These are exciting times for our Ottawa Senators: in a playoff spot despite spending less money on player salaries than my friends’ ball hockey team does on t-shirts. Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson legitimate contenders for league MVP. A brash young net minder ready to win some games and run for mayor, though not necessarily in that order. What’s more, Ottawa has more prospects projected to be top six players than they’ve had, well, pretty much ever.
Here’s the thing: 1) a rebuild that delivers a solid window of contention requires more than one great draft, because most draft picks never work out, and 2) there are fates worse than being a truly terrible team. Just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The danger with prospects is that before they ever make it to the NHL we have a tendency to look at them exclusively through the lens of their potential. What’s their upside? Their absolute ceiling? Somewhere in there the most likely scenario for their development is lost. In the rush of enthusiasm, players and, I think, management, would rather put all their chips on black and fantasize about the big win.
Mika Zibanejad projects as a really great top six player. By that I mean a 20 goal scorer with a solid two-way game and some edge. He has upside, sure, but he slots in best as a complimentary player. In other words, Jason Spezza he’s not.
Ditto for Stefan Noesen. Murray clearly saw something in this kid that others didn’t, as he used a mid-to-late round first on him when he was projected to go in the second round. And he’s having a really nice season with the Plymouth Whalers. But again, he’s a Mike Fisher type. We’ll love him, but he’s not single-handedly winning us any games.
Matt Puempel is a different type of player, a pure scorer, but he’s had terrible concussion problems while playing for the Pete’s. He’s either going to score a lot of goals in the NHL or never make it there.
Then there are your prospects who project as third liners, like Jakob Silfverberg and Andre Petersson. You need guys like this, but we’re talking Nick Foligno types who will spend their time in Ottawa on the edge of top six duty.
Finally, you have your one dimensional players. Mark Stone has proven he can dominate lesser leagues but I’m skeptical can transition a power forward game to the NHL while lacking skating and size. I think Nikita Filatov plays on the moon these days.
Don’t get me wrong: together, these are the types of players that make up the heart and soul of a team, and I’m thrilled to have them. They constitute the kind of depth Ottawa’s lacked forever. But they aren’t cornerstones to build a championship around. With Ottawa unable to attract top end free agent talent, or rightly disinterested in going after the Brad Richards style contracts, you’re left with something of a nightmare scenario: a team forever on the bubble, hoping to sneak into the playoffs and go on a run, and years from being able to launch another rebuild.
This becomes especially easy to imagine when you see Spezza and Michalek exiting their peak years, Alfredsson retired, Phillips in the third year of his puzzling contract, and so on.
A rebuild is something that comes along once in a decade or so, and you have to get it right if you want to win a cup. We’ve got a team worthy of our support as fans, who are fun to watch and completely likeable. But I fear that Ottawa didn’t move themselves any closer to the ultimate goal of winning a cup.
I’ll be as excited as the next guy when this team lines up for puck drop in game one of the playoffs this year. I listened to a Leafs podcast the other day and you should hear them talk about their team about to miss the seventh straight year of playoffs. At this point they’d probably give up five first round picks just to experience some playoff hockey, even if they get swept. It’s a good time to be a Sens fan. But I can’t help but think that last year’s sell-off didn’t go far enough, or didn’t extend to this year, and we cashed it all in for one Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid moment in the first round of the playoffs. (The Bolivian Army will be played by the Boston Bruins.)
It’s hard to think this way when the team is so much fun to watch. Let me put it another way: if in the depths of last year, when the team didn’t win a game in February, if I had asked you if you would prefer a prospect like Nail Yakupov or a free pass to the first round to roll the dice with this lineup against whoever you met, what would you say?