Ottawa Senators: 3 Moves That Need to be Made Before Next Season

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 19: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at Centre Bell on March 19, 2022 in Montreal, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators 5-1. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 19: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at Centre Bell on March 19, 2022 in Montreal, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators 5-1. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /
Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Ottawa Senators (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Ottawa Senators (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

With poor starts in their last two seasons, the Senators cannot afford to suffer the same mistakes for a third-straight season

The start of the 2022-23 season will be extremely crucial for the Ottawa Senators, after five seasons without sniffing playoff contention, changes need to happen to ensure they don’t suffer through another disastrous start.

Injuries played a big part in the Senators’ slow start to the 2021-22 season, but they weren’t the only reason for the team’s slow start, they entered the season with a rock-solid top-pairing, followed by two pairs that were never going to produce good results:

The combination of Mete and Zaitsev was the disaster we all expected it to be, and the bottom-pairing of Nick Holden and Josh Brown left plenty to be desired, especially in terms of mobility. If the Senators want to avoid another tough start, they can’t keep making the same lineup mistakes.

Get Rid of Nikita Zaitsev

It may be surprising that this is at the top of my offseason to-do list, but the love affair between the Senators coaching staff and Zaitsev continues to hinder the progression of this team, and it needs to end this offseason.  The veteran defenceman consistently gets caved in his own zone and lacks the pre-requisite puck skills that should be necessary for an NHL player. Zaitsev has also shown the ability to sink even the best Senators’ defencemen, especially when paired with Thomas Chabot.

The pairing of Chabot and Zaitsev ranks as one of the worst defensive pairings in the NHL, producing a porous 3.23 xGoals Against Per 60, which ranked dead last among all pairings league-wide. While it doesn’t appear this pairing will reunite next season, having Zaitsev on the roster still allows the Senators to do so, or potentially create a problem on another pairing. He routinely struggles to make easy breakout passes, resulting in most of his shift being spent patrolling in his own end, rather than the offensive zone.

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Even in a financial sense, keeping Zaitsev makes little sense for the Senators, he’s due $4 million in bonus money over his next two seasons, something that wasn’t even offered to Brady Tkachuk and his 7-year, $57.5 million contract extension. If the team is fine with paying Zaitsev his bonus money it will be one of the more dumfounding moves during the rebuild, a clear problem on the roster being rewarded for poor play would send an inconsistent, and dangerous message.

With the removal of Zaitsev it would allow for the bottom-pair to potentially include Nick Holden, and one of their young up-and-coming defencemen, either Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Erik Brannstrom, all are better players than the 30-year-old defenceman.

Buyout or Trade?

A buyout doesn’t make a ton of sense for the Senators, savings would be limited because of the bonuses due to Zaitsev, costing the team $3.33 million until the 2023-24 season, also allowing the veteran defenceman to accrue $7.33 million in post-buyout earnings. I wouldn’t expect the team to buy out Zaitsev due to the financial strain it could put on the organization, but the exploration of a trade should be their top priority.

There have been rumours of shipping Zaitsev to Arizona for the purpose of a cap dump, likely having to part with some assets to facilitate a trade, but something that will be 100% worth it in the end. If the Senators are asked to part with a 2nd round pick and a mid-tier prospect I would pounce at the opportunity, the biggest addition of the offseason would be the subtraction of Nikita Zaitsev, period.

Add a Top-6 Winger

There’s no denying that another winger capable of playing in the top-6 would help bolster a Senators forward group that is starting to take form but still needs some holes filled.

Mathieu Joseph was a savvy acquisition for Pierre Dorion at the trade deadline, providing instant value within their top-6, offering a nice compliment to Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris with Drake Batherson still ailing from his high ankle sprain. Joseph had a stretch of 4 games that saw him score his first career hat-trick and register an incredible 10 points.

While Joseph has obviously shown promise during his short stint this season in Ottawa, scoring 12 points in 11 games before suffering a season-ending injury, he has a career-high of 30 points and betting on top-6 production from him next season may be a bit of a stretch. Acquiring a proven forward would perfectly balance out the forward group and allow for depth concerns to not be as apparent as they were this season.

Kevin Fiala

The Senators were rumoured to have interest in Fiala, who is a pending RFA with the Minnesota Wild and looks to have potentially priced himself out of their plans. On the season, the 25-year-old winger has scored 33 goals and 84 points in 80 games, which has likely pushed the Senators out of the sweepstakes. A potential trade between the two teams would require a lot of assets from the Senators’ side and also a brand new contract, likely in the range of $7 million + per year. With Josh Norris and Tim Stützle’s future contracts on the team’s mind, investing substantial money into Fiala would likely lead to issues within the team’s internal budget.

Claude Giroux

There’s rumoured to be interest from the Giroux party in returning to his hometown, reportedly the veteran forward has been doing his research on the organization:

However, it seems unlikely that Giroux would leave for Ottawa if he doesn’t end up capturing the Stanley Cup with the Florida Panthers this season, he would presumably like to chase a cup with a contending team, and the Senators wouldn’t fit that bill.

Giroux 34, has had a superb season up to this point, scoring 21 goals and 65 points in 75 games and if everything were to fall into place, he would be a great addition to the team’s top-6. A UFA at season’s end, Giroux would be an obvious target for Ottawa, and if he does end up getting his Stanley Cup this season, a short-term contract in the nation’s capital could make sense. This would allow D.J. Smith to have two proficient scoring lines, something the team has lacked in quite some time. Sticking Giroux on the right-side of Tim Stützle would be a dream scenario, also allowing for the veteran forward to take crucial face-offs if needed, as he’s one of the best in the league, currently sitting at a 60.28% success rate this season.

While this may be a long shot, the possibility of adding Giroux to an already exciting, young forward group would change a lot within the organization for the better.

Andrei Kuzmenko

If the Senators are able to grab Kuzmenko from SKA St. Petersburg it would be a huge win, the right-shot winger enjoyed a tremendous season in the KHL, totalling 20 goals and 53 points in just 44 games, as well as 7 goals and 14 points in 16 playoff contests.

There’s no guarantee that Kuzmenko would be able to step instantly into the Senators’ top-6, but at worst should provide scoring depth that the team still desperately needs. Kuzmenko’s skill is off the charts, and putting him on Tim Stützle’s wing could produce some fireworks, he pulled off plenty of highlight-reel plays this past season:

Being 26-years-old, Kuzmenko is entering his prime and should be a very interesting study for whatever team he winds up with. There has been plenty of interest in Kuzmenko throughout the NHL, with approximately 20+ teams interested in nabbing the highly-skilled forward, including the Ottawa Senators.

Extend Josh Norris Before Training Camp

Norris is currently enjoying a career season, where he has been the Senators’ premier goal scorer despite missing 16 games with a shoulder injury, the 22-year-old centre has found the back of the net 34 times and has an impressive 54 points in just 64 games.

It will be crucial for the team to not let negotiations impact their on-ice product, especially at the beginning of the season, similar to what happened to Brady Tkachuk at the start of this season, missing the first few games. However, the Senators cannot afford the same fate they had last season, and getting their full group together for training camp should be their top priority.

In terms of comparables, there are a few contracts that come to mind, first, is Nick Suzuki’s contract extension signed before the 2021-22 season, the talented forward signed for 8-years, $63 million ($7.88 million AAV) with the Canadiens. If Norris wants to go long-term a contract similar to that of Suzuki would be beneficial for the Senators, locking up another one of their key pieces for a long time.

Norris could also point to Brady Tkachuk’s contract, at 7-years, $57.5 million ($8.21 million AAV), he has already bested Tkachuk’s career-high goal total by a significant margin and despite not bringing all of the intangibles that the Senators captain does, his upside might be higher.

If the two sides can’t come to terms on a long-term extension, a bridge contract could also make sense, allowing the Senators to re-evaluate the centre position in a few years after Norris and Stützle have moved forward in their development.