On the first day of training camp, Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion had a virtual one-on-one interview with Wayne Scanlan of Sportsnet.ca to talk about his team and their prospects in the new North Division.
Sportsnet.ca: It has been nine and a half months since your last game. How excited are you to open training camp?
Pierre Dorion: Oh, excited, anxious, elated. We can’t wait for this to get going. For us, we are going to be about 10 months and a few days without playing (when the regular season starts Jan. 15) so we’re really looking forward to seeing all these new additions to our lineup.
How was the first camp skate this morning?
It’s about conditioning, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into it. The first few days are about conditioning and the guys getting to know each other. After that, we’ll get a better idea how we’re going to proceed. D.J. (Smith, head coach) is going to do more tomorrow. He’ll be able to give you a bit more.
While giving you credit for your draft selections and off-season moves, a lot of pundits have dismissed the Senators as a factor in the North Division. Are you more optimistic than that? Do you think this is a playoff team?
I’m not one to make bold predictions. All I can tell you is, first and foremost, our fans are going to be proud of this team. Our fans are going to love the way we’re going to play. We’ve added more NHL bodies. And we’ve got unbelievable talent knocking on the door as far as young guys that played in Belleville and some of the draft picks. So, we put the work in. I know we’re going to perform well. We’re ready to go and we will let things play their course. Nothing is ever decided on paper. The game is still decided on the ice and we will see what happens, but I know we’ll have a competitive team.
Aside from wins, what will you be looking for as signs that this franchise is moving in the right direction this season?
The biggest sign is that we follow the plan we’ve put in place. We’ve got to get back to that blue-collar mentality of — jobs are earned because of work ethic. Jobs are earned by how you play, how you compete and perform. And I think that is the biggest thing. There will be young players in our lineup, but they have to develop. It’s not going to be handed to them. They can’t take a step backwards. If they’re not ready to take a step forward, then they’re not ready to play in the NHL.
What impact will the new Canadian division have on rivalries in this country?
I think rivalries will be great for the game of hockey in Canada. What we expect are definitely more intense games. You’re going to be playing teams, whether it’s two, three or four times in a row. So, obviously there is going to be more animosity. You’re going to see more pride in how players play against each other. There might be a bit more hatred, but I think that’s going to make for a better product on the ice for all fans.
I think it’s fair to say Ottawa fans are over the moon with the way third overall draft pick Tim Stuetzle has performed for Germany at the world juniors. What is your professional assessment of his performance?
My professional assessment of his performance is “elation.” We all know that he’s still there. We know he’s a dynamic, skilled player. To us he’s got all the tools to be a great player one day in this league. And we are looking forward to what he does when he comes to Ottawa following the world juniors.
Do you have any doubt he’s ready to step into a full-time role in the NHL?
Let’s just see. We don’t know when (Germany) is going to finish. These world juniors experiences are very tough to replicate. They are like a Memorial Cup for junior players. They’re the ultimate pressure performance and to see him perform so well just shows we’ve got a special player in Tim Stuetzle.
Goals against were a major issue last season (30th ranked). Do you think the additions of Braydon Coburn, Josh Brown and Erik Gudbranson plus Matt Murray in goal will be enough to dramatically improve the team’s goals-against average?
No team can have success and give up as many goals as we did last year. So obviously it starts with the defence, then it’s how you play in your own end. And the last line of defence is the goaltender. We feel we’ve improved our goaltending with the addition of Matt Murray, someone who’s won two Stanley Cups. We feel to be better defensively, these are the types of players we had to bring in — a guy like Gudbranson, like Josh Brown and Coburn. We feel those guys are going to help our goaltender see the puck, keep the opposition from jumping on rebounds, as well as clear lanes for our forwards.
On a Zoom call with Ottawa media, you spoke quite passionately about younger players having to earn their spots. How important is it to have the right mix of veterans so that the prospects learn from them and get better?
For us, young players are a key to our future success. We all know that. We know we have a great pool of prospects. Some are NHL ready, some are not. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean a job is going to be handed to them. Every player that deserves to be here, will be here. Whether it’s on the NHL team, as an extra, or on the taxi squad. But at the same time, they have to earn their spot . . . they have to battle through the adversity that every other NHL player has had to battle through to become a successful player.
How vital will it be for prospects like Logan Brown, Josh Norris and Erik Brannstrom, just to name three, to make a case for themselves at this camp?
It’s very important for every prospect to make a case for himself. I think we have to look at the totality of all the prospects and where they are and where they have come from last season, whether it was Belleville, college or junior and where they are now. That will give us a better assessment of where they are.
I gather your taxi squad is going to be a fluid situation?
Depending — most young players need to play in game situations. But some could benefit — a very few of them — from being on the taxi squad and with the NHL players every day. They will all tell you they’ll benefit from being on the taxi squad, but most likely I would say most of them would benefit from being in the American League. We will assess that situation as we move along.
Beyond Matt Murray, your clear No. 1, how do you see your backup goaltending situation playing out, now that it has been mandated that all teams carry three goalies?
We have Marcus Hogberg, who played well for us last year. I would probably pencil him in as the backup. And then when it comes to the taxi squad, we’ve got Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson and Kevin Mandolese. They’re all younger guys and need to play, so once the season starts we will probably have a rotation of those three guys on the taxi squad.
And clearly it will help having the AHL season going so the goalies can play.
Yes, yes. And we feel pretty confident the AHL is going to be playing this year.
You said today you made these trades for Stepan, Paquette and Coburn while you could because it will be difficult to trade with U.S. teams during the pandemic. Are you done dealing?
You never know. The most important thing is our fans have to be aware, we are trying to build the best team possible. We are trying to create as much internal competition as possible. Some of these trades have been talked about for a while. We didn’t know if they were going to happen before camp or not. And some of them came together fairly quickly. It’s going to be difficult to make trades with the 24 U.S.-based teams just because every player that crosses the border has to do a 14-day quarantine. And we respect those rules and understand them. At the same time, the teams you are playing against are all in the same division. And you are all battling for the same thing. So, we tried to think ahead — it might be better to acquire players now. Are we done? You never know what can happen. You never know what can be thrown your way, even 24 hours before the season starts.
Dorion speaks on Zoom call:
Dorion addressed Ottawa media on Thursday, as the Senators opened camp.
“It’s like the first day of school for a lot of us,” he said. “We’re looking forward to this upcoming year.”
He explained why he traded for veteran centre Derek Stepan, whose arrival in Ottawa should be expedited now that his wife, Stephanie, just gave birth to their new child, the couple’s third.
“We wanted to bring in leadership, we wanted to bring in someone with a great hockey IQ. Someone who is a pro,” Dorion said. “We wanted someone who can play tough minutes against top lines.
“At the same time we wanted to protect and insulate some of our young players, our younger centres, whether it’s Colin White, Logan Brown, Josh Norris.”
Stuetzle to start on wing
Dorion said he has spoken to D.J. Smith about Stuetzle’s positioning, and it remains all but certain he will start the season at left wing.
“For his development, and I think we both agree. We talked about this morning. For the first season, and especially a shortened season, he will probably play more left wing than centre. But he has a lot of traits of a centre, the way he creates plays off the fly, how he carries the puck and gains the zone. His analytic numbers are off the charts as far as puck possession.
What comes with that is play away from the puck. There he still needs some work.”
Max taxi squad for road trip
With taxi squads mandated to be at least four players, including one goalie, and as many as six players maximum, Dorion says the squad will be assessed as the season progresses. But he figures the team will take the maximum number on the lengthy early road trip Jan. 23 to Feb. 4.
“We may carry six for that, and with the AHL not starting until Feb. 5,” Dorion said.
“We will gauge things after that. With injuries and so on.”