The most consequential moments in Ottawa Senators history

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If the league keeps with recent tradition, then shortly after playoff seeding is determined for the 2020 NHL season, it will hold the draft lottery determining where non-playoff teams will pick in the 2020 draft. Every one of the 15 teams to miss the playoffs will have a chance at the first overall pick. The odds for the remaining teams will then be adjusted proportionally for the second drawing, for the second overall pick, and then again for the third drawing, for the third overall pick. The remaining teams will then receive the remaining picks in the inverse order of the standings.

This statistical exercise in the likelihood of ping-pong balls with certain numbers to fall out of the machine first, which amounts to an exercise in controlled randomness, may be the most consequential event in the 28-year history of the modern incarnation of the Ottawa Senators. Not a playoff series, or even a particular play in a significant game, but an utterly random event that doesn’t even resemble hockey.

That’s because of four things we know, or at least suspect, to be true:

1) For a team to be a true contender, it needs at least one true ‘needle-moving’ player, a blue-chip, franchise guy who can drive play by himself if need be

2) Needle-movers have traditionally been found in the top few picks of a draft, and even then, not every year.

3) The 2020 draft is a deep one, with multiple sources reporting a higher likelihood than usual of real needle-movers being available in those top few picks.

4) As of this writing, Ottawa has two picks in the top ten. Their own is likely to be bottom five. San Jose’s, which they received in the Erik Karlsson trade, could realistically be anywhere among those 15 non-playoff teams, as the Sharks’ playoff chances currently sit at about 2.5 percent.

In the Spring of 2020, Ottawa could learn that it will select not one, but two franchise players. This has the potential not just to improve Ottawa’s chances of a Stanley Cup, but to drastically alter the competitive landscape of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference for the next decade. What happens because of those ping-pong balls could alter other franchises’ decisions about whether or not to rebuild.

…or, Ottawa could end up with two middle-round 1st, a place in the draft known to produce decent NHL players perhaps, but not of the franchise-player caliber. In this latter scenario, the Senators draft two Jared Cowens, remain a playoff bubble team for the next ten years, and hope to build by coalition a team that can sneak into the playoffs where anything can happen. (Some Sens fans are having paroxysms of agony at the sight of the words “anything can happen.”)

Maybe it’s better this way. Where we might still litigate Lalime’s 2004 playoff performance against the Leafs and just how soft those two Joe Nieuwendyk goals were, the fall of ping-pong balls is out of the control of any of the players, coaches, or managers of the Ottawa Senators. No matter what happens next, it will be neither fault nor glory of anyone in the Ottawa Senators’ organization, or of the referees, the fans, or even of the league. It is, in the space of a few minutes, an elegant testament to the chaos and indifference of a universe that doesn’t just not care about hockey – it doesn’t care if you live or die! 🤗

This got me thinking: is there anything in the Senators’ history more consequential than this upcoming draft lottery? Anything that could be said to have more meaningfully affected the likelihood of the Ottawa Senators winning a Stanley Cup?

I came up with a few contenders.

Breaking Ground in Kanata

The Senators’ arena seems oddly isolated, its location chosen seemingly arbitrarily in the suburban west end of the city, as if designed to limit accessibility and growth. It’s true that it’s only a 25-minute drive from downtown…on a good day. Add rush hour traffic, some snow, or if you’re coming through downtown from the east end, and it’s not unusual to spend closer to an hour. Anyone who’s spent that hour on a bus trying desperately to hold a game’s worth of beer in their bladder knows what I’m talking about.

This might sound like whining to someone like me, who navigates the United States’ busted infrastructure on ultra-long commutes to overcrowded cities, but in Ottawa, where people consistently have no idea how good they have it, that kind of drive to see something you could watch in your neighborhood bar seems insane. As a result, a hockey mad city that didn’t have  much competition until CFL football was revived once again in 2010 has at times faced attendance issues and trouble growing the game beyond the most hardcore of fans.

As Bruce Firestone recalled in an illuminating 2017 article, the original Senators ownership group wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with quality choices. Ottawa is laced with federal lands and a National Capital Commission loath to negotiate it away to corporate interests. (Which, don’t get it twisted, kicks ass.) While it’s true that a downtown arena could have been a game-changer in terms of making the Senators a have, rather than a have-not franchise, it doesn’t seem as if there was an actual, consequential choice at the time…unless the Senators wanted to keep playing at the 9,500 capacity Lansdown arena, home of the OHL Ottawa 67s. (Which, again, would kick ass.)

All the same, the location of the Senators’ arena has been hugely consequential in terms of their ability to raise revenue and compete, and remains a defining aspect of the franchise.

Drafting Alexandre Daigle

If you don’t think drafting Daigle was considered consequential, consider that the deal Ottawa offered to Daigle was so generous that it resulted in the introduction of a whole new class of contracts into the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the player’s association. That’s how big the hype was for the phenom: it permanently altered the legal apparatus upon which all league business is predicated.

Had Daigle turned out to be a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, and been added to a lineup that already had Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson, then the early years of the Senators franchise might have been quite different. Imagine if Daigle, like Crosby, turned into a lifelong franchise player, multiple trophy winner and Olympic medalist. Imagine Crosby in his prime playing with Alfredsson, also in his prime. Had Daigle brought a Cup to Ottawa, the team could have attracted free agents for generations. Everything would have changed.

Daigle, of course, would become a perfectly mediocre player even after given multiple chances and oodles of ice time, would bounce around the NHL and then finally play in Switzerland, only to be heard from along with Patrick Stefan every year when someone writes up a Biggest Busts article.

Trading Alexei Yashin to the Islanders

God bless Mad Mike, but I almost think that he gets a bad rap here. Sure, in retrospect, trading a hall-of-fame defenceman and the 2nd overall pick, which would turn into Jason Spezza, for Alexei Yashin doesn’t look great. (It wasn’t helped by the 10-year deal the Islanders handed Yashin, then subsequently bought him out of.) But in a pre-salary cap league, without the same understanding of the value of RFAs, Mike Milbury brought in a 27-year old with recent 88- and 94-point seasons, who had scored at close to a point-per-game clip for his entire career, in exchange for a defenceman who, at that point, was being used as an enforcer, and a pick that could turn out to be anything.

Imagine if, in the 2001 draft, the Senators had selected Alex Svitov, also a center, who went third overall to Tampa and scored all of 37 points in 178 NHL games. Or even Stephen Weiss, who went fourth overall and had a perfectly decent career but scored only 423 points in 732 games and retired after the 2014-2015 season.

Chara and Spezza would go on to help make the Senators a regular-season behemoth, and, after losing Chara to free agency, Spezza would center the famed Pizza Line alongside Heatley and Alfredsson and bring the Senators to the 2007 Finals, losing only three games along the way. Spezza would become captain of the team for a short time, and is even now still in the NHL, albeit playing for some fly-by-night contractors called the Leafs. Chara, of course, would become the Wolverine, complete with healing factor, captain the Bruins, win the Norris, and bring a Cup to Boston.

Daniel Alfredsson’s Best Contract in the League

Imagine that you draft a natural leader with an excellent two-way game and a goalscoring touch in the sixth round. Now imagine that he loves playing for your small-market, low-budget team, even if at one point it’s come close to bankruptcy and they reportedly had trouble cutting pay checks. Now imagine that he signs a team-friendly, five-year deal.

Now imagine that, as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players union agrees to roll back all existing contracts by 24 percent.

While the Senators would go on to buy out Aldredsson in 2009-2010 purely so that they could re-sign him to a fair deal and make him whole, they basically got one of the best all-around players in the entire league for less than $5M per season for years on end. This allowed them, among other things, to pay Heatley and Spezza after the Finals run, and keep intact a deep team throughout numerous regular season runs. Had Alfredsson held out in the early aughts for the kind of $7M+ contract he could get elsewhere, Ottawa might have found themselves without their captain, and never had had a shot at the Cup at all.

Dominic Hasek Goes to the Olympics

Sometimes we forget just how good that 2005-2006 Ottawa Senators team was. The Pizza Line. Spezza-Fisher-Smolinski-Vermette down the middle. Redden, Chara, Phillips, Volchenkov, all in their prime. Heatley, who had one of his 50-goal seasons, and Havlat on the wings as scoring threats. Quality depth all over the lineup, including Chris Neil, Patrick Eaves, and Chris Kelly. Then add Dominic Hasek, whose GAA and save percentage at the Olympic break would be the second-best in the league.

Hasek’s equipment was left behind in Ottawa, causing Hasek to miss vital practices in Turin, and he would injure himself in under 10 minutes in the opening game. He never returned to play for the Senators, who were eliminated in the second round after starting the promising but inexperienced Ray Emery, who managed only a .900 save percentage in those playoffs. Worse, the “will he-won’t he” quality of Hasek’s return kept the Senators from getting an experienced netminder at the deadline.

It’s possible that the Senators should have played better in front of Emery, or that a team that deep should have been able to defeat the Sabres, or at least take them further than five games. (Buffalo would lose in seven to eventual champion Carolina in the Conference Finals.) It’s possible that they should have brought Hasek back the next season, considering his strong play in Ottawa and willingness to play for a base salary so long as it was for a contender. But the fact that players were permitted to engage in long-shot Olympic bids, risking injury, and that the Senators would never be quite so deep again is why the Olympics remain so contentious in negotiations between the league and the players’ union today.

Hossa for Heatley

Imagine that you draft and develop a star player, and that player leads you to seven games in the Conference Final in the last year of his contract. It’s the first time your team has gone so far, having spent the better part of a decade as the punchline of the league after navigating uncharitable expansion rules and incompetent management. Your team then signs said star to a three-year deal without a no-trade clause…and on the same day he’s traded.

It’s wild to imagine now. This would be roughly the equivalent of the Senators trading Karlsson the same day as they signed him. But while Hossa would go on to have a 100+ point season with the Atlanta Thrashers, the Senators brought back Dany Heatley and had their greatest run of sustained success in franchise history. While Heatley had back-to-back 50 goal seasons in Ottawa, he would infamously demand a trade for which Ottawa could not receive fair value and quickly go into decline. Hossa’s career outlasted Heatley’s, and, despite missing out on back-to-back Cups with Pittsburgh and Detroit, he would win multiple Cups in Chicago.

It’s not clear why Ottawa traded Hossa, let alone why they traded him in a way that would erode trust in management so publicly. It might have been that they were not confident they could extend him beyond the three years he’d just signed after what had already been a long negotiation. But given Hossa’s longevity and the sour manner in which the Heatley relationship ended, it’s possible that Hossa takes Ottawa even further or extends their success.

Choosing Redden Over Chara

This has been litigated to death, especially with Chara still in the league at 42 and Redden having retired almost a decade ago. I maintain that with Phillips and Volchenkov in the fold, Ottawa leaned more heavily on Redden’s passing than they did on Chara’s shutdown skill and were reasonable to choose as they did. It was only after Chara left for Boston that he blossomed into the complete, all-around player with multiple 50+ point campaigns. In any case, Ottawa elected not to even offer Chara a contract, and signed Redden instead, but only to a two-year deal.

Ottawa would make the Finals without Chara, but would be dummied once they got there by the physical Anaheim Ducks, and it’s the perpetual game of Mirror, Mirror to debate what would have happened if they’d had a fully armed and operational Zdeno Chara over Redden’s 10 points in 20 games.

Perhaps more consequential than choosing two years of Redden over Chara was that first Chara, and then Redden, would walk from the franchise without Ottawa recouping so much as a draft pick. Ottawa once had two franchise-quality defencemen and got so much in their own heads about choosing one over the other that they lost both for nothing. Ottawa hasn’t made a Cup Final since, and wouldn’t even come close until…

Drafting Erik Karlsson

Here it is, the closest you might come to the randomness of ping-pong balls: drafting a 150-pound puck moving defenceman at 15th and seeing him turn into the best skater and defenceman in the league since Niklas Lidstrom. Winner of two Norris Trophies, robbed of two more. Single-handedly dragged a thoroughly mediocre team to the Conference Finals on a surgically reconstructed ankle. Fifth in league scoring…as a defenceman.

Ottawa has never had a player like him and perhaps never will again. Ironically, even with the potential for two picks in the top five in a very deep draft, Ottawa is unlikely to draft a player as good as Erik Karlsson was when he was in Ottawa. It’s too bad that his time in Ottawa coincided with an ownership who could not surround him with talent, and with a relatively barren prospect pool.

There were a number of pretty good NHL defencemen in the 2008 draft, even after 15th: Jake Gardiner at 17th, Michael Del Zotto at 20th, and this year’s likely Norris winner John Carlson at 27th. This makes it even more interesting and unlikely that Ottawa would not just take a chance on Karlsson, but trade up for him. He’s only surpassed by Alfredsson in terms of influence on the direction of the franchise.

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