Today, as part of SB Nation’s Best Teams to Never Win a Championship series, we take a look at the best Ottawa Senators team who came up short of a Stanley Cup. While there remains some debate as to which of the 2000s Senators rosters had the best chance to win it all, I went with the 2005-06 iteration. As always, let us know what you think in the comments section. Also, even though it should really go without saying: BUMMER ALERT. The wealth of information available courtesy of hockey-reference made this article possible.
Part I: Assembly
Following four inaugural seasons of mediocrity under various coaches in the early-nineties, Ottawa Senators head coach Jacques Martin led a group of former top draft picks to an eight-year run of regular season success and perennial respectability from 1996-2004 including a President’s Trophy in 2003. However, several early playoff exits at the hands of their division rivals and to the powerhouse New Jersey Devils led to a shakeup following the 2004 season. General manager John Muckler dismissed Martin and brought in veteran, and local prodigy, Bryan Murray to coach the Senators with renewed hopes of post-season success. Muckler also traded fan favourite Radek Bonk to Los Angeles (who immediately flipped him to division rival, Montreal), Kanata’s own Todd White to Minnesota, and whipping boy Patrick Lalime to St. Louis, all for draft picks. Muckler’s biggest move came in the summer of 2005 when he traded star forward Marian Hossa to Atlanta for the Thrashers’ troubled winger Dany Heatley.
To replace scapegoat Lalime whom the fanbase ritualistically sacrificed in the summer of 2004, Muckler landed prize free-agent, and former Senators nemesis, Dominik Hasek to finally solidify the goaltending position in Ottawa. Internally, Ottawa got major upgrades at centre, courtesy of young phenom Jason Spezza, now entering his prime, and on the wing and defence courtesy of rookies Patrick Eaves and Andrej Meszaros respectively. To the extent of player development, the 2004-05 NHL lockout benefited the Senators who emerged on the other side with a bonafide first-line centre in Spezza and an embarrassment of depth. However, the lockout also cost Ottawa a year during which they had their core intact. This includes Hasek who signed his contract with Ottawa during the summer of 2004. The implementation of he salary cap after the lockout meant Ottawa had a shortened window of opportunity before their roster grew too expensive to sustain.
If the lockout had another major consequence in Ottawa, and it came in the form of firepower, courtesy of new rules implemented by the league to get the NHL out of the “dead puck” era. In 2005, speed went up, powerplays went up, and offence went way up. In 2005-06, the Senators led the league with 314 goals. For the sake of comparison, Ottawa also led the league in goals in 2003-04 with 262. Across the league goals per game went up from 5.14 before the lockout to 6.05 afterwards. Penalty minutes per game went up from 14.6 to 15.8 and teams went from averaging 57 powerplay goals to 85. Ottawa’s pizza line of Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson absolutely feasted with 46 powerplay goals and 86 powerplay assists between them in 2005-06. One thing remains true about the 2000s Senators, you could set your watch to their special teams.
Part II: Regular Season
Almost across the board, things looked promising in Ottawa in 2005-06. Dany Heatley came fifth in the league in goals with 50, Jason Spezza trailed only Joe Thornton in assists with 71, and Heatley and Alfredsson tied for fourth in league scoring with 103 points each. Wade Redden led the league in plus/minus (if you’re into that kind of thing), Ottawa allowed the second fewest goals (they came first in goals-for as previously stated), both the powerplay and penalty kill ranked fourth in the league (with 25 (!) short-handed goals to boot), and, in a pre-corsi world, only Detroit had a better shot-differential. Alfredsson, Heatley, and Chara made it as second-team all-stars and Meszaros made the all-rookie team. In terms of forward depth, Mike Fisher, Antoine Vermette, Peter Schaefer, and the rookie Eaves all had 20+ goals. Ottawa had three of the toughest players on the ice with Chara, Chris Neil, and Brian McGratton who totaled 480 penalty minutes as a trio. Depth of defence, though, truly set the 2005-06 Senators apart. Wade Redden led the way with 50-points, followed by Zdeno Chara at 43, Meszaros at 39, and Brian Pothier at 35, with Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov in shutdown roles.
The Ottawa Senators were, quite literally, the hottest ticket in town. And while fans packed the Corel Centre nightly with hopes that this spring would truly turn out differently from the premature departures of the past, the Senators did encounter challenges along the way. Martin Havlat missed four months of the season after sustaining an injury during a game against Montreal. Ottawa opted not to make any big moves at the deadline while the likes of Edmonton and Carolina (we’ll get to them) added Sergei Samsonov and Mark Recchi respectively. The Oilers also added netminder Dwayne Roloson at the deadline and, with that, we arrive at the tragic downfall of the 2005-06 Senators: goaltending.
From opening night on October 5th 2005 until the Olympic break February 11th 2006, the Senators cruised to a 37-14-5 record good for 79 points though 56 games with Hasek putting up an admirable 92.5 save percentage. And while Daniel Alfredsson returned from the 2006 Olympic Winter Games with a gold medal, Dominik Hasek returned with a strained hip adductor muscle. Hasek never suited up for the Ottawa Senators again. At this point in the narrative we begin to shift from history to conjecture. At 41-years of age with a history of lower body injuries, Hasek had his reasons to rest on the sidelines for the sake of his health. Coach Murray, however, remained skeptical about Hasek’s commitments to the Senators. Murray stated:
When [Hasek] got hurt in the Olympics, we couldn’t understand why he didn’t come back and play, because he seemed to be able to do everything, stretch, until it came [to] game time. I watched him in the weight room, in the dressing room, do everything that a goaltender had to do and more and not play. That was really, really frustrating. (Stevenson 282)
Part III: Post-Season
With Hasek indefinitely sidelined, 23-year-old Ray Emery took over the starting job in net when the regular season resumed March 1st, 2006. Emery had all 16 decisions that month and the Senators had a pristine 12-2-2 record with their young netminder backstopping them. April proved more grueling as Ottawa went 3-5-2 to close out the regular season and Emery posted a record of 2-5-1. All told, the rookie goaltender ended the season with an admirable 23-11-4 record. However, 90.2 save percentage should have appeared as a red flag for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
Ottawa drew the defending cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in round one of the playoffs with home-ice advantage. Since winning the 2004 championship, the Lightning had lost the services of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and forward Cory Stillman, and just barely made the playoffs as an eighth seed with 92-points. Ottawa handily won the series in five games by a combined score of 23-13 with Emery putting up a 92.4% and a reinvigorated Martin Havlat leading the charge with six goals and four assists. Truth be told, most Sens fans remember this series for one specific altercation more than any of the goals:
In the second round, the Senators drew a far more formidable opponent in the Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo finished just three-points back of the Senators in the regular season standings and fifth overall in goals, and they had exceptional special teams to match Ottawa’s. They had a deep group of forwards featuring Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Drury, Ales Kotalik, and Daniel Briere; Teppo Numminen and Brian Campbell led the defence; and a rookie goaltender by the name of Ryan Miller had helped Buffalo dispatch the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in round one of the playoffs. Neither team’s young netminders looked particularly sharp in game one of the conference semi-finals as the Sabres prevailed 7-6 in overtime. If you have the stomach, re-visit the highlights of one of the wildest playoff games you’ll ever see including some five blown leads for the Senators.
Both parties tightened up defensively in games two and three as Buffalo defeated Ottawa 2-1 in game two, and broke Ottawa’s backs again in overtime for a 3-2 victory in game three. Facing certain elimination at the hands of the same team who defeated them in the springs of 1997 and ‘99, Brian Pothier got Ottawa the lead in the first period of game four only to see Briere tie the game in period two. With their season on the line, Ottawa finally took and held the lead against the Sabres with a Wade Redden powerplay goal to send the series back to Ottawa for game five. Henrik Tallinder scored in the opening minute to stun the Senators but Alfredsson tied it up on the powerplay with his second goal of the postseason. Drury re-established the Sabres lead with a powerplay goal of his own in period two before Pothier blasted his second of the series to tie things up again. The Senators went on the powerplay within the first two minutes of overtime with a chance to get back in the series. If you don’t know what happened next then I advise serious viewer discretion before pressing play below. Over a decade before 2017’s infamous Chris Kunitz knucklepuck, this was our zapruder film:
Part IV: Aftermath
Ray Emery took heat for his 86.4 save percentage in the series albeit unfairly considering his age and inexperience. The pizza line combined for just five goals and seven assists while, as a team, Ottawa scored just 13 goals in the five game series. Ottawa had a distinct advantage in powerplay time as Buffalo took 76-minutes in penalties to Ottawa’s 58. Ottawa also badly outshot Buffalo 169 to 118. Ryan Miller played an exceptional series for the Sabres, however, and the Senators shot just 7.7% even with plenty of powerplay opportunities. Coach Murray maintained that goaltending cost the Senators in their ill-fated series against Buffalo. He also absolved Emery, however, in stating that:
Ray didn’t give up bad goals, but he didn’t make big saves . . . There will always be that question. When [Hasek] got hurt in the Olympics, was it so severe that he couldn’t come back? I never questioned a player in my life until Dominik. We just needed him to go in the net and stand there. He would have made a difference in the attitude. It was unfair to Ray Emery at that time. He was a second goaltender, a young guy who didn’t have stability. He had a compete level but not the stability in his game or life to allow him to lead a team to the Stanley Cup. (Stevenson 283)
Justly for Emery, he got revenge the following season as the Senators vanquished the Sabres in five games in the 2007 postseason. Ottawa, however, lost some key members of their roster in the summer of 2006. A victim of the new salary cap, Zdeno Chara left in free agency and signed with the Boston Bruins (with whom he would win a Stanley Cup in 2011). The Senators traded Martin Havlat to Chicago, and Hasek signed in Detroit for a second stint with the Red Wings where he would win a Stanley cup in 2008 (although serving as a back-up to Chris Osgood). When discussing the 2005-06 season with my dad, I requested his thoughts on the best Senators team to never win a championship, his response didn’t disappoint: “It was a feel-good era you thought would last forever. [It was] kind of like the enjoyment out of a new car—until faced with the first $1,000 repair bill.” So it went for the Ottawa Senators.
Part V: Speculation
We’ll never know if Hasek could have made the difference against the Sabres. It bears mentioning Ottawa would have faced another daunting opponent in the conference finals as Carolina (now with aforementioned Mark Recchi on board) finished just one point back of the Senators in the regular season standings (Ottawa might have had the advantage defensively and in special teams). And you may have heard stories of another rookie goaltender, who came out of the woodwork for the Hurricanes that spring to win a championship with a 92 save percentage.
Out west things would have gotten even more interesting where the Oilers had upset everyone in their path on the way to the cup finals including the mighty Detroit Red Wings. Only the Red Wings finished the regular season with more points than the Senators and they also came undone due to (surprise, surprise) a lack of goaltending. Throughout the regular season, Detroit and Ottawa had the potential for a classic Stanley Cup final. Neither team opted to add an extra goalie at the trade deadline and fortune favours the bold. The Oilers, alas, now equipped with Roloson in net, put their spotty regular season behind them to overtake the west, fueled by exceptional post-season performances from Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, newly-acquired Samsonov, and one Chris Pronger. The Senators eventually got their date with Pronger. And as fortune would have it, by then without the presence of Chara, that meeting also ended in a summer of what-could-have-been for Senators fans.
Stevenson, Chris. 100 Things Senators Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Chicago: Triumph, 2018. 279-284 Print.