Ever since the Ottawa Senators brass acknowledged that a rebuild was inevitable, we've heard numerous perspectives on just how torturously long the road back to contention will be, how far ahead other rebuilding teams are, and how the Senators are starting from scratch. Perhaps it's naiveté on my part, but I can't help but think that the Senators are better positioned now for a rebuild than the Edmonton Oilers were a season ago, better than the Florida Panthers are now, better than Toronto is with their rebuild-on-the-fly, and certainly better than the hopeless Islanders.
And here's why, in a sentence: when building a team, you build from the net out.
Forwards are easier to obtain on the UFA market, and their development is easier to project from the draft. Forwards can adapt to a team's system easier than a defensive squad can cohere. Simply put, offense takes less time and effort to assemble than defense. If a team has a promising goaltender and defensemen--as Ottawa does--it takes less to complement them with scoring than it takes to provide an exciting group of forwards, like those in Edmonton, with a foundation of solid defense. (Unless you're a great believer in Devan Dubnyk.) Put another way, you can win games with a stellar defense and no offense, but not the other way around. No one enters the playoffs trying to win games 6-5. The Senate Reform may have only officially begun, but Bryan Murray started rebuilding this defense back in 2008.
Even if Ottawa forgoes a defenseman with their 2011 lottery pick, they will still have young and promising players like Erik Karlsson, David Rundblad, Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch developing alongside veterans Sergei Gonchar and possibly Chris Phillips. They also have loveable nutcase Robin Lehner to look forward to. From the perspective of a rebuild, this is a solid defensive foundation.
Not only is the defensive core in place, it's also had time to develop. Patrick Wiercioch was drafted in 2008, and Jared Cowen and David Rundblad in 2009. Cowen was sent back to juniors this season with instructions to develop his offensive game, and he's been dominant. In Rundblad, Murray skipped a year of development by trading his 1st round pick for a defenseman drafted in about the same position the year before. Karlsson, already an All-Star, will be in his third season next year. Though yet to be seen as proven commodities, all of these players are projecting to be regular NHLers. The hard work of determining if these defensive picks will pan out has already been done, leaving Murray's replacement the easier work of simply drafting whichever remaining forwards are putting up the most points.
The Senators also have some players to build around, some veterans, and a ton of cap space. Jason Spezza is a legit number one center. Milan Michalek has shown what he can do when healthy. Daniel Alfredsson will (hopefully) be with the team for two more years, as will Sergei Gonchar. Chris Phillips has expressed an interest in staying. This team will have at least $20M in cap space come July 1, and the trades are still coming.
This simply isn't a case of a team needing to start over from scratch, or the kind of rebuild requiring many years. This team might even luck into a Claude Giroux with a later pick, just like the Philadelphia Flyers did. There are still painful seasons ahead, and it's too bad that this draft is considered a weak one, but the Senators are much closer to competing than we might think.
Varada also writes for The Cory Clouston Fashion Review.