Something I have been pondering over the last few days is the idea of identity. Is identity something you are, or something you do? Is identity wrapped up in inherent signifiers and commonalities, or is it based around an quality that can be attained or lost? If I call myself a writer, does that mean I have to sit in coffee shops, wear a jacket, and go on retreats to the mountains with a typewriter, or is it enough to simply write something, anything? Is it more important to be in a state of being or a state of doing?
I ask myself these questions, because if identity is a state of doing, derived from action, I’m not sure the Ottawa Senators are a hockey team any more.
The external signifiers are still there, little things they share with other professional hockey teams. There is a coach, and there are players, and they play games sanctioned by a league, and they have scouts prospects, and they play in a rink. Sometimes fans are there.
But insofar as being a hockey team requires active participation, insofar as being a professional hockey team means attracting or retaining top talent in an effort to win games both now and in the future, that is not something the Ottawa Senators can do at this point. We are all aware of this change. Comrade Varada pointed it out earlier this week: this is different.
Sens brass has been selling the last hellish 7 months as a rebuild, and there are certainly some rebuild-like elements of the past few days. When Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel were traded for draft picks, we (or at least I) accepted these events with relative equanimity. Duchene’s days in a Senators uniform were always numbered after the team drove itself off a cliff last December. Ryan Dzingel, while a fine goal scorer and a surprise talent from the 7th round of the draft, is the sort of player who you want to be your 6th best forward and was somewhat useless on the current iteration of the Senators as he put up 20 goal seasons that were mostly empty calories. (Dzingel is also notable for being a rare case of the Senators selling high on an asset.) The returns on both players were good picks and prospects. These types of trades have been done a hundred times before, and will be done a hundred times again until some Harvard Business School graduate invents a way to deviate from the traditional boom and bust cycle every sports team eventually goes through in a hard salary cap league. Mark Stone should have been treated differently because Mark Stone is a different type of player.
Back in December, I outlined my belief that Mark Stone was a player whose abilities to tilt the ice were unprecedented in team history. My feelings on this have only become stronger with time. Mark Stone is in a class of truly elite players with Patrice Bergeron and Sidney Crosby in terms of his two-way ability. In terms of wingers, he probably stands alone in this regard. There is no stat available that does not bear this out. This season alone, Stone has put up 62 points in 59 games on the back of 19.4% shooting, which is only slightly up from his career average of 16.2%. He has scored 17 of his points on the powerplay, and is a remarkable +13 on a Senators team that has a goal differential of -41. He draws a remarkable number of penalties, while rarely taking them, and trails only Connor McDavid in number of takeaways over the past 3 seasons. There is no phase of the game in which Mark Stone does not excel. Additionally, at the age of 26, he is in the prime of his career and is likely to maintain this elite level for at least the next four seasons, if not longer. Furthermore, Stone assumed the mantle of leadership from Erik Karlsson with aplomb, even going so far as to have rookie Brady Tkachuk move in with him this season leading Brady’s father Keith to describe him as “instrumental to Brady’s development“. Stone has never found himself on the outs with the coaching staff for any reason. He has, by all accounts, an unimpeachable drive and work ethic, and if culture was hypothetically a thing that was suddenly very important to you for some reason, Mark Stone would be an invaluable contributor to a positive one.
In summary (and I’m going to put this next part in all-caps just to get the point across):
MARK STONE IS NOT A PLAYER YOU SHOULD EVER TRADE BECAUSE PLAYERS LIKE MARK STONE DO NOT GET TRADED
Even if you’re doing a rebuild, you don’t trade Mark Stone because the chances you ever find another player as good as Mark Stone are incredibly remote1. I think deep down inside, Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Sens brass know this. It’s why they desperately tried to convince Stone to stay. However, the (alleged) precarious state of Eugene Melnyk’s finances reared its hideous head once more and the owner’s refusal or inability to burnish Stone’s next contract with the signing bonuses that have become de rigueur among superstar contracts proved insurmountable.
Maybe I’m being overdramatic, and there are other teams that would also refuse to cut a Top 15 player in the league a multi-million dollar cheque each July 1st for the next 8 years. I doubt it. Certainly the Vegas Golden Knights are having no problem with it. Indeed, they seemed rather eager to merely be given the opportunity to do so. Distributing a large portion of a player’s salary at the beginning of July is now the cost of doing business in the NHL; it’s something NHL teams do, and if you can’t or won’t do it, can you really call yourself an NHL team? I think at that point you’re just a conglomeration of personnel attached to a brand which is slowly accruing value on some vaguely defined notion of a market, rather than a team, which would be an organization that’s making a good faith effort to win a championship in a well-defined timeline. This is reality for the Senators now. Until the organization signs multiple homegrown superstars to market contracts, it will always be an open question as to whether they are capable of doing so, and therefore an open question as to whether they are worthy of being thought of as anything other than some assets on a balance sheet.
Now we enter a liminal state of fandom. There will be little worth watching at the NHL level for the foreseeable future. The Belleville Senators, to their credit, have come on strong in the second half of the season and are now fighting for a playoff spot. Their ranks will be bolstered by some of the trade acquisitions from the past few days. Maybe they will put a little playoff run together. Hell, maybe I’ll go crazy and start getting attached to Drake Batherson and Vitaly Abramov. Maybe I’ll put my hope in the unknown future. I have no idea. But if I do, there will always be that niggling question in the back of my mind: What if they eventually want a signing bonus?
1. For what it’s worth, neutral third parties have reached out to me to say they think the return on the Stone trade was perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances, and that the centrepiece, Erik Brannstrom, looks like a potential superstar. I may come to love Brannstrom with time, in much the same way one may eventually develop feelings for someone they met through Ashley Madison, but for now I maintain that I would rather have actual superstar Mark Stone due to the famous Bird-Hand-Bush Theorem proved by Euler in the 1700s. ↩