Five Thoughts for Friday

On Bobby Ryan, Fandom, Ice-time, and more

Welcome to Five Thoughts for Friday, Here are some thoughts I had:

On Fandom:

One of the sad things about sports fandom is that, eventually, over time, the sheen can come off the whole enterprise. Follow a team long enough, and you’ll get to see the seedy underbelly at one point or another. Among fans of the Ottawa Senators, you might be hard-pressed to find too many that aren’t at least a little bit jaded after the events of the last few years. We’re not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed these days.

One of the great things about sports fandom is that it can bind strangers together into a community.

On Thursday night, Bobby Ryan returned to play his first home game since entering the Player Assistance Program to help him deal with alcohol abuse. The evening promised to be emotional no matter how Ryan performed, but his hat-trick, and the crowd’s emotional outpouring of support, could not have been better if it was scripted. It really was a great moment.

In a season that for all intents and purposes has been lost since day one, when the team is better served by losing games than winning them, last night’s events reminded us of how powerful community can be. For me at least, that’s one of the biggest reasons I’m still a fan today.

On Supporting Bobby Ryan:

While I don’t doubt Ryan would have been supported by the home crowd no matter his performance, not every day will be easy for Bobby. Recovery isn’t an endpoint, it’s a journey, and he very well could struggle again with addiction and everything that entails. Part of being the community that I talked about above is supporting him when the times might be a bit tougher.

This isn’t to lecture folks, and I don’t want to take away from what was truly a magical evening that deserved to be celebrated. But after the highlights stop rolling, and we move on to the next series of games and life for the rest of us goes back to “normal”, Bobby will still need our support. It’s going to be hard not to make a commodity out of his story, to consume it as we do so much other media. Behind all of it that he’s a human being, and humans are complicated.

On Playing Time

For the most part, I’ve been a fan of DJ Smith’s work behind the Sens’ bench this year. Despite a lack of talent, the team has never cheated the fans with their effort and they’ve adhered to a discernible structure, particularly defensively. This has not always been a given the last few seasons. Smith deserves plaudits for what he’s been able to accomplish in a difficult situation.

At the same time,  it’s also fair to wonder why Thomas Chabot is averaging the most ice-time of any player in the league and why Connor Brown is 20th among all forwards with over twenty minutes per night. The knock-on effect of Smith giving so much run to these two is the sometimes limited opportunities that are afforded to the recalled youngsters. It’s hard to know what to make of Rudolfs Balcers or Filip Chlapik when they play 10:46 and 8:46 a night respectively. Erik Brannstrom wasn’t exactly soaking up the minutes either when he was with the big club.

No doubt there will be some debate about whether the youngsters earned the extra ice-time that Smith is currently giving to his top guys. There’s some truth to the notion that you need to show you deserve the added responsibility, but in a season where the most important thing is developing the prospects and preserving the health of key players I would much rather see Brown play 18 minutes a game while the Chlapiks of the world play 12. There is room to calibrate without totally overhauling the whole structure and the culture of earning it that Smith is trying to instill. Josh Norris was on the ice for 17:38 last night; here’s to hoping there are more nights like that to come.

On Lottery Odds

Something I’ve struggled with as this season has gone on is how much of the team’s future success is totally outside of its own control. As Ary pointed out in his great piece on Tuesday: the tear-down is over. What comes next will be a combination of developing the existing prospects and hoping that the team is lucky enough to land one of the very top selections in the draft. It’s that second part that really gets me: what if the Sens end up picking 5th and 7th or something? They’ll likely land a couple of highly touted prospects, but do you know who went 5th and 7th in the year that Connor McDavid was drafted first and Jack Eichel second overall? Noah Hanifin and Ivan Provorov. Two serviceable NHLers, but not franchise-altering stars. And it’s not like the Flyers or Hurricanes have been panned for the selections, that’s just the type of player you very well might end up with when selecting 5th and 7th. What’s the difference between McDavid and Provorov? Whether the whole thing was worthwhile.

The whole situation is giving me sports fandom existential dread.

On Brady Tkachuk, the leader

After Jean-Gabriel Pageau was traded, Tkachuk was given the title of Alternate Captain. The team has not had a captain since Erik Karlsson was dealt, and it’s been obvious for some time now that everyone’s favourite shit-disturber has taken on a leadership role despite his relatively young age. This move came as a surprise to exactly no one. The more interesting question is whether DJ Smith will follow this up by stitching a C on Brady’s jersey to start next season. Tkachuk embodies several of the qualities you’d want in a captain: he’s hard-working, he clearly has a passion for the game, he stands up for his teammates, and it cannot be said that he ever gives up on a game. It would also be fair to say that Tkachuk’s temperament, and his propensity for penalties, are not exactly what you’d be looking for in a cool, calm, and collected leader.

So we’re left with a quandary: by asking Brady to become something he’s not, do you limit his effectiveness? Can he even change who he is? Or do you embrace the notion of a captain that many opponents would consider an asshole? I suspect we’re going to find out this summer.

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