Tuesday afternoon Ottawa Senators’ General Manager Pierre Dorion held an organizational State of the Union via teleconference on the now-popular app, Zoom.
With Senators’ fans clamoring for any tidbits of information since the NHL season went on pause March 12, Dorion gave them, and the media plenty to digest.
The GM opened by offering condolences on behalf of the Senators’ organization to the Cave family and (Colby’s wife) Emily. Dorion acknowledged all front-line workers plus those in health care who are putting in “long hours.” Also praising grocery store employees, LCBO and Beer Store workers, and to those in media diligently keep the public informed during this pandemic. He also expressed thanks to the club’s fans, as well as everyone to remain patient and stay home.
Dorion and the Senators’ hockey operations staff have continued to keep busy during the past month. Over the past few days, the team has signed centre Mark Kastelic, d-man Jonathan Aspirot, and goaltender Kevin Mandolese to entry-level contracts.
“For us, it’s business as usual. As people know the busy time is after the season. Although the season is on pause, there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re preparing for a very important Draft. We’ve been able to do entry-level contracts,” said Dorion. “We’re still negotiating with some potential European free agents. So when it comes to that, it’s still business as usual for us. It seems as if we’re working as hard or if not harder in a certain sense more than normal.”
Dorion on the Senators’ recent signees:
Centre Mark Kastelic – 2019 fifth-round pick – Calgary Hitmen
“He’s a high character centre, has great attention to details in his game. Does little things well. He knows how to stay above the puck. He’s someone that we see in the few next years in our lineup.”
Defenseman Jonathan Aspirot – undrafted – Moncton Wildcats/Belleville Senators
“I give a lot of credit to our amateur scouts. They were able to identify Jonathan as a late-bloomer. He chose to come to Belleville as an overage instead of going back to junior. From there he developed into one of our top-six defenseman on a pretty good team at 20-years old. We feel he’s a prospect with good hockey sense in all three zones.”
Goalie Kevin Mandolese – 2018 sixth-round pick – Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
“He’s developed into one of the better goalies in the Quebec League. He’s a goalie with good athletic ability, makes good reads. He’s someone who had a .925 save percentage (tops in the QMJHL) – second-closet was .918.”
Dorion and his hockey ops staff realize this upcoming Draft is considered the most important of all in terms of the Senators’ rebuild. The club will enter the 2020 Draft with plenty of ammo. The team currently possesses 13 selections in all, including three first, four second, and two third-round selections.
“For our scouts, I think they’re really well-prepared for this Draft. We knew heading into the trade deadline, heading into this year this would be a Draft where we had a lot of picks. So our scouts did a good job of really working hard in the first half, and especially when we knew after January meetings this would be a Draft that we had two first-round picks (now three). We were ready. We’re even more ready, and we’re looking forward to the Draft,” conveyed Dorion during the 30-minute call.
The Orleans, Ontario resident added, “We planned to do more scouting after the trade deadline between Assistant Gm Peter MacTavish and myself, but our scouting is in great hands with (Chief Amateur Scout) Trent Mann. He’s done a tremendous job over the past few years. He’s drafted very well. Under his tutelage, our scouts knew what they needed to do. Both Peter and I were going to be there to be a helping hand, to have as many eyes as possible. Before the season went on a pause, Peter was going on a scouting trip and I was going to leave California to go on a scouting trip. At the same time, I was in Europe for about nine days in January. I saw a lot of local junior games. I slipped in a few games here and there. Now we’re watching a lot of video of players. It’s good for us as when you’ve seen the players play and then add a video element to it, which is what our scouts are doing, I think it helps us prepare better for this upcoming Draft.”
The organization isn’t leaving any stone unturned.
“We did our homework, and at this point of our rebuild, we knew that this 2020 Draft will be one of the deepest that’s come along in many years. For us having a chance to have two picks in the top five is something that we’re very fortunate and we will be ready for. At the same time, we feel that’s a very good Draft Class for the first 20 (players). We’re going to get really good NHL players. And from then on – from the top three rounds – we feel there’s going to be a lot of regular good NHL players that’ll be no-brainers. So we’re very excited about this Draft Class,” explained Dorion.
“We’re just going to take the two best players. We’d like to have the top two players, but we’ll settle for two and three. And at the same time, you have to do what’s best for the organization – a lot of these players will play the following year. We have to look at all these elements of drafting.”
When quizzed how tough it may be to run a Draft remotely, if that scenario occurs, the Senators’ management team is prepared to cover all their bases.
“A lot of the work on trades that happen on Draft Day is done in the weeks, days, hours prior to the Draft. Things do happen quickly on the floor when it comes to switching picks, but we’re always on the phone, and we can do the same remotely. We’re hoping to still have the Draft in Montreal, that way the fans can be all there to celebrate the NHL, but at the same time, if we have to do it remotely, we’ll be ready to do it. We’ll probably have myself, Peter, Trent Mann in one room – six feet apart. We’ll make sure if we have to make trades that could be made to still have that possibility on Draft Day,” explained the GM.
One key topic weighing on fans’ minds as well as the entire organization is; will the Draft Lottery be altered to fit whatever decision the league finalizes?
Dorion discussed the club made three distinct proposals to the league, just in case.
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“Our hockey operations group worked on making three different proposals; for resumption of season; playoffs; Draft Lottery; all items related to hockey personnel decisions. We did this through our owner, Mr. Melnyk who forwarded to Gary Bettman. I know Mr. Melnyk is in regular conversation with the Commissioner. We want to make sure we have a voice in this. We’ve gone about our business more quietly than other teams who’ve leaked it out, but we feel it’s important to go through the proper channels, – have a voice in what could possibly happen. At the same time, there’s a lot speculation. I think our league is in good hands with Gary Bettman, the integrity of the regular season, the playoffs, the awarding of the Stanley Cup, the Draft Lottery will all be decided very well.”
One good thing, actually several good things if the team does play its final 11 games, Artem Anisimov, Mark Borowiecki and Anders Nilsson are all healthy.
Anisimov who’s been out with a concussion since March 3 has no recurring symptoms. Anisimov still has to complete a Neuro-psych test as does Nilsson who’s been out of action for four months. However, conditioning may become a factor for Nilsson if he’s to get into any game action. While new dad, Borowiecki is fully recovered from his leg injury.
In addition, the five players and one staff member who were diagnosed with the Coronavirus have all recovered from COVID-19 – fortunately, their symptoms were deemed “mild.”
If this season is formally put on ice, Dorion is proud of his team’s progress which definitely bodes well for the future.
“We’re happy about our compete level. We competed most nights. Even though we weren’t the most talented team, teams never took us for granted. I think a big step for our organization, and our team was what our coaching staff did. I think our structure was better. It was different. It was a more style of play that’ll bring us success in the medium and long term. I felt we took a big step overall as a team in how we played the game. I think the development of some of our younger players – whether you look at the step that Brady Tkachuk took – Thomas Chabot took defensively – these are things that are very important. I think the steps that some of our prospects took in Belleville are all going to help bring us success in the long term. I think the two things we need to improve upon next year to be a more competitive team to climb up in the standings is; first our special teams, even though penalty killing was good in the early part of the year, I think both our power play and penalty kill should be in the top 15 in the league, and I think we’re a pretty good home team, but I think we have to be at least .500 on the road to climb up on the standings.”
With all the positives, there’s one large negative – that being the Belleville Senators likely won’t have a playoff run, if one at all.
“It’s probably the thing that hurts us the most as an organization. With this pause being on, the possibility of the AHL cancelling their season is the growth in all our prospects in Belleville,” a saddened Dorion admitted. “Obviously, everyone knows we have the youngest team in the American League. We had one of the highest-scoring teams in the American League, and the fact these players, whether they would’ve played one round in these playoffs or went all the way to the Calder Cup Finals, our biggest loss as an organization is that these players won’t get to play. Hopefully, they’ll do get to play in meaningful playoff games, but we have to look at the fact if the AHL does cancel their season. It hurts us as an organization more than anything that’s gone on right now.”
Senators’ management is also hopeful in tidying up loose ends once a decision is made on completion of the 2019-20 NHL campaign.
“We were going to start overall discussions with some RFA’s when the season came to a pause. We’re now going to wait until we see what happens if we resume the season or we don’t. We don’t expect to anything until the off-season when it comes to RFA’s. With the UFA’s it’s pretty much the same thing,” Dorion told Full Press. “We’ve started discussion with some of them. Those discussions are on pause. At times some agents have to call me back if they want their players to sign in Ottawa, and we’ll see when I hear back from them.”
“When know as part of plan and our rebuild we always need some quality veteran UFA’s, and we hope to keep some on board. But if we move on from them we know some others be available. We brought in some last year who were really beneficial for the growth of this group and we’ll be able to do the same whether we look internally or externally.”
One player who’s been the subject of rumours to join the Senators over the past month is SKA St. Petersburg blue-liner Artyom Zub. Not known for his offence, the 24-year old had a career year, posting 13 goals, nine assists on 57 KHL games.
Dorion acknowledged the Senators are one of the finalists hoping to persuade Zub to make the trek to North America.
“We’re one of the teams that are finalists for this player, Zub. (AGM) Peter (MacTavish) and myself had a chance to see this player play overseas. Peter went before Christmas. I went after Christmas. Our pro scouts who had seen him play in international tournaments, really like this player. We feel he’s NHL-ready. But until he makes a decision, we hope he signs with us, we know he’s someone who can help us out in the near future. Whether he makes the decision to come to the NHL or return to the KHL, we’re waiting for him to decide.”
One thing is for certain; the Senators’ organization is entering the next phase of their rebuild. They’ll no longer seek trades aimed at reaching the cap floor.
“I don’t know if we’re looking to make similar moves. We have to look at what our team needs are. We’re not going to hide from the fact, the (Ryan) Callahan trade was made for two reasons; one was because financial; the other was to move a goaltender (Mike Condon) when we had a number of them at that position,” noted Dorion. “The biggest thing here, is we want to make a step next year. What we’ll take a look is; what trades will help us hockey-wise more than financial.”
Next season’s goal is to become that much more competitive. Playoffs will be a reach. Dominoes will have to fall their way. However, a climb up the standings isn’t a pipe dream.
But first, we have to look at the unknown. No one is aware when the team will hit the ice once again.
Dorion is ever-hopeful fans will get to see hockey soon enough.
“We all know that this is a changing world from day to day. The first thing we have to think about is our fans. We have to think about people. We have to flatten the curve of this pandemic, but in saying that, I’m probably one of the optimistic people. I’m very optimistic we’re going to see hockey at the right time. I think it’s something people need – our fans need – what people want to see. Sports, in general, is a getaway from daily life that people need. I think it’s something we’re going to see, whether it’s in two weeks, a month, two months, I’m very optimistic we’re going to see some hockey. What makes me so optimistic, Gary Bettman and the league is going to do what’s right for everyone.”
In the meantime, like all of us, the Senators’ GM spends every morning mashing the Draft Lottery simulator.
“Every morning, it’s part of my routine. I do it until we get one and two, then I stop. So some days it’s a few more minutes longer. Wherever we pick we know we’re going to get three great players in the first round, especially two, hopefully in the top five.”
Follow Murray Pam on Twitter @Pammerhockey