Building a Playoff Team, Part 1: The Case for Tearing It All Down

The most pessimistic take you'll read on the Sens core

Building a Playoff Team, Part 1: The Case for Tearing It All Down
Photo by Evelyn Clement / Unsplash

If the Ottawa Senators are serious about being a playoff team in the near future, they need to tear this team down to its studs. They're heading into Brady Tkachuk's seventh season with the team, and fourth as captain. Tim Stützle will be in his fifth season. The Sens have had several runs with more or less the same surrounding cast around those two and with nothing to show for it. Pierre Dorion's fingerprints are all over this roster and it's clear he didn't know how to build an NHL lineup. It's time to rip it all apart. Not necessarily rebuild, but redesign the roster.

The clearest argument for this is this year's Florida Panthers. In 2021-22, the Panthers won the President's Trophy and Jonathan Huberdeau finished second in league scoring with 115 points. They were then swept by the Lightning in the second round of the playoffs. If you ever could've made the argument for running it back and hoping for a different result, it would've been with a team who'd just been first place in the league. Instead, they made a huge trade, offloading Huberdeau, top-four defenceman MacKenzie Weegar, and a first-round pick for Matthew Tkachuk. Many thought the Panthers gave up way too much; two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearances later (coupled with the Flames missing the playoffs twice), and nobody thinks that. If you look at the current Panthers roster, half the defencemen weren't on the roster 2 years ago. In addition to Tkachuk, they've also added Evan Rodrigues and Vladimir Tarasenko to their top nine. Huberdeau would've been considered an untouchable, and Weegar would've been the tier just below that. Trading both of them sent a message. Surely if the league-leading Panthers did it, a Sens team that's accomplished nothing should.

The Oilers obviously didn't blow it up to the same extent, but Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl form the most elite core the league has seen since prime Crosby and Malkin. And even still, the Oilers made some significant peripheral moves. Kailer Yamamoto had been a semi-regular linemate of McDavid, and he was dropped (along with Klim Kostin) for nothing. Similarly promised forward Jesse Puljujärvi was also traded for next to nothing. Powerplay fixture Tyson Barrie was turned into two-way stalwart Mattias Ekholm. Jack Campbell was unceremoniously sent to the minors to never return. The Oilers made several noteworthy "addition by subtraction" moves. Teams like the Hurricanes or the Golden Knights, perennial contenders, are always looking to shake up their cores, and aren't afraid to step on the toes of guys who maybe other teams would show loyalty to. The Knights are always in on any name on the tradeblock and are always willing to move on from someone if there's a chance to do something better. In some ways, they've become so good at restructuring their core that acquiring Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl at the deadline doesn't even feel like blowing up their core, when that move would be considered earth-shattering for any other franchise.

This Sens team as constructed is, first of all, not nearly as strong as any of those aforementioned teams. Tim Stützle isn't on the level of Sasha Barkov (though maybe that's a hopeful ceiling). Brady isn't as good as his brother. The other thing is, this team doesn't really have identity. Brady is a skilled, gritty forward, but who else on the team is like that? Ridly Greig, sure, and that's about it. Other than those two, the players are either skilled or gritty but not both. And sure, you can build a team like Tampa in their prime that isn't "rugged", but is instead based around complementary skill, but is that what Ottawa has? On defence, Ottawa has four left-handed puck-moving D, one right-handed complementary shutdown partner, and then some replacement level guys. Four of the team's five NHL-level defencemen are redundant. The top six has one-dimensional guys like Drake Batherson and Josh Norris (if Norris is even healthy), and the most skilled bottom-six guy is, what, Mathieu Joseph with a career high in goals of 13?

In some ways the Sens are kind of handcuffed. The guys who are most tradeable are the guys on reasonable contracts, like Batherson and Joseph. Nobody's offering an asset in return for Joonas Korpisalo or a one-shouldered Josh Norris. Blowing it up requires attaching picks to and retaining salary from those contracts, and requires parting with top talent (or at least underpaid talent). Many will tell you the untouchables on this team are Stützle, Tkachuk, and Sanderson, but I ask you, why? They've all looked good individually, but is the goal to build a team with two guys who annually put up 70+ points and a guy who gets a single fourth-place Norris Trophy vote, or is it to build a team that is a playoff contender? I can temper this by pointing out that Sanderson's only had two NHL seasons, but the other two have had several years to show how they can mould this team, and they haven't. I'm not going to be ridiculous and say that you can't win with a guy like Timmy or Brady, but we've seen that building around the two of them isn't enough in itself to make a winning culture. So if you get the chance to Huberdeau/M. Tkachuk-type swap, you'd have to at least seriously consider it. Things can't get much worse.

If you subscribe to the theory that a player's prime is ages 22 to 26, we've got 2 seasons left before Brady Tkachuk starts to decline. This team's window may be closing before it even opens, and we've wasted too many years on having mediocre defence, AHL-level goaltending, and zero depth. However Staios decides to move forward from here, it can't just be tinkering at the edges. Something is fundamentally flawed with this roster's makeup, and the solution is to make fundamental change. You don't cure an infection by cutting your fingernails. The rot in this roster must be deep — it's the only way to explain why the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts.

I don't envy Staios' job whatsoever. Building a winning roster is really tough. But he has to show he at least has the wherewithal to try. There's a strong case to tear it all down.

If this seems like a deliberately negative piece, that's because it is, trying to make a coherent case for why the roster needs a shakeup. Next week, look out for the deliberately positive counterargument.

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