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The Long Road Ahead

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Taking a look at the future of the Senators’ rebuild, beyond the draft picks.

2019 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

The Ottawa Senators are in a pretty great position heading into the 2020 NHL draft.

With the 3rd and 5th draft picks armed in each hand, plus eleven others lined up mostly for the first few rounds, Pierre Dorion and company are set to have one of the most valuable crops of draft picks in NHL history.

The future is looking bright after a painful few years of tearing down the franchise. But as exciting as this era of the rebuild is, I think we need to take a step back and look at where the Senators stand as a franchise, and what it means to be rebuilding. It’s going to be a marathon, and the franchise is still a long ways from being considered a Stanley Cup contender.

This is step one of one hundred.

Building a Contender

Every contender knows that the path towards the Stanley Cups begins at the draft table. Nine of the past twelve Conn Smythe winners have won with the team that drafted them as elite talent hard to come by anywhere else. The draft is where foundations are built and franchises set themselves up for the next decade-plus.

But it’s also just that, a foundation. There’s a long construction process to follow for building a perennial Stanley Cup contender, and given the league’s competitiveness, just nailing the top draft choices is far from enough.

The most obvious examples to point to are the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers, who despite each landing multiple franchise players have succumbed to mediocrity by falling short in so many other ways. Similar can be said about the Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks and others, who all possess elite players but are far from being playoff favourites on a regular basis.

All those franchises were at one point in the same situation that the Sens are in right now — a bare bones roster with a prospect cupboard that made other teams jealous. Yet their current positions show that there’s so much more to being a contender than having high-end talent.

The Sens have completed the easiest process of the rebuild by tearing everything down, and are set to complete the second easiest part of drafting their top players (it helps that the 2020 draft class is chock-full of game-breaking talent). The stars of past have been exchanged for potential stars of future, and it’s now in the Senators’ hands to build a brand new franchise from the ground up.

From prospect development, to bringing in the proper coaching staff, to filling the roster with a bunch of great complimentary pieces, to signing good value contracts, to nailing draft picks in future years... the list goes on of the boxes that need to be ticked in order to reach ‘Cup Contender’ status.

The Senators are all in on selling the light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s a long ways to go if they want to get to that destination. Do we trust them to get there?

The Major Obstacle

There’s lots to be skeptical about with the Senators, from their revolving door of head coaches to their recent stretch of questionable draft choices. But it’s impossible to talk about the Sens on a macro level without mentioning Eugene Melnyk. He’s like an omnipresent being, affecting nearly every single facet of this team from top to bottom, including their ability to contend in the future.

I don’t want to re-hash the details of Melnyk’s frugality and fraudulentness because they’ve already become too well-known. He’s the reason the Senators are in the basement in the first place, with a long string of financially-capped decisions leading to the team’s stars being chased out of town.

That’s another thing we have to remember with this: the Senators have had their chances to contend before. They had an all-time great defencemen and the generation’s best two-way forward land in their laps, and they couldn’t build anything more than one lucky run to the Conference Finals. They hadn’t ticked all the other important boxes of rebuilding, with the team’s incompetency stringing from ownership.

It’s an unfortunate reality, but we need to face the very real possibility that it happens again. We’re in a fortunate time where the Sens are so chopped down financially that we don’t need to worry about their young stars leaving — Thomas Chabot is under contract for eight more years, and even a new contract for Brady Tkachuk will bring them well under their previous financial state.

But the internal cap is still real, and will one day rear its ugly head again. Until it’s gone, there’s every reason to be skeptical of the team’s ability to facilitate a proper rebuild.

Conclusion

I’m writing this article because I think it’s worth putting things into perspective. I’m beyond excited for the NHL draft, and can’t wait to watch whoever they choose in a Sens uniform for the duration of their time in Ottawa.

But I also think we need to take things slowly as a fan base, and with a healthy grain of skepticism. Improvement is on the horizon, but expecting a Stanley Cup contender under the franchise’s current state is just setting ourselves up for disappointment. Drastic changes need to be made well beyond a handful of draft picks, so let’s hope they happen sooner rather than later.