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The next 35 days will define the foreseeable future for the Ottawa Senators.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

This is our TSN Turning Point.

What happens between this very moment, right now, and the NHL Trade Deadline on February 25th will set the course for the Ottawa Senators’ next few years. The decisions that Eugene Melnyk, Pierre Dorion, Matt Duchene, and Mark Stone make in the coming days and weeks will turn the Sens down their next path.

There are a few ways this thing can go. One is ideal, though perhaps unlikely. One is a nightmare, and seeming more likely by the day. One lies somewhere in the middle.

Of course, this is all in reference to what form the Senators will take on the ice, but just as important is what will happen off the ice. Ottawa brass will tell fans a story in the next month or so. They will have to show where they stand in terms of priorities, and for better or worse, there will be no disguising their intentions.

Let’s begin this with some optimism. Something we, the faithful patriots of Sens Army, have been starving for since time seemingly immemorial. Let us propose, for a moment, that both Matt Duchene and Mark Stone sign long-term extensions in Ottawa. What would that look like?

Well for one, the on-ice product will finally yield something to be excited about. Sure, Ottawa’s run of late has been fun to watch, but it all comes with a bittersweet aftertaste knowing that the two top forwards could very well be gone, very soon. Imagine, if you will, knowing that Matt Duchene and Mark Stone will likely end their careers in Ottawa. They are among the league’s elite forwards, and standout talents that the Senators have missed since the days of the Pizza Line. They sell tickets, and provide a reason to tune in even when the team is struggling.

On the ice, Stone and Duchene speak for themselves. With a combined 96 points in in 89 games between them, the Dynamic Duo are no small part of the 29th-placed Senators being 10th overall in goals per game (3.14). #61 especially has emerged as the team’s captain in all but name, and his consistently spectacular play has helped to make Top-6 NHL talent of Brady Tkachuk and Colin White. One need only look at the Senators bench during games to see them in constant conversation. As for Matt Duchene, his offensive prowess has Ryan Dzingel well on the way to career-highs in every offensive category, and the Senators score almost two goals less without #95 in the lineup. With young talent such as Rudolfs Balcers, Filip Chlapik, Drake Batherson, and Alex Formenton waiting in the wings, Duchene will go a long way to helping them break out offensively.

But we know better, don’t we? We know that both of our beloved superstars inking long-term contract extensions in the nation’s capital seems too good to be true, and that it falls just short of the realm of possibility. Perhaps it’s not all bad, though, we may have to sacrifice one to keep the other.

What happens if Mark Stone stays, and Matt Duchene leaves? As previously stated, Duchene accounts for the lion’s share of Ottawa’s offensive production, and it’s a presence that would be sorely missed. Every goal is huge when you’re the worst defensive team in hockey, and the wins would probably be much fewer and further between for now, even though a potential trade return could help in the future.

That said, Stone staying would go a long way on and off the ice. He is the General, Ottawa’s leader, and showing a commitment to arguably the best two-way forward in the game could encourage more players to play in Ottawa. Perhaps just as importantly, it would encourage more fans to stay.

On the flip side, if Matt Duchene is a Senator for life, and Mark Stone is on to greener or whiter (Winnipeg?) pastures, where does that leave the team? Again, Stone’s 49 points would be sorely missed, and it’s not a stretch to assume that the youngsters would struggle a tad more, but the leadership would be sorely missed. Stone is evidently looked up to by his teammates, and the Senators would miss that influence. With that in mind, it’s possible that Stone’s departure could leave more playing time for the rookies that are soon to take over. Not ideal, but more time with Duchene and White for wingers like the aforementioned pups could be beneficial long-term.

This one appears to have a higher likelihood of happening, as it recently was reported that the Sens offered Duchene an eight year, $64million contract. Again though, not ideal.

Now, the final outcome.

Yes, we have to go there. We have to discuss what would happen to the Senators after the proverbial Thanos snap. After all, we’re in the endgame now.

What will happen to the Ottawa Senators if both Matt Duchene and Mark Stone move on? If Eugene Melnyk dons his $20 knock-off Infinity Gauntlet and snaps his fingers, where does Ottawa go from there?

The answer is nowhere good.

The Senators are in a decent spot right now. Sure, they’re in the league’s basement, but a good stretch of late is seeing them slowly claw their way out of lottery pick territory. Even without the likes of Thomas Chabot, Craig Anderson, and Colin White, Ottawa is showing that it’s within their capability to play some decent hockey. With a stellar offence, some great goaltending, and a little luck, the Senators could salvage this season.

Will they make the playoffs?

insert picture of dejected-looking Alfie

No, probably not, but the future looks bright. If the Senators can hang on to their star players, and continue to foster the development of their youngsters, this is a team that could sneak its way into the playoffs in a year or two, while being a competitor in the next 3-5 seasons.

snap

All that goes away. With no Matt Duchene, and no Mark Stone, Ottawa’s offensive output grinds to a halt. The young forwards are left with no one to eat the big minutes, and no one to learn from, while upcoming superstars like Thomas Chabot have no inclination to stay past the expiry of their contract. The Senators are set back at least three years, and the playoffs are nothing more than a distant pipe dream.

But more than that, Senators management tell fans exactly where they stand. They tell us “No, there is no hope. Because whenever we hit the lottery, and stumble our way into the NHL’s next superstar, we will ship them off for a boatload of assets. We will not do what successful teams do, and hang on to our elite talent.”

They will tell us that there is no hope, and this time, we will listen.

When Daniel Alfredsson left, Sens fans turned to Erik Karlsson. When Erik Karlsson left, Sens fans turned to Mark Stone and Matt Duchene. If those two leave, we turn to Thomas Chabot. If he leaves, we turn to Brady Tkachuk, and the cycle continues.

Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the Senators will not pony up to keep their superstars. And any time the team gets close to the mountaintop, and homegrown superstars play their way into bumps in salaries, the gauntlet will snap and we’ll be back to the bottom.

And please, spare me the “they’ll have declined by the end of their contract(s)” argument. It doesn’t hold water. The Senators should not be at all concerned about their situation eight years from now, who would be? This is what teams do, they hang on to their star players and build around them. That’s how you win Cups. Crosby and Malkin, Toews and Kane, Kopitar and Doughty, if you want to win in this league you have to hang on to your high-end talent. If the Senators aren’t willing to do that, they might as well come out and say it.

This is the crossroads. The Senators will either demonstrate that they are, in fact, committed to winning. Or, they will show their commitment to dollars and cents.

The clock is ticking, Mr. Melnyk, and Mr. Dorion. We’re waiting to see which way you turn this car.