Senators greatly improved, may cause salary cap issues

During previous offseasons, people understandably joked that the Senators were “cheap.” Many smaller moves also followed this pattern. With some incredibly promising and deeply unexpected moves in free agency/deals, the Senators flipped that script this summer.

However, this does not necessarily mean that they have abandoned any organizational strategy or plan.

Funnily enough, while the Senators have been making pennies on an annual basis, they’ve also curiously inspired a thought. (At least in person.)

“Hmm, they certainly pay full price and give very long-term contracts to their young players.”

A similar thought crossed my mind again when the Senators signed Josh Norris to a hefty eight-year, $63.6 million contract on Thursday. This latest contract is just the latest piece of a puzzle that looks promising for the most part, but raises at least a few red flags.

That’s why.

Signing young players to value contracts (or luck in rookie contract windows) can really help teams open windows for success

Let me share another personal belief. Building a Stanley Cup contender isn’t just about finding talented players and getting the most out of them. It’s also about picking your spots on how you use your salary cap space. In the end, it comes down to the top talent and often the supporting cast members that put you over the top.

But there is real value in opening windows – even small ones – where you get more than you pay for from key players.

The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby era while Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were still on their rookie contracts. Alex DeBrincat’s former team, the Blackhawks, won their first of three Stanley Cups in the last year off the rookie contracts of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Of course, few teams will be able to land entry-level contracts with prime Stanley Cup-winning opportunities. But we have seen many competitors who appreciate the value of the eye. The Avalanche bought low on the likes of Valeri Nichushkin, Nazem Kadri and Devon Toews (among others), stacking upside over a period of time.

Of course, it’s bad to end up losing some of those extra players who probably gave you that extra boost. Still, astute contenders get things figured out. Look at the Lightning, a franchise that gained real value stretching from key players before they had to pay (and make painful cuts).

In other words, you can travel to great places with “bridge” contracts, even if it creates some uncertainty at the end of the tunnel.

For example: now-former Blackhawk Alex DeBrincat will end his bridge contract this year when his $6.4 million contract with the Senators expires. Obviously, Chicago couldn’t take advantage of this deal. But that wasn’t DeBrincat’s fault, which was easy worth $6.4 million.

Instead, the senators have chosen to skip the process of concluding a “bridge” treaty.

For better or worse (my guess: better and worse), the Ottawa senators generally omitted these “bridge” treaties. In some notable cases, major players jumped from rookie contracts to huge ones.

Between Chabot, Tkachuk, Norris and Batterson, that’s just under $30 million in mostly long-term investments.

Overall, it feels like something of an organizational strategy. On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense, too. From Erik Karlsson to Mark Stone and all the way up to older examples like Danny Heatley, the Senators have experienced heartbreak after loss when it comes to losing important players.

By locking up so many players in 2027-28 or even 2029-30, this isn’t much of a concern.

That said, it can make it harder to hold other parts together.

How much could the DeBrincat, Stützle and defense upgrades cost?

If you’re like me, when the Senators made the surprise trade for Alex DeBrincat, your mind went (probably too quickly) to the questionable side. Sure, DeBrincat is worth $6.4 million now, but he’s primed for big money next season. What if he wants out of Ottawa after all?

The general answer to that is: Senators will have options to continue if necessary. And if that fails, there is a very real element of “You have to spend money to make money.” At the bare minimum, the Sens are showing they won’t just sit idly by trying to work their way out of their rebuild.

But…yeah, it does seem like things are getting expensive and can get downright excessive.

If Alex DeBrincat stays, it’s hard to see that he won’t become the Senators’ most expensive player. The cheapest scenario appears to be that DeBrincat will match Brady Tkachuk’s $8.2 million cap hit. (Disclaimer: Johnny Gaudreau was expected to get more than he got, especially with Columbus, so there’s always room for mayhem.)

Getting paid by peer pressure

To me, the most interesting Senators wildcard isn’t actually DeBrincat. Instead, it’s the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, a rapidly improving center and a giggly friend of Brady Tkachuk: Tim Stützle.

It makes sense and better for Evolving Hockey to model its contract projections based on league-wide comparisons. Still, one wonders about the potentially large impact of what players do on one’s team.

  • Back in the Avalanche’s desert era, $6 million felt like something of a benchmark/personal feud for Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. Maybe even put Nathan McKinnon closer to that range (of course, the biggest factor was McKinnon’s brief luck issues).
  • With the signing of John Tavares to this $11 million deal, have the Maple Leafs brought challenges? Both Mitch Marner and especially Auston Matthews could point to that $11 million, and at least claim to be worth something in this neighborhood.
  • It’s possible Sidney Crosby’s 87 cap not only kept his cap hit artificially low, but also kept Evgeni Malkin in that shared stratosphere ($8.7 million also from 2009-10 to 2013-14; $9.5 million dollars from 2014-15 to last season). It’s an unlikely coincidence that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have matching $10.5 million cap hits that expire after the same season (2022-23).

With these situations in mind, DeBrincat will probably get at least the same $8 million minimum if he stays with the senators then what about tim stuetzle? Wouldn’t he feel slighted if they tried to make a bridge deal with him after not even doing it with Norris?

Don’t get this wrong, Norris could end up worth $8 million. He just feels like someone who maybe still needs to prove that he’s a true core player, but is being paid as such now.

If you’re Tim Stützle, how can you not want an explanation if the Senators are happy about an $8 million long-term contract after giving away quite a bit in that range?

Take a look at the Stützle – Norris 5-on-5 RAPM comparison from Evolving Hockey and you’ll notice that they even drive the game similarly. (And the younger Stützle, in particular, is at the point in his career where he’s making real gains from season to season as a more polished player overall.)

via Evolving Hockey

Last season, Norris scored more goals (35 to 22), while Stützle generated three more points (58 to 55). Again, Stützle is younger and has a higher draft pedigree. He would have a solid argument to ask for the same money and term.

[The Flyers show there are far, far worse situations to be in]

Perhaps senators could boldly say “sorry, we can’t.” But it looks like a potentially challenging conundrum.

Especially when you add DeBrincat, probably the richest contract if he stays. That belt gets even narrower if the Senators trade a defenseman like Mackenzie Wieger (also cheap now, but needs a new contract after 2022-23) or Jeff Petry (who would incur a similar cost to Claude Giroux and the same age from 34 years).

Pessimistic size erupts: “The Senators certainly feel like they’re spending like a contending team with no guarantee they’ll even be good.”

There are bigger problems, as the senators know all too well

However, the optimistic side needs to be heard, loud and clear.

For one thing, the Senators do face the threat of losing all of the (hopefully) blue chip prospects they have locked up. It stands to reason that the Senators may have felt it was worth paying a premium to keep key players signed through their primes.

Tkachuk is 22, Norris is 23, DeBrincat is just 24, Chabot is still young at 25 and Stützle is remarkably advanced at 20. There are other intriguing players in the pipeline. Some (Jake Sanderson, 20) inspire more recent optimism than others (Erik Brenstrom), but you can imagine scenarios where quite a few of these prospects come to fruition. Perhaps these are they the players the senators are trying to wring cheap “bridge” years out of?

Getting better defensively is critical and easier said than done. Even so, perhaps Senators coach DJ Smith could challenge teams like the 2021-22 Panthers in leading a team that just creates much more crime than waived?

The Senators improved significantly, but could set up salary cap headaches for DJ Smith
via Hockey Viz

Those circumstances only make McKenzie Wieger — a key catalyst for the Panthers’ relentless passing attack — an even more exciting potential addition.

There’s certainly a part of me that wonders if the Senators might suffer from a serious lack of versatility if they realize their promising pieces need that extra (expensive) “oomph.”

That’s especially true in the Atlantic Division, which could be even more difficult if the supports remain formidable and the Red Wings make big strides of their own. Despite some lingering concerns about the team’s makeup, this much is clear: The Senators do have a lot to be excited about.

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