Hailey Salvian had a really interesting piece over at the Athletic yesterday, wherein she published the results of a 25 question survey geared towards getting a pulse on the Ottawa Senators’ fanbase. As with everything Athletic-related it’s behind the paywall, but it’s definitely worth a read if you have a subscription. With about 900 respondents, Salvian’s working with a decent-sized sample; we can probably learn some things about where the fans’ heads are at with that many responses. Salvian’s main conclusion is that Sens fans seem more upbeat about the team’s future than they have in quite some time. They also seem to, by and large, have been fans of most of the moves the team’s made in the off-season. She also discussed the piece in a bit more detail with Ian Mendes and Lee Versage on TSN 1200. During a hit on their afternoon radio show, she drove home the message from a slightly different angle by suggesting that maybe the team’s loudest critics weren’t reflective of the fanbase’s overall sentiment — particularly when it came to buying out Bobby Ryan and Anthony Duclair. Happy fanbase and happy days ahead?
On the one hand, yes, as someone who interacts with other Sens fans on a daily basis the general vibes of positivity have increased in the last six months or so. When the organization decided to go through the type of tear-down-to-the-studs rebuild that began in earnest with the trading of Erik Karlsson, fans knew there was going to be some pain. Now that we are finally getting to the point of seeing the rewards of that unpleasant process, the attitude is a lot more upbeat. It’s easier to feel good about Tim Stuetzle, Sens’ wunderkind, than a theoretical high first round pick. I can get Stuetzle’s name on the back of my new 2D jersey today. Last year at this time I would have been stuck putting “1st RD PICK 2020” on a 3D Senturion. Things are better now, and fans are happy about it. It’s been a long journey: folks are right to celebrate a bit.
Reading the survey, however, also got me thinking a bit about what, as fans, we expect from our favourite team. It also got me thinking about how the act of being a fan is sometimes just a series of rationalizations. I’m not here to tell people how to be fans, but I do find the balancing act of trying to appraise the team’s actions with any semblance of objectivity while remaining a fan to be particularly tricky. The responses to the two questions about Anthony Duclair (“Do you agree with the decision not to qualify Duclair?” and “Would you have been OK with a hypothetical two year $4.5M contract if Duclair went to arbitration?”) illustrate my point: fans agreed with the decision not to qualify Duclair 47%-36% (16.2% said “maybe”) but were also OK with Duclair being under contract at the hypothetical maximum award the Sens couldn’t walk away from by a 60.9% to 26.3% margin (12.8% said “maybe”). It’s awfully tough to square that circle: fans approved of Dorion not qualifying Duclair, but a strong majority of those same fans also were OK with taking him back at what everyone agrees would have been the worst possible award? That doesn’t really make much sense, unless the answers you got to the question aren’t really about Duclair at all. These two questions, side by side, are actually a great proxy for how much the fanbase trusts the team’s decision-makers. This reads to me like “the Sens could have gone either way, and no matter what they did I would trust them to make the right choice”. Trust is a bit of a new thing around here, you see.
I have my own thoughts about whether that trust is earned, but these attitudes do seem to be reflective of the current headspace for a lot of fans. Certainly reading the comments section on this very site lately would lead me to believe that folks are more ready to trust the organization to make the right choices than they were even just a year ago. Besides, a lot of people would tell you it’s more fun to be a fan when you have at least some faith in the decision-makers from your favourite team.
So, at least for now, Dorion and co. appear to have bought themselves some goodwill from the fanbase. They’ve been selling the future for almost three years, and now the outline of the future is here. They said there would be high-end prospects, and a youth movement that would carry the team back to the top of the league. You can quibble with some of the choices along the way, but there can be no doubt that the organization’s prospect pipeline has a lot of intriguing names; our site’s own Top 25 Under 25 is a testament to that. But the Sens have also done the easy part in a way: trading away your good players for picks and prospects means you’re selling hope. The trick is that hope eventually has to translate to more than just promises. In the NHL, that means winning games, and eventually play-off series. The fanbase will trust a team for quite a while, and through quite a lot of ups and downs, but they can be lost if an organization doesn’t live up to its promises. It looks like maybe the Sens have the fans back, at least in part; they would do well to not let that slip away again with too many broken promises.