Senators Make the Best of a Difficult DeBrincat Situation

The Hockey Writers

For months, the Ottawa Senators had been caught between a rock and a hard place with Alex DeBrincat. The team paid a high price to acquire him just over a year ago and was hopeful that he could be part of the team’s long-term future, but it quickly became clear that, despite the star’s claims of enjoying his time with the Senators, he had no interest in signing long-term. But the teams that he was interested in signing long-term weren’t interested in taking on such a huge contract, as he was reportedly looking for a Timo Meier-like contract – $8.8 million over eight years. It really looked like this was going to be a long, drawn-out process, not unlike the Jakob Chychrun deal last season.

But on July 9, the Senators announced that they had done the impossible, moving DeBrincat to his hometown Detroit Red Wings for Dominik Kubalik, Donovan Sebrango, a conditional first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick in 2024. The reaction to the trade, however, was mixed. Many saw the return as underwhelming, especially compared to the price the Senators paid and that Pierre Dorion had whiffed on his only real trade asset.

Alex DeBrincat Ottawa Senators
Alex DeBrincat, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But seeing this trade as a failure ignores everything that went down over the past year and the situation that the Senators now find themselves in. Not only is the team free of an underperforming player who didn’t come as advertised, but taking DeBrincat off the books gives them the cap space to make another move this offseason and allows them to find a new, better fit for their team.

DeBrincat’s Disappointing Season in Ottawa

If you’ve looked at the Senators’ stats at the end of the 2022-23 season, you might be surprised to hear DeBrincat’s season called “disappointing.” The sniper put up an impressive 27 goals and 66 points, placing him fourth on the team in both categories, and he demonstrated solid chemistry with Drake Batherson and Claude Giroux. But that’s not exactly what Ottawa expected when they sent the Chicago Blackhawks the seventh and 39th overall picks at the 2022 NHL Draft, plus a 3rd round pick in 2024, for him.

Related: Islanders vs. Red Wings: The Battle for Alex DeBrincat

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In 2021-22, the Senators were one of the worst teams in the NHL, winning just 26 games and recording the seventh-lowest goal total in the league. Only Brady Tkachuck and Josh Norris finished with 30 goals or more, and sophomore Tim Stutzle was the only 20-plus goal-scorer. The team needed goals, so they turned to DeBrincat, who was one of the hottest trade chips heading into the 2022 offseason. Between 2020-22, only Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews scored more goals than the then-24-year-old, and in 2021-22, he finished 14th in the NHL with 41 goals on a Blackhawks team that won just 16 games.

However, things didn’t work out well for DeBrincat in Ottawa. Although he had 11 points in his first 13 games, he put up just two goals in that span – not exactly what the Senators were looking for. By the Christmas break, he had 10 goals and just one two-game goal streak. He returned with an extra skip in his step, scoring three goals in two games, but then returned to his regular pace, adding just four more goals before the end of January. It wasn’t until the last 11 games that he looked somewhat dangerous, scoring six goals and 10 points before the team hung up their skates for the season.

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While the Senators still saw potential in DeBrincat to help create a dangerous top-six, the young player didn’t share that vision. He wanted to be closer to home; a native of Farmington Hills, Michigan, he wanted to return to the United States for family reasons. He also wanted a big raise from his $6.4 million; his qualifying offer alone sat at $9 million for a single season, something Ottawa was not willing to pay. Stutzle, arguably their best player, didn’t make close to that, signing for $8.35 million for eight years, prior to the 2022-23 season. There was no way DeBrincat was making more than him. It was clear that the two sides were on completely opposite sides, meaning a trade was the only way to make both sides happy. However, with his value at its lowest, it would be difficult to recoup the value the Senators spent.

Senators Get Much-Needed Cap Flexibility

From the very beginning, the Red Wings emerged as a front-runner in the DeBrincat sweepstakes at the 2023 Draft, but it was always tied to cap space. Initially, Filip Zadina was linked to the deal, but the 2018 sixth-overall pick carried a nearly $2 million contract until 2024-25, which was a high price for a player who had yet to surpass 10 goals in a single season. But Detroit couldn’t keep him, so to make the deal work Zadina was released from his contract, allowing the Red Wings to sign DeBrincat to a four-year, $7.875 million contract after acquiring him.

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Instead of Zadina, the Senators added Kubalik, who has a higher cap hit right now at $2.5 million, but it lasts only one more season before the Czech sniper becomes an unrestricted free agent. That gives Ottawa exactly what they were looking for – cap flexibility. Without having to worry about DeBrincat’s extension, the team sits $5 million under the cap, which will allow them to re-sign Shane Pinto, who just came off his entry-level deal, and potentially allow them to bring in Vladimir Tarasenko, who could sign a similar deal to Claude Giroux after a down year last season with the New York Rangers.

Dominik Kubalik Detroit Red Wings
Dominik Kubalik played with the Detroit Red Wings for just one season before being traded (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kubalik is a solid addition to the Senators. While he’s no DeBrincat, he’s still a sniper, with 20 of his 45 points coming in the form of goals last season with the Red Wings. He plays solid third-line minutes and could realistically line up alongside Pinto and Ridly Greig, but has the potential to end up on the second line beside Batherson and Norris, which could prove to be a deadly combination. But even if he puts up career-high numbers, it’s unlikely he’ll be re-signed since the Senators will be looking to extend both Jake Sanderson and Mads Sogaard, who come off their entry-level deals in 2024. Both players have proven that they’re part of the long-term success of this franchise, and with DeBrincat on the books, one likely would have to find a deal elsewhere.

The next biggest addition is the first-round pick. Although there are a couple of conditions attached to it, making it a bit complicated to understand, it’s still a first-round pick, something that Dorion was adamant was part of the return. That gives the Senators some freedom in terms of their future. Without a pick in the first three rounds of the 2023 Draft, it seemed that Ottawa was putting all its eggs in one basket – it’s this core or bust – but now they have a bit more freedom to tweak things along the way. Because as we can see, sometimes you have to trade a big-name player to move forward.

Tough Choices Can Pay Off

No one wanted to trade DeBrincat. But when stuck in a difficult situation, Dorion did the best that he possibly could have, prioritizing the future of the team instead of trying to add a quick fix. It’s a situation that many teams have been in before; the Quebec Nordiques needed to trade Eric Lindros to become a contender (albeit as the Colorado Avalanche), and in 2001, the Senators traded away star centre Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders for Zdeno Chara and the pick that allowed them to draft Jason Spezza. The return was less than many hoped it would be, but the return was exactly what Ottawa needed to become a playoff contender.

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