Something happened sometime last week: for the first time since the earliest days of the season, Ottawa’s playoff probability fell below 50%. After having spent the better part of the previous two months between 55% and their season-high 79%, this is the dark side of the coin in this coin-flip of of a season.
We’ve taken to calling Ottawa a bubble team for a good long while now, and that’s still fair. When the season is called, I think Ottawa will find itself just on the outside or just on the inside of the playoff picture, right in the creamy, mediocre middle of the league.
But in addition to thinking “bubble,” I’m also starting to think in terms of “transition” – as in, on a scale between a rebuild and true contention, this is the ideal year to add a key player through, say, the draft.
Before the season began, my biggest concern was whether the team would be able to re-sign upcoming UFAs Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacCarthur, Marc Methot, and Jason Spezza. Could we convince them to stay in Ottawa if the team wasn’t poised to compete?
The first two were re-signed after we put something in their drinking water that made them see New York City when they looked at Ottawa; Methot’s situation will come into stark clarity when he likely returns to the lineup tomorrow night and throws out his back; and, as we all know, Spezza retired a Senator and will never play another NHL game because he was born a Sen and he’ll die a Sen.
For better or worse, the Senators have locked up their core players – and on pretty high value deals, at that – so fans can take a breath and relax in that at least the team won’t take a huge step back in the next couple of years. Senators management can turn their attention to complementing and augmenting the team’s core.
With Methot returning and hopefully re-signing, one hopes the result will be the team outperforming more than just Buffalo on the scale of number of shots allowed. Curtis Lazar will be one year closer to the star that Bryan Murray believes he will be. Mika Zibanejad will be cured of the mumps. (He has mumps, right?) Erik Karlsson will still be in his prime, and Robin Lehner may steal a little bit more of the net away from Craig Anderson. This should be a team looking to compete for the Cup in the next 2-4 years, not necessarily right now.
I’m not ready to take Ottawa’s recent 3-6-1 spin as a sign that all hope is lost. Sure, Ottawa’s had to be pesky and have some of the highest save percentages in the league just to get where they are, but there’s still time to right this ship. And if it doesn’t get righted, then that’s okay too.
Come January, if Ottawa isn’t closer to positive on that playoff probability scale, I think it’s time to start thinking draft. There is no scenario in which Ottawa isn’t more fun to watch and a more competitive team with a very good prospect in the fold, and they aren’t going to lose anybody from the lineup as a result of a losing season. Add to that that the cap may not go up as high as some GMs think because of the sinking Canadian dollar, and Ottawa might be in a position to poach some talent the way the Islanders just did.
I want Ottawa to win as much as the next guy. I want to watch playoff hockey come spring. But thinking of this as a transition year makes the whole prospect of missing out a little bit less painful to consider.