At long last, we have a start date.
Coming off the longest offseason since the 2005 lockout, Sens fans are absolutely desperate for meaningful hockey. While “meaningful” might be a bit of a stretch when it comes to 2021 Ottawa Senators hockey, that January 15th start date is a light at the end of the tunnel for this fanbase.
Yet as the regular season approaches and Senators hockey becomes a real thing rather than a distant possibility (threat?), questions about expectations going into the next season have started popping up. As user SensForLife11 wrote in this excellent fanpost a few days ago, it’s a little bit difficult to figure out how fans should be feeling about this team going into 2021. I’ve certainly noticed an increase in debate about the topic on social media lately, and while a lot of it falls into the category of “fans telling other fans how to be a real fan” - something I try to avoid as much as possible - I think it’s an interesting question.
Being involved in hockey fandom has taught me (the hard way, unfortunately) that not everyone approaches hockey fandom with the same philosophy I do. As longtime readers of this website might have noticed, I’m more of an “enjoy the present moment” type of fan. I was #AllIn on both the 2015 and 2017 runs right from the start. If I could get that level of entertainment every other year, I would be perfectly content to cheer for an endlessly mediocre team. When the Sens are doing badly, I just focus on my favourite players and usually end up having a good time. Sports are ultimately meaningless, your team is probably not going to win the cup any given year, and life is too short to waste time agonizing over whether or not we’re wasting our draft pick by making the playoffs. This isn’t to be nihilistic about: a hope for the future is important to me, and I’m willing to stick around through rebuilds if it’s what’s best for the team, but ultimately what keeps me watching is my favourite players and the belief that something weird and unexpected will happen soon. In some ways, I picked the perfect team — and in other ways I picked the worst one.
I know, however, that a lot of Sens fans care about the long-term outlook a lot more than I do. There was a lot of hand-wringing both in 2015 and 2017 about what a playoff run would mean for the Sens in the long term, and honestly, with the benefit of hindsight, you could argue that the critics were at least partially right. The comments on this blog are also proof enough that many Sens fans are on board with the firesale that’s been happening since 2018, seeing it as a necessary step toward the construction of a winning hockey team.
This year, it’s kind of hard to figure out how to feel. My strategy is unlikely to appeal to most fans: the Sens are expected to be very bad. With the addition of many veterans in recent weeks, there aren’t quite so many spots left for rookies to make the jump to the NHL. Personally, I’ll be watching because I’m invested in the young players, and because the Canadian division sounds like pure chaos. The rivalries are going to be incredible. I cannot wait. Still, it’s likely to be a losing season, and we all know from experience that those can be extremely difficult to sit through. And the long-term outlook? Well, that’s complicated.
On the one hand, in terms of pure talent in the prospect pipeline, I’m not sure the future has ever looked brighter for the Senators. Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot are both turning into legitimate superstars before our eyes, there’s a very real chance Tim Stuetzle will contend for the Calder, and if guys like Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom and JAke Sanderson pan out, this team could be in really good shape going forward. It’s hard to imagine any hockey fan looking at the prospects the Sens currently have in the pipeline and not feeling optimistic about the future of the franchise.
Just as it could be argued that the future has never looked brighter for this team, it could also be argued that the future has never looked more bleak. We can rationalize each individual trade the Sens have made since 2017 if we want to, but when we look at them all together, the pattern becomes pretty clear: this is an organization that cannot hold on to star players. We may never know exactly what went down between each of those players and the front office - a combination of penny-pinching, toxic work environments and little direction for the team, most likely - but it’s clear that something has gone wrong. Between the inability to hold on to talent and the absolutely deranged off-ice controversies that just keep turning up, it’s clear that this is a deeply broken organization. Fans have no reason to trust that the owner is going to spend enough money to make the team competitive when it matters. And we’re not just talking about player salaries here, though that’s obviously a big part of it: a good team needs people in the front office, for instance.
It feels like we’re all just sitting around waiting for Melnyk to sell the team so that we can actually start thinking about the future. Until then, everything is sort of hypothetical. Yeah, we have great prospects. But will they stick around long enough to make a difference?
I know this feels like people being unnecessarily negative, but this is a legitimate concern to anyone invested in the future of this franchise. Until we have proof that players actually want to stay here - and that the team is committed to doing everything they can to keep those players here - there is simply no reason for us to believe that anything is going to change. Any hope we have for the future has to come with an asterixis attached to it.
And that puts us in a pretty weird situation, doesn’t it?
While we’re sitting around waiting, all we can really do is find some way to enjoy this season without getting too hung up on the future. For me, that’ll mean watching for the young players and the rivalries and enjoying the highs and lows of an NHL season, but without quite the same level of emotional attachment I’ve had in the past. I’m genuinely excited for the new season - I wouldn’t have come back to this blog if I didn’t enjoy watching Sens games and discussing them here - but that sense of everything being futile still hasn’t quite left me.
I believe this season is going to be an especially interesting one for this fanbase. We’ve had a few years now to get over what happened in 2018, and we won’t have to face too many former players in the All-Canadian division. We’re also going to get a good look at some of the most exciting prospects this organization has had in a long time. With fans starved for meaningful hockey and producing content at a rate I haven’t seen in years, the Sens have a really good chance to win back their fanbase in 2021. The question is, will it be enough?