Things just seem to keep getting worse for Shane Pinto and the Ottawa Senators. Fans have been eagerly awaiting the announcement of a new deal for the 23-year-old center since the end of last season, but every time an update is provided to the Pinto negotiations, it’s always, “There isn’t much progress.“
First, it was a potential deal with the Philadelphia Flyers involving Mathieu Joseph and a sweetener. Then, it was proposed that the Senators could place the injured Josh Norris on long-term injured reserve (LTIR). It seemed like an ominous sign when Pinto returned home to New York after training with the Senators, citing that his presence was drawing too much attention. But now the NHL has announced that he’s been suspended 41 games for violating the NHL’s gambling policy.
That’s a huge gut punch for the Senators. After two painful losses to division rivals, it’s hard not to think that having Pinto in the lineup would help turn things around. As a rookie, he scored 20 goals last season, giving the Senators the depth they were looking for when they selected him in 2019. His presence makes the team more competitive, and with Ottawa looking to return to the playoffs, it should be the Senators’ top priority to get him back.
Or should it? Pinto is a great player, but the Senators aren’t struggling with scoring. Discipline and drive are more pressing issues right now, which reflects a problem in coaching. Making room to add him would likely hurt this team more than help it. That won’t be the case next season when several of the Senators’ cap issues come off the books. Even though playing is always preferable to not, it might be better for everyone if Pinto waited until next year to sign.
The Senators Need Discipline, Not Goals
Maybe this is the wrong time to say this after a rough 5-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, but the Senators still look to be in excellent shape after five games, at least scoring-wise. Their 25 goals rank ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning and put them seventh in the NHL. More importantly, they have a goal differential of plus-4, the ninth-highest in the league, proving that they are much better defensively than they have been in years.
Part of that is due to Rourke Chartier, who was given the unenviable task of filling in for Pinto. However, the 27-year-old has so far been a brilliant addition to the team. After six games, he sits eighth in expected goals and 10th in expected goals percentage. Against the Washington Capitals, he led Ottawa’s forwards in Fenwick Percentage and score-adjusted expected goals while not losing a single faceoff and also put up the lowest on-ice expected goals against. While he still isn’t a long-term solution, he’s proved that he can handle being a reliable bottom-six center.
The only thing that Chartier hasn’t been able to do yet is score. Thankfully, Josh Norris’ return to the lineup was nothing short of spectacular. Playing alongside Drake Batherson and Dominik Kubalik, he scored two goals on three shots and won the second-most faceoffs in his first game back, helping Ottawa demolish the Capitals, 6-1. Against the Red Wings, he added another assist while firing five shots against Detroit’s goalie Ville Husso and finished with a 78 percent faceoff win rate. He’s also no slouch defensively; his on-ice expected goals against sits second on the team so far this season at 1.45, and his shot cart shows how strong he is in front of the net.
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The biggest issue in the last two games has been penalties. In both games, Brady Tkachuk sat in the box for at least nine minutes, and although he earned praise from the crowd for his fight with Alex Tuch in the dying minutes of the game, it didn’t help his team and very nearly earned him a suspension for instigating. While the latest instance fired up the team to the tune of three quick goals, the Senators have one of the weakest penalty-kill percentages so far. Against the Red Wings alone, Ottawa allowed three power-play goals, one of which came when Tkachuk was in the box. That’s an issue that needs to be cleaned up quickly if the Senators want to secure a playoff spot.
A Trade Just Doesn’t Make Sense
One of the most frequently proposed options for making room for Pinto has been through the trade market. Joseph was the most frequently proposed, and on Oct. 12, Darren Dreger reported on Insider Trading that Pierre Dorion has had talks about moving the veteran forward as well as some conversations about defenceman Erik Brannstrom. Kubalik has also been proposed as a possible trade candidate due to his $2.5 million contract.
However, after putting up three goals and six points in six games, it’s hard to justify moving Joseph and his $2.95 million, especially after it was reported that the Flyers were looking at a first-round pick or equivalent prospect as a sweetener. That’s a high price, even for someone like Pinto. But his contract is the highest of the three players reportedly on the trade block and moving it would accommodate the reported request of $2.5 million over multiple years. Moving Brannstrom makes even less sense as the Senators will need to call up a defenceman to fill his place, restricting their offer even more.
Does that mean that Pinto is on the block? Dorion doesn’t want to, and the young center hasn’t asked for any sort of trade, so it seems that both sides are committed to finding a common ground. But after the news broke about his suspension, Pinto’s limited bargaining power has all but evaporated into thin air. It’s been reported that the Senators have rescinded all their previous offers, which is a reasonable response given that he’s currently unavailable to play until after Jan. 20. But it also means that he has almost zero value on the trade market now; no team will want to pay up to acquire the first player punished under the NHL’s gambling rules.
More Cap Space, More Options
Already, this season is looking like a wash for Pinto. So, why not just start fresh next season?
In 2024-25, the Senators have over $4.1 million coming off the books in dead cap alone: Matt Murray’s retained salary, Michael Del Zotto’s 2022 buyout, and Bobby Ryan’s 2020 buyout. Without losing a single player, that’s more than enough to afford Pinto’s contract demands. Add in a possible $4.5 million increase to the salary cap ceiling, and all of a sudden, there’s more than enough money to go around.
The Senators already made it clear that they wanted Vladimir Tarasenko now more than they wanted Pinto after they signed him this summer to a $5 million deal. However, they only committed one year to the 31-year-old, and unless he is a top-three scorer this season, it seems unlikely that he will return at the same price tag. Kubalik, too, is unlikely to return, especially after going pointless in his first six games with Ottawa. Added together, that’s a potential $7.5 million in cap space.
Dorion hasn’t done well with his cap management so far, but what he can be commended for is getting his team’s stars to sign team-friendly deals. Currently, no one makes more than Tim Stutzle’s $8.35 million, and that’s how it should be. Even with Jake Sanderson’s $8.05 million deal starting next season, the Senators could still have another $8.05 million available in cap space. That’s a much easier situation to negotiate around for everyone.
It’s far from ideal for Pinto to sit the whole season, there’s no rush to get him back on the team; because he’s not eligible for an offer sheet, he doesn’t qualify for the Dec. 1 restricted free agent deadline. So, realistically, the team could sign him whenever and bring him back after his suspension ends. But the Senators need to get this done right, and maybe taking a little extra time to do that is the best decision for everyone.