Among NHL teams facing adversity, the Senators’ situation isn’t that bad: Duhatschek notebook

Now that everyone has had a chance to take a deep breath, what do we make of the Ottawa Senators today, after one of the most volatile fortnights in team history?

And by today, we actually mean tomorrow — because that’s one of the few charms of the times we live in. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the events of this last stretch as they pertain to the Senators are quickly going to fade into the past. Ultimately professional sport is about wins and losses in the standings. Organizationally, for the Senators, it means putting the bad stuff behind them as quickly as possible and marching ahead into a happier future. My colleague Sean Gentile does a nice job here of outlining the sanctions imposed on the Senators by the league and the sanctimonious way in which the NHL always mismanages the message.


Gentille: For the NHL, flexibility has always been more important than transparency

Our task is to delve a little deeper into what interim general manager Steve Staios had to deal with.

Folks, it’s not as bad as Sens Nation might think.

• Shane Pinto’s 41-game suspension for a gambling offense nobody wants to talk about?

It will come to an end in January, at which point he will be able to sign a contract with the team and then have half a season to get his NHL career back on track. It’s a temporary setback and not without an upside. For salary-cap reasons, the Senators weren’t in a position to sign Pinto to a contract extension anyway. Josh Norris came back sooner than anticipated and was good right away. Along with Tim Stützle, they’re fine down the middle for now and when Pinto returns, they’ll be better. He’ll be a motivated player, anxious to get his career back on the rails, after a scary hiccup. It’s a short-term problem that, in due course, has a chance of getting corrected, with minimal big-picture implications.

• The team’s loss of a first-round draft choice for a contractual transgression no one wants to talk about?

As owner Michael Andlauer said, maybe the previous ownership didn’t think it was a big deal, but he considers it a big deal. That’s fair. But presumably, someone on the remaining hockey staff will remind Andlauer that it’s possible to postpone the pain for a good long time. Under the NHL ruling over how the Evgenii Dadonov trade to the Vegas Golden Knights was mishandled, the Senators will be docked one of their next three first-round picks in 2024, 2025 or 2026. Given that they are a team on the rise and can be expected to inch incrementally up the standings in each of the next three seasons, they will almost certainly push that pick back to 2026. At that point, if they’re any good, the pick will fall near the end of the first round. Players drafted near the end of the first round fail to have a significant NHL career more often than they succeed. No matter who they might select, players selected that late aren’t coming in and riding to the rescue right away. They usually need three or more years to become NHLers. So somewhere around 2030, they’ll feel the sting of that penalty. It’s not great. It’s not what you’d want. It seems like an egregiously hard slap on the organizational wrist. All that is true. But it isn’t going to materially affect the on-ice product — or the direction their current young nucleus is taking — in any meaningful way for a good long time.

• Is the dismissal of Senators GM Pierre Dorion tied to the ill-fated Dadonov trade?

Dorion wasn’t going to be in charge long-term anyway. You don’t spend $950 million to buy a hockey team the way Andlauer did, without putting your own stamp on the organization. Andlauer has ties to Staios. There’s already trust established there. Most NHL organizations that run smoothly have an owner who puts a trusted managerial team in place and then lets them do their jobs, without micromanaging every decision. For that to happen, though, you need to implicitly believe the people who work for you will run a proper professional organization. If he ever had it before, Andlauer clearly lost faith in Dorion’s ability to do so. All this ruling did was expedite a decision that was coming anyway.

Dorion had a mixed record as GM – some good, some bad.

But he left the organization in a desirable place overall — with a nice core of young talent, most of whom have committed long-term to the organization.

That development can’t be stressed enough.

It’s one thing to properly draft and develop young talent. It’s something else again to convince them to be part of the team going forward. Dorion couldn’t manage that with Alex DeBrincat this past summer, but he did a fabulous job, wearing his salesman’s hat, convincing Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Stützle, Norris, and Drake Batherson and others to sign for the long haul.

If the Senators ever do win the Stanley Cup with this group in place, someone will have to acknowledge the significance of that. It isn’t as if the Senators are starting from zero. They are already a few rungs up the ladder. The only challenging contract they’ll need to sort out for the next four seasons will be to determine if Jakob Chychrun wants to stick around after his current deal expires in 2025.

One final thought: The NHL likes to list its three stars of the week. It’s always players, not owners or executives. But the real first star of the Oct. 30 to Nov. 5 with clearly was Andlauer, who answered questions reasonably and thoughtfully at his press briefing Wednesday. That’ll almost certainly be the first and last time he will be that candid. If commissioner Gary Bettman hasn’t called already, it’s only because Bettman’s waiting for the matter to fade into the background before they have a heart-to-heart.

There is nothing Bettman hates more than having the NHL’s dirty laundry aired publicly. It’s just typical of the way the league operates. They send the Senators a 73-page document, outlining all of the organizational transgressions that led to the draft choice forfeiture, but then publicly issue just a two-sentence explanation of its findings — with the final sentence reading: The NHL will have no further comment on the matter. It’s galling how little they think they owe their fan base the most rudimentary and basic detail.

Welcome to the NHL Michael Andlauer. Hope you grew up on the old television sitcom Get Smart — because soon you’ll discover that that’s where the league’s basic communication strategy was developed. Everything operates under the cone of silence — which hilariously malfunctions in every episode.

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Brothers Jack and Quinn Hughes are making NHL history with their hot starts. (Bob Frid / USA Today)

The Hughes Corporation

There is a lot of woe-is-me around the NHL these days, but not in New Jersey or Vancouver, where the Hughes brothers — Jack and Quinn — are off to incredible starts. As of Friday morning, Jack Hughes was leading the NHL with 20 points and brother Quinn was tied for fourth with 16, after a five-point night in a 10-1 win over San Jose Thursday. Quinn Hughes also leads all NHL defensemen in points, five ahead of Colorado’s Cale Makar. That’s a unique achievement according to NHL Stats, which notes that this is the first season in NHL history where brothers led the league in points and scoring by a defenseman, through the 156-game mark.

The next closest example came back in 1933-34, when Toronto Maple Leafs forward Charlie Conacher had 40 points in 31 games to lead the league in scoring, while his brother Lionel, playing for Chicago, had 13 points in 34 games, which was tied for fourth in scoring among defensemen. The fact that Jack Hughes got to 20 points in only nine games is equally noteworthy. It’s only happened three times in the past 25 years — most recently, by Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton in 2021-22 and Mario Lemieux back in 2002-03. Lemieux had the fastest scoring start in history back in 1995-96, with 31 points in nine games.

Smelling blood

If you’re talking full 82-game seasons, not seasons shortened by pandemics or lockouts, then it’s been more than two decades since a team won fewer than 20 games. That was Atlanta back in 2001-02. The Thrashers had 19 wins. Colorado, in 2017, when they had that 48-point season and got Makar, had 22 wins. But San Jose, which remains winless in 10 games — 0-9-1 — has a chance to be historically bad. They have only 10 goals scored in 10 games. Their goals for/goals against differential is a minus-35. For the first handful of outings this season, their goaltending kept them in games on nights they were wildly outplayed. That’s not happening lately. The Sharks clearly miss Logan Couture’s leadership, but the problems run far deeper than that.

Without Couture, who has been out since the start of the season with an undisclosed lower-body injury, without Erik Karlsson and Timo Meier, they look rudderless. And arguably, their second most talented forward after Tomas Hertl, Alexander Barabanov, is out four-to-six weeks with a broken finger.

It’s too early to predict which team might finish atop the NHL standings, but it is not too early to assume the Sharks are going to settle into the basement, which would give them the greatest odds to win the 2024 draft lottery and draft Macklin Celebrini, the Boston University freshman, first overall next summer.

The Sharks had hoped that at some point, pending UFAs Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair and Kevin Labanc would be of interest to a playoff contender as a trade-deadline rental, but they are all off to horrible starts and thus would have zero value at the moment. At some point, if the Calgary Flames think the season’s salvageable, you’d wonder if they’d kick the tires on Duclair, because once upon a time, Duclair and the Flames’ Jonathan Huberdeau developed some chemistry in their time together in Florida.

But that would assume the Flames can dig themselves out of their early-season hole. They are 31st in the league, ahead of only the Sharks. San Jose’s fall was predictable. Calgary’s, so far — 2-7-1 through 10 games and in the midst of a six-game losing streak. Now the underlying numbers are better than that — they are decent at penalty killing, in the faceoff circle, and have the edge in five-on-five shot generation. The problem is, terrible luck at finishing.

Only San Jose is worse. Against Dallas on Wednesday, the Flames were the better team, but gave up goals on bonehead plays in the final minutes of the first and second periods and effectively threw a game they should have won. Still, this is a deep hole, and one that historically, is hard to crawl out of once you’re in it, even with most of the season remaining.

But if they continue to flounder, you wonder about pending UFA Elias Lindholm. In their final season together, Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk were considered one of — if not the best line — in the NHL. Since Gaudreau’s departure via free agency and the Tkachuk trade to Florida, Lindholm hasn’t found anyone on the team to create the same sort of chemistry that line once had. But even at that, he still leads the team with eight points in 10 games. The weird irony is that Lindholm may be off to the best start of the three. Gaudreau has just five points in 10 games with Columbus and on Thursday, scored only his first goal of the season. He’s been a non-factor all year with the Blue Jackets, playing far too much on the perimeter.

Tkachuk also has just a single goal to go with seven assists in nine games for Florida. None of the three are exactly excelling now, but there’s little doubt Lindholm will have trade value, if the Flames go down that path. Bo Horvat got the Canucks a first-rounder at last year’s deadline, you’d have to think Lindholm could generate the same return or more.

The other prominent pending UFA in Calgary Noah Hanifin, is a consistent top-four defenseman, playing 23:23 per night, which — on the one hand — would be hard to replace, but on the other hand, would have value to a wannabe contender, especially one that will eventually run into an injury on the blue line, because that happens all the time. See Adam Fox, New York Rangers, for details. Of course, the thing that’s wrong with this scenario is that neither Lindholm nor Hanifin are particularly at fault for what’s gone wrong in Calgary.

The real issues are the two untradeable players — Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau, who are eighth and ninth respectively in ice time at 17:58 and 17:20 per night. Kadri has four points in 10 games; Huberdeau five in 10; and his latest point was a second assist on a five-on-three power play in the outdoor game. Whenever Huberdeau has the puck on his stick of late, the play just dies. Either he turns it over or gives it up. He was once the premier playmaker in the league.

Now, for whatever reason, Huberdeau looks lost. A lack of confidence? A lack of foot speed? The scrutiny of playing in a hockey market, where the fan base can’t be easily fooled? All are likely contributing factors. But there is no easy solution because he is in the second month of Year 1 of an eight-year contract that annually pays him $10.5 million. No one will touch that. Accordingly, the solution has to come from within — either the player, or the coach or one of the organizational higher-ups has to figure out how to get more from Huberdeau. It’ll never be 115 points in a single season again. But it was 55 last year under Darryl Sutter. This year, if things don’t improve, it’s going to be lower under a players’ coach, Ryan Huska.

The last coach that had Huberdeau kind of figured out was Gerard Gallant, who is available, but never seemed to be in the mix when Calgary was looking for a new coach last offseason. Huska deserves — and will get — a much longer look than this 10-game snapshot. And the idea of bringing in Duclair from San Jose probably has to cross somebody’s mind if only to see if that helps Huberdeau eventually find his footing with the Flames.

(Top photo of Michael Andlauer, Gary Bettman and Pierre Dorion: Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press via AP)

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