Senators vastly improved, may set up salary cap problems

Senators vastly improved, but could set up salary cap headaches
Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

During previous offseasons, people understandably joked about the Senators being “cheap.” Plenty of smaller moves followed that pattern, too. With some incredibly promising and deeply unexpected moves in free agency/trades, the Senators flipped that script this summer.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve dropped every organizational strategy or blueprint.

Amusingly enough, while the Senators have pinched pennies on a year-to-year basis, they’ve also curiously inspired a thought. (At least, personally.)

“Hmm, they’re sure paying full price and giving plenty of long-term contracts to their young players.”

Such a thought re-entered my skull when the Senators signed Josh Norris to a beefy eight-year, $63.6 million contract on Thursday. This latest contract is just the most recent piece to a puzzle that mostly looks promising, but carries at least a few red flags.

Here’s why.

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

Allow me to 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 about how you use your salary cap space. Eventually, the bill comes along for top talent, and often the supporting cast members who put you over the top.

But there’s real value in opening windows — even small ones — where you get more than what you pay for from key players.

The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby era while Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were still under their rookie contracts. Alex DeBrincat‘s former team the Blackhawks won their first of three Stanley Cups in the final year of rookie deals for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Of course, few teams will be able to line up entry-level contracts with peak opportunities to win Stanley Cups. But we’ve seen plenty of contenders eye value. The Avalanche bought low on the likes of Valeri Nichushkin, Nazem Kadri, and Devon Toews (among others), lining up advantages for a period of time.

Sure, it stinks to eventually lose some of those extra players who possibly gave you that additional push. Yet, spry contenders figure things out. Look at the Lightning, a franchise that gained some real value stretches from key players before they had to pay up (and make painful cuts).

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

For example: now-former Blackhawk Alex DeBrincat will finish his bridge contract this year, when his $6.4 million contract expires with the Senators. Clearly, Chicago couldn’t take advantage of that bargain. But that was to no fault of DeBrincat, who was easily worth that $6.4 million.

Senators have instead opted to skip the ‘bridge’ contract process

For better or worse (my guess: better and worse), the Ottawa Senators have generally skipped those “bridge” contracts. In some prominent cases, core players jumped from rookie contracts to whoppers.

Between Chabot, Tkachuk, Norris, and Batherson, that’s a touch less than $30 million in mostly-long-term investments.

Overall, it feels like something of an organizational strategy. Up front, there’s a lot of sense to it, too. From Erik Karlsson to Mark Stone all the way down to older examples like Dany Heatley, the Senators experienced heartbreak after heartbreak when it came to losing important players.

By locking up so many players through 2027-28 or even 2029-30, that’s not much of a worry.

That said, it could make it trickier to keep other pieces together.

How much might DeBrincat, Stützle, and defensive upgrades cost?

If you’re like me, when the Senators pulled off the surprising Alex DeBrincat trade, your mind shifted (probably too quickly) to the doubtful side. Sure, DeBrincat costs $6.4M now, but he’s set up for big money starting next season. What if he wants out of Ottawa, anyway?

The general answer to that is: the Senators would have options to move on if needed. And, failing that, there’s a very real element of “You need to spend money, to make money.” At the absolute minimum, the Sens are showing that they aren’t just going to sit idly by in trying to exit their rebuild.

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

In the event that Alex DeBrincat stays, it’s hard to fathom him not becoming the most expensive Senators player. The cheapest scenario seems like it would be DeBrincat matching Brady Tkachuk’s $8.2M cap hit. (Disclaimer: Johnny Gaudreau was expected to get more than he did, especially with Columbus, so there’s always room for chaos.)

Getting paid peer pressure

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

It’s logical and better that Evolving Hockey models its contract projections based on league-wide comparisons. Yet, one wonders about the potentially large influence of what players on someone’s team makes.

  • Back in the wilderness era of the Avalanche, $6M felt like something of a benchmark/personal dispute for Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. Maybe it even nudged Nathan MacKinnon closer to that range (the biggest factor being MacKinnon’s brief puck luck issues, of course).
  • By signing John Tavares to that $11M deal, did the Maple Leafs bring on challenges? Both Mitch Marner and especially Auston Matthews could point to that $11M, and at least argue they were worth something in that neighborhood.
  • It’s possible that Sidney Crosby’s 87 fixation not just kept his cap hit artificially low, but also kept Evgeni Malkin in that general stratosphere ($8.7M as well from 2009-10 to 2013-14; $9.5M from 2014-15 through last season). It’s unlikely coincidental that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane carrying match $10.5M cap hits that expire after the same (2022-23) season.

With those situations in mind, and DeBrincat likely in line for at least the same $8M minimum if he stays with the Senators, then what about Tim Stützle? Wouldn’t he feel slighted if they tried a bridge deal with him after not even doing so with Norris?

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

If you’re Tim Stützle, how could you not want an explanation if the Senators get trigger-happy on a long-term, $8M-ish contract after they handed out quite a few in that range?

Look at a Stützle – Norris 5-on-5 RAPM comparison from Evolving Hockey, and you’ll note that they even drive play in similar ways. (And the younger Stützle, in particular, is in that stage of his career where he’s making real season-to-season gains as a more polished overall player.)

Senators vastly improved, but could set up salary cap headaches
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 higher draft pedigree. He’d have a credible argument for asking for the same money and term.

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

Maybe the Senators could boldly say “sorry, we can’t.” But it seems like a potentially challenging conundrum.

Especially when you add DeBrincat, likely the richest contract if he stays. That belt gets even tighter if the Senators trade for a defenseman like MacKenzie Weegar (also cheap now but needing a new contract after 2022-23) or Jeff Petry (who’d carry similar costs as Claude Giroux, and at the same age of 34).

The pessimistic size blurts out: “The Senators sure feel like they’re spending like a contending team without a guarantee that they’ll even be good.”

There are worse problems to have — the Senators know that all too well

However, the optimistic side should be heard, loud and clear.

For one thing, the Senators really have faced the threat of losing all of the (hopefully) blue-chip prospects they’ve locked down. Logically enough, the Senators may have felt that it was worth paying a premium to keep core players signed through their primes.

Tkachuk’s 22, Norris is 23, DeBrincat is just 24, Chabot’s 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 Brännström) but you can picture scenarios where quite a few of those prospects pan out. Maybe those are the players the Senators try to squeeze cheap “bridge” years out of?

Getting better on defense is crucial, and easier said than done. Even so, perhaps Senators coach D.J. Smith could evoke teams like the 2021-22 Panthers in guiding a team that simply creates much more offense than it gives up?

Senators vastly improved, but could set up salary cap headaches DJ Smith
via Hockey Viz

Those circumstances only make MacKenzie Weegar — a key catalyst for the Panthers relentless transition attack — an even more exciting potential addition.

For sure, there’s a part of me that wonders if the Senators may suffer from a severe lack of flexibility if they realize that their promising pieces need that extra (expensive) “oomph.”

That’s particularly true in an Atlantic Division that could be even tougher if the mainstays remain great, and the Red Wings take big steps of their own. Despite some lingering concerns about the team’s structure, this much is clear: the Senators really do have a lot to be excited about.

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