I’ve noticed a tendency to think of this round of Ottawa Senators trades as the latest chapter in a coherent, linear narrative: Ottawa trades or allows to walk some of their best players because the owner doesn’t have the money to pay them. I have to disagree, somewhat, that this is only the latest in a constant theme. I offer, instead, that what’s happening right now is much worse. What’s happening right now is the final emptying out of the idea of the Ottawa Senators as a shared experience, a local narrative, and a hub around which Ottawans build community.
During the 2010-2011 season, which resulted in the Ottawa Senators finishing fourth last in the league, the feeling was that the time was right for a rebuild. The team had older veterans who might garner picks and prospects – Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Chris Phillips, Alex Kovalev, Chris Neil, Milan Michalek, Sergei Gonchar, Chris Kelly, and Zack Smith. In the end, only Fisher, Kovalev and Kelly would be traded for futures. Goaltender Brian Elliott would be traded for an older goaltender, Craig Anderson, who was extended. The team elected to keep several key veterans in the fold, either because no deals came along to their liking or out of fear of losing long-time Ottawa players.
In other words, the team was loyal to a fault and maintained a higher payroll thinking they might soon return to contention.
When Daniel Alfredsson walked to the Detroit Red Wings before the 2013-2014 season, it was viewed as an inability or unwillingness to pay a franchise player who’d taken team-friendly deals (and been screwed by salary rollbacks during CBA negotiations, to boot). But on the same day, GM Bryan Murray traded for Bobby Ryan, a younger, scoring winger (theoretically; this was before his hands turned to dust) who would soon require a big-money contract. The fans felt anxiety, at the time, that Ottawa would not pay up. Instead, the team signed Ryan to a massive seven-year, $50.75 million deal.
When Jason Spezza was dealt in 2014 it came in response to a request for a trade and with the veteran on an expiring deal. He was extended by Dallas, an extension that has not looked great for the Stars who now pay him north of $7 million to play select minutes.
Ottawa made decisions that would not turn out particularly well in some cases and would alienate long-time fans with affection for their homegrown talent, but at least these decision existed in the world of logic: if your team is not contending with your current roster, you sell off your older players for futures in the hope that a future iteration will contend. Ottawa might have turned off a few because of bad decisions, but they maintained the narrative on which hockey relies: the team, and as an extension, its community, are always building toward the future.
What is happening to the Ottawa Senators right now is different, for the simple reason that teams that are lucky enough to draft good players, and lucky enough to develop them into good players, and lucky enough to still have them on their roster in their prime do not typically trade those players unless it’s for other players with the same or higher potential. For Ottawa to trade Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel – all players who are still young and could contribute to a rebuild – is a perversion of the natural cycle of team development. It is mortgaging the future on which sports mythology rests.
You amass futures and develop them so that you can compete when your window opens. You don’t amass futures and develop them so that you can sell them off for more futures prematurely. If you do the latter, it alienates your fans even worse than losing a player we feel nostalgic about because it dilutes the very premise of the sport, the underlying narrative that informs our long-term loyalty to the game. If the team is not building to anything in particular, then why should we spend any time on it? If the heroes of a particular narrative are not in pursuit of some commonly-understood objective, then why should we see that narrative through to the end?
The current state of the Ottawa Senators is not unpredictable; we’ve seen this throughout the world of sports. This is a natural byproduct of any business model that relies on sole ownership by people whose wealth is concentrated in markets that can, occasionally, bottom out. If and when Melnyk sells the Ottawa Senators, if it’s to another sole owner or small group and if their wealth is derived from a single source – real estate, pharmaceuticals, a traveling circus, whatever – we are at risk of returning to this endless cycle of building to nowhere.
The fault for this lies in part with the NHL. As I’ve written before on this site and on Twitter, until the league starts focusing on building up consortia of local business interests that make risk more diffuse among partners, we’ll always be at risk of a billionaire owner becoming less than a billionaire or, at the very least, going senile and interfering with management decisions.
I, more than some, have been able to ‘gotta-hear-both-sides’ many of the decisions made by the Ottawa Senators management over the years. While I might disagree with a particular trade or signing, I have, in most cases, been able to understand the assumptions that were made that led to it. This time, it’s different: the financial status of the owner has interfered with the natural cycle of sports narrative to disrupt our shared sense of purpose.
As a result, this is the lowest moment in the history of the Ottawa Senators, including those early expansion years. This is the moment those leading the team acknowledged that the Ottawa Senators as an idea, as a hero in their own story, as a community, are meaningless.