By the way, when you Google Image search “Gong show” this is the fourth picture that comes up.
There are always one or two franchises that seem to go completely off the rails in a given NHL season, but rarely have so many of them been located in the same division as our Ottawa Senators. If you had told everyone at the beginning of the season that the Northeast Division would be the site of a few public meltdowns, I’m sure all of those same experts picking Ottawa to finish dead last in the league would have said the Senators would have to be one of them.
How could it possibly be the newly-rich Buffalo Sabres? They could be forgiven for looking at their line up and thinking they were only one or two pieces from contending. They have $3MM-$4MM players throughout the depth chart; they had a goaltending tandem any GM in the league would be happy with; even if a player like Brad Boyes isn’t going to get you 40 without Kariya, you’d think he could pot, what, 15? Most of that depth, underwhelming though it is, are on expiring contracts – now is the time to spend, right? And spend they did. Not wisely, but surely the sheer amount must have counted for something. Their problem, though, is the limited, or rather selective, accountability employed: the coach and GM cannot be fired, both still in place 12 years after their ascension to mediocrity. The players are sent the message that no matter the result, it falls on them. Why on earth, if you’re a second line Buffalo Sabre, would you play for Lindy Ruff? Meanwhile, their new owner promises the Cup then hits the panic button faster than anyone, calling his Olympian goaltender out in the media. They’ve become the most disappointing team in the league, but it seems like all of the problems are happening at the top of the chain. I can’t wait to see what happens this offseason when Regier, surely still in place, tries to fix the mess he made.
What about the Montreal Canadians? One season removed from a strong showing against the Champ Bruins, and two from a Conference Finals showing, Montreal had no substantive changes aside from the addition of the solid Eric Cole, and had one more year of experience for their young players Subban and Eller. Carey Price had established himself as an elite tender; Markov looked ready to recover (I used a first round pick on him in my fantasy hockey keeper pool, because I’m an idiot). They had a wealth of coaching experience behind them. They were a solid bet for another low-seed finish and a pest-a-riffic first round loss against a team that builds with patience. Instead you get an entire season of the most superfluous, unimportant distractions possible from a market that makes the case for collective insanity. At one point this team actually gave up resources for Tomas Kaberle, a player Carolina’s GM publicly regretted signing and said hadn’t showed up ready for the new season. Well into their desperation trade phase, Price turned down a sweetheart contract extension offer and they’re talking rebuild—with, get this, a returned Bob Gainey at the helm. The guy who traded for Scott Gomez! You know who might help this team right now? Ryan McDonagh.
Then there’s Toronto, stuck in their perpetual purgatory. A GM who refuses to build through the draft but whose principled belief against long-term, frontloaded contracts precludes him from access to the UFA market. Brian Burke is getting ready for his annual turnover, wherein he hits reset on half his roster in the hopes that he’ll land on some miraculous combination of misfit toys and castoff attitude problems. They’ve embraced their status as the most unlikeable team in the league, their stars being openly mocked by other teams, and they don’t even have a playoff seed to show for it. Their promising young goaltender turns out to as human as his last promising young goaltender, and the trade scuttlebutt indicates that the only two decent players Toronto received in the first two years of the five year rebuild that Burke needlessly aborted—Schenn and Kadri—might be on their way out of town. No surprise they’re the ones being named in trade rumors. Teams that build properly covet young, cheap players with high ceilings. Oh, and Wilson gets a one-year extension so that when he is inevitably fired, he’ll receive what amounts to a pay bonus.
Aside from Boston, the Northeast is filled with teams that take solid aim with stunning regularity at their own foot. All of these teams have the pieces to make it work, or are at least two or three smart moves from turning things around. And all needlessly take themselves out of contention. Personality issues, distractions, old-school hockey at its very best (meaning doing the same thing over and over, regardless of whether it works) the Ottawa Senators are only the fourth most surprising thing coming out of this nuthouse in 2012.