Housekeeping

WARREN: As Senators housekeeping begins, need for another top defenseman looms

“It says here that adding on the blue line, to ensure a strong top four in defense, is the biggest priority.”

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For all the fun and brilliance of scoring goals, the secret to consistent NHL success is managing the mess in front of your own net.

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Now that the Ottawa Senators have begun their housekeeping for next season by sweeping Colin White out the door, there’s understandably buzz about incoming names that could arrive via trade or free agency.

Bring it on. It’s the season to dream of the moon.

It says here that adding on the blue line, to ensure a solid top four defense, is the highest priority. The big dream in that regard is Jakob Chychrun, the 24-year-old Ottawa native who lost patience in Arizona.

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If this happens, forget to add another marquee forward.

Of course, if the Melnyk girls and the brain trust currently running the franchise are willing and able to shell out more money for a forward, Claude Giroux, Clayton Keller or Alex DeBrincat could find a home alongside Tim Stuetzle.

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It’s just not realistic to expect a frontline striker and an excellent defender to be added in the current environment.

White’s contract will soon be up for grabs – the club will be on the hook for $875,000 in five of the next six seasons as part of the takeover – but the next wave of forwards has some big raises to come.

Josh Norris is in line for a Brady Tkachuk-style extension, Mathieu Joseph has salary arbitration rights and Alex Formenton is also due to re-sign this summer. If Stuetzle continues to ride like he finished last season, he too will enter contract territory with Tkachuk and Norris next summer.

The existing group, including Drake Batherson, carries the promise of continuing to improve as players approach their peak years.

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As a result, the most immediate upgrade is on defense.

With the notable exception of the Edmonton Oilers, this is usually what takes teams from mediocrity to contender status.

Look no further than the Senators’ own history over the past decade.

During the protracted rebuild that began in 2017-18, the goals-against department was a much more glaring issue than the number of goals scored, as the Senators watched the playoffs time and time again.

Over the past five seasons, the Senators have finished 30th, 31st, 30th, 28th and, thanks in large part to goaltender Anton Forsberg’s inspired play last season, 22nd in the NHL in goals against.

The Senators also missed the playoffs in 2015-16, when they ranked 26th in goals against, and in 2013-14, when they were 27th again.

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Compare that to the three times the Senators made the playoffs in the last decade. All with different coaches.

Under Guy Boucher, they went all the way to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals after a regular season in which they finished 10th in goals against. Interestingly in this campaign, Ottawa ranked only 22nd in goals scored.

After Hamburglar’s regular-season run that led the Senators to the playoffs with Dave Cameron behind the bench in 2015, the Senators ranked 13th in goals against.

In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, with Paul MacLean in charge, it was all about tightening up the defense as the Senators went through an assortment of injuries. At the end of that 48-game regular season, the Senators were second in goals against, while a distant 27th in goals scored.

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Even if Forsberg can maintain his steady play — Matt Murray’s status is a column for another day — he can’t bail out the team every night.

At this point, the Senators have a number of holes at the top end of the defense depth chart. Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub are in the top four, but what next?

Incoming rookie Jake Sanderson has plenty of promise, but without having played a single NHL game – and after two wrist surgeries – it’s too much to expect him to break into the top four immediately. Maybe Travis Hamonic and maybe Erik Brannstrom can push for longer minutes, while Lassi Thomson will plead to be a full-time player downstairs, potentially alongside Nick Holden.

All the while, the Senators will do what they can to try to offload Nikita Zaitsev. After receiving his signing bonus on July 1, Zaitsev still has two years and $7 million left on his contract.

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There is an opening in all of the above for a star like Chychrun. He has three years left on his current contract, with a reasonable salary cap of $4.6 million.

That possibility gives more life to the Senators’ potential to trade their seventh overall selection in Thursday’s entry draft.

At the same time, however, the Coyotes are already overloaded with draft picks, including three in the first round (3rd, 27th and 32nd) and four in the second round (34th, 36th, 43rd and 45th).

Beyond another top-10 draft pick, it would take a special package for Arizona to make the move.

No doubt Arizona would also likely want a young defenseman in return (Brannstrom, Thomson?) and yet another player to make it all work. If the Senators are interested, they’ll have to fight other serious offers.

Chychrun led the Coyotes in ice time last season and has 337 NHL games under his belt. It is remarkably rare for these players to become available.

When they do, the price is high. At this point, though, he’s the type of player who could fill the biggest void for the Senators.

[email protected]

Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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