Ottawa! Can you feel the excitement? The Senators are back at camp and the regular season is less than two weeks away! Oh and maybe we’re also seeing record numbers of COVID cases in Ottawa AND Ontario but who’s counting? So, like everything else here in Sensland, we take one part optimism and three parts impending doom and GO SENS GO. The opening night roster? A mystery. Tim Stützle’s point total at the World Juniors? Ten a million and counting. Ottawa’s uniforms? Best in the business. So with so much uncertainty heading into the new year and yet so much to look forward to, here are five things that I’ve thought about:
On why we are the way we are
With some 200-plus comments on this site at the time of writing (and counting!), it seems that our Sens army is FIRED UP after this past week the Ottawa Senators swapped a second-round pick for Derek Stepan and then acquired a second-round pick (along with Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette) for the dead contracts of Anders Nilsson and Marian Gaborik. (Before I unpack all of that I just want to extend best wishes to Nilsson and a speedy recovery because Anders is a beauty!) As far as the trades go, the Senators fell a few spots in the draft order (probably) and defer from 2021 to 2022 while losing two players who won’t play this season, to get some warm bodies. You wouldn’t know that these transactions had been so innocuous, however, had you logged on to the interweb lately. Is that an indictment of you and your Sens fandom? Absolutely not.
It does make me question, though, why are we the way we are? Why do we as a fanbase get so worked up over such trivial nonsense? Maybe it’s as simple as the need to watch real, meaningful hockey games after almost a year without. Maybe it’s rebuild fatigue. I personally wonder to what extent the past ten years of mediocrity have damaged us as fans and just what it will take to restore our collective calm as an audience. When it comes to establishing trust, it’s a long way up and a short way down. After everything we endured through the 2010s, I don’t believe another one-and-done miracle playoff run will reassure this fanbase. The unrest will persist at least until we get a full regular season of competence and/or consecutive playoff appearances. And then we can be the normal kind of angry that we were in the 2000s.
On this wretched abomination
Beyond our perception of last week’s trades and the internet fallout, I find myself questioning the machinery that creates these kinds of trades. It always bothered me before when pundits used the phrase ‘hockey trade’ (as opposed to what?) but the more I follow the NHL, the more I understand the need for such a term. While the Sens complete fewer of these trades than most teams up against the cap, this latest trade with Tampa joins last year’s Condon-Callahan and Smith-Anisimov trades, along with the last Marian Gaborik trade, as Ottawa’s foremost forays into non-hockey trades.
Were these transaction always an inevitability in the salary cap era? It seems, to me at least, that the teams with money have ultimately found the back door that the poor teams don’t have access to, and the whole scene just seems so trashy. And it isn’t just an Ottawa thing or and NHL thing. MLB teams make these trades all the time to balance the books and keep the big market teams on top while small market teams scavenge for picks and prospects. I don’t have any solutions as I still agree in principal with the salary cap system. I just want to know why it has be this way.
On pragmatism in the face of despair
I’m a lifelong Senators fan and I’ll be the first to admit that I am terrified of the Ottawa Senators hockey club. I love this team so much that I will absolutely let them ruin my life—often. And while I spend the next two weeks awaiting the finalization of the roster, I need to accept that the worst case scenario, this time around, ain’t that bad (right?). The modified season will create some roster flexibility and listening to Pierre Dorion talk about it on the radio, I do get some indication that expanded roster flexibility influenced the acquisition of more veterans in a year when we as fans were promised a more rookie-oriented team to watch. And for every rookie who doesn’t make the team in Ottawa, Belleville (assuming the AHL plays) has that much better chance of winner the Calder Cup. As Shaan brought up on Twitter, though, players like Rudolfs Balcers, Filip Chlapik, Christian Jaros, and Max Lajoie would require waivers for AHL assignment and currently look to be on the outside of the NHL roster looking in.
So for me, that’s the worst case scenario. One of, if not all of, those players (and possibly others) could get exposed by Pierre Dorion to make way for recently-acquired veterans. Will they get claimed on waivers? We don’t know. Does it matter? That’s where I’m at now. To use the 2010s Senators as an analog, losing Shane Prince, Matt Puempel, Fred Claesson, and Chris Wideman for magic beans stung a lot at the time but, again, did it matter? Probably not in the grand scheme depending on how you enjoy your Senators hokey.
Jaros and Lajoie were deep picks and have fallen in the depth charts (see our Top 25 under 25 coverage). Stützle and Josh Norris, not Balcers, will represent Erik Karlsson’s legacy. Chlapik may have the most value as a former second-round pick but then again Dorion acquires and dispenses a second-round pick every week, so I throw up my hands. This is where I invoke Beata’s Unique Absurdity of Sens fandom. It’s completely subjective where each one of us chooses to invest our emotion in the team. The last ten years around here have been, please pardon my French, a bit of a shitshow, and to go back to my first thought, those past experiences inform the way we process these organizational developments. If we lose a young player for nothing and it breaks your heart then embrace that as part of the narrative. If you disregard these peripheral transactions to bask solely in the splendour of our brightest stars then that’s fine too.
On the metatheatre of sport
While on the subject of Senators roster minutiae, I feel compelled to reiterate that I completely voluntarily spend hours consumed with this nonsense and feel passionately enough about it to contribute to this website every week. And I’m not alone. Somewhere along the line, coupled with the growing popularity of fantasy sports, the emergence of analytics, and of course the enormous influence of the internet, sports-adjacent trivia became every bit as compelling as the actual games themselves. On this website alone, we’ve written hundreds of articles since the Senators last played a game. And in a perverse sense, we’ve been spoiled by the Senators’ rebuild as a constant source of subject matter. Beyond that, however, I credit you, the reader, and my peers who find source material in the absence of on-ice action. And, to an extent, I have to give credit to Dorion and even Eugene Melnyk because when it comes to metatheatre, Sens fans have more to read about than most. If you ultimately distill your fandom down to the need for entertainment and distraction (as opposed to a sense of forged community) then this is the team for you. Few hockey teams can capture our attention without playing hockey the way the Ottawa Senators can. And for that, as a fan and writer, I am grateful.
On getting inside Dorion’s brain
It’s a dangerous game trying to see the world through the eyes of another and I had abandoned writing about this thought a few times already, However, with Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Duclair, and (kind of) Mike Hoffman now having homes for the upcoming season, I still want to try to unpack my thoughts on the market right now and how it pertains to Dorion’s Vision (TM). A while back I wrote about some skilled forwards the Senators could employ to round out the roster and of the five that I listed, three now have contracts. All three, much like Alex Galchenyuk in Ottawa and Duclair in Florida will make under $2M. A lot of players with 20-30 goal potential (and also Taylor Hall) had to settle for one- or two-year contracts in 2021. And while this does pertain largely to the economic realities of the pandemic (and miserly owners) I can’t shake the impression that market trends affected player values here compared to defenders and two-way centres.
This player prototype that we’ve seen in different iterations to varying degrees in Hoffman, Ryan Dzingel, and Duclair has become too available on the open market. For all the stats-versus-eye-test debating we do online, analytics darlings like Craig Smith and Tyler Toffoli did better getting term and security than snipers did. It seems ridiculous to say but in a league where you need goals to win games, goal-scoring players are not at a premium right now. And whether I agree with this philosophically or not, Dorion certainly feels more of an affinity for role players like Connor Brown and Chris Tierney than he does for pure shooters. And that brings me to the 2020 draft and the results that will lead to inevitable debate for at least the next decade.
After the first thirteen picks, roughly, when we got into the glut of high-risk / high-potential forwards, teams seemed to diverge. While Montreal, New Jersey, and Colorado made their ‘bad’ picks on defence; Toronto, Calgary, and Anaheim rolled the dice on the riskier player prototype that defined this draft class. Several teams, Ottawa included, got in on the high-ceiling / limited guarantee picks in the second round. And this leads me to believe that teams like Ottawa, who took flack for either waiting too long to get those snipers or who passed altogether, foresee another flooded forward market five years down the road. Defenders, meanwhile, rarely make it onto the market these days without either nagging injuries or age-related inefficacy. While Dorion draws a lot of criticism for passing up on offensive talent to accrue young defenders, I get the impression that he see one of those commodities as available on the open market and one being available almost exclusively at the draft. Do I defend Dorion’s decision to draft Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven instead of more talented shooters? No. Can I say definitively that he made the wrong choice? No. Am I starting to understand at a macro-level why general managers covet certain assets even though history says to draft the best player available? Maybe?