One more game. That's all that remains of the Ottawa Senators' 2015-16 season. While normally the end of a season would be difficult and even sad for fans, it's safe to say many Sens fans feel more relief than sadness at this point. In the final week of the NHL regular season, here are five things that crossed my mind.
1) The Final Game
Tomorrow (Saturday) at 12:30 p.m. EST, the Ottawa Senators will step on the ice for the last time this season, as they take on the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. It's not the way any of us wanted to go out. A Saturday afternoon, away from home with no playoffs in our near future. The game will mean something to the Bruins, who just may need this win to get themselves into the playoffs. But regardless of their opponent's fate, the Sens are going to leave empty handed.
Now that this season has finally come to an end, there will be much reflection in the coming weeks on everything that went wrong this season. That will be a very long list. But I wanted to bring some positivity to this article, so I thought I would share some of the highlights (in my opinion) from the season that was for the Ottawa Senators.
One story that certainly stands out in my mind, and the minds of many Sens fans, is the Bobby Ryan puppy story. If you're not familiar with it, allow me to brighten up your day. An Ottawa dad promised his kids that they would get a dog if Bobby Ryan scored a goal in the game against the New York Rangers on January 24. Well, Bobby did just that. And all of the sudden, this father had a serious promise to follow through on.
The family would adopt a dog from the Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary, giving their new family member a much-needed home. If this story doesn't warm your heart (likely made very cold with the season we were just subjected to), I really don't know what will. What's better? Many other fans from teams around the NHL tried to replicate. But of course, no one could. This was definitely the feel-good story of the year.
What else was there to feel good about? Let's talk about Zack Smith, shall we? With 34 points in 79 games (23G, 11A), Smith had a career year in both points and goals. He had some serious chemistry with top-line players like Mark Stone, and really showed that he can put pucks in the net when playing with the right people.
Now, I think we are all well aware that this kind of production is not likely to continue. His shot percentage sits at 19.7%, and given his numbers in previous years, this is just not sustainable. But I think it's ok to enjoy this for what it is: One player simply having a good year.
His contract isn't ending this season, so there is no risk of signing him to a big contract based on bloated numbers. His trade value has never been, and probably never will be, higher than it is right now. If the Sens trade him for a much-needed piece this summer, I'd call that a decent return on investment. And if all else fails, Smith continues playing with the Sens next season, likely slotting back into the bottom six. He has always been a serviceable depth forward, and I see nothing wrong with letting him continue to be just that. At least now we know he can score.
Finally, the overwhelming ray of sunshine on this otherwise cloudy season was (you guessed it) Erik Karlsson! It may be hard to believe, but Karlsson had a career year on this team, with 81 points (as of Thursday). That's the most of any defenceman since Ray Bourque in 1995-96. If there was anything enjoyable to watch this season, it was Erik Karlsson.
Yes, you read that correctly. I am going to talk about the playoffs. Despite the fact that the Sens won't be involved, the playoffs will go on as planned next week. And while it may be difficult for some fans to tune in when their team isn't in the race, I (sometimes) feel the opposite effect when the Sens are out.
In years when the Sens don't make the playoffs, I often find myself more invested overall than in years when they make it. Maybe it's because I can dedicate more attention to each playoffs series. Maybe it's because I'm not losing sleep over each Sens game. Whatever the reason, I find my excitement level for the playoffs hasn't really faltered without the Sens.
Need a reason to get excited for the playoffs? Well, let me tell you about some of the potential match-ups we could be looking at this year. While some playoff spots in the East are still to be determined, and the final seedings could still change, here are some possibilities that I'm really looking forward to.
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins - A rematch from last year's playoffs, this series would see two very similar teams face off against each other. While the Penguins struggled at the beginning of the year, they have been on a very impressive run in the second half of the season. Sidney Crosby managed to catapult himself into third place in scoring, despite his early-season slump. Not to mention players like Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, who have followed their team with some seriously impressive play recently. The only question remaining is the health of Marc-Andre Fleury. On the other side, Henrik Lundqvist is looking at one of his final chances to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. He's coming into the playoffs motivated, and we all know how capable he is of putting a team on his back. This series is going to be a treat to watch.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues - This rivalry carries years of history. These two teams have met 11 times in the playoffs, and most recently faced off in 2014 (first round). The defending Stanley Cup Champions struggled a little towards the end of the season, but (as of Thursday) found themselves on a three-game win streak. And while St. Louis is one of the best teams in the league, with 105 points going into the final games of the season, you can't count the Blackhawks out in the playoffs. Could this be the year St. Louis finally breaks through to the Stanley Cup Finals? They might have to get through Chicago first.
3) Mike Hoffman
As we head into the off-season, we're going to hear Mike Hoffman's name a lot. Possibly even more than we did this season. Coming into another round of contract negotiations, Hoffman and Sens' management will likely struggle to reach a deal that both sides find fair. Naturally, Hoffman's play has been highly scrutinized by management, and some fans, throughout the season.
Hoffman has garnered a reputation for not playing well when the games matter most. He came under fire last season for failing to contribute at the rate that we are used to seeing, when the team went on their miracle run (I know, it hurts to even think about). And there is certainly an odd pattern in his play that has continued this year.
During the first 34 games of the season, Hoffman managed to get 32 points, while playing an average of about 18 minutes per night. Then he slumped to just 12 points in the next 32 games (from December 30 - March 10). Although I thought his minutes fell significantly during that time, his average time on ice was about 17 minutes. So there wasn't much of a dip in his playing time to justify this decreased scoring, with the exception of a few outlying games.
Now, over the last 11 games, Hoffman has registered 12 points and played about 17 minutes per night. And while his time on ice can't explain the mid-season slump, we all know he wasn't always playing with the team's top line. So perhaps there are other explanations. Regardless, management is likely to use this against him (again) when negotiating a contract.
Something tells me we are going to see the team sign him to a one-year deal, and move him at the trade deadline. If they go to arbitration this summer, a one-year deal will be the only contract option, as he cannot go into his UFA time period in a contract that comes out of arbitration. I can't see either side conceding on this one, and arbitration is looking more and more likely. But fear not, this is not the last time we'll talk about Mike Hoffman.
4) Exclusivity in Sports
You may have heard John Gibbons make some controversial comments this week, in which he drew parallels between weakness and wearing dresses. While I could tackle the issue surrounding these comments, I don't have the space in one segment of an article. I did, however, share my thoughts during The Drive on TSN 1200. You can listen to that segment here.
This was the first time I've been on live radio for a significant amount of time. That's What She Said is recorded a few days in advance each week, so this was a very new experience. One thing I am certainly not used to is reading and responding to texts as they come into the station. I quickly learned that this sexist culture of sports is certainly alive and well among many of those who shared their thoughts during my segment. As difficult as it was to hear some of those texts, it was certainly necessary to show many people what women in sports media (and women in general) hear every day.
There have been many great articles and tv/radio segments on the comments that Gibbons made. One that really stood out to me, and that certainly helped me prepare for speaking publicly about it, was written by Andrew, called Sissies, Dresses and Letting Things Slide. I highly recommend giving it a read. It's well worth your time.
Shameless self plug: Speaking of live radio, we'll be on the air live for this week's episode of That's What She Said. @fffiesty and I will be joined by Ian Mendes from 10 - 11 a.m. (Sunday) on TSN 1200. It will be our Sens season wrap-up show, so you won't want to miss our final thoughts on the season.
5) Hockey Gods
Something weird is happening to the Senators right now, and I'm not talking about their performance on the ice. There are many eery similarities between some of the most memorable games at the end of last season, and the final games of this season. Last year, the Sens played a Saturday afternoon game against Flyers with serious playoff implications (for the Sens, that is). This year, the Sens played a Saturday afternoon game against the Flyers with some (slightly less) serious playoffs implications... for the Flyers. That was fun.
Last year, the Sens fell behind 3-0 to the Penguins on a Tuesday in April, only to come back and win the game in heroic fashion. This year, the Sens went ahead 3-0 against the Penguins on a Tuesday in April, only to give up the lead and lose in much less heroic fashion. This was so similar that many Sens fans, including the one writing this article, didn't feel safe with a 3-0 lead. That may also have had something to do with their play this season, but I digress.
Judging by the way this season has played out, a 3-0 lead is not safe right now. #HockeyGods— Michaela Schreiter (@Schreids) April 6, 2016
Some blame consistency in the NHL's schedule towards the end of the season. I blame witchcraft.
Thanks for reading!