So much of how we approach sports fandom is dictated by expectations. It's commonly accepted wisdom that the most enjoyable time to be a fan of an NHL team is when the local heroes go on an unforeseen play-off run. When your expectations are low, any amount of success feels like a bonus. I wouldn't argue too much with anyone who said that the Ottawa Senators' shocking march to within one goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final remains one of their personal highlights. It’s fun to cheer for the underdog.
It’s a different feeling when your team is supposed to be good. When a victory was not the combination of a series of unpredictable events (and probably a healthy dose of luck), but rather the output of a skilled group of players working together to deliver on-ice excellence, that feeling, to me at least, is the best that it can be as a sports fan. Although I'm old enough to remember when the team first came to town, I truly came of age as a Sens fan, like so many others, during the late 90's and early 2000's when the franchise gradually built itself into a perennial contender. The failure of that group to win the biggest prize was of course painful, but the knowledge that I was going to see one of the best teams in the league play every time I turned on the TV is a high that I've been chasing as a fan since 2007.
Sixteen years, nine of which I've spent writing for this site, is a long time. This may come across as fatalistic: let me assure you, I have never stopped cheering for the team (though there have been some trying moments, let me tell you). Finally, in October 2023, as the regular season is set to begin, I have something approaching the same sensation: this edition of the Ottawa Senators is supposed to be good. The roster is perhaps imperfect but it has undeniable strengths. It’s exciting.
A lot of digital ink has been spilled on this site previewing the team's line-up. If you'd like a refresher, Trevor had an excellent write-up of the forwards on Monday, and Ross broke down what we can expect from the defense and goalies on Tuesday. If you're curious about what the outside world thinks of the Sens, almost every publication, analyst, public model, all have the team as something approaching a coinflip to qualify for the postseason. The general consensus is that, yes, the team is improved, but the Eastern Conference, in particular the Atlantic Division, is an absolute bear and it's going to take a lot just to make the play-offs. If Ottawa lives up to their own lofty goals and makes it to the postseason, it will be an impressive accomplishment.
At the same time, success is never promised, and the Sens are without their presumptive second and third line centres to start the season. Pierre Dorion’s rebuild has delivered the foundations of a team that could contend for years to come, but his handling of the salary cap has been poor to say the least. Little things that may not have mattered to a rebuilding franchise are paramount to giving a contender the final edge it needs. Expectations will change for management now too, because the job is hardly done.
If last year was the first in a long time that most fans had hope for the year ahead, now there are real expectations — and the accompanying pressure that comes with them. That’s a good thing. As fans, nothing is ever promised but we should always be asking our teams to push for excellence. We suffer through the lows together to make the highs that much more enjoyable.
At the start of the 2023-24 campaign, I’m readying myself for the long haul. I’m expecting this to be a long and fruitful season for the Sens. When the team’s social media drops the pre-game hype video for tonight‘s showdown with the Carolina Hurricanes, the anticipation will be real — and so will the expectations. That’s the big picture for this team today: they have real expectations. Welcome back, Sens fans, it’s been a while.