On the 27th day of the 2023 NHL Free Agency period, Vladimir Tarasenko is finally off the board.
The Ottawa Senators, looking to recoup for the loss of Alex DeBrincat, have brought in much-needed offensive help, signing the 31-year-old to a one-year, $5 million contract that comes with a full no-trade clause.
Tarasenko was the top forward left in the free agency market, even though he is coming off a down year by his standards, posting his lowest goal total since his rookie season in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He had 18 goals split between the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.
Senators Add a Natural Goal Scorer
Despite the relatively quiet season offensively, Tarasenko has been a consistent 30-goal scorer, having surpassed that barrier six times since the 2013-14 season while dealing with injury in the two years in which he didn’t reach that mark.
With the Senators trading DeBrincat to the Detroit Red Wings, they knew they needed someone to recoup for the loss of the two-time 40-goal scorer. While Dominik Kubalík provides offense, he doesn’t provide it at the level that either DeBrincat or Tarasenko do, which makes the signing of Tarasenko a perfect fit.
There is optimism for a bounce-back year, as he improves the Senators’ scoring front. He’s not a top line player anymore, but he won’t have to play on the team’s top line. They have Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle doing most of the work, with Josh Norris looking to bounce back and get back to the heavy lifting after a shoulder injury knocked him out for all but eight games of last season. Tarasenko and Claude Giroux also give the team veteran presence and boost a team whose forward core looks deep on paper.
Where Tarasenko Fits in the Lineup
Ideally, Tarasenko would fit anywhere on the Sens’ top six forward core. However, he, Giroux, and Drake Batherson naturally play on the right wing, even though Tarasenko is a left-shot forward. Though Giroux has played on the left wing before, Batherson has played on the right wing side, which has been his natural spot, but has spent the majority of last season on the second line.
Tarasenko has not played on the left wing for the majority of his career, so that makes the ideal spot for him being on the top line with Tkachuk and Stützle. While that would put Giroux on the second line left wing, Stützle has developed into the Sens’ star centreman, and Tkachuk is a hard-working physical forward who needs no introduction.
While head coach D.J. Smith might not want to move Giroux from the top line right wing spot, Stützle can benefit from having someone who is a natural goal scorer on his right wing. While he scored 39 goals last season, he is more known as a playmaker. Tkachuk and Giroux have each scored 35 goals last season, which are bright spots for a Senators team that had trouble scoring last season.
While a one-year deal is not that ideal for Tarasenko, it gives him a shot at a bigger pay raise next season if he proves himself, especially with playing on a line with Tkachuk and Stützle.
The End of a Strange Contract Saga
Tarasenko garnered significant interest during the free agency period, but he didn’t come to terms on a new contract after he was initially reported to be signing with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Less than a week into free agency, he changed his agent, moving on from Paul Theofanous and hiring Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry. Back then, there was the speculation there were several teams willing to sign him to a multi-year deal, and that they were worth more than what Tarasenko signed for.
This is a win-win deal for both the Senators and Tarasenko, as the forward is looking for a pay raise on his next contract, and will get that opportunity at Canada’s capital. However…
Ottawa Now Has Cap Concerns
While the signing is a boost to the forward core, they have just under $896k of cap space, and they have to sign centreman Shane Pinto, who is a 10.2(c), and restricted free agent Egor Sokolov. Pinto’s contract will certainly cost more than the cap space they currently have, especially with Pinto coming off a 20-goal season. Sokolov will likely get assurance as he is looking for a chance in the NHL.
General manager Pierre Dorion is now facing the task of clearing up cap room in a flat cap environment where teams don’t have enough money to take on. To complicate matters, Ottawa doesn’t have a lot of movable contracts, making it unlikely that they move any of their key players, along with the fact that they have four players making under $1 million annually, not including Jake Sanderson, who is on the final year of his entry-level contract.
And when it comes to players to have movable contracts, they all project to be NHL regulars, but one can say that their role can be filled internally by someone cheaper, given the cap situation.
Potential Trade Options in Ottawa’s Cap Crunch
The first option is Mathieu Joseph. He had just three goals last season, which is not ideal for a forward who notched four goals and eight assists in 11 games in the year the Senators dealt away Nick Paul at the trade deadline, especially since Joseph carries a $2.95 million cap hit for three more years. One option could be waiving him, and if he clears, they’ll free up $1.15 million in cap room, but that actual number may be at most $375k given that they need a reinforcement.
Another option is Erik Brännström. He was the main centerpiece in Ottawa’s return in the Mark Stone trade, but hasn’t lived up to the hype as a former first round pick. But he has been slowly but steadily improving after an 18-point season despite an ice time reduction of four minutes. While both sides were able to come to a one year extension at $2 million, he’s likely going to be at a third-pairing role with the top four occupied by Thomas Chabot, Sanderson, Jakob Chychrun, and Artem Zub. Brännström is still appealing to a rebuilding team and the Sens could fill that hole up with Tyler Kleven or Lassi Thomson.
The last option is Anton Forsberg. Ottawa clearly sees Joonas Korpisalo as their starter of the present and future, which leaves Forsberg on a backup role. The problem is not that Forsberg is on a $2.75 million cap hit, but that he’s coming off a season where he tore both his MCLs. This can lead to legitimate questions if he will be truly in form heading into the season, and if in the event he were to be moved, Dorion could bring in a one-year veteran at a cheaper rate.
These guys have value but it will be hard to move them, so it’s likely that Dorion runs into the same situation with these players. There is still time to find a trading partner for any one of these guys so that the Senators fit under the cap ceiling after the Tarasenko signing. Still, a push for the playoffs in an extremely loaded Atlantic Division is very likely, and the Senators will be talked about a lot in the playoff conversation.
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