Skip to content

Offseason lookahead: How Senators can get over the hump

Andre Ringuette / National Hockey League / Getty

Part 1 of our offseason lookahead series examined what the Montreal Canadiens can do to keep their rebuild on the right track. In Part 2, we break down what the Ottawa Senators must do to get over the hump.

Ottawa entered the season with playoff expectations. At the very least, it hoped to be in the hunt right until the very end. The Senators have arguably been the league's most disappointing team this season, though, sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

Writing off the talented, young team entering 2024-25 would be foolish. But Ottawa's first offseason under new owner Michael Andlauer and new general manager Steve Staios will be pivotal to ending its seven-year playoff drought. Here's what the front office needs to do to right the ship:

Hire an experienced coach

Len Redkoles / National Hockey League / Getty

Ottawa's first order of business is to find a person to lead the charge from behind the bench. Interim head coach Jacques Martin clearly isn't the long-term answer. Someone with NHL head coaching experience and defensive acumen would be ideal to help the Senators' underachieving, unstructured group reach its full potential. Staios needs to nail this hire or risk setting the team back multiple years. Here are five logical candidates, ranked in order of fit:

Claude Julien: The 63-year-old makes sense on so many levels. He grew up in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans and previously worked with Andlauer in the Canadiens organization. But more importantly, Julien has a long track record of success, winning the Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011, leading them to another final in 2013, and winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2014. He brings a strong defensive system and, as a bonus, is bilingual. The lone negative? He hasn't coached in the NHL since 2021.

Craig Berube: The head coach of the 2019 Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues will be in high demand as arguably the most attractive option available this summer. With his intense demeanor and direct style of play, it's easy to envision him turning the Sens around.

Dean Evason: An underrated option this summer, Evason guided some strong defensive teams to the postseason four times during his five-year Minnesota Wild tenure. He likely won't be as sought-after as Berube, which is good news for the Senators.

Gerard Gallant: The 60-year-old has enjoyed success everywhere he's been. He led the Florida Panthers to a playoff appearance in 2016 (their second in 15 years at the time). He improbably helped the Vegas Golden Knights reach the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season. In 2022, he guided the New York Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final.

John Stevens: A three-time Stanley Cup champion as an assistant coach (twice with the Los Angeles Kings, once with Vegas), Stevens probably deserves another chance at being a head coach. His previous stints included trips to the playoffs in 2018 with the Kings and the 2008 Eastern Conference Final with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Entertain a major trade, but don't force it

Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Forcing a trade just for the sake of shaking things up would be foolish. But Staios should absolutely do his due diligence to see what's out there.

After all, the Senators' core has been together for multiple years without enjoying a shred of team success. While Tim Stutzle, Brady Tkachuk, and Jake Sanderson will likely be untouchable, everything else should be on the table. That means entertaining trades for Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun, Josh Norris, Claude Giroux, Drake Batherson, and others.

In particular, Staios will have some decisions to make about Chychrun and Giroux, who can become unrestricted free agents in 2025. Giroux has a full no-movement clause, so he controls his own destiny. If he wants to play out the last year of his deal then become a UFA again, he's earned that right. But the Senators can't let Chychrun walk the same way. Considering the assets the old regime surrendered to acquire him, Ottawa needs to either extend or trade him.

In any potential deal, Staios should prioritize acquiring a shutdown, right-handed defenseman to help bring some much-needed balance to the blue line. It's easier said than done, though.

Find Brannstrom a new home

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

While major deals can be tough to pull off, a minor one, like giving Erik Brannstrom a change of scenery, shouldn't be overly complicated. The centerpiece of the return package for Mark Stone hasn't developed into the offensive, top-four defenseman the Senators hoped for. The 24-year-old has been fine in a third-pairing role over the years, but it might be best for both sides to move on - especially if the Sens hang on to both Chabot and Chychrun. There isn't much room for Brannstrom to move up the lineup in Ottawa.

Brannstrom is arbitration-eligible this summer and would likely earn more than his current $2-million salary. Paying north of that for a 5-foot-10, third-pairing defenseman isn't ideal.

Rather than shipping him away for a draft pick, finding a player in a similar situation makes sense, and there may be no better fit than Los Angeles Kings winger Arthur Kaliyev.

Kaliyev averaged 15 goals per season in a depth role over the last two campaigns, but he's fallen out of favor in L.A. amid a down year in 2023-24. But the 22-year-old brings size and a lethal shot, and he's posted strong defensive metrics.

Notably, both Andlauer and Staios know Kaliyev from their time together with the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, where the sniper was a star in junior, racking up 248 points in 192 games. Staios likely believes Kaliyev has some untapped potential.

Kaliyev is coming off his entry-level contract and won't have arbitration rights as a restricted free agent this summer, so he'll be much cheaper than Brannstrom.

Target strong defensive players in free agency

Derek Cain / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Offense isn't an issue for the Senators. They've struggled to keep the puck out of their net in recent years, so the majority of their offseason acquisitions should be strong defensive players.

If the Sens' only notable trade involves Brannstrom, they'll have roughly $9 million in cap space after signing RFAs Shane Pinto, Parker Kelly, and, in this case, Kaliyev.

That's a lot of room to work with for Staios, who'll need to address holes on the blue line. Chris Tanev, who Ottawa has already been linked to, is an obvious target, but he won't be cheap. Matt Roy, who's essentially a younger version of Tanev, could be a prime target, and if the Sens are going to commit a significant chunk of cap space to one player, he'd make sense. Other defense targets include rugged, stay-at-home types like Vincent Desharnais, a familiar face in Dylan DeMelo, Jalen Chatfield, Nikita Zadorov, and Ian Cole.

The Senators will also have needs up front, though mainly just in the bottom six. Responsible defensive players who bring physicality and penalty-killing ability would be ideal, such as Warren Foegele, Dakota Joshua, Jordan Martinook, Yakov Trenin, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

Final product

Arianne Bergeron / National Hockey League / Getty

For the sake of our mock offseason, we ultimately didn't complete any major trades. But after making a handful of minor moves, the Sens are better equipped to compete for the playoffs in 2024-25 with a 22-man roster that comes in just under the $87.5-million cap ceiling:

Cap Friendly

*Not pictured: No. 7 defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker ($805K cap hit)

**Cap hits are projected for Pinto, Kaliyev, Kelly, Trenin, Aube-Kubel, Cole, and Desharnais.

Trenin and Aube-Kubel give the Senators a fourth line that can be trusted to play tough minutes in the defensive zone. Trenin, in particular, is an excellent penalty killer who could also play a third-line role in a pinch.

There's a lot of money allocated to the blue line, but Cole, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, is still a rock-solid defender at age 35, and the late-blooming, 6-foot-7 Desharnais is just 27 years old and still improving. Together, they'd allow the Chabot-Chychrun pairing to get more offensive zone starts, and they'd vastly improve Ottawa's dreadful penalty kill.

With a proven defensive head coach - like Julien - the goalie tandem that Ottawa is contractually locked into for next season is set up for success.

This offseason may not feature the splashy moves Sens fans might be longing for, but Staios may want to take a year to see if he can find the right pieces - including a new head coach - to help the talented core make a leap before deciding to shake it up.

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox