I've determined that the key to enjoying the sports fan experience is managing expectations. In 2011, the Green Bay Packers rode Aaron Rodgers and his ridiculous arm to a 15-1 regular season record only to lose in their first playoff game. I was crushed. I still remember Ottawa getting swept as a 2-seed by Toronto and Curtis Joseph's goalie voodoo in 2001. That sort of disappointment is the sort of thing that stays with you for a while. It's also the sort of thing that is par for the course in the playoffs. The last two years, Ottawa was just happy to be competitive, and consequently the team's been a great deal of fun to follow over that time. The team has had its share of good fortune to go along with crushing injuries, and there's no doubt the system has been working in Ottawa's favour.
Our North American sensibilities typically reject competitive balance in our professional sports leagues. The MLB and NFL playoffs are notoriously ruled by chaos and typically the team that "gets hot at the right time" goes home with the trophy. Things are not much different in the NHL where many a promising regular season team has been assassinated in the playoffs by a hot goalie or a particularly bad run of overtime games. (I see you, 2006 Ottawa Senators.) Contrast this with our European counterparts who enjoy a soccer season which consists of a regular season only, or a 5 day cricket test match (just kidding - no one enjoys test cricket), and its clear that the Europeans are more interested than we are in ensuring the best team wins consistently.*
That said, there's still something to be said for having a team that at least has a chance to win every year. Witness this past year where the four last teams in the playoffs were the past four Stanley Cup winners. Now witness that each of these four teams have a discernable "core" that they have built around. To wit:
Chicago - Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Bickell, Seabrook, Keith
Boston - Lucic, Seguin (for now...), Krejci, Marchand, Bergeron,
Pittsburgh - Malkin, Crosby, Neal, Kunitz, Martin, Letang
Detroit - Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Kronwall, Howard
(Ok, I forgot about the Kings, but my point still stands. LA's core is Kopitar, Richards, Carter, Williams, Voynov, Doughty, and Quick.)
These are teams that have won Stanley Cups quite recently, and are poised each year to have a good chance to do it again. These are teams that are doing something right. After examining the above teams, I turned my eye to Ottawa's roster and I'm not sure I liked what I found. Ottawa's core can be defined as the following players:
Ottawa - Spezza, Michalek, Turris, Alfredsson, Karlsson, Methot, Anderson
Jason Spezza, statistically speaking, has his best years behind him, at least as a point producer. I direct anyone who disagrees to take it up with The Pete-Slayer, Mark Parisi. There's also the minor issue of Spezza's back which is dangerously close to becoming a chronic issue. (Spezza's Chronic Back Problems is the name of my Senators related punk rock band, by the way.)
Milan Michalek is a fine first-line winger when healthy. Unfortunately, Michalek's health could charitably be described as "variable" over the past 2 years. Rumour has it that instead of knee cartilidge, Michalek just has a small label which reads "part currently not available". Couple this with the news that Michalek is going to see a German knee specialist during the off-season, and it starts to seem likely that Michalek's best case scenario is that things don't get worse.
Kyle Turris is an excellent 2nd line centre, and a serviceable 1st line centre. David Rundblad is toiling in obscurity and is currently being linked to the KHL. I'm starting to feel like the Coyotes are just bad at developing players.
After Ottawa lost Game 7 to the New York Rangers a year ago, I wrote that I knew in my heart I had seen Daniel Alfredsson play his last NHL game. Somehow, he not only gave us one more year, but is committed to giving us at least one more. There's nothing for me to say about Alfie that hasn't already been said, but for the sake of this piece, I'd like to re-acknowledge that while we are blessed to have Alfie around still, he's not going to be a long-term contributor to the team. Alfie's presence is a luxury we can't count on in the future.
Erik Karlsson, Mark Methot, and the Anderson/Lehner tandem are fine pieces on the defense, and look to factor into the teams success for many years to come. However, the hard truth of the matter is that massive question marks surround the future of the offensive core. They look to be either unreliable or just simply not skilled enough compared to the cores of the teams described as contenders.
Without the acquisition of a proven commodity, it seems like the future success of the Ottawa Senators is going to depend on the continued development of players like Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Cory Conacher, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, in addition to players like Noesen, Puempel, and Ceci. If these players end up developing to the height of their potential, then Ottawa's core could quickly become one of the youngest and most exciting in the league. That said, it's hard to deny that Ottawa's most likely destiny would be of perpetual Everton-ness, of consistent 2nd and 3rd round playoff exits, of modest success, but not of dynastic quality. In short, Ottawa projects to be good, but not quite good enough in the years going forward.
The concern with that eventuality is modest success at a relatively cheap price would look very appealing to Eugene Melnyk. There's no guarentee that The Euge won't splurge for the big player(s) that will push us over the top, but I daresay there's been a noticeable tightening of the pursestrings from ownership lately. If I had my druthers, I would pay big money or prospects this year in exchange for someone like, but not neccessarily, Bobby Ryan, in a bold attempt to win one for Alfie, but apparently that's not going to be the case.
So where does that leave us as fans? Over the past 7 years we've had to adjust our expectations from assuming our team is a Stanley Cup contender, to just being happy we can hang with the big boys for a while. Fans are eager to keep projecting increased success, but we've been spoiled by top calibre coaching and goaltending that has inflated our level of success. No one will be happier than I when Ottawa wins a Stanley Cup at last, but nothing is a given in sports, and the margins are especially thin for a team like ours.
I plan on managing my expectations accordingly.
* - May not apply to international soccer shootouts.