Throughout this rebuild, I’ve been solidly pessimistic. For weeks I’d been writing about how this was the perfect year for a rebuild, even if the Sens were a playoff bubble team, but when the rebuild began I was afraid that it didn’t go far enough. Major pieces like Spezza, Phillips, Michalek and Alfredsson were left untouched. Secondary pieces like Chris Neil and Filip Kuba stayed, too. Anderson, a goalie we might have traded for a pick, was re-signed for four years, and Phillips for another three. While the team might be improved in a year or two, I didn’t think that the team did enough this year – or guaranteed a low enough finish next year – to truly load up and become a contender. Melnyk started his usual trumpeting, Murray looks like he’ll be staying, and all along I thought that this team was just setting itself up for some Leafs-style mediocrity. Which is to say, never quite mediocre enough, and never quite a contender.
Admittedly, Anderson has been standing on his head and there’s no guarantee that he can play this way for 70+ games next year. But after yesterday’s thrilling OT win over Montreal, I’m a convert: this team has a future, and it’s only a couple of years away.
Bobby Butler and Stephane Da Costa are two key prospects picked up without using a draft-pick; the Sens have five picks in the first 60 (possibly six, if Nashville’s conditional kicks in); David Rundblad and Jared Cowen are set to make the team next year; current rookies like Condra and Greening have surprised, and not looked out of place in the NHL; the team has a top five pick, and though they finished so low, they’re a full 13 points above last place and about eight wins from being a playoff team; the team has about $16M in cap space heading into next year; a new coach is due; Spezza looks dominant, and like he’s finally matured into the player this team always wanted him to be. (He also has 22 points in 14 games.)
With all of those factors in play, the Sens are still far from a shoo-in, and definitely are not contenders. But can anyone say that they can’t see this team, playing the way they’re playing now, winning eight more games than last year? If a team with a bottom four on defense of Andre Benoit, David Hale, Derek Smith and Brian Lee (and an unimpressive top pairing of Phillips and Kuba) can win games like last night’s, a team with Karlsson, Gonchar, Rundblad and Cowen in the lineup can do more. Imagine if Da Costa plays at the level Bobby Butler is playing at now, if Peter Regin rebounds from his terrible season, if the team signs a new top six UFA, even poaches as RFA by offer sheet (Parise anyone?).
I never thought I’d say it, but could Ottawa return to the playoffs next year?