For hockey fans, summer has always been the season of roster speculation, pipe dreams and what ifs. For Senators fans, a season of unexpected success has given this offseason a different, more significant feel.
A Nice Problem to Have
Last June, a patient, well-executed rebuild seemed to be the only sensible choice. When the lockout ended, a young roster and a ridiculous run of injuries (Mike Lundin, Guillaume Latendresse, Peter Regin... who am I forgetting?) gave Ottawa the look of a team with potential, but not yet a contender. Today, a second consecutive playoff berth has many thinking that its time to stop talking rebuild and start filling the trophy case.
The current roster has the talent and depth to earn a playoff spot as it stands. With the expected return to health of Ottawa's three top scorers from the 2011/12 season, there is a sense that the team may only need one or two more pieces to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The choice facing Brian Murray is whether to go out and get those pieces now or to see how the current squad develops.
Every Senators wish list begins with the return of the Captain, but that will have to be left to fate. Number 11 aside, the top priority is a first line winger. Most would also like to add a top-4 defenceman. The dilemma is that without any of those additions, Ottawa already has at least 23 NHL-ready players on the roster.
The Current Roster
Barring trades and injuries, sixteen players appear to be a lock for the opening day lineup based on past performance and contract status:
Forwards (10): Spezza, Michalek, Turris, Zibanejad, Silfverberg, Conacher, Smith, Neil, Condra, Greening
Defence (4): Karlsson, Methot, Cowen, Phillips
Assuming that Daniel Alfredsson does not return (reverse jinx!), good prospects vying for the remaining spots include Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Stephane Da Costa at forward and Eric Gryba, Patrick Wiercioch, and Mark Borowiecki on defense. Add two good goalies and that is a solid, playoff-caliber 23-man roster with significant room to improve through the season. Some of these bubble players will benefit from more work in the AHL (and will be replaced on the opening day roster with lower upside players like Matt Kassian and Andre Benoit) but none would be out of place on the fourth line / third pairing at the NHL level.
Despite this depth, there is a strong feeling among fans that a big move, especially one for a scoring winger, could put this team over the top right away. With Ottawa's abundance of cap room and prospects, it is even more difficult to be patient while that potential develops. We want it now!
Assessing the Forwards
Paul MacLean's comments in this week's 30 Thoughts about the progress of the young forwards put the roster issue in a nutshell:
"That's the internal debate that we have," he said. "How good are they going to be? None of them have scored at this level. Of the group (...) we're still trying to find out what kind of NHL player they are. We believe they will score here. But how many?"
MacLean was referring specifically to Turris, Zibanejad, Silfverberg, Greening, Hoffman and Stone, but the same applies to the other younger forwards. Compare these players with a relatively weak crop of available free agents. Is David Clarkson, Pascal Dupuis or a long list of past-their-prime scorers worth more than the potential of the players already on the roster?
The GM's Dilemma
Whether added as a free agent or by trade, any top line player will be taking away 20 minutes a night that could be used to see which of the young forwards can score consistently against top competition. Should Alfredsson return, there will be even fewer minutes to spread around. It is difficult to acquire elite offensive talent, whether you buy it, trade for it or develop it in house. If Murray believes this team is close to being a contender, does he make a move now or give the young players 60 games to see what they can do?
There is an enormous advantage to waiting until near next year's trade deadline. With the benefit of last year's experience, a more stable roster, a full training camp and a complete season, the Senators would be in a much better position to assess who can score at the top level, and who can be packaged in trade for the big winger everybody wants. The question is: do Murray, his owner and the fan base have the patience?