Pierre Dorion was crowned a winner of the 2022 off-season after acquiring Alex DeBrincat on draft day. DeBrincat, a two-time 40-goal scorer, filled Ottawa’s top six need. The Senators pulled off the rare feat of acquiring a 24 year old star via trade.
DeBrincat didn’t come with a contract extension. He carried two years of restricted free agency before hitting unrestricted status. This provided Dorion with plenty of time to work on a deal while DeBrincat became integrated with the organization.
“We can control him for two years. Obviously, we would like to extend him at some point in time, but you’ve got to make sure the fit is all right.” – Pierre Dorion after acquiring Alex DeBrincat
Nobody second guessed this at the time. DeBrincat was sure to be the perfect fit for a team on the rise. He was expected to play alongside Tim Stützle in a skill role- something that had been missing for the entirety of Ottawa’s rebuild. Excitement further increased when Claude Giroux was signed as a free agent. These three players would form the most anticipated line in franchise history.
This idea was abandoned after two pre-season games. A lack of immediate chemistry resulted in D. J. Smith disbanding the trio- who played a total of 8:33 together during the regular season. This was the beginning of a disappointing season for DeBrincat.
DeBrincat never expected to be traded from Chicago.
“The immediate reaction was just shock. I saw the rumors and stuff, and I’d had a couple conversations with Kyle, I knew it was a possibility, but I was ready to be in Chicago for a long time. That was just the way I thought about it. I’ve never been traded before in any league.” – DeBrincat after being traded to Ottawa
Being traded is a part of professional sports, but it was clear that DeBrincat felt disappointment towards the situation. He was forced to uproot his family- including a newborn baby- to an entirely different country. This added to the already-existing stress of performing for the largest payday of his career in a contract season.
DeBrincat joined the Senators hosting extreme expectations. His pedigree consisted of two 40-goal, 75+ point campaigns and a third at over a point-per-game during the shortened pandemic season. He ranked eighth in goals among all skaters over his first five NHL seasons. This made it near-impossible for him to meet the expectations of Ottawa fans. Anything less than 40 goals- which is far from an easy task- would be considered underwhelming.
DeBrincat earned 27 goals and 66 points through 82 games. His -3.15 goals less than expected marked only the second season in which he scored less goals than expected (2019-20). Every other year saw at least nine more goals than expected. DeBrincat’s 39 assists set a new career-high while his 29 primary markers ranked second on the Senators.
Scoring regression is difficult to explain. DeBrincat’s shooting percentage was 5.5% lower than his career average. This insinuates that scoring regression was nothing more than an outlier. DeBrincat proved to be an elite goal-scorer over his first five seasons; players like this rarely regress through their prime years. Bad luck is a challenging concept for most people to accept because it sounds like an excuse. This is a fair sentiment, but the trends state that DeBrincat will return to scoring form next season. He rebounded from his one other ‘down’ season by scoring 32 goals over the following 52 game campaign.
DeBrincat’s first season in Ottawa was somewhat of the perfect storm. Upon being traded to the Senators unexpectedly and moving his family to a different country, DeBrincat was forced to find chemistry with brand new linemates.
DeBrincat spent 340 more minutes alongside Shane Pinto and Drake Batherson than any other duo. Although these players possess certain strengths, Pinto was a rookie while Batherson spent most of the season regaining comfort on his ankle after last season’s injury. Josh Norris’ absence impacted DeBrincat more than anyone. He spent more time alongside rookie linemates (Pinto, Greig) than with Claude Giroux and/or Tim Stützle.
DeBrincat is a high-skill player who thrives with possession. He creates space with the puck just as he finds lanes away from it. His linemates must own elite awareness to unlock the true potential of his abilities. There were countless times this season in which DeBrincat found space in the slot or on the backdoor but his linemates failed to recognize it. Elite awareness was seen best with Patrick Kane in Chicago, of course.
“I look at DeBrincat and think that: on a team who plays a strong, heavy possession game to get the puck to DeBrincat for shots as opposed to a dump-and-chase team, I think DeBrincat would be an outstanding addition.” – Jeff Marek, 32 Thoughts
A skilled style of play caters to skilled systems. This specifically emphasizes controlled exits/entries, managing puck possession, executing set plays and creating high-danger chances rather than perimeter shots. The Senators lack anything resembling this. They rely on grit and physicality more than skill. The best example of this is how often they dump-and-chase- which is another term for voluntarily losing possession of the puck.
DeBrincat’s 109 hits mark a career-high. This is directly a result of playing for a team who relies heavily on the forecheck. He’s not a player who should be required to throw his body around this much. It’s only possible to record hits when you don’t have possession, and it demands an exertion of energy to do so. At 5’7″, DeBrincat is someone who needs to preserve his durability, not actively search for hitting opportunities.
Pierre Dorion referenced ensuring DeBrincat is a ‘good fit’ before signing him to an extension. Many fans would state that he is not a ‘good fit’ based on his performance this season. It’s more likely that DeBrincat is a poor fit under D. J. Smith’s system than he is on Ottawa’s roster. This is a group who owns immense talent: there is no reason for a high-skill player to struggle around the skill of this core.
I recently discussed the regression of new players coming to the Senators. This primarily focused on defensive regression but is applicable as a whole. Almost every player who comes to Ottawa from a different team suffers regression in valued areas. This is becoming especially apparent as the club exits it’s rebuilding phase. They have acquired proven players who suddenly lack previous attributes. It can’t be a coincidence.
Coaching is the common denominator among several skater issues. This may present an easy target for blame, but it’s valid. The proof is in the pudding with Ottawa’s coaches. They cater to an old-fashioned ‘grind’ style of play rather than the skill of today’s stars. A new coach and system- in Ottawa or elsewhere- will pay dividends for players like DeBrincat.
Implications of a Trade
Let’s get one thing clear: DeBrincat didn’t have a ‘good’ season by his standards. He fell short of expectations and would likely be the first to admit that. The point of this piece is to better understand why it happened, what to make of it and how it can be fixed moving forward.
This is precisely why it’s vital for the Senators to extend DeBrincat’s contract. The likely price of $8-9 million per year has deterred many fans from the idea, but it shouldn’t. While $9 million would be pushing it, losing DeBrincat would set the core back. A gaping hole would be left in the top six forward corps; it’s not easy to acquire players of this caliber. Ottawa would be left searching for a player who is less impactful than DeBrincat. This can be entirely avoided by signing DeBrincat himself.
DeBrincat was a $9 million+ player in Chicago. He hasn’t been that in Ottawa, but the trends suggest he will return to that level. It’s safer to bet on this trend than finding a different top six player who can fit the bill of a contending young roster. Age plays a factor as well. DeBrincat is only entering his prime: his best years have just begun. It’s easy to imagine him as a consistent 40+ goal scorer elsewhere if Ottawa were to move on.
Fans are correct in stating that DeBrincat is worth less than Brady Tkachuk ($8.2M) and Tim Stützle ($8.35M). There is an argument that both of these players are on team-friendly deals, however, and the importance of retaining DeBrincat must be considered. So what if it costs slightly more than desired to extend him? Unless it will seriously hamper the club’s ability to sign Jake Sanderson- which it won’t- there is little reason to hesitate.
Players of DeBrincat’s caliber and age are rarely available on the market. When they are, it typically costs a king’s ransom to acquire them. The Senators will have serious difficulties refining their forward group if it comes to that. This matter is only accelerated by the inevitable regression of Claude Giroux.
Finding players to fit the above roles is easier said than done. Ottawa would likely have to settle with a Connor Brown-level player (~50 points) in DeBrincat’s role on the second line. They would then have to find a replacement for Giroux. The core is entering their contention window now. Wasting three-plus years on refining the group isn’t feasible. It’s time for the club to go all-in on their commitment to winning.
Extending Alex DeBrincat is Pierre Dorion’s number one task this off-season.
Ottawa Might Not Have a Choice
Dorion has stated his desire to sign DeBrincat on numerous occasions. The Senators are currently awaiting a decision from DeBrincat himself; who reportedly wants to hear the plan from new ownership before committing to Ottawa.
DeBrincat may leave the Senators no choice by simply preferring to leave. This was always a risk to acquiring him without an extension in place. Should this happen, the onus falls on Dorion to trade him for value to help the team win now. Picks and prospects only hold value if they can be flipped in order to improve the current roster.
“There is a feeling around the league that DeBrincat will be traded. There’s a lot of focus on Detroit, St. Louis, Carolina… those central area teams.” – Elliotte Friedman
Cap space is the obvious perk to moving DeBrincat. Assuming they don’t pull off a one-for-one blockbuster deal, Ottawa would be able to utilize the allocated ~$8 million elsewhere. This would assist them in finding a goaltender and improving depth. They would still feature a skill downgrade while ultimately owning two holes (Giroux) in the top six during their contention window.
Although it may not be their choice, the ideal move is to sign DeBrincat. Here is a look at how they can afford to do so while maintaining their core.
Salary Cap Projection
For this projection, the ‘core’ is referred to as key players under long-term contracts.
The Core / Currently Under Contract
- Forwards: Tim Stützle ($8.35M), Brady Tkachuk ($8.2M), Josh Norris ($8M), Drake Batherson ($4.975) = $29.525M
- Defense: Thomas Chabot ($8M), Artem Zub ($4.6M) = $12.6M
- Total = $42.125M
The Core / Currently Unsigned / Projected Contracts
- Forwards: Alex DeBrincat ($8.5M) = $8.5M
- Defense: Jake Sanderson ($8M), Jakob Chychrun ($8M) = $16M
- Total = $24M
If the above three players were to sign for around the projected prices, Ottawa’s core (9 players, all below the age of 28) would come to a total cap hit of ~$66M.
NHL teams currently possess a cap total of $82.5, and that number is expected to rise to $92 million by 2025. Also notable is the fact that Claude Giroux will see a cost reduction when his current deal expires (2025-26), while $4.14 million (Matt Murray, Bobby Ryan, Michael Del Zotto) will be cleared after next season.
Here are a few other core cap hits (signed players only) for reference:
- Toronto: ~$48M (5 players, 4 of whom need extensions in the next four years)
- Boston: ~$58.5M (9 players, 5 of whom are above the age of 28)
- Tampa Bay: ~$68M (9 players, 4 of whom are above the age of 28)
- New York Rangers: ~60M (8 players, 5 of whom are above the age of 28)
- Colorado: ~$58M (8 players, 2 of whom are above the age of 28)
Spending $65M on the core isn’t out of the ordinary. It is, however, dependent on strong pro scouting abilities, as the rest of the roster must maximize every dollar. Let’s theorize for a moment.
Here is a lineup projection for 2025-26 with the discussed core signed:
Tkachuk (8.2M) – Stützle (8.35M) – Batherson (4.975M)
DeBrincat (8.5M) – Norris (8M) – External Acquistion (4M)
Greig ($2.5M) – Pinto (3M) – Giroux (2M)
? (1M) – Kastelic ($1M) – ? ($1M)
Sanderson (8M) – Chychrun (8M)
Chabot (8M) – Zub (4.6M)
Kleven ($1.5M) – Brännström (2M)
This lineup comes out to right around $90 million. It would obviously feature slightly different numbers in reality, but the point is to showcase that the entire core can be cap compliant long-term. Players outside of the core could be moved if they outprice the Senators. This is standard operations for any contending roster. It comes down to prioritizing key players while maximizing efficiency throughout the lineup.
The simple reality is: being a cap team comes with it’s challenges. Trading a player such as DeBrincat would provide flexibility to improve the bottom six and/or goaltending, but the top six/powerplay would be far less effective. It is on the general manager to decide what he values more.
This returns to the primary point of this article: it is possible to sign DeBrincat without disbanding the core. Good general managers know how to retain quality players while finding cost-effective options on the market to fill remaining holes. This will be the task of whoever is at the helm of Ottawa’s future.
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