With the news last week that Chris Neil will be looking to join another team for the 2017-2018 season, it truly marks the end of an era for the Ottawa Senators. From 1998, the Sens were a force to be reckoned with, at least in the regular season. They won the President’s Trophy in 2002-03, won the division four times, and made the playoffs 11 consecutive times from 1996-97 to 2007-08. They played dominant defensive hockey under Jacques Martin, and then transitioned to having the best first line in hockey with the Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson line. It was a great time to be a Sens fan. Chris Neil joined the team right as it was gaining relevance, playing his first season in 2001-02, and playing in every playoffs the Sens have made since then.
Slowly the big names from that time started leaving town. Some by trade, some by free agency, but we hit the point that it was time to face the fact this team was changing. We said that Spezza, Alfredsson, Phillips, and Neil were the only ones left from those years. Then Spezza was traded. Then Alfie shocked us all by heading to Detroit. Suddenly, there were only two players left from those years. Chris Phillips did things the way he was supposed to, playing 1179 games in a Sens jersey and then retiring having never joined another team. Suddenly, when Ottawa played the Maple Leafs, we’d have to say “Neil is the only player left from those Battle of Ontario years.” It was weird only having one name left to say.
Now Neil leaving seems just a little jarring. He also seemed to do things right, hitting 1000 games in a Sens jersey. He played two games in the playoffs, and the Sens won both of them. I was expecting him to retire after this season and join the Sens in some kind of community ambassador role. In the words of Graham Nichols, “To see it end like this just so he can get one more season under his belt, feels odd.”
Now Neil’s retirement could also be seen as an end to Neil’s role with the Sens. When asked about it, Pierre Dorion said he thought Mike Blunden could fill that role with the team this coming year. He played two games with the team this year; I have a hard time seeing Guy Boucher giving him a regular role next year. Instead, what that says to me is that the Sens are going into next year with Mark Borowiecki as the closest thing to an enforcer in the lineup.
Now don’t get me wrong, Chris Neil was never really an enforcer. The Sens had other guys (Brian McGrattan, Zenon Konopka) who were closer to one-dimensional fighters. Neil was more of an agitator, a guy who’d fight when the game called for it, who’d get under the skin of star players, and who could also chip in 20 points per season. But even that, the role of the “energy fighter”, seems to be disappearing. Teams would rather have their fourth-liners be penalty killers, prospects earning NHL time, guys that push possession. We saw Boucher roll four lines in the playoffs against the Rangers, and it’s probably what he wants again in the future. A guy like Max McCormick may get 10 games spread across the season, but Neil is probably the last permanent agitator in the lineup.
All this to say, a page has finally closed in Senators history. No one from the 2003 Conference Finals, or even the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals, is left on the team. We hoped it wouldn’t end this way, but it did. It will be uncomfortable, strange, even disappointing if we see Neil in another team’s jersey next year. Which really is right in line with how that era ended up unfolding.