OTTAWA — General manager Pierre Dorion has great faith in the Ottawa Senators but isn't making any bold predictions regarding their potential next season.
It’s likely because Dorion has learned from past mistakes.
Earlier this season, Dorion declared "the rebuild is done" and "now we're stepping into another zone," only to watch his team drop to the bottom of the standings and well out of playoff contention.
Dorion felt the Senators took steps forward and learned valuable lessons along the way.
"Obviously, we and myself felt that we took a big step this year," said Dorion. "Obviously we didn't have the start that we wanted to have.
"But the most important thing in a young team is our young core. Now we feel can play against pretty much any core in the league."
Ottawa was 4-15-1 in its first 20 games and had just one win in the month of November. Then again, the Senators were hit hard by COVID-19 that month.
However, Dorion had significant praise for a number of players, including Anton Forsberg, who he called the team's MVP this season. Forsberg finished with a 22-17-4 record and provided a solid presence in goal for Ottawa.
Not surprising, Dorion also noted the play of Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot , Josh Norris, Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle. He also added Erik Brannstrom was the team’s most improved defenceman.
While the core group is impressive, there’s no denying the need to add quality, supporting players. That's something which has eluded Dorion to this point.
The additions of Evgeni Dadonov, Michael Del Zotto and Matt Murray didn't reap the expected rewards. Dadonov was traded to Vegas this past summer, Del Zotto was placed on waivers as was Murray, who was also assigned to AHL Belleville before being recalled later in the season and is now dealing with a concussion.
Dorion needs to ensure he gets it right this time.
"I'm not going to get into specifics of what we feel we need to add and I don't want to tip our hand too much," Dorion said. "We know we need to add around this pretty superb group of young players."
With the death of Eugene Melnyk much remains unclear about the future of Senators ownership. But for now, Dorion said he will continue to answer to a board of directors.
Dorion admitted as the Senators move forward, they'll likely spend more money but don't expect them to be a cap team.
"Maybe now we'll go after higher quality free agents or acquire higher quality players because that's what we feel," said Dorion. "We talked to the players and we feel that's the direction we should be going in."
Dorion admits attracting quality free agents to Ottawa can be a challenge as they deal with a higher tax rate. And some players don’t want to play under the microscope of the Canadian media.
Players have also admitted the location of the Canadian Tire Centre (roughly 26 kilometres from downtown Ottawa) and Canadian climate play a factor in their decision.
Dorion said he won't hesitate to call on Tkachuk and Chabot to help him attract potential free agents.
Asked what he would consider a successful season next year, Dorion treaded lightly.
"We have to play meaningful games until the end," he said. "I think that's probably the best way to talk about it.
"Let's look at what our roster looks like in September and then I'll have better, clear-cut indication and I'll probably give you a better answer than I'm giving you now. Let's just look at our roster when the season starts.”
With all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams finishing with 100-plus points, the Senators (who had 73 points) have plenty of work to do. Dorion said that begins with getting off to a better start and the need to “surround this special young group of players with some good veterans, and I talk about character, but also quality players.
“It's no big secret what we're going to try and do over this summer or the next few summers," he added.
The Senators have already informed some players they won't be back, including forward Chris Tierney and defenceman Victor Mete. Left-winger Tyler Ennis was told he won't be offered a contract between now and free agency but the club might revisit something at that time.
Dorion said there could be others, but still had a few meetings to conclude with staff to make those final decisions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2022.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press