Eight seasons. One playoff series win. That's the Ottawa Senators record since 2008, the year after making the Stanley Cup Finals. They have made the playoffs five out of those eight seasons, but have gone 1-4 in the first round against higher seeds every time. Losing in the first round wasn't that big of a deal a few years ago, but there comes a time when the organization has to take a step forward.
Simply making the playoffs and losing in the first round is not good enough for the Senators in 2016. They haven't been a contending team since 2007, and it's about time that they inch closer to playing with the big boys. There's certainly nothing wrong with being an average team, but you can't stay at that level forever. The ultimate goal is to win, and having just one second round appearance since 2008 does not look good.
I understand that being on a tight budget is tough, but it's been done before. Look at baseball, where teams like the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays have thrived for the past several years despite having a fraction of the money that other teams have.
As an organization you can't just be complacent with average results, because that's an easy way to lose your fan-base.
The Senators have a solid young core right now, and they have to capitalize on that. Five years from now those same young players won't be so young anymore, and the team needs to take that first step to contention eventually so it might as well be now. Rarely does a team come out of nowhere to contend, which is why this will be a process.
Obviously while I think that Ottawa has a chance to get better, I know they need reinforcements. The budget makes it tough, but at some point another defenseman and a top-nine forward could put the Senators amongst the conference's best. It remains to be seen if they actually will add to the roster before the trade deadline in March, but even if the team stays the same the young core has to improve (again) as a whole.
Craig Anderson is 34 years old, and just because he has been fantastic for Ottawa since 2011 doesn't mean he can keep that up. There are rare instances where a goalie can keep up his play until his late-30's, and the most prominent example is Tim Thomas but I think we can all agree he is a different animal. After age 35, goalies typically fall off a cliff.
It's not like Anderson is some God in net, so I would expect regression to come from him at some point. That's why Ottawa needs to take advantage of his good years. After Anderson, Ottawa's goalie situation isn't amazing. Andrew Hammond was a great story last year, but expecting him to become a number one starter if/when Anderson slows down is wishful thinking. Matt O'Connor definitely is not a sure thing, and you cannot just expect him to be a replacement for Anderson.
Once Anderson is gone, nobody is sure what will happen. But we do know that we have a solid goalie that can help us win in the playoffs right now, and we can't waste his talent. In 2014-15, I was happy with a playoff berth because of the amazing run. It was great to see winning hockey, and it got me excited about the future. But losing in round one in 2016 would mean no progress, and we need the younger players to get even better.
If they don't improve this year, there will still be optimistic fans talking about the future. But this is the "future" we've been talking about for years. Most of the prospects like Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Curtis Lazar, and Patrick Wiercioch have graduated, and this is when you have to go for it. The Senators haven't had a great young core like this since early 2000's, and they need to take advantage of it. We can't keep saying "well, next year," because it'll eventually be too late.
Obviously I know that there's a 99% chance Ottawa won't win the Cup this year, but I need to see improvement at least. Then hopefully they can add and become a contender once some money is off the books after this season, because additions need to be made if they want to beat the leagues best.
Being stuck in mediocrity is the worst thing in sports, and Ottawa has a real chance to move forward this year. Whether they do that or not remains to be seen. Stagnating or even regressing from last year would be extremely disappointing, simply because of Anderson's window and the fact that the Senators haven't made progress at all since 2007.
Simply making the playoffs and losing in the first round isn't acceptable this year, and they need to aim higher than in years past.