Senators extend GM, hint at rebuild

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The theme of this week might be “fledgling teams acknowledging a need to rebuild, even as they frustrate their fans in other ways.”

After the New York Rangers acknowledged reality while skirting the Alain Vigneault issue, the Ottawa Senators followed suit, but they also made the questionable decision to hand GM Pierre Dorion a three-year contract extension.

(The Senators did part ways with president/CEO Tom Anselmi, however.)

Press releases often read as dry material, yet in each case it was interesting to see the writing on the wall not get ignored. Granted, the word “rebuild” itself didn’t get thrown around; the Rangers website used “retool” while the Senators stated that Dorion would “concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success.”

“Today’s announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development,” Owner Eugene Melnyk said. “It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins – at all levels – year in and year out.”

Of course, it’s difficult to ignore that the Senators must “tolerate pain” that is, in many ways, self-inflicted.

It’s likely a relief that Matt Duchene has been picking up steam lately, yet the goal wasn’t just to add a player, but rather find a catalyst to at least make the playoffs. Ottawa wouldn’t have placed a first-rounder that will either be in 2018 or 2019 on the line if they really expected things to play out this way. The Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard deal is another significant trade made under Dorion’s watch, and while many lean toward New York’s take since Mika Z is younger, the two centers’ play has been fairly even so far.

When you look at the Senators’ salary structure and see some shaky deals, it’s important to remember that some of those errors were made by previous GM Bryan Murray rather than Dorion, who’s only been in that position since April 2016.

Whether it’s trading Zibanejad or Kyle Turris, it’s important to remember that the Senators’ budget-conscious ways likely play a role in some of Dorion’s decisions, shedding some light on some deals where the Senators come across as if they’re paying a premium for lateral moves.

Even if you’re easy on Dorion, it’s kind of tough to believe that he’s not that far removed from being a finalist for GM of the Year, although hiring Guy Boucher had a lot to do with that.

Most important decisions ahead

One way or another, Senators fans aren’t most interested in whether or not their GM was getting an extension in the near future.

This merely clarifies that Dorion (and of course, Melnyk) will end up being involved in the absolutely pivotal decision regarding superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson, whose bargain $6.5 million cap hit expires after 2018-19.

Karlsson’s made no qualms about getting the best deal possible after Drew Doughty hinted at as much. As dire as the Senators seem at times lately, imagining Ottawa without Karlsson is downright frightening. That said, he’s dealt with some significant – and freakish – injuries during his career, and he’s already 27. Re-signing Karlsson likely means rolling the dice that at least a portion of what you’d expect to be a lengthy contract would cover some time past his prime.

Considering that such a deal might carry an AAV above $10M per year, such a contract could be scary.

The Senators have seen long-term pacts go sideways, too. Bobby Ryan‘s $7.25M cap hit runs through (somehow) 2021-22, while they only get slightly more relief with Dion Phaneuf ($7M, ending after 2020-21).

With Karlsson needing a new deal after next season and Mark Stone headed toward RFA status this summer, there are some crucial decisions to be made, and it looks like Dorion will make them, at least alongside his owner.

(Note: we’ve seen GMs and coaches get fired in situations like these, even sometimes in close proximity to extensions, so you can never be totally certain.)

As of this moment, extending Dorion seems like a questionable move, at best.

That said, it’s also questionable to have your GM in a “lame duck” position with an expiring contract in the first place, particularly with some huge decisions looming. If nothing else, the Senators can focus on the Karlsson decision and other choices now, rather than wondering if someone else will be in charge in mere months.

What a mess. Can Dorion clean it up? The Senators are gambling that he can.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.