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The Josh Norris Dilemma

June 3, 2024, 12:47 PM ET [133 Comments]
Sens Writer
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By Ken Hawkins (a.k.a. khawk)

Any discussion of the coming off-season for the Ottawa Senators will undoubtedly lead to a secondary discussion about the future of Josh Norris. After putting up a 35G season in 2021/22, Norris was signed to a 8-year/$63.6M contract extension, and was viewed as a critical piece of the team's future as a 1C/2C. From there, it took just 2 weeks for things to go horribly wrong, as Norris suffered a major shoulder injury just 5GP into the following season, and was only able to play another 3GP in the entire 2022/23 season. And despite returning to the lineup last season, he suffered another year-ending shoulder injury after just 50GP. There was also a notable regression in his scoring output, where he finished last season with a projected 25G/50Pts scoring pace vs. a scoring pace of 40G/70Pts from his career-high season.

Some have suggested trying to move him to LTIR, but you can't just keep a player on LTIR for 6 years of their NHL prime without medical evidence and the player's full compliance. Norris definitely has an injury problem but he still played 50GP last season with 16G scored, so by no means is it clear that his NHL career doesn't have a future. That said, his future will come with a substantial risk. Now, it's possible that a team like VGK/TBL might find that somewhat appealing in that it would allow them to play LTIR games with the other portion of his salary. However, no NHL team is going to be able to rely on Norris to play a critical role on their roster. It's an unfortunate situation, but it's a situation the Senators are going to have to get very realistic about in terms of helping this team be more competitive. And there are three basic approaches to consider.

Approach #1: Keep Him

In many ways, the easiest solution is for the team to keep Norris on the roster, but adjust their expectations of his role. His high AAV/term contract was a reflection of the importance of his expected role as a 1C/2C, but given the critical nature of centre depth to any NHL roster they would have to effectively regard him as an overpaid scoring winger. He’d be playing behind Tkachuk, Giroux, and Batherson on the winger depth chart, but in times of extensive LTIR a 2nd line winger is significantly easier to replace via mid-season trade than a 2nd line centre. Compare last season's trade deadline returns for Lindholm (1st/Kuzmenko)/Monahan (1st) vs. Toffoli (3rd)/Tarasenko (4th) to get a sense of the disparity.

Now, which players within the current Senators system would benefit most from this opportunity? The most immediate answer would be Shane Pinto, who has proven himself as a capable 2C/3C and showed last year just how critical he is to the roster when he returned after a 41GP suspension. He was also very effective at the World Championships for Team USA, where he scored 9Pts/8GP and had a team-best +9 plus/minus. Ridley Greig is also a player who could be ready to step into a 2C/3C role, though he’s perhaps better suited to the 3rd line because of his two-way ability and physical edge. Finally, I would add Stephen Halliday to this list, who even as a rookie in the AHL was the most offensive-minded C on the B-Sens roster and led the team in playoff scoring with 9Pts/7GP.

Approach #2: Trade Him

Are there potential trade options involving Josh Norris? Sure, though given the limitations outlined earlier the question is what kind of return they could realistically expect from such a move. There are many teams who might be willing to roll the dice on Norris but not at a full $7.95M AAV for 6yrs. Which means the Senators would either need to retain salary or take back lower-value player contracts the other team was looking to move out. Working in the Senators’ favour is the fact that Norris’ contract has no trade protection until 2026/27. But it then becomes a matter of whether the combination of contract savings and player return would actually be preferable to the status quo.

The most frequent chatter has involved similarly high-AAV players who have become concerns for their teams, including the likes of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones, Jonathan Huberdeau, or Sean Couturier. The problem there is that 3 of those players have active NMC, and the 4th will have a NMC activated on July 1st. So even if those teams considered that a fair value deal, getting the player to agree to a specific trade will not be easy. The other issue they may run into is culture, because they’re a team with an established glass-ceiling in its pay structure (all of Norris, Stutzle, Tkachuk, Chabot, and Sanderson will have an AAV between $7.9M and $8.3M next year). Suddenly adding a $8.5M-$10.5M salary to the mix could actually generate friction and long-term financial issues.

Approach #3: Buyout

On the surface, a 12-year financial liability sounds like an absurd route to be considering, but you have to weigh that against the existing 6-year liability of having an $8M/yr player who can't be relied upon to play more than 50GP/year. Norris’ contract will also consistently take away nearly 10% of the team’s cap space to work with each off-season, the next 3-5 of which will effectively account for the career primes of most of their existing core, including Tkachuk, Stutzle, Chabot, and Batherson. What does that uncertainty risk in terms of potential team success by having this wild card factor constantly affecting their ability to make key player transactions and optimize their roster each season?

There are two other fairly compelling elements of the buyout option, which are: a) it takes advantage of the last year where Norris can be bought out at 1/3 value (vs. 2/3 value), b) it actually creates a negative cap space implication for the first 3 years (-$102,788), which is when the salary cap will almost certainly be at its lowest value over the entire 12-year term. The majority of the years afterwards will have a cap hit of around $1.5M, which is certainly bad... but is at least a fixed cost that can be planned around. And waiting until next year to buy him out is really not an option, as it would go from them effectively paying $17.4M over 12yrs to save $34.7M vs. paying $28.4M over 10yrs to save $14.2M. That's a $30M swing, which is an awful lot of money - even for a billionaire like Andlauer.

The Verdict

Much as there could be some opportunity to trade Norris, and there’s definitely a financial case to be made for his buyout before July 1st, I think you’ll see the Senators keep him and hope for better results going forward. He’s a very popular teammate and especially close with Brady Tkachuk, which creates the real potential for harm to be done by effectively dumping him from the roster. Plus, when he was signed to his extension he was widely-regarded as a key part of their future, and in fairness that may still play out. His injury history has been problematic, but with the right surgery/rehabilitation and more of a measured deployment (e.g. shifting to the wing), he will hopefully provide better value to the team in 2024/25.

What do you think the Senators will do regarding Josh Norris? Feel free to comment below, and as always thanks for reading!
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