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Senators GM Dorion talks top prospects, adding grit, expanding Chabot’s role

Between their three first-round draft picks and an important free agency agenda, the Ottawa Senators were one of the most intriguing clubs to watch heading into this off-season.

Now, after a strong draft haul — including Tim Stuetzle, Jake Sanderson, and Ridly Greig in Round 1 — followed by a savvy trade for No. 1 netminder Matt Murray, and a free agency period that has seen the Senators collect a combination of gritty role players, character guys, and a finesse forward via signings and trades, general manager Pierre Dorion appears to be checking off all the boxes as his rebuild advances in preparation for the 2020-21 season.

Dorion joined Hockey Central on Friday to discuss many aspects of the team’s crucial off-season, including providing updates on some of the organization’s most promising prospects, why he wanted to bring in some muscle, and how the club landed the top right winger on the market.

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Here’s a roundup of what he said:

On how many of the Senators’ top prospects are close to hitting the NHL:

“I think a lot of them are. Lassi Thomson is probably going to start the year in [AHL] Belleville when we get going again. When it comes to [Jacob] Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto, I think they’re very close to the NHL. I think they both want to win an NCAA Championship [with North Dakota], and you add Jake Sanderson to that mix — another player at North Dakota — they’re really putting all their eggs in one basket I think for this year trying to win the NCAA Championship.

“So, all those players are close. I think Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson are really close. We think that Drake doesn’t have much much left to prove in the American League but he has to come to camp in great shape and motivated, and I think Alex Formenton could surprise a lot of people once training camp starts.”

On Tim Stuetzle’s recovery from surgery after suffering a hand injury:

“It was a freak accident … suffered a fracture, had surgery yesterday. He and our medical staff spoke — surgery went well, we know the recuperation time is six to eight weeks. He’ll be back skating before that, because it’s an upper-body injury, and then we’ll just move on from there.”

On bringing in some toughness via free agency:

“When we’re trying to build this team, trying to build the right culture, we know that big, tough people are character people, for the most part — and that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’re going to have a lot of talent coming up over the next few years. People might question Josh Brown, but I can tell you one thing about Josh Brown: We think he’s just scratching the surface. He’s played just under 100 games, I think he’s the right age that he’s going to bring the character, the leadership, how [head coach] D.J. [Smith] wants to play in boxing out.

“[Erik] Gudbranson’s a local guy, we’ve had our eye on him. He might not be the most skilled, but try to get to the net — he’ll cross-check you in places that you don’t like to be cross-checked. We wanted that element up front with Austin Watson. He can skate, he can kill penalties, he can block shots, but he’ll stick up for his teammates. And when you bring in guys like Stuetzle, whether in the next few years we bring in a guy like [Josh] Norris, Batherson, and Brady [Tkachuk] sticks his nose into everything …we need a bit of backup.”

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On the development of Thomas Chabot:

“I think the year under D.J. was an apprenticeship year, I think more for his play away from the puck. Obviously Thomas averages big-time minutes for us, he’s able to transition the puck with his great skating ability and skills and hockey sense. But at the same time, we want to make Thomas a complete hockey player, and I think D.J. and [associate coach] Jack Capuano really helped Thomas progress through the year. Maybe next year he’ll see a bit of penalty killing. We don’t want him playing 30 minutes, but you might see his role augmented as the season goes on.”

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On his pursuit (and signing) of Dadonov to a three-year, $15-million deal:

“Right wing is not a place that we have a lot of depth at the NHL level as we speak, so obviously we pursued Evgenii right from the start. For us, he was the best right winger available on the market, and we just let things play out. We were never in a rush to pull the offer, we made our offer — which was very similar to what we signed him to — and talked to him about different term and I think both parties felt this was the right term.”

On the AHL’s stoppage last spring:

“For us, that was the biggest thing that hurt us last year — having a young team in first place with all the high-scoring power that couldn’t go through the grind of a playoff run really hurt the organization. But we’re living in a pandemic and we have to accept it.”

On any possibility of bringing back Zdeno Chara:

“I think our left side with Chabot, [Mike] Reilly, [Christian] Wolanin and [Erik] Brannstrom, I think we’re pretty set. I think that ship has sailed.”

On RFA-turned-UFA Anthony Duclair:

“Out of respect for Anthony, we gave him a head’s up of what was going on yesterday morning [with the signing of fellow winger Dadonov]. We really like Anthony. He had a great season for us last year. We offered him a substantial raise … he chose not to accept it, wanted to test the free agency waters.

We’ve kept great contact, talked almost every second or third day since the process started. He chose to go, and we’re always keeping the door open, but he would have to understand what his role would be. But we do like him as a human being and a hockey player.”

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