that the Senators did not fill Anisimov’s spot on the roster. In carrying one less player on the NHL roster, it helps save the Senators some money during the road trip while affording it some roster flexibility to move a defenceman or forward off the taxi squad.
Did these last three days make a difference in the player’s development?
Being around the guys and having some familiarity with the team’s system before returning to Ottawa certainly won’t hamper Brown, but the assumption in all of this is that Brown will go to Belleville and play well before returning in the near future. With the graduation of a few of Ottawa’s better prospects, Belleville’s roster should be a weaker iteration than last year’s team. The pressure is going to be on Brown to not only stay healthy, but dominate the competition. If he or Belleville gets off to a sluggish start, you would hate to see it delay his promotion.
On the Peca/Brown transactions likely being a straight swap when those games are done…
“Yes. Well, he’ll play and if he’s really good, he’ll be back up with the taxi squad and then eventually on the NHL roster. We’ll see how he plays. He hasn’t played since February 15th, so to give him the best chance for success at the NHL level, we all felt that he needs games under his belt.”
Some AHL games will benefit Brown, but at the same time, Erik Brannstrom was afforded the opportunity to come up and join Ottawa’s roster before the start of the AHL season. In fairness, Brannstrom spent time overseas playing games before rejoining Ottawa, but he missed camp because of a Covid exposure and went a month without playing in meaningful games.
On if things go well, the club expects Brown back up sometime next week…
“Yeah, and I think it’s a process. First taxi squad, practice with the team, get to the NHL level, (get used) to the pace of the NHL level and then have the best chance to succeed and play.”
The frustration from fans is that they look at a prospect like Brown and believe him to be an immediate improvement on some of the veterans who appear to be beyond reproach when it comes to performance. This conversation can be extended to the handling of Drake Batherson. The skilled right winger was demoted to the team’s fourth line on Tuesday against the Oilers and during one of the intermissions, Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch revealed that the organization strongly considered benching Batherson.
You cannot help, but feel for the young player. When Batherson has been on the ice according to NaturalStattrick.com, the Senators have generated only 25.0 percent of the total goals scored at five-on-five, but the team’s expected goal share (xGF%) with Batherson on the ice is 55.7 percent. Looking at his individual five-on-five rates, only three of Ottawa’s regulars – Colin White (!!!!), Brady Tkachuk and Alex Galchenyuk – have higher individual expected goal rates than Batherson. In terms of individual scoring chances per 60, only Tkachuk and White have generated higher rates than Batherson.
So what gives?
The Senators have a five-on-five shooting percentage of 1.98 percent when Batherson is on the ice. Of the 464 skaters who have played more than 100 minutes at five-on-five, only six skaters have suffered from lower on-ice shooting percentages than Batherson’s. (As an aside, in that same sample size, Batherson ranks 64th in individual expected goals for per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time.)
On the surface, it seems like he is being punished for some incredibly bad luck. It is not like he has been bad defensively.
Using Hockeyviz.com’s isolated impact visuals, Batherson’s impact on the defensive end is slightly above average.
It certainly looks like Batherson’s being punished for not filling the net, but one of my biggest problems plaguing the Senators is the perception that the organization lets veteran players skate for their mistakes. Regardless of tenure, players aren’t stupid. When the public continuously watches the organization single out young players while the veterans are never held publicly accountable, the perception of the organization suffers.
Everyone who has watched this team play this year recognizes that it has been the team’s youngest players who have carried the team. To see them get criticized when the offence dries up, it rings hollow, but it’s the easiest thing for the organization to do. Considering how the organization will inevitably be looking to dump some veterans for future assets closer to the deadline, criticizing or benching underperforming veterans may negatively impact their trade value. This silence also carries the benefit of not drawing attention to the fact that the organization traded a number of draft picks and dropped approximately $20 million on players who have failed to make this team more competitive.
On the difficulties players like Erik Brannstrom have had without the luxury of AHL games this season to help prepare them for the NHL…
“Obviously, it’s not an easy process. For us… for Erik, it was a different scenario. We felt that after not playing 28 out of 30 day on the ice, we just felt for him that the best thing was to just practice and the he could join the team in due team when he had gone through his own training camp. With the other players, now with Belleville having a schedule, they’ll play four games in February. I think it’s key for some young players to get some playing time.”
Candidates for promotion include the aforementioned Brown, Joey Daccord and a burner like Alex Formenton. This trio will eventually play games in Ottawa this season, but with such a shortened AHL season, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before they are recalled to play meaningful games. Thanks to the Senators’ poor start, whatever playoff aspirations they had are essentially gone. Rather than continue to give minutes to impending UFAs, the Senators will eventually have to give some of these prospects some runway to gauge how impactful they can be next season.
On the performance of Artyom Zub and whether he has been surprised at his performance…
“Well obviously, our group – our scouts, our pro scouts, our amateur scouts – all liked Artyom Zub last year. I know Peter (MacTavish) went over to Russia also and really liked him. I had the chance to go see him, I was impressed by his play. But, this is where the lack of exhibition games didn’t give us the luxury to see what we had. He was average, to me, in training camp and at a certain point in time, the coach is going to go with more NHL proven players. But, at a certain point in time, we knew he would get some game action and since he’s been in, he’s been a great addition to our team.”
A quick note passed on about the Sens player-led practices so far: other players (notably including Chabot) have singled out Zub as someone they're very impressed with.
— Tyler Ray (@DefenseMinister) December 23, 2020
Thomas Chabot may have a future in coaching or player evalation.
Dorion can blame the lack of exhibition games as a contributing factor for the player’s absence in the lineup, but at the same time, doesn’t this reflect poorly on what the organization is putting emphasis on in camp? Going into the season, we heard a lot about how Artem Anisimov dropped 10 lbs and how some of Ottawa’s other veterans looked great. It never mattered that there was a mountain of historical evidence suggesting that many of the veterans that Ottawa brought in were washed. Maybe if D.J. Smith had a previous connection or familiarity with Zub, it would have afforded him some opportunity, but it took way too long for him to draw into the lineup considering how ineffective right-shot options like Erik Gudbranson and Josh Brown have been.
That said, Zub has been a revelation and the scouting staff deserves credit for bringing him into the fold. I’m hoping to run a piece on Zub’s impact in the next few days, but it is a real shame that he didn’t draw into the lineup sooner. His mobility and defensive impact have had positive effects on the Senators’ underlying numbers.
Since entering the lineup on February 2nd, the Senators have put up the following numbers at five-on-five:
|Before Zub||After Zub|
Looking at the individual metrics, of the defencemen in the league who have played more than 80 minutes at five-on-five, only the Colorado Avalanche have generated a higher shot share (CF%) with Cale Makar on the ice (61.61 CF%) than the Senators with Artyom Zub (60.26 CF%).
What I’m most excited for is that Zub’s performance may give management pause to reflect on what attributes contribute to characterizing a player as a good defensive defenceman. Too often the organization has overvalued the prototypical defensive defenceman. Being tough to play against meant having a rugged and physical defenceman who would cross-check the hell out of an opposing player in front of the net. It never mattered if this defenceman could not skate or read plays well enough to engage in more puck-retrieval battles. It never mattered if these defencemen could move the puck efficiently and help their team get out of the defensive end. If Zub can help change the mindset that has negatively pervaded this organization since their 2007 Stanley Cup Final appearance, it would be welcomed.
Projecting out on Ottawa’s right side, it was common to dream on the emergence and development of prospects like Jacob Bernard-Docker and a Lassi Thomson. With the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft being touted as one in which a lot of defencemen should go early, Zub’s development could afford the organization the flexibility to roll the dice on one of the available centres or forwards instead.
On the shift transitioning from veterans to younger players like Brannstrom and Zub…
“Well obviously, Erik Brannstrom was not ready to play. Everyone that has been around the NHL, when you haven’t been on the ice for almost a month, you can’t just jump into a season. We thought Belleville would start on February 4th and February 5th, and when we saw that that wasn’t happening, we just decided to call him up after he had a good camp. Obviously, we had different types of defencemen to start off and I think we wanted to have a look at them. And now, D.J. feels that we’ve got a good mix of puck-movers and defenders. One guy’s play who’s really played great in the last four or five games as a pair is Mike Reilly and Artyom Zub.”
It is really easy to rip on Mike Reilly. He’s had some really unfortunate and glaring mistakes on the ice that have seen him be deemed him GIF-worthy. He will never be recognized as a great defensive player and his shortcomings have often been exposed while playing with Erik Gudbranson, but with Artyom Zub, he’s looked fine.
I think with Reilly, one of the understated impacts is his offensive game.
With the presence of Erik Brannstrom, Jake Sanderson, Thomas Chabot and Christian Wolanin on the left-side, Reilly could prove to be a useful trade asset. If a team is looking for a puck-moving defenceman who can play on the power play, Dorion should conceivably be able to capitalize on Reilly’s improved play.
On whether it is fair to say that the play of the veterans that he has brought in have been a disappointment thus far…
“Well, I think some have played well. Some have needed to find their games. Obviously, older bodies probably need a bit more time to get going. For us, it’s just when you have that many new bodies in the lineup, there’s going to be a certain adjustment. Our games have been better. Over the last… I can tell you over the last four or five games have been much better, but at the same time, not having the luxury of exhibition games clearly hurt us off the bat.”
I believe the adage that older bodies need more time, but if that’s Dorion’s belief, it wasn’t reflected in any of D.J. Smith’s lineup decisions to start the season. If this is truly the philosophy of the organization, why did it take so long for certain young players to be integrated into the lineup? Why was Colin White sitting out games at the expense of an Artem Anisimov or an Artyom Zub at the expense of any of the underperforming vets on the right side?
It doesn’t make sense.
If anything, it just sounds like Dorion is trotting out excuses to cover up poor player personnel decisions.
On providing an update to Derek Stepan’s situation…
“Well, Derek Stepan is a member of the Ottawa Senators. Obviously, we all know that when you have a newborn, it’s a tough situation for anyone. He’s given us great minutes. He’s proved to be a great leader. The best way to describe it is, when you have so many young players on your team, young players make mistakes. I think the last two games, I don’t want to say that they could have been won if we would have just a veteran lineup, but some mistakes were made by young players. A guy like Derek Stepan can tell these younger guys, ‘Just forget it. Be better.’ It’s almost like having an extra coach out there because sometimes a coach can correct you, coach you. But, when it’s a guy going to battle with you, that really helps. I think it can be beneficial for the growth of our young players.”
I don’t expect Dorion to slag the performance of a veteran player who reportedly asked for a trade, but saying that a veteran team should have won this team’s recent games is asanine. With Dorion, it feels like there’s a false equivalency between being a veteran player and being talented. Older players do not help you clutch games if they’re ineffective players.
On reports that Derek Stepan wants to be traded to be closer to his family…
“No, he hasn’t indicated anything along that line to us. We can tell by our conversations that I’ve had with him, I think it’s only human that when you’ve only seen your newborn for a day or two, that it can be difficult on any type of human being. At the same time, he’s a total pro and he’s doing the best (that he can).”
The Stepan trade rumours first surfaced during a Nick Kypreos podcast and were later corroborated by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. It’s not really surprising to see Dorion shoot them down considering the optics. It looked absolutely horrendous to move a valued asset for Stepan less than two months ago. Dorion never realized the leverage he had on the Coyotes and he will have to stomach the criticism for a terrible deal. Even if management thought they could net an asset for the impending UFA at the deadline, between the player’s diminished returns and inflated cap hit ($6.25M AAV), the market for him was always going to be small. The only thing the Senators can do at this point is hope that Stepan’s production improves and that he can return any kind of asset at the deadline.
On the performance of his veterans and whether that changes the philosophy and encourages the team to get more youth into the lineup…
“Well, I think all of those guys have earned it. I think if we’re honest with one another, last year Colin White was handed everything. I think he’s had to earn it this year and he’s bounced back. It’s the same situation… I don’t know how I can evaluate it, but when I got my first car, it was my grandmother’s car. Part of the deal was that I had to go there every weekend and clean her apartment. At the same time with our younger players, they have to earn it. It just can’t be given to them. I think when you look at an Erik Brannstrom, we all saw his play last year. I think we’re seeing a completely different defenceman this year. I think with (Christian) Wolanin, I think he’s hit the NHL gear on a full-time basis and it’s for him to earn staying in the lineup. At the same time, too many young guys could be just a total disaster. The NHL is a man’s league. It can eat you up. You have to be smart how you want to make sure you develop these kids properly. We don’t want to put a bunch of young players in the NHL not having earned (it) and then we lose for the next 10 years. So, I think there’s got to be a really good balance between putting your young players in situations where they can succeed — we have one of the youngest teams and young players in key roles – and at the same time, having some veterans and leaders around them that can help them through the good and through the bad.”
I don’t know if I agree with the idea that Colin White was handed everything. He started the season with Brady Tkachuk and Connor Brown because he had success playing on the team’s first line with Tkachuk and Mark Stone during his rookie campaign. After sustaining a lower-body injury that he tried to play through, White was eventually shut down because of his ineffectiveness and ultimately lost his role to Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Thanks to Pageau’s play and production, White never reclaimed the role he lost to injury and spent the rest of the season bouncing around on different lines.
To relegate White to the pressbox at the expense of some veteran alternatives who have no future with this organization was a joke. It never mattered that Artem Anisimov scored 15 goals last season on the strength of an unsustainably high shooting percentage. Anisimov’s overall impact was that of a sub-replacement level player. In a year in which the Senators weren’t expected to contend for a playoff spot, White – like the rest of Ottawa’s good, young players – should have been playing. More than anything, the organization needs to evaluate its young players to not only gauge what it has, but determine which young players are expendable.
On waiving some veteran players and whether the Senators plan on filling Artem Anisimov’s roster spot…
“I think for the time being, the group of guys that we have on this trip is the group of guys that we’ll finish with. We’ll see how things go, but we wanted to give ourself this roster flexibility. We have 22 guys on the active roster. If Artem (Anisimov) doesn’t get claimed and then goes on the taxi squad, we’re going to look at different scenarios. We don’t have to put him (there) right away, but we’ll look at all scenarios as soon as possible.”
It certainly creates flexibility, but it also saves money not rostering an extra player on the NHL roster.
On the conversation with Logan Brown about getting sent down in the AHL to get some games…
“Well, I spoke with the agent and I wanted D.J. (Smith) and Peter (MacTavish) to speak with the player themselves. The message was, ‘You came here, practiced hard. Since you’ve been here, you’ve had good and bad through camp. When you get called up again, whether it’s first on the taxi squad or on a roster, make sure you’re ready to play. Play as hard as you can. It won’t be handed to you. You’ve got to perform at the American (Hockey) League level as you’ve done and we hope to see you back here shortly.”
To be a fly on the wall listening to the conversation between the agent and the front office.
On whether the start of the AHL season impacts how the team will use the taxi squad moving forward…
“Yeah, obviously how we use the taxi squad… technically, they’re always in the minors. So to me, it’s just an extension of our Belleville team. But at the same time, I think you’ve got to be wise to make sure your young guys are playing. That they’re not sitting for long periods without playing because we want to make sure that we develop properly. An example of that is Nick Paul. I think we’ve got to show patience toward some of our younger players to do it right. He’s been one of our best and most consistent forwards through this year and we have to be patient at times with our younger players.”
It’s certainly ironic listening to how Nick Paul be listed as one of the organization’s great developmental stories when he posted some good underlying metrics, but was buried behind some underwhelming alternatives during the Guy Boucher era. Beyond the analytics, this was a big player who had some great physical tools. He won the team’s fastest skater and hardest shooter during the team’s 2019 skills competition. One month later, the Senators waived Paul allowing every other NHL club to claim him for nothing.
He snuck through waivers and the team is reaping the dividends now.
On Tim Stützle’s season thus far…
“Tim’s a dynamic player. Tim’s got electric speed, great hands, great hockey IQ, and he competes. We’ve seen teams go after him and he’s played hard through getting hit. At the same time, it’s a growing process. He’s 18 years old. (Leon) Draisaitl made really his NHL debut… actually (Tim’s) 19… Draisaitl was a year older when he pretty much got to be an NHL regular. I think with Tim, it’s just managing the game. At the world juniors, he could win a game and score almost every shift. He could win a game by himself. In the NHL, he’s not able to do that right now. He’s just got to figure out at times that the smart play is to just dump it in and change or dump it in and let your linemates dig it out instead of beat three or four people. But, we have a superstar in the making in Tim Stützle.”
After a difficult start to his season, Stützle has looked like every part of the dynamic player that they anticipated over the past five games. His confidence in carrying the puck rather than politely defer to his teammates has grown and it’s easy to dream on what kind of player he’s going to be in four or five years when he is stronger, more experienced and comfortable.
On Marcus Hogberg’s rough start and how long the leash is on him…
“At the same time, Marcus was really good for us last year. I think he played some really good hockey. At the same point in time, he knows he has to be better. He’s a competitor. He practices hard, but if his play continues along this line, we’re going to have to evaluate other options.”
Marcus Hogberg has only had one professional season above the ECHL level in which he’s registered a save percentage over .915. I certainly don’t believe Hogberg’s performance this season is a true reflection of his talent level, but as a 26-year old goaltender, I don’t believe his ceiling is particularly high either.
In each of his NHL seasons in Ottawa, Evolving-Hockey.com’s data shows that his goals saved above expected rates have been below zero. In other words, he’s saving fewer shots than he should have based on the quality of the shots he has faced. As a relatively young player, I think there was a tendency to overrate his performance last season, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that as an impending restricted free agent, Hogberg is going to have to perform at a much higher level if he’s going to salvage his NHL career.
On maintaining and building positivity amongst the young players during this season…
“Well, I think it’s key from D.J. and myself to try and stay as possible. Every game, I think we’ve been in some games. I know we’ve gotten blown out in some games on the road trip, but I think our compete was there from the start of the game in Edmonton, I think where they got eight goals on us. You could tell that Draisaitl and McDavid are trying to get specific records and our guys never quit. We battled through the game and I think there was a positive. I think the play in the last four games was really reflected that we could have won all four games. I think we’ve got to build upon that, build upon our third periods, build upon our work ethic, build upon our physicality… at the same time, if we just get a bounce here or there, I think things can turn around.”
The Senators have played better and I believe that’s a reflection of the higher quality lineups that their coaching staff have rostered. Ineffective veterans have been shelved, but there’s still work to do. Even though the results haven’t necessarily been good, fans are seeing the youth carry this hockey club and they want to see more of it. If there is an opportunity to add more prospects to the lineup later on – whether it’s a Formenton, Brown, Sanderson or Bernard-Docker – fans will relish it.