One shot. One goal.
That’s how close Ottawa came to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals just one year after they missed the playoffs entirely, a few months after their playoff spot was in jeopardy, and seven months after most people predicted them to be a bubble team.
The Senators went farther than even the most optimistic fans thought they would go, and the depressing thing is, they had a chance to win it all against a beatable Nashville team that had a Jekyll and Hyde Pekka Rinne in net.
But you know all of this, and I think a lot of us are still in the grief stage because of just how close they came. However, while we are allowed to look back and wonder “what if Kunitz just shot the puck normally?”, Pierre Dorion and the Senators front office don’t have the luxury of reflection.
Instead, they need to be examining how the team can get even better for next season.
It would be so easy for Dorion to say “we came within one goal of making the Cup Finals, plus we have Thomas Chabot and Colin White coming up, so I’ll leave this roster as is.” There are certainly some fans out there who believe that train of thought, but here’s the thing: complacency is death in sports.
The minute you stop trying to make your team better is the minute you get bypassed by other teams. It’s not as if Ottawa was some juggernaut this season anyway, and with a few bad bounces here or there in overtime, their playoff run could have ended much sooner. Therefore, it’s imperative that Dorion doesn’t sit back this summer.
The good news is it seems like he realizes this. At the end of season press conference, he had this to say about improvement:
“Do we need anything more? I think we’re headed in the right direction. We can always improve...We’re going to try and sign some guys who could possibly be UFAs. Obviously it’d be great to add a player of the calibre of Sidney Crosby, but that’s impossible to do. We can always get better. I don’t think we’re looking for anything specific...
We’ll look into free agency. I know our pro scouts have been here for the last few days and we’ll look through that. We always look through trades. If we can always improve this team, we will.”
The quote doesn’t come across as a strong statement that the Senators will be big players in the off-season, but it appears that Dorion at least recognizes the need to get better.
When Dorion was hired one year ago, we heard a lot about how he’d be too much like Bryan Murray, and I worried about that as well. After Ottawa went on their magical ride to the playoffs in 2015, Murray chose to do essentially nothing with the team in the off-season, and it came back to bite him. He was content with his team, but the reality is GMs should never be content.
I have a much better feeling that Dorion will actually make a few moves and at least make an attempt to improve the team. Hell, he’s made the same amount of NHL trades in the last year (eight) than Murray made in his final three years as GM. Dorion may not win every transaction, but I don’t think this summer will be quiet like it normally is.
And like I’ve been saying, there’s no reason why it should be quiet.
Take a look around the Eastern Conference, and there are a lot of teams on the upswing. The Pittsburgh Penguins are still going to be cup contenders. The Washington Capitals are labeled as playoff chokers, but they have the best team on paper. The Montreal Canadiens won the division and will probably make a few moves in the final year of Carey Price’s contract.
The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs, but their core of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, et al. are still there. The Toronto Maple Leafs are becoming good quicker than we would like and will probably add to their sub-par defense corps. The Columbus Blue Jackets have a deep roster that can make the playoffs once again and compete. There are lots of other teams that can conceivably make the playoffs, and it’s not as if Ottawa is even a lock to get in at this point.
The point is, it was a strange season in the sense that there weren’t that many goliath-like teams that seemed impossible to beat. Ottawa went on a run at the perfect time and they took advantage of that. But several teams in the conference are inevitably going to improve, and the Senators need to keep pace with everyone else.
Now that the fanbase remembers what a playoff run is like, they are going to demand more in the next few years. With the team getting older, Erik Karlsson’s contract expiring in two seasons, plus Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, and Craig Anderson having their deals expire in 2018, there is no better time to go for it than now.
Last summer, I wrote about the Senators going “all-in” on the 2017-18 season. After all that has transpired over the last year, I still agree with that idea, and Dorion should act on it. This is a perfect time for the Senators to acquire either a legitimate second pairing defenseman or another top-six scorer to make the lineup that much deeper. I understand the difficulty of getting that done within the budget, but that’s what good GMs are able to do.
Ottawa was one goal away from the Cup Finals. But everybody begins at the starting line in October, and they have to do it all over again. The only way the Senators get back to where they want to be is if Dorion doesn’t stay complacent.