Having followed the Senators since 1992, I can't recall a crazier day in the history of the franchise than July 5th, 2013. Can you? It's a short list. Perhaps the day the award of the franchise was announced. Perhaps the sign-and-trade deal that saw Marian Hossa get the boot and Dany Heatley get a fresh start. Perhaps the day it was announced the team couldn't pay its players and it looked like bankruptcy and relocation were inevitable.
That last one is the only one I think might be comparable. That was probably the only time where fans of the team were faced with the same kind of looming uncertainty as they faced today. Except in that situation, Eugene Melnyk stepped in and brought stability to the team. Today, the light at the end of the tunnel was a freight train coming on full steam.
Daniel Alfredsson is gone.
It's like hearing the Titanic sank. Sure, you knew it was always possible in theory, but the combination of events to make it happen were so unlikely that you'd already chalked it up in your mind as impossible--regardless of the math telling you otherwise. Then, foom, reality hits you hard.
So, now what? Well, like it or not, general manager Bryan Murray has put his own indelible stamp on the franchise and launched them into a new era. But we'll get to that. First, let's talk about all of the different eras this franchise has gone through over the past 21 years.
1992-1996 - The Expansion Years
This was when the franchise was a laughingstock. Starting from scratch, they lost a seriously alarming rate and accumulated high draft picks in the process. The front office was a mess. The coaching staff was a mess. The roster was a mess. All of this was to be expected, as building a franchise with no foundation doesn't happen overnight.
1996-2000 - The Underdogs
The addition of coach Jacques Martin brought discipline to a team lacking it. Though the general manager position remained a turnstile, the on-ice talent was finally focused in the same direction, and as a result, the team started winning. Trips to the playoffs followed. Some upsets of higher seeds followed. Just the fact that the team was winning was good enough, because it was such a departure from the chaotic hell that had birthed the team.
2000-2004 - Great Expectations
At this point, winning was no longer good enough. Malcontents like Alexei Yashin were shown the door. General manager Marshall Johnston made the trade that would define the franchise until yesterday, turning Yashin into Jason Spezza and Zdeno Chara. The franchise's financial instability was resolved when the team was purchased by Melnyk. John Muckler was brought in to stabilize the direction of the franchise. Martin was eventually fired as coach due to the team's playoff losses at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The last vestiges of inferiority were shed.
2004-2007 - Contenders
50-goal scorer Dany Heatley was brought in. All-Star goalie Dominik Hasek was brought in. New head coach Bryan Murray was brought in. Jason Spezza developed into a top center. Daniel Alfredsson hit his peak. Wade Redden was perfectly suited to the rule changes brought about by a stupid lockout that cost a season. Expectations for the team were at their highest point. It was a roster that should have won multiple Cups, and anything less was unacceptable.
2008-2010 - The Mirage Years
No Stanley Cups were won during the previous era, prompting more changes. Muckler was dismissed and Murray took his place. Murray was unable to find a coach capable of replicating the success he had had. Hamstrung by the departure of Chara, the steep decline of Redden, and the dissatisfaction of Heatley, as well as the lack of legitimate prospects, Murray inherited a team whose window had already closed and had a rotting foundation to boot. It was a team that had mortgaged the future to take its shots at the Cup--and missed. Whether because Melnyk still wanted a contender or because the fanbase wouldn't support a team that was not a contender, Murray continued to make moves that gave the appearance of contending for a Cup. Eventually, the team collapses under the weight of those moves.
2011-13 - Senate Reform
Forced to accept the reality that the team is no longer a contender, Murray is given a mandate to rebuild the team. Former core players were moved for draft picks. Murray's earlier draft picks started to mature and contribute, highlighted by Erik Karlsson winning a Norris Trophy, Jakob Silfverberg's success in the SEL, Robin Lehner's beastly emergence, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau's playoff hat trick. The development process is accelerated by the hiring of head coach Paul MacLean, who is a Jack Adams nominee in each of his first two years, and wins it in his second year. The goal of this rebuild is made explicitly clear: A return to the contender status of 2004-07.
2013-? - The Karlsson-Ryan Epoch
Alfredsson decides he cannot wait any longer for play for a Stanley Cup and chooses to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Murray is aggressive in free agency, trying for David Clarkson but losing him to the Leafs. Instead, he signs Clarke MacArthur and then trades prospects to land power forward Bobby Ryan, filling out a top six that now contains just one player he coached in 2007: Spezza. The rest of the lineup has been constructed with Murray as its architect. Additions of Ryan and MacArthur as well as forward Cory Conacher at the previous trade deadline make it clear that Ottawa s done rebuilding and intends to contend with or without Alfredsson.
And that's where we stand today. Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan are now the team's undisputed best players. The last vestiges of the old Ottawa Senators have been swept away. Players like Spezza, Chris Neil, and Chris Phillips are now passengers on a train being led by a new generation of stars. The look of the team is different now. They don't play the defensive style of Martin. They don't play the pure offense style of Murray. They play the possession style of MacLean. Murray has shaped the team to his own vision, with or without Alfie. Though it's probably not how the GM, the players, or the fans imagined it, yesterday the torch was permanently passed from one generation to the next. Daniel Alfredsson is no longer the identity of the team. A new era dawns today.
Murray will forever be judged by his actions today. He has earned goodwill among fans for the work he has done in rebuilding the team. But the moves of July 5th have forever altered the expectations of the team. Rebuilding is no longer what's happening here. Rebuilding can no longer be the measuring stick used to grade the general manager. For better or worse, Murray has guided the Senators towards an unknown future. Whether he has positioned them to succeed in that future remains to be seen. It's probably met with more uncertainty than in eras past because this era doesn't have the comfort of familiarity that insulated all of the others.
But of one thing there can be no doubt: A new era for the Ottawa Senators has begun today. This era will have its own storylines... its own heroes, and its own tragedies. New legends will form and new villains will emerge. The team and its fans will look to someone else to create its new triumphs even as it seeks to return to--and surpass-its old glories. Time marches on, whether we want it to or not, making this new era inevitable even it was born out of an unpleasant series of events. There's nothing left for us as fans to do but hold on for the ride and revel in watching the next chapter in the history of the Ottawa Senators unfold before our very eyes.