The NHL is a copycat league.
When one franchise is successful, teams will inevitably view them as the “golden standard” for how things should be done. The most obvious example of this is when the LA Kings won two Stanley Cups in three years, many other Western Conference teams tried to bulk up and make sure they were strong enough to play against the Kings in the playoffs. The thing is, that would be a bad strategy six years later.
So things are always changing, with new fads from year to year based on who is the most successful.
Pierre Dorion and the Ottawa Senators certainly have a vision for how they want to build this organization, and we are beginning to see some of that philosophy already. If we compare it to previous Stanley Cup champions from the past decade though, there is really only one team that compares to what Ottawa is doing: the St. Louis Blues.
Since 2010, seven teams have won the Cup: Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Washington, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Tampa Bay were built somewhat similarly in that they all had superstar talent (e.g. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alev Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, etc.) and very good depth players beyond that. Simply put, these teams were destined to win with how much talent they had.
Out of the other three though (Boston, Los Angeles, and St. Louis), the Blues seem like the closest blueprint to what Ottawa might be trying to accomplish.
To show what I mean, here is what the Blues lineup was in game 7 of the Cup Finals in 2019:
#stlblues lineup for Stanley Cup final Game 7:— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) June 12, 2019
(I should also note that they were without Robert Thomas and Alex Steen for this game, which makes their depth look even better).
They didn’t have a ton of star talent, but they had a lot of depth and not many underachievers weighing them down. Instead of a stars and scrubs approach, they went for the strategy of acquiring enough good talent in every spot.
If we start in goal, Jordan Binnington doesn’t have a direct player comparison in Ottawa, but he came out of nowhere in 2019, and that sort of represents the Senators approach to the position: having a bunch of prospects such as Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson, Kevin Mandolese, Mads Søgaard, and Leevi Merilainen and seeing if one of them sticks. This past season, the Blues used Binnington and Jake Allen more as a tandem, which is what Ottawa may end up doing with Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg. The point is, the Blues didn’t rely on acquiring a “star” goalie, but it worked out amazingly well.
On defense, they had their workhorse in Alex Pietrangelo, who can be compared (talent-wise, not stylistically) to Thomas Chabot. Someone like Colton Parayko is a player that Jake Sanderson could turn into, as he can be an underrated second pairing player while eating up difficult minutes. Then there’s young Vince Dunn, who could be someone like Erik Brannstrom who gets to play sheltered minutes on the second or third pairing.
Carl Gunnarsson, Jay Bouwmeester, and Joel Edmundson is not the greatest left side, but Ottawa could easily have similar role players such as Jacob Bernard-Docker, Christian Wolanin, Lassi Thomson, and Maxence Guenette to round things out. The Blues essentially made sure they had Pietrangelo and Parayko, then built around them. In Ottawa’s case, they will have Chabot and Sanderson, and they have the prospects to build around them with aforementioned players in here.
At forward, the position-by-position comparisons aren’t quite ideal, but the overall idea remains the same.
For example, although Tim Stuetzle will most likely be a centre, I would say his impact could be similar to Vladimir Tarasenko’s. Then I would say that Brady Tkachuk could be on the same level as Ryan O’Reilly, although that does depend on more progression from him. Jaden Schwartz has been just under a 60-point player throughout his career, and I think Drake Batherson can fit that role.
Then there’s Brayden Schenn, who at times has been a first line centre but is better suited on the second, and I believe Josh Norris can be that kind of player as well. Lastly, David Perron is another one of their top guns in the top-6, and many different players such as Alex Formenton, Vitaly Abramov, Roby Järventie, etc. could potentially fill that role, although that is much more uncertain.
In terms of the best players on the Blues, Ottawa could certainly match them if their development goes well.
Beyond their best players though, the Senators are building depth everywhere. I haven’t even mentioned forwards such as Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Filip Chlapik, Ridly Greig, Colin White, and Shane Pinto, and I’m sure that at least a few of them will be able to contribute to the top-9 of a contending Senators team. The main thing that the Senators currently lack is that elite game-changer like Crosby, Kucherov, Ovechkin, Toews, etc.
I would prefer to build a team similar to the Penguins, Lightning, Capitals, or Blackhawks, but it’s not easy to find those superstars. So instead, it looks like Dorion et al. are trying to build a deep team that can win games with the amount of depth they have. The Blues were never going to be mistaken for the most talented team in the league, but they certainly had very good players, plus they were described as “tough to play against.”
That “tough to play against” mentality has been preached not just by Dorion, but also by DJ Smith and the Mann brothers, Trent and Troy. The Senators have similarities to the Blues by comparing to Pietrangelo, O’Reilly, Tarasenko, etc., but they will also have comparables to Patrick Maroon, Jay Bouwmeester, Joel Edmundson, Zach Sanford, etc.—players who are either good veteran leaders or players that have some sandpaper.
We know that the organization loves its “character” players, as well as those who play a bit of an old-school type way, as evidenced by the acquisitions of Austin Watson, Erik Gudbranson, and Josh Brown. They are also trying to build a positive environment, as many players coming up in the system are already friends or acquaintances.
Are the Senators trying to emulate every single aspect of the 2018-19 Blues? Of course not, but out of any recent Stanley Cup champions, the Blues are the only team that is comparable to how Ottawa is operating right now. Things can change, and perhaps Ottawa acquires a superstar in the 2021 draft, changing their future outlook. But for now, I view the Senators philosophy as one that tries to create a culture where every player is important, rather than being reliant on a few stars.
We will see if that is the right approach to have, but at least we know it can be done.