It’s perfectly understandable that following the trade of another veteran player, Sens fans would find themselves mired in existential quandary. “What does it all mean? Where are we going? What IS hockey, anyway? Should I spend time with my kids?” It could be that we’ve just spent a few days drinking in +40 humidity to celebrate the quasi-independence of a colonial state and we’ve gone skull soft. But no: in the harsh light of sobriety, the questions still linger.
A few years back, the Ottawa Senators had one of their worst seasons since the expansion days. They finished fifth last in the league after having spent most of the season flirting with last overall. Despite all of the mechanisms built into the NHL to place teams inside a Giant Mediocre Middle, Ottawa really had no excuse but to embark on some sort of rebuild. They were spending almost to the cap. They were paying Alex Kovalev $5MM a year. They stank. These are the things out of which rebuilds are made.
So rebuild we did! Except not really. A few mid-tier players were sent packing in exchange for not very many or very high picks, and at the end of the rebuild, the best asset Ottawa had was their own pick, sixth overall (after being bumped down when New Jersey won the draft lottery), which they used on Mika Zibanejad, who is an awesome player if not a franchise one.
A few things I assume here:
- Ottawa did much better in the years that followed because they weren’t as bad as everyone thought. There were almost as many points in the standings separating them from the last place Oilers as there were separating them from 8th and the playoffs. Remember: Brian Elliott was their goaltender, and the curse of Pascal Leclaire had been laid on the arena.
- The emergence of Erik Karlsson as a generationally great defenseman who can play more than 30 minutes a night also helped them from continued tankery.
- A shortened season in which Craig Anderson posted unreal numbers helped them to a surprise playoff appearance and first round win against the Habs.
All of which is to say, what I’m assuming here is that Ottawa wasn’t a terrible team, but wasn’t an ok team during that period either. It was a perfect storm of expectations and the emergence of key players. They were routinely outshot, but were saved by Special Little Guy Erik Karlsson’s CORSI Flamethrower Power Moves and Craig Anderson playing with the cheats on. It was a lot of fun. (Man, remember that Hab series? Good times.) But, much as the Toronto Maple Leafs are now pointing to their one playoff appearance and assuming that’s their norm, that unexpected bit of mild success might have been the worst case scenario for Ottawa. Bryan Murray still thinks that this team can compete.
Am I excited for the youngins? Sure I am. But I guess I just don’t have that much faith in youth to drive this team to excellence. How many top five picks are on the Islanders right now?
I also accept that Eugene Melnyk’s money situation is what it is, and he’s not going to sell when he’s set to cash in on that TV deal. It’s a conundrum: the team can’t spend enough to be competitive, but it also can’t afford to spend a few seasons in the dumps to restock. So we’re a bubble team, and with standard deviation in the standings being what it is (I’ve written before that it’s gotta be 10 points, at least), then Ottawa can find themselves on the right side of the bubble.
If you can’t tell already: I’m torn. What is this team’s true state? A team that manages to occasionally outperform its fundamental flaws, or a team with a solid core that was momentarily derailed?
Five Years from Now…the Best Case Scenario
- Bobby Ryan, undeterred by the departure of Ottawa’s skilled veterans, signs long-term
- Melnyk finds a way to keep Ottawa at least in middle of the spending pack, and Ottawa is able to attract marquee free agents due to their competitive young core
- Ottawa’s identity – “hard working” – turns out to be viable and not an identity also adopted by every single other team in the NHL
- Erik Karlsson fully recovers from the Achilles tear he suffered last season and becomes a regular part of the Norris conversation again; Ottawa has no trouble re-signing him
- Mika Zibanejad turns out to be a second line center / he doesn’t need to be because Ottawa just signed one
- Kyle Turris turns out to be a first line center / see above
- Chris Neil is traded / retires / gets lost in the woods and starts a new life there. Chris Phillips organizes a search party, also disappears
- One or more of Stone / Hoffman / Chiasson / Lazar / Puempel turn out to not only be promising young lads, but above average NHLers
- Robin Lehner is, in fact, a starting goaltender
- Boston and Detroit go into serious decline, Toronto continues to flounder, Florida continues to be Florida, and Buffalo only begins to emerge as a playoff contender, leaving Ottawa to compete with Montreal and Tampa in the division
- A post-Bryan Murray vision starts to form in the absence of Tim Murray
Five Years from Now…the Worst Case Scenario
- Bobby Ryan goes to free agency. Signs with Toronto for a reasonable cap hit and number. MacArthur also scoots.
- The conversation then switches to Erik Karlsson and whether it’s smart asset management to trade him while he has some term left on his deal and is still in his prime. Sooner or later, Karlsson, tiring of being the only good player on the team and everyone hating him for not being Chris Neil, asks for a trade
- Chris Neil re-signs for three more years at $3MM per
- Ottawa doesn’t have the money to spend 3-5 years out of the playoffs and accrue high picks, and so spends just enough to miss the playoffs by five points every year
- Ottawa fans realize that a bunch of players drafted nowhere near the top ten don’t have much chance of carrying a team after all
- Ottawa’s strong drafting team follows the rest of the managerial talent out of town
- Bryan Murray does his best Muckler impression and falls asleep in the press box
- Eugene Melnyk successfully runs for mayor of Ottawa
It’s polarizing, I know. That was the point. The scary thing is that you can imagine either scenario happening.
What these scenarios make clear to me, which is probably already abundantly clear to all of you, is that Erik Karlsson is sort of the end game for this franchise. He’s the engine that drives the team’s offense, and after Bobby Ryan (who you could argue isn’t really a superstar player) is the last marquee attraction on this team. He must be kept, and placated, at all costs if this team isn’t going to become a regular at the bottom of the standings, and a joke among free agents.
How early is too early to offer him all the money?