LeBrun: Q&A with Pierre Dorion on rebuilding the Senators, pending UFA signings and Bryan Murray’s legacy
It’s safe to say Pierre Dorion has seen a bit of everything just three years into his term at the helm of the Ottawa Senators.
Named general manager in April 2016, a trip to the Eastern Conference final in that first year earned Dorion a nomination as NHL GM of the year.
But then came turbulent waters, which culminated in the dismantling of the club after a very disappointing 2017-18 season: The Matt Duchene blockbuster trade, which didn’t turn out well; the eventual, dramatic trades of Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone last year; and a rebuilding process that’s well under way now.
It’s a lot to take on early as a GM, but now Dorion can look forward to two high first-round picks in June as the rebuild continues.
In his 13th season with the Senators organization, Dorion worked his way up from chief amateur scout to director of player personnel to assistant GM before succeeding the late Bryan Murray as GM.
I sat down Friday afternoon with Dorion for the latest in my series of Q&A interviews with NHL GMs.
You were at the Top Prospects Game on Thursday night in Hamilton. With the potential of two high picks in the June draft, and your scouting background, how hands-on do you plan on being given how important this draft is to the team?
This is definitely a big draft. I will definitely be scouting more than I have probably in the last year or so. But at the same time, I feel we’ve got great people here. We’ve hired great people who are the top of their fields as far as scouting, a guy like Trent Mann who is our chief amateur scout. I’m there to help him out. Obviously I will have the final decision, but when you have such a quality chief amateur scout like Trent Mann, you work with him. That’s a lesson I learned from Bryan Murray. Bryan always let me run every draft that we had. Of course, the one year we took (Mika) Zibanejad he came and saw some of the guys with me. But at the end of the day, he let me make the call. And it’s going to be that way with Trent.
You have the two picks and we won’t know until later in the year how they end up spaced, but are you a believer in best player available or positional need?
Especially when you are going to take at the top of the draft like we probably will, at least with our pick, we have to take the best player available. The player that can help us to win the most hockey games. You might look at who’s a bit more physically ready or mentally ready, but at the same time, you have to look at the whole package and who will help us win the most games within a span of two to three years is the guy we’re going to take.
How critical would you say this draft is for this franchise? When you consider how public the rebuild announcement was, you’re already seeing some of the seeds of it (in the AHL with Belleville), but these two picks, how would put that into context as far as the importance?
I think these two picks are crucial for us. We’re headed in the right direction, but to help us continue our path in doing a proper rebuild, these two picks are crucial. But I would also say, our first six picks, depending if anything changes, the three second-rounders and the early third-rounder, will all be elements that will help us, I wouldn’t say accelerate the rebuild because we have to make sure we develop our players properly, but at the same time just adding pieces and quality pieces to the rebuild. And everyone knows the first round is very deep, but we feel that the first 65-70 players, you’re going to get all NHL players in there.
You guys took a lot of criticism for losing what became a lottery pick in the Matt Duchene trade, and in a very short time span you end up with San Jose’s top pick in almost a similar situation. I don’t know if you’d say karma, but it’s worked out as far as getting that kind of pick back?
Listen, sometimes we have to revisit history and where we were at that specific time (when trading for Duchene). Anyone who was going to trade for Matt Duchene was going to have to give up a first round pick. There’s no doubt about that. …If you look back at that point in time, we were fairly up on the standings, we had just gone to the conference finals, so we said, ‘Why don’t we make a push for it.’ By the end of that year, we saw that we weren’t headed in the direction that we wanted to. And that’s when I remember sitting down with Eugene (Melnyk) and saying, ‘If we want to have a team that’s going to have a lot of success for years to come, we’re going to have to rebuild through he draft properly.’ So we knew when we had the opportunity to take a player of Brady Tkachuk’s calibre that we couldn’t pass up on him. And we knew the following year there would be a few impact guys. But adding Brady to our lineup a year early we felt he could play in the NHL at that point in time after just one year in college, and we felt it would be more beneficial for us in our rebuild adding that type of power forward and character — even though there was a chance we’d be passing up on a player the following the year. But the one thing I give so much credit to Gary Bettman about is putting in this lottery system. So teams can’t tank. Because no matter if you finish in 31st place, there’s still a chance you won’t get the first pick in the draft. It’s just upped the compete level. It’s the right way to play the game and it’s the right thing for the game.
So that weighed in your decision to keep the pick and give Colorado the pick the following year, the fact that even if you guys ended up having a tough year, the math suggested it wouldn’t guarantee Colorado the first overall pick?
Exactly. And when we looked at it, we couldn’t pass up on the player, we had 2-3 guys and we had a pretty good inkling of what was going to happen in the first three picks ahead of us. So we felt we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a player like Brady.
I’m not going to lie, I thought you guys made the wrong decision at the time in terms of keeping the pick. But now in seeing Brady Tkachuk and his impact, I’m able to admit when I’m wrong. But I remember saying at the time that it was a huge risk to keep the pick.
And you know what? That’s a lot of credit to our scouting staff. That year, I knew the top 10 to 12 in the draft like the back of my hand. You know what? There was no doubt as a group we felt comfortable taking Brady. Our scouts felt like that. I felt like that. I think I saw Brady nine times that year between the summer camp, the world juniors, (Boston University), we just felt to add a player like that … power forwards are tough to find. Power forwards with character and talent are even tougher to find. We just felt it was the right pick for us.
Now, had Montreal taken Brady Tkachuk at No. 3, do you remember who you were ready to take next in that case?
Those are hypothetical questions. We had a very good idea who we would have taken at No. 4. But I’ll keep that for ourselves.
(Laughing) Well, I tried.
(Laughing) I love it.
Listen, you mentioned Bryan Murray earlier on. Every now and then I find myself thinking about Bryan. There are few people that I enjoyed covering more in my career that cracked me up so much and taught me so much about the game. Do you find yourself thinking the same thing sometimes, or saying to yourself `I wonder what Bryan would do now?’
There’s a lot of times when I say to myself, ‘I wonder how Bryan would handle this situation.’ How did Bryan handle this past situation, you know? Whether it’s dealing with referees which he adored (chuckles), I’m being sarcastic. But how he managed his staff. The job of being GM, I always say the three people you talk the most to, and I’m not afraid to admit it, the three people I talk the most to is my boss/my owner, and I have a direct line to him, Eugene Melnyk. And the coach, and the third person you talk to a lot, is your head of PR. As a general manager, these are the three people you talk to the most on a daily basis. And it’s always how Bryan handled this situation. But what was so great about Bryan was that nothing really fazed him. Bryan had seen everything. He had such vast knowledge and experience that he knew how to handle every situation. I’m not going to lie to you — I dearly missed him — I dearly missed him when we started this rebuild. Not just for his experience but just for the daily conversations that we had. One of the things that probably people don’t know is that Bryan and I, when I was in the office, we went to lunch every day. Those life lessons that I learned from him were some of the best experiences, I gained so much from just the casual conversations.
I was thinking I would ask you this because with Ray Shero’s firing recently, there’s been a lot of talk around ‘managing up.’ I’ve never heard the term ‘managing up’ more than now — it seems to be on almost every team now. I wanted to know how your relationship has grown or changed with Eugene Melnyk since you took over?
Well, all I can tell you is, I can’t speak to how other teams work, more and more now the general manager or the president of hockey ops will report directly to the owner. That’s in most cases now, I think, around the NHL. And our situation, I think our relationship has evolved. I’ve got the utmost respect for him. I think he understands what we’re trying to do here. Eugene asks a lot of questions, my job is to give him answers and update him on where our rebuild is going. But the one thing is, and I have the example when we signed Thomas Chabot, I’ve got the upmost support from him. And that has been key in us going in the right direction, whether it’s to hire D.J. Smith, or to sometimes to make unpopular trades that I pulled the trigger on, I get the upmost support from him.
You mentioned Thomas Chabot. How important was it for you to get ahead of that in the sense that the summer of 2019 was the summer of reckoning as far as second contracts around the NHL, and you got your big one (eight years, $64 million) done a year ahead of time?
But that was always part of the plan that we try to sign Thomas, one of the good, young core pieces, if we could before the season started. Our goal here was always to try and get it done before we played our first game in October. It takes two parties to get a contract done and that’s where (agents) Ian Pulver and Dom DeBlois, myself and Peter (MacTavish, Sens AGM), we really worked hard at this through the summer to make sure we can get something done before the season started so there would be no distractions for Thomas. In doing something like that, it showed our fans but it also showed our players, everyone in the community, that Thomas was committed to being part of this rebuild and hopefully lead us to lots of success here.
Speaking of contracts, you have a number of pending UFAs. The Capitals made a delicate decision to re-up Nicklas Backstrom but wait until after the season to deal with Braden Holtby. That’s not an easy thing to do. You’re making a choice there. Similarly, you’re probably going to have to go down he same path in the sense that you probably can’t sign all your UFAs?
Pierre, you got to understand, we’ve got a plan in place. Going forward, we’ve got a plan, we know who our players are. We’re going to be negotiating with some of the guys that we feel we want to have stay here; but at the same time, they want to be here, too. We’re not going to overpay guys just because other teams do it. We’ve got a plan we’re going to follow here. We’ve got to be smart in the short, medium and long term for us to have success as we move along. When it comes to those things, the one deal I’ve had with agents and so far it’s been very good, is that we’ve kept everything out of the public. We do it for many reasons. We do it out of respect for our fans who know that we’re trying to follow this plan, we do it out of respect to the players so they’re not worried about who’s going to be their teammate game after game at the end of the year. If they want to talk amongst themselves when they go for coffee, that’s their choice. But we know that to try to get things done, we’ve got to do things as quietly as possible.
You may disagree with this, Pierre, but to me part of the challenge for you especially with guys like Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mark Borowiecki — and Craig Anderson, too — is that they’ve been there a long time. Having to trade guys like Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone, that was hard, right? What I’m saying is that it adds another layer to it all as far as asking the question, ‘Are we going to keep some of our guys?’
But I think it’s always part of the plan, it just gets back to how I answered the question before, is that yes, but they have a choice to stay here or not. It’s a public fact that we offered pretty good contracts to a lot of people who were pending free agents and some decided that they didn’t want to stay here, they didn’t want to be part of the rebuild where they were in their career. Now some players are different than others, and we have to respect that. But we have a plan going forward, and in future discussions we will know who wants to be here and who doesn’t want to be here.
Post trade deadline, depending on who you trade or don’t trade, but often when teams are rebuilding and selling, there’s room for young kids to finish their season at the NHL level. But on the other hand, Belleville is doing well. So it’s an interesting dilemma for GMs I find as far as weighing where the best place is to be for your kids.
Yeah, and I think that’s a great question, Pierre. What’s happened in Belleville the last year is that our playoffs pretty much started in the second half of the year. We had a great second half where we went from last place to two points from making the playoffs. And it was great, valuable experience for the young players down there. Now this year, we’ve brought up players — and I’ve talked about this that we didn’t want to bring them up for just one game and then send them back down — we’re giving guys extended games in the NHL and we’ve done that on purpose. Guys like Erik Brannstrom and Logan Brown, where they weren’t here for two games, we wanted to give them 20 games so they could see what the NHL is about. Not just at the start of the year but through the course of the season. But you have to find the right mix. Every player is different as far as their development. At certain points in time, we’ve got some future stars in Belleville if you look at a guy like (Josh) Norris, (Alex) Formenton, but we have to make sure we don’t ruin their development. The way they’ve played, they deserve (NHL) games. But at the same time, we have to make sure we continue to develop them well. If we make the playoffs in Belleville with I think the second or third-youngest team in the American Hockey League, I think that’s a step in the right direction but it won’t be the end of the world if we don’t make it. As long as they continue growing. I think winning together as a group is very beneficial for the organization long-term. And that’s where we have to be careful. At the same time, I think you have to dangle that carrot to say, `You’ve done really good, you’ve done everything we’ve asked of you in Belleville so we should reward you with some NHL games.’
Last question, Pierre, I try to remember to ask GMs this for this series: which book most influenced you?
There’s a few really good books that I’ve read. But you know what? I don’t like to tell people what I’ve read because sometimes they go and read it and they can get the edge on you (laughs) or they know how you’re thinking. But I’ve got to tell you, in the last two years there’s a few books that have really hit me hard and have made me a better man and a better general manager. But I’ll keep that for myself.