The Ottawa Senators are going through a bit of an identity crisis these days. Entering the 2013-14 season, many experts had the team pegged to contend in a weak Eastern Conference. The thinking went: Ottawa had just made the playoffs while missing their two best players and their starting goalie for most of the season, and had even won their first round series against Montreal. Things were looking up. The off-season was one of change, but the consensus opinion was that the team had upgraded the roster. Rob Vollman of Puck Prospectus even predicted the Senators would win the President's Trophy.
Well, we all know how that turned out. Ottawa's run of stellar goaltending ended abruptly, and combined with a shocking lack of discipline and poor defensive play to form a perfect storm of mediocrity. That said, I come here not to bury the Senators of 2013-14 but to speculate as to what the future holds. It's an interesting subject because, frankly, I'm not sure where the team's headed.
Is it Time for a Rebuild?
After a long run of sustained success in the late 90's and early 2000's, the Senators hit their apex in 05-06 and 06-07. The 2007 team made a long, successful playoff run that culminated in a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Anaheim Ducks. Heading into the 2007-08 season, much was expected of the team. For what it's worth, ESPN.com's Power Rankings gave the team the poll position for the first 7 weeks of the year. Everything was just swell. But a mere 18 months later, as the 2008-09 season came to an end and the Senators missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons, the team appeared to be in disarray. Dany Heatley wanted out of town, and was quickly shipped for a package centered around Milan Michalek. The feeling in Ottawa at the time was that with a tweak or two, a patch here or there, that a return to the playoffs and contention were not that far off.
Well a funny thing happened, because everything seemed right as rain in '09-'10. Alexei Kovalev provided a spark up front, Michalek made it almost O.K. that Heatley was gone, and Mike Fisher had his best season as a pro. But lo and behold: injuries hit key players hard the next season, Kovalev flopped and the departed Anton Volchenkov was sorely missed. The Senators were right back to where they started and this time management swore up and down the rebuild would be done the right way. They laid out a three year plan, hired a new coach, said all the right things. The rebuild was going exactly as planned until the bump in the road of 2013-14. All of this to say that it occurs to me that history might be repeating itself before our very eyes.
There are two paths laid out before the organization as free agency kicks off today: embrace the youth movement in full or try to stay competitive in the short-to-medium term. It is very hard to do both -- most teams that have risen to the top have done so on the back of continued awfulness that gave them the chance to draft elite talent for at least a couple of seasons. In the last 15 years, the Ottawa Senators have never been bad in a sustained way. Granted, they have the franchise defining talent they need in Erik Karlsson, but there's no top shelf, can't miss stud on the way behind him. Curtis Lazar seems like he might be a good pro, but no one should realistically expect him to turn into Patrick Kane.
This past weekend, the Senators did not make a selection until Andreas Englund with the 40th overall pick. I've been on record as saying I like what the Senators accomplished with their selections but everyone they took projects as either a depth player, or someone that's at least a couple of years away. There's no Sam Reinhart or Connor McDavid here, and that's the critical point: to do more than just make the playoffs and kick at the can a few times in two to three years time, the organization needs more of these type of stud, top 5 picks.
So if it's time for a rebuild, it's best to go whole hog. Call me rash, but if the long term goal is Stanley Cup contention and the belief is the team can't do it as presently built, then clear the decks. Management has committed to moving Spezza, maybe it's time to move MacArthur and Bobby Ryan as well. Those three taken together have the potential to return boatloads of picks and young talent from other teams. Don't take back anything but prospects and picks, nothing that would help this upcoming year. This path would also have the much needed effect of tanking the 2014-15 season. As presently constituted, there's a good chance the Senators would finish just outside the playoffs again, stuck in this same limbo. Isn't the nightmare scenario trading Spezza for a 2nd line forward and some mid-round picks, giving the youths a shot and finishing 18th overall? With their projected roster, there's a decent chance that's how this plays out. This is the dreaded middle ground, and it's the worst possible outcome. It's also a fairly likely one if management doesn't take decisive action one way or another.
Or Can This Group Contend?
The reason this is such a tough choice is that you can talk yourself into this group contending with a few minor tweaks. Sure, the defense was abysmal but maybe they're a Christian Ehroff, an Anton Stralman, a Matt Niskanen away from making it all better. Jared Cowen would look a lot better playing sheltered 3rd pairing minutes, for instance.
Beyond that, if the team really wanted to go down this route, they could pursue trades packages including the young up and comers. Packages involving previously untouchables such as Stone, Lazar, Puempel, Ceci, etc would pry the top 4 defenseman or the top 6 forward that the team so badly needs.
And let's not forget about the things that went wrong that would seem to be well within the team's control: player deployment and discipline. Paul Maclean made some curiously sub-optimal player personnel choices this year; who says that couldn't move the needle a couple points? The Senators took an embarrassing number of minor penalties this past season, surely they won't go down a man a whopping 320 times again next season, right? They were shorthanded 101 times more than the NHL-leading San Jose Sharks. 101.
All this is before we talk about adding Benoit Pouliot, or Mikhail Grabovski, or any number of forwards that have been linked to the team in recent days and weeks. When Spezza is moved off the books, there will be some money to be spent, even for the cash-strapped, internal cap-limited Senators. Taken all together, there are so many ways this team could be better next season. Heck, even just a bit more goalie luck while short-handed would go a long way.
Maybe the best reason to opt for this route? This is Karlsson's and Turris' prime and, critically, they are cheap. Having these two cogs locked up long term for under $12M in AAV is an absolute coup for Ottawa Senators management. But this is a cost-conscious club and these two pieces will only be this cheap for so long. If the goal is sustainable, long-term contention then the team needs to take advantage of their biggest advantage while they still can.
So we're back where we started: where is this team headed? It's such a critical juncture that it's massively important Murray get it right now. You can make a strong case to either tear it down or go for it at this point: it's the attempt at the middle ground, that tempting notion of remaining competitive through the rebuild that is death. The first domino to fall will be the Jason Spezza trade. Depending on the type of return, we will have a much better idea of where the team is headed.
Look back at the run since '08-09 that has the team here today: playoff contention and at best the hope of an upset or two. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's not the top of the mountain either. I hope Murray goes big one way or another; it would be a shame to watch a generational talent like Erik Karlsson drag mediocre teams to first-round exits year after year because no one was bold enough to make the hard choice one way or another