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Making the transition from rebuilding squad to contender is one of the toughest things in the salary cap era. With how important building through the draft is now, restocking a team will often go hand-in-hand with stints of losing, but once that young core is assembled, it can be difficult to actually start winning games again. Winning takes more than just having the talent for it, you need to have the leadership and mentality as well and that can be tough to get back after years of losing.
Ottawa is dealing with that issue this season. After missing the playoffs for four straight seasons, the Senators went into the 2021-22 campaign as a team that appeared to be on the brink of moving past the rebuilding phase. They didn’t look like a clear cut candidate to make the playoffs, especially in a stacked Atlantic Division, but they looked like a team capable of at least being competitive and being on the periphery of the playoff race.
Instead the Senators are just 4-15-1 this season. Granted, Ottawa dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that certainly made things harder for them, but their issues have been a season-long thing. Ottawa hasn’t won back-to-back games even once in 2021-22 and they have dropped their last six games, including five straight since resuming their season after having three straight games postponed due to COVID. Their latest setback was a 6-2 loss to Vancouver.
Part of the problem has definitely been their goaltending. The four-year, $25 million gamble on Matt Murray didn’t pay off and now he’s in the AHL. The Senators have to hope that some time in the minors will help Murray rekindle his game, but at this point a buyout over the summer wouldn’t be surprising. It’s not like the Senators’ alternatives have looked great though. Filip Gustavsson has a 3.64 GAA and .899 save percentage in 10 games while Anton Forsberg has a 4.44 GAA and .893 save percentage in six games. The Ottawa’s defense is partially to blame, but at this rate addressing their goaltending issues will be very high on their priority list during the summer.
Beyond that, they do need to tighten up defensively, but the Senators will also be counting on the idea that their young core of forwards will continue to develop. Fortunately, that’s not a bad bet given how much upside Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, and Josh Norris have. They also have the cap space to supplement them with secondary scoring through the UFA market – though whether they will or not remains to be seen given the Senators typical reluctance to spend anywhere near the ceiling.
In that vein, one interesting option for the Senators could be Evander Kane. The Sharks have made it clear that they want to move him and would even be willing to assume half his remaining salary/cap hit, which is at $7 million annually through 2024-25. Obviously, Kane comes with like seven different types of baggage at this point, but on the ice he’s a solid goal scorer who plays with a physical edge. There are potential locker room concerns with him and that’s especially worth considering given the Senators’ young core. If he can fit in with the Senators though, he would potentially be a great help to them.
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What makes the Senators a particularly interesting destination for him though is Murray’s contract. Rather than have the Sharks retain half Kane’s salary, they could probably work out a deal where San Jose assumes Murray’s contract instead. San Jose doesn’t have any particular use for Murray, but they could always buy him out over the summer and the cost of doing that would be favorable compared to the cost of retaining half of Kane’s remaining cap hit. This is all just speculation, but it’s not an absurd scenario.
It could be a little while before Kane is moved though. Teams might want to wait until Kane has had some time to shake off the rust in the minors to make sure that he’ll be ready to go when/if they trade for him.
Another player on the trade block now is Jake DeBrusk. The Boston Bruins took him with the 14th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, but at this point he wants a fresh start and is asking to be moved. His career with Boston got off to a promising start. He had 16 goals and 43 points in 70 contests as a rookie and followed that up with 27 goals and 42 points in 68 games in his sophomore campaign. He struggled last season though with just 14 points in 41 contests and hasn’t done any better in 2021-22 with three goals and six points in 18 games. Things came to a head on Sunday when he was a healthy scratch.
DeBrusk is 25-years-old, so he’s not young at this point by NHL standards, but a change of scenery could absolutely do him some good. One great example of that is Sam Bennett, who never quite worked out with the Calgary Flames, but he’s turned into a solid top-six forward since being acquired by Florida. It wouldn’t be surprising if DeBrusk gets a similar boost from a trade, so keep an eye on that situation.
While we’re on the subject of the Bruins, let’s close out with Tuukka Rask. He’s continuing to recover from hip surgery and hopes to be back in January. The question is what happens once he’s healthy. He’s unsigned, but has made his preference to ink with the Boston Bruins clear. The question is if that makes sense for Boston.
Certainly Rask is one of the league’s top goaltenders so it’s hard to say no to an opportunity to re-sign him. That said Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have been a solid duo. There’s a fair chance that adding Rask would make the Bruins’ goaltending stronger, but it would also create an awkward situation where the Bruins would either have to carry three goaltenders or send Swayman back to the AHL. An alternative would be to trade Ullmark – perhaps not immediately after signing Rask, but once it’s clear he’s working out post-surgery – and then going with a duo of Rask and Swayman for the rest of the season.
A big determining factor will be how Swayman and Ullmark do between now and the time Rask is healthy. If the Bruins’ goaltending is strong over the next month or so, they might be reluctant to mix things up. Alternatively, if Swayman and/or Ullmark struggle, then Rask will look like a very appealing option.
Ultimately, too many potential goaltending options is a great problem for the Bruins to have and Rask might prove to be a valuable asset for the team in the second half of the campaign.