How Does the Ottawa Senators Rebuild Stack Up?

The Sens are in Year 5: how are they doing?

Recently, Pierre Dorion was quoted as saying that he hoped this trade deadline would be his last as a seller. The implication here, of course, is that next year the Ottawa Senators will be looking to add players to bolster a play-off run — or at the very least they won’t be seeking to offload veterans with nothing left to play for. As has been said in this space many times before: eventually, the team has to start winning games.

Before the 2020-21 season, I asked the question: where’s the rebuild at, anyways? In the piece, I explained that, based on their roster at the time, I thought the Sens should be well positioned to start making some real noise in the 2022-23 season. Given where things stand today, I’d say that prediction has aged fairly well; although some of my projections about the Sens’ lineup have not proven to be quite as accurate! That hypothetical depth chart is, if nothing else, a good reminder that there was a moment in time when we were all excited about Evgenii Dadonov. Heady times, indeed.

It’s worth asking just how the rebuild stacks up so far. How do teams entering the sixth season of a major roster reconstruction fare? What’s a reasonable benchmark for the Sens? For the purposes of this article, I’ve narrowed the focus to the teams from the past twenty years that underwent a major teardown similar to the one Ottawa has embarked upon — and, importantly, emerged with a reasonably strong team to show for it. There have been teardowns that did not quite work out, or haven’t worked out yet, so we are looking only at the successful teams. Some of the categorization is a bit loose, as you’ll see, but all of the teams chosen have one thing in common: there was at least one season of totally bottoming out, and usually several seasons of ineptitude. Importantly, there needs to have been a major change in the personnel. Next season will be the sixth year of the Sens’ rebuild, so each qualifying team’s record in the sixth season of their rebuild will be considered.

A note on the Edmonton Oilers, who are the obvious omission here: I chose to exclude them because I don’t consider Edmonton to have had a successful rebuild. Between 2006-07 and 2015-16, the Oilers never once qualified for the postseason. Only twice in those ten years did they even finish with more wins than losses. When the losing is sustained over that long a period of time, it’s impossible to say where the rebuild began and ended. The fact that they fell backwards into Connor McDavid is truly their only saving grace. The Sens should not be seeking to emulate the plan, or lack thereof, that has gotten the Oilers to where they are today.

Now that that’s out of the way, the following teams met the criteria for inclusion:

  • The 2007-08 Pittsburgh Penguins: When the powerhouse Pittsburgh teams of the 90’s and early 2000s reached the end of the road, Pittsburgh went through a four year stretch where they never won more than 28 games. During that time, they also drafted Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Kris Letang. I don’t need to remind Sens fans of how the meeting between the two teams in the 2008 play-offs went down.
  • The 2008-09 Chicago Blackhawks: At virtually the same time that the Pens were rising from the ashes, Chicago was initiating their own parallel rebuild. Thanks in large part to drafting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in back-to-back years, they went from also-rans to contenders. From the 2002-03 season through the 06-07 season, Chicago never won more than 31 games but eventually became one of the dominant teams of the last twenty years.
  • The 2009-10 Washington Capitals: The Caps’ downturn was a bit shorter than that of Pittsburgh and Chicago, but for three seasons starting in 2003-04 they averaged a miserable 66 points a season. Fortunately for them, that 2004 draft provided Alex Ovechkin, and, well, the rest is history.
  • The 2021-2022 Colorado Avalanche: I hesitated a bit to include the Avs on this list since several of their players were on the team before their last-place finish in 2016-17, including Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantenen. At the same time, Cale Makar is only on the roster today because of where the Avs drafted in 2017, and Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie were major contributors at the time. In short, Colorado’s lineup has changed dramatically enough since their nadir that I think they merit inclusion here.
  • The 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs: Right up front, I’ll acknowledge that they haven’t won a single play-off series, not even one of those fake Qualifying Round series, and I love that for them. No one should take the inclusion of the Leafs on this list as my backing off my stated position as a Leafs hater. It’s really quite funny that Toronto under Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have built strong teams that keep bowing out in the playoffs in hilarious ways. I hope it continues. They’re also a good team, and their progress in their rebuild is worth measuring against./

Rebuild Stats

Teams5v5 SVA CF%5v5 SVA xGF%PTS%Final Outcome
2007-08 Pittsburgh Penguins28th14th4thLost Stanley Cup Finals
2008-09 Chicago Blackhawks2nd6th6thLost Conference Finals
2009-10 Washington Capitals2nd6th1stLost First Round
2021-22 Colorado Avalanche4th8th1stTBD
2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs6th4th6thTBD

If the Sens are looking to measure up with the most successful rebuilds of the last twenty years, they have a tall task ahead of them: by the time each of the above teams were entering their sixth season, they could be fairly classified as members of the league’s elite. The 2007-08 Pittsburgh Penguins had something of an unconventional statistical profile, but they did make the Finals that season and it became clear in subsequent years just how special of a team they really were.

Something that you notice when looking at the successful rebuild teams is the sudden switch from has-been to serious play-off squad. The Pens jumped from 58 points to 105, the Caps from 70 to 94, the Avs from 48 to 95, and the Leafs from 69 to 95. Only Chicago was a bit more gradual, but even their point total surged from 88 to 104 the first year they qualified for the postseason. When we discuss rebuilds, we often talk about gradual improvement, small incremental improvements in the standings. The reality is that the organizations that successfully move through the process often have it all come together at once: one year they’re scuffling near the bottom of the standings, the next they are making noise in the play-offs. There’s a flip that switches.

One of the tricky parts of evaluating the Sens’ progress is the amount of injuries they’ve sustained to key players. I’m not totally convinced that a full season of health for all of Shane Pinto, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson would have been enough to make Ottawa surefire play-off contenders but maybe they’d be a bit further ahead of where they sit today. In a way, though, Ottawa fits the bill of a team that could be poised to make a big jump next season when all of their star young players will presumably be healthy. Maybe a finish in the top five of the standings is unrealistic considering where we are today, but it’s also the case that that’s what the best teams have achieved in their situation. Between now and the start of training camp for next season, it’s up to Dorion and the rest of the management team to figure out how to surround the core with the pieces necessary to make that type of leap.

It’s time.

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