In 2007 Ottawa Senators leader extraordinaire Daniel Alfredsson scored an overtime goal against the Buffalo Sabres in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, allowing the team to march on to the Stanley Cup Final for their first time since their re-joining the National Hockey League in 1992. It was an magnificent moment for the Senators and their fans. Finally: vindication. This club COULD go all the way. I remember exactly where I was at that moment, watching the game, picturing the image of our beloved Alfie hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup being on millions of Pepsi cans.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.
Ottawa lost in 5 games to the forever mighty Anaheim Ducks. General Manager John Muckler was fired and Head Coach Bryan Murray took his place. The Senators have not won a play-off series since. In 2009 they didn't even get a chance to try. They may not get a chance in 2011 either.
So what went wrong?
The simple answer: The Salary Cap. The not so simple answer: Mismanagement of said Salary Cap by John Muckler (surprise surprise) and Bryan Murray. Let me explain.
Let's go back to the off-season before the Sens made their definitive run to glory. The club was fresh off losing a 2nd round upset to hated arch rival the Buffalo Sabres. Other than a sour ending, the first year after the 2004-05 work stoppage had been pretty good to the Senators. The team cruised to the top of the Eastern Conference and were second only to the Detroit Red Wings in the entire league; the line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson had clicked wonderfully; Former draft picks like Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly, Patrick Eaves, Christoph Schubert, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Andrej Meszaros and Ray Emery looked to be entering their prime, ready to be a solid supporting cast for years to come.
But there were two big decisions to be made, both as a result of the brand-new league mandated Salary Cap. The first was which of the franchise defenseman to re-sign. The second was what to do with Martin Havlat. In the end, Wade Redden was re-signed, Zdeno Chara left via Free Agency, and Havlat was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. And this is where the troubles began...
Redden regressed terribly, having lost his mother during the 06 play-offs, Wade seemed to give up. Unfortunately Zdeno Chara continued to shine, only in a Boston bruins jersey. The package for Havlat provided one serviceable 3rd pairing defenseman in the short-term, and another very promising one for the long-term. But in the mid-term, it left a hole in the Senators attack. At first very small and somewhat replaceable. But it grew ever larger as the years went on.
No signs of regression were spotted in the 2007 season. As I alluded to earlier, the club had it's best ever season.
But once again, that off-season as well as the ones that followed brought new challenges. The team needed to re-sign several players, some core and some supplementary. Unfortunately, the Salary Cap reared it's ugly head again. Bryan Murray could not afford to re-sign players like Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Mike Fisher, Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov and Andrej Meszaros without sacrificing in other area's. But that was ok....these (mostly) support players were thought of as the core! Unfortunately, those that remain have proven to be exactly what they truly are: Good support for an elite core.
But that elite core would be reduced to nothing. Alfredsson deteriorated with age. Heatley jumped ship. Redden took his shell of himself to New York City. The Senators were left with over-paid depth players masquerading as a core. With years of bad drafting under the Muckler regime, little was coming through the pipeline to help.
Cue the Dany Heatley trade. In desperation, Murray was forced to turn to more overpaid depth players...Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek and Jonathon Cheechoo, to try and plug the ever-growing holes. But it was not to be. The team is over-matched by most other clubs, and seem to have given up on themselves. There are a few glimmering moments...but not enough. The club no longer has what it takes to compete in today's NHL.
So is there no hope? No! Of course there's hope! Bryan Murray has significantly improved on Muckler's laughable draft record. The future looks bright in goal and on the blueline. And there are several up and coming depth players coming up in the forward ranks. But more work needs to be done. Fans and especially management have to practice PATIENCE and accept that a rebuild is necessary. It's time to auction off as much of the overpaid depth players as possible, bringing in prospects and draft picks. Only then will the Trojan Warrior rise like a phoenix from the ashes.