Ottawa Senators: To shake up or blow up?

The Chicago Blackhawks used the draft to build up their championship team, including young gun Patrick Kane. Should the Senators pursue a similar rebuilding model, or is there some other way they can make the team competitive again?

As of December 9th, the Ottawa Senators sit tenth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 12-15-2 and seven points out of the playoffs. (Only two points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, to put their performance in perspective.) In a mediocre conference, this team may personify a fundamentally flawed construction. They’ve spent to the cap every year since the lockout. They’ve had four coaches in that time. And since the Cup run they have yet to win a playoff game on home ice, let alone a playoff series. As far as Eastern Conference teams go, they aren’t as bad as some. They’ve shown occasional brilliance. But barring another 11-game winning streak, this team is well on its way to missing the playoffs again.

The question isn’t if rebuilding is a term used only by defeatists. A rebuild isn’t a yes-or-no question. The questions are: At what point in a team’s development is a rebuild most effective? And, are the Senators at that point now?

You can say that there are intentional rebuilds – which is to say, when a team recognizes they aren’t competitive, sets out a plan and timeline to build through the draft, and maximizes the return in futures on current assets, e.g. Washington Capitals, the St. Louis Blues, the Los Angeles Kings and now (possibly) the New York Islanders. The approach is methodical. These teams keep their payroll low to maintain financial viability (and tank for a high pick), usually launch their rebuild with one big trade deadline to stock up on picks, keep their young players developing in the minors instead of burning a year on their entry-level contracts, and they stick to the plan--even if an anomaly of a season produces a burst of competitiveness.

And then there are teams that are rebuilding only in name. They may come in last place, but not by design. They spend to the cap and still lose. They play their rookies and use up their entry-level contracts. They sign high-priced veterans. There’s no plan in place, just money burnt and low finishes. This was, until they recently shed salary and buried pros in the minors, the Edmonton Oilers. It’s the Minnesota Wild, who are spending more money than 22 other teams in the league and still stink. Or the John Ferguson, Jr.-era Maple Leafs, who consistently traded away picks or prospects for over-the-hill veterans only to finish just out of the playoffs. These are the teams whose mantra is "Anything can happen in the playoffs," who cite the Philadelphia Flyers' run to the Finals while conveniently forgetting that the Flyers were one shootout away from being another high-spending team who just missed the playoffs. They're forgetting the New York Rangers, who ended up just that.

The Senators are in a vital season because they can launch a methodical, efficient rebuild, over which they maintain control, or they can become Edmonton East, and tank while throwing everything they can at winning.

Consider:

  • Alex Kovalev, Pascal Leclaire, Chris Phillips, Jarkko Ruutu, and Ryan Shannon are UFAs after this season - $14.225M in cap space.
  • Chris Campoli and Brian Elliott are RFAs - $2.3M in cap space.
  • Bryan Murray is in the last year of his contract as General Manager, and Cory Clouston is in his last year as coach. During last year’s press conference, regarding his one-year contract extension, Murray spoke about having "one more year left" in him, and "not being a spring chicken any more."
  • With the cap space, and the opportunity to keep (or let go) the coach, the flexibility is there for a new GM to come in and put his stamp on this team. He won't be (too) handcuffed by the decisions his predecessor made. It means a new identity, a new plan, and continuity throughout a rebuild.

Consider also what may be a fundamental problem with the Sens’ business model. Owner Eugene Melnyk and Murray have both stated that this team needs to get to the second round of the playoffs just to break even. (This may involve some creative accounting, in that Melnyk owns Scotiabank Place – the team doesn’t make money, but it eats up the fixed costs of ownership, leaving other events, like concerts, to offer pure profit. The team itself loses money, but the other assets don’t.) Admittedly, if the goal is for the team to be profitable—in other words, for the team to make money without selling out the building every night—then consistently being in the top eight teams in the league is not realistic. In the interests of the long term viability of the team, less money should be invested in expensive veterans. Of the ten teams that spend the least in salary in the league, six are in a playoff position as of this writing.

Winners in NHL 2.0 are built by putting together a young team and growing them around the brand, having them play for one another and their coach. You have these guys play in the minors together, make the jump to pros together, get into the playoffs together. The old guard of the Sens once did this, but adding an expensive, aging (and sure, occasionally awesome) Sergei Gonchar into the mix doesn’t align with what works today. Rebuilding doesn’t necessarily mean trading Jason Spezza, a legit number one centre who the team can build around. But Phillips, Kovalev, Filip Kuba, Mike Fisher, and yes, Daniel Alfredsson, are all prime targets for obtaining futures.

Of course this strategy has to be weighed against the credibility one buys by keeping two lifetime Senators, Alfie and Phillips, in-house, hanging their jerseys in the rafters, giving them plum scouting or front-office jobs, and establishing some level of history or legacy for what is still a (relatively) young franchise. Rebuilding also doesn’t have to mean a complete tear-down and a five-year plan. It simply means recognizing that the team doesn’t possess balance, has few—if any—worthwhile prospects at forward in the system, and is paying players in-their-prime money without getting in-their-prime results from them.

There’s a strange unwillingness around Canadian teams to rebuild using the draft. In Toronto’s case they were already two years into a rebuild, with most of the hard decisions already made, before they abandoned the plan to go after Phil Kessel. Edmonton and the Calgary Flames have been mediocre forever. But the fact of the matter is that the teams that are winning it all are doing so because they built through the draft. Even the Detroit Red Wings are winning because they hold onto their picks and draft intelligently. At this point in Ottawa’s development, they can commit to spending all of that cap space on aging UFAs, insisting that they are ready to compete. Or they can commit to change. To say that the Ottawa market won’t be willing to suffer through a rebuild doesn’t give them a lot of credit. Apathy exists around the team right now because there’s no excitement in the product: They’re spending money and losing. These fans do demand more. They demand a plan.

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Varada is a regular contributor at The Cory Clouston Fashion Review - http://theccfr.wordpress.com/

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