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Sens mailbag: Big UFA targets, Joseph expectations, and creating the best ex-player dream team

My favourite part about this weekly mailbag column is that it gives me an opportunity to be open and direct with our readers.

After years of doing talk radio, I learned the value of having an intimate relationship with your audience.

So to that end, I feel the need to explain my absence from Thursday’s press conference announcing the Senators’ deal for a new arena with the NCC. After all, that was a significant milestone in franchise history and as somebody who covers the team for a living, I probably should have been in attendance.

However, a few days ago I was at home when I suddenly had crippling pain in my lower back.

I had never experienced anything like this before and I’ve dealt with a herniated disc in my back. This was a new feeling, like somebody was stabbing me in the back with a sharp knife. I fell to the ground, completely paralyzed by pain and unable to move. I was curled up in a ball and crying in our living room — the first time I had been in that position since the Dez Bryant non-catch from that Dallas-Green Bay playoff game.

Thankfully, my wife was home and phoned for an ambulance. I was rushed to the Civic Hospital, where I was quickly diagnosed with kidney stones. And if I can take a moment, I would just like to sincerely thank the nurses, doctors, and surgeons at the Civic Hospital for their care during my stay. They were so patient and caring with me, treating me with so much compassion during such an awful stretch. It’s something I won’t soon forget.

I stayed there for a couple of days and unfortunately, they were unable to treat the situation after a surgical procedure. They sent me home with some powerful medication and that’s where things currently stand. I informed my editor this week to be aware of any morphine-related typos, but I’ve been unable to leave our house.

So I’ll spare you the details, only to say that I now can officially relate to Zack Smith in the offensive zone from the 2015-16 season.

(Because I’m waiting for a Stone to pass in Ottawa).

If you didn’t like that joke, I’ll simply blame the morphine.

Now, let’s get into this week’s mailbag.

Any chance we find out who the other bidders were for the downtown arena? Do you know? Will you tell us? — Pino S. 

This is a really good question and unfortunately, I don’t have the answer right now.

However, as a Crown corporation, the National Capital Commission is subject to the Access to Information Act. They do not take online submissions, so I will have to manually request any documentation. But I promise to pursue this and see if they are compelled to disclose if there were other bidders who submitted a LeBreton proposal before the Feb. 28 deadline. If that information is available to the public, I will be able to access it through this method.

The last time we went through this process in 2016, we knew there were two bidders for the land at LeBreton Flats and they both had visions for an NHL arena on the site. So it would be very interesting to see if other bidders had an interest in pursuing a similar plan this time around. If nothing else, it might help us unmask the identity of any other potential ownership groups that are hovering around.

Are there any potential free agents that sound silly to think would sign in Ottawa, that you’d actually love to see sign here? I see guys like Malkin, Kessel, and even a Neiderreiter being potentially available. Maybe Zub could entice Malkin to sign here for a couple years! — Chris K. 

We have to remember that the biggest free agents rarely sign in Ottawa. If we look back at franchise history, I think it’s fair to say the three biggest free-agent signings have been Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar, and Evgenii Dadonov. All of those players came in around the $5 million per season range, so they were sort of upper-middle-class free agents. It would be great to see the Senators land another one of those types of guys this summer, but I think it’s unrealistic that Malkin falls into that range.

Same goes for a guy like Filip Forsberg, who I suspect is also going to be out of Ottawa’s price range. And don’t even start to try the mental gymnastics of luring Johnny Gaudreau to Ottawa.

I know a lot of people are thinking about Claude Giroux in this spot too. And while I could absolutely envision a scenario where he plays in Ottawa, I still feel like chasing a Stanley Cup would be his immediate priority. I saw a lot of people suggesting that maybe the news of the downtown arena might lure Giroux back home, but I’m wondering if he’ll still be an active NHL player when the Senators are playing at LeBreton Flats. Giroux turns 35 in January and if the building is four or five years away from completion, he’s going to be pushing 40 by the time it opens. I don’t think LeBreton is a factor in bringing Giroux to Ottawa, but that’s just my two cents.

Now, could you get a guy like Nino Niederreiter in that $5 million zone? That’s a possibility, considering his cap hit last season was $5.25 million.

But I like the idea of trying to find those guys in the upper-middle class, which is why I’m really bullish on Ilya Mikheyev myself.

This is more of an Ian question than a Sens question. You’ve recently had your name on a couple of bigger investigative pieces at The Athletic, alongside Dan Robson and Katie Strang. Both very powerful pieces, by the way! Can you share a bit about the process behind putting those stories together, and how it differs from the more traditional content you write? I imagine it looks quite different under the hood. — Jonathan T. 

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to address this question, Jonathan.

First of all, I will say that working alongside Katie and Dan has been one of the highlights of my professional career. Katie has emerged as one of the best investigative journalists in the sports realm, while Dan is arguably the best feature writer in our industry. Dan’s profile of Ray Emery a few months after his death is the gold standard of hockey feature writing for me.

I have learned so much from Katie and Dan about how to craft and research stories over the past year. We have a very active group chat, but sometimes the texts can get pretty depressing based on the subject matter we are pursuing. So it’s often broken up with fun little anecdotes and stories about our kids or families.

The story we just published on the ties between sexual assault and junior hockey was a very difficult topic to approach. This was the first time I had ever interviewed rape survivors and educators, so I was very mindful and cautious going into those interviews. These types of stories require a more thoughtful and deliberate approach, as opposed to my regular beat reporting. One thing I’ve learned from Katie and Dan is the art of being inquisitive, sensitive, and empathetic in my line of questioning around these issues. I think you can see it in their writing. They both have a remarkable ability to tap into the human aspect of their subjects.

Another thing I’ve really learned is to be patient with these stories. There is no race to the finish line and you want to make sure you get everything right. Our stories go through comprehensive line edits, where we have to make sure every detail — down to the most inconsequential thing — is 100 percent accurate. So this has been a new experience for me, going through a story line by line and having to explain how and where I obtained my information. And for those wondering, when it comes to unnamed sources, it’s not good enough for me to tell our editors and lawyers, “Trust me, this is what I was told.” They require all of the information from me — who I spoke to, when I spoke to them and if I can provide comprehensive and detailed notes of our conversation. It’s been a really eye-opening process for me.

I would really like to pursue these types of stories in the future, in addition to my work as a Senators beat reporter. I think the hockey world is filled with insiders and people who have access to trade rumours and that type of information. And I think that stuff is really important because a lot of fans do want to know about potential trades and things along those lines. But there is a clear market inefficiency when it comes to journalistic reporting in our sport. There are simply not enough Katie Strangs and Rick Westheads. We need more of them. And so I would love to start pursuing some of that because I think there is space for more writers in that realm.

I know a lot of people are probably thinking, “But Ian, aren’t you the fun guy who took Erik Karlsson to IKEA? Or Tom Preissing to Rideau Centre? Didn’t you just make a bad Mark Stone pun in this column? How can you make this switch?”

And I think writing is an art form, not unlike being an actor. I think the best actors are the ones who have range and that’s what I want to develop as a writer. I think what made Robin Williams special is that he could seamlessly go from “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “Good Will Hunting”. Tom Hanks was just as believable in “Forrest Gump” as he was in “Philadelphia”. Jamie Foxx went from doing silly sketch comedies to tackling some pretty serious and dramatic roles. If you can develop authenticity, I think it allows you to have a wide range as an artist and I think writers can fall into that category too.

I think at the end of the day, I want to establish myself as a good storyteller. And some stories are happy, funny, and light, while others are tragic, dark, and disturbing. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one style of writing, because I think there are so many great stories that need to be told in the sports world. And as long as I’m being honest and authentic, I think I have the ability to tap into that whole spectrum of storytelling.

Hey Ian, if the Sens are unable to sign or trade for a premium top-six winger to play with Stützle, what do you think of James van Riemsdyk as a backup plan? I assume that the Flyers would incentivize the Sens to take his cap hit. Does he have enough left in the tank to play a net-front role and tap in rebounds? Could he help Brady with his development? — Stephen Y. 

I just realized this week is the 10-year anniversary of James van Riemsdyk being traded for Luke Schenn. That was one of the bigger one-for-one swaps we’ve seen in recent history, but the fact it happened a decade ago makes me worry about JVR’s age.

He’s 33 now and even though he’s coming off a 24-goal season with the Flyers, I don’t know if he’s the right fit here at the moment. He only has one year left on his deal, which carries a $7 million cap hit, with only $5 million owing in real salary after a July bonus is paid out. I like him as a player and if you’re suggesting the Flyers incentivize this to happen, I suppose I would listen.

But if we’re looking for a longer-term solution on the Flyers roster, I think Travis Konecny would be my target. He’s 25 years old and has three more years left with a pretty manageable $5.5 million cap hit. He would fit in better than van Riemsdyk in my opinion, although I would love JVR to teach Brady how to do that between-the-legs move at the side of the opposition net.


Ottawa Senators defenseman Artem Zub. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

You have a $20 bill. You have to put it one on of two possible outcomes. On opening night, October 2022, are Erik Brannstrom and Artem Zub on the same pairing, or playing on different pairings? — Christopher G. 

I’m taking that $20 and placing it on separate pairings.

I maintain the best path for success would see Zub partnered with Jake Sanderson to start next season. I know the Senators are trying to temper some expectations around Sanderson, but I firmly believe he’ll have a chance to start in their top four.

As for Brannstrom, I think he’ll start the season with Travis Hamonic, allowing us to work on the ‘Bramonic’ nickname for their pairing.

What team has the best starting lineup of former/current Sens? Players are judged on their years with the Sens only. Weirdly I feel like Toronto is an early favourite with Michalek-Spezza-C Brown, Phaneuf-Marsh, Barrasso. — Andrew K.

Wow, this is a challenge that ended up taking me a couple of hours to track down. But trust me, I had fun doing this. (Please send me on more wild goose chases in future mailbags. I live for this stuff).

I like the concept of this exercise and to keep things interesting, I will try and keep players in their natural positions as much as possible. That means I’ll flip wingers to their off-wing, but if they are a natural centre, that’s where they will stay. But we won’t get too picky with left or right defence — we’ll just try and pick the two best available. So let’s go with a centre, two wingers, two defencemen and a goalie for each team.

I think your Toronto submission is really strong, although I would substitute Cody Ceci in for Brad Marsh. So let me throw out a few potential other starting lineups to see if we can get anything that tops that one.

Columbus:

Foligno – Duchene – Dzingel

Methot – Holden

Leclaire

The Sens-Blue Jackets connections run pretty deep, especially when I’m leaving guys like Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard off the list. This is a pretty solid starting lineup.

NY Islanders:

Chorske – Yashin – Regin

Chara – Carkner

Lehner

I thought this team would be stronger when Yashin, Chara and Lehner immediately sprang to mind. The problem is the rest of the group is really thin. If Pageau was a winger, maybe this is the winning lineup. But there is no way I would be interested in spending much time in front of the opposition net with Chara and Carkner patrolling the area.

San Jose:

Heatley – Tierney – Havlat

Preissing – Karlsson

This team looks awesome until you realize there is no goalie. It’s kind of weird that no goalie has ever played for both San Jose and Ottawa during his career. But maybe we could slide Brian Boucher in there since his son is now a Senators draft pick.

Boston:

McEachern – Kelly – Schaefer

Chara – Redden

Auld

This is clearly the strongest defence pairing we could come up with during this exercise. And it leaves out a lot of defencemen who had solid years in Ottawa like Jason York, Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Meszaros. The problem with this starting lineup is that it’s a bit weak up front and in the crease.

Chicago:

Havlat – Vermette – Hossa

Campoli – Oduya

Anderson

I could have gone with Ray Emery in net here, but slight edge to Craig Anderson since we’re talking about the entire body of work with the Senators. And by flipping Havlat to his off-wing, I might have created the strongest forward line possible. I love the forward and goaltending position, but the defence is a little bit weak.

St. Louis:

Hoffman – McAmmond – Havlat

Redden – Duchesne

Lalime

This could be a sneaky-good lineup. You have two talented wingers, who are anchored by a very responsible, two-way centre. We have a really good defence pairing here with Wade Redden and Steve Duchesne and Patrick Lalime is a solid choice in goal.

Detroit:

Hossa – Legwand – Alfredsson

Duchesne – York

Hasek

I think we have our winner here….although nobody saw this David Legwand plot twist, right?

Born and raised on the Quebec side of the region. The Sens never made a real push to encourage fans from our side of the river to embrace the team, outside of building a few outdoor ice surfaces. And for the most part, this has resulted in the majority still being Habs fans. Any sense on your end of what the daughters or whatever new ownership that will be could do to maybe start addressing this major wart and turn things around? — Cedric S.

I cannot stress this enough: This is a major issue for the hockey club.

They need a major push on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River. And I would like to think that with LeBreton Flats being one step closer to reality, they would realize the importance of attracting fans from Gatineau. People could basically walk over the Chaudiere bridge after work (if it’s not too cold) and head over to the game. If the arena at LeBreton comes to fruition, the need to engage fans in Gatineau will magnify accordingly.

So the Senators should be laying the groundwork for this stuff right now, knowing this is on the horizon. I’m willing to give this new regime an opportunity to get this right because so far, they’ve been hitting all the right notes lately.

And let’s hope this tweet on Friday is a sign of good things to come for fans on the Gatineau side:

 

Mathieu Joseph had 12 points and 11 games playing on the top line at the end of last season. If he can keep that assignment, what are realistic expectations for him this year? — Michael B. 

I think it’s unrealistic to expect Joseph to produce at that clip over the course of an entire season. I often think of Peter Regin as a cautionary tale here. He was so good in the 2010 playoffs, everybody just expected him to sustain that level into the next season. But it’s a major challenge to be consistent and productive over the course of a full 82-game season.

However, I was really encouraged by what I saw from Joseph. He possesses world-class speed and appears to be a very intelligent player too. Let’s say he sticks around playing top-six minutes, either with Norris or Stützle as his centre. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he could score 20 goals and hit the 50-point plateau.

To date in his NHL career, Joseph has scored at a 0.17 goals per game rate, which would translate into 14 goals over the course of a full season. That’s essentially playing in the neighbourhood of 12 minutes per night in Tampa. When he came to Ottawa, he saw his ice time increase significantly — up to 16 minutes per night. I think if he stays in that ballpark of ice time, I would expect his goals per game rate to climb accordingly.

So if his goals per game jumps to 0.25 next season, we’re looking at a 20-goal campaign from Joseph. And I feel like that’s a good bar to set.

If he exceeds that, all the better.

You can only sell five types of food/drink from five local brands in CTC. And they can only sell one type of food each. Who do you choose for each?

1. Pizza
2. Burger
3. Specialty (tacos, tapas, shawarma, etc)
4. Dessert
5. Beer (for the sake of this one, you can’t choose Big Rig or Beau’s) — Mark R.

Okay, let’s close out the mailbag column with this fun question.

  1. Pizza — I’m actually going with Big Rig pizza here. I think it’s the best in the city.
  2. Burger — While The Works would seem like the obvious choice, I’m going off the board with Bite Burger House. (They’re on Murray Street)
  3. Specialty — I’ve got to go with El Camino tacos here
  4. Dessert — Suzy Q donuts with a promotion allowing for a free donut after every Senators shutout
  5. Beer — I’m actually sticking with Michelob Ultra because I have to stay on brand.

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