The Ottawa Senators Have Become My Worst Nightmare
Since 2007, Ottawa has become the team that everyone fears the most: one that isn't good enough for contention, but also is not bad enough to accumulate high draft picks.
Yesterday I gave some optimism, and today I'm here to discuss cold hard facts that may be disheartening. As the season comes to a close, the feeling amongst Ottawa fans is completely the opposite of last year. At this point last year, there was hope that maybe Andrew Hammond could continue his magic during a long playoff run. There was at least some hope that the team could build on this run and be a better team in 2015-16. We obviously know that did not happen, and the mood towards the team has completely changed.
During the years following their Stanley Cup Final appearance there wasn't an urgency to create a contending team as quickly as possible. While the Senators have been building a young core and trying to draft well, they really have not been relevant since 2007. They have just one playoff series win since the 2007-08 season, and they have never been bad enough to bottom out and acquire some high-end talent. That is why the Senators organization has become my worst nightmare: a team that is perennially stuck in the middle that can't afford a complete tear down.
Wayne Scanlan had a great article a few weeks ago about how Ottawa being a mediocre team has sort of snuck up on us. It's been nine years since they even had a chance to go deep into the playoffs. In 2013 there was some hope that they could upset the Penguins, but they were no contest for Pittsburgh.
From the early 2000's until the Cup run, they were a force to be reckoned with every single season. Now the goal is to simply get in the playoffs as a wildcard team and hope for the best since "anything can happen." Yet we know how foolish that is, because even an 8th seed like the Los Angeles Kings wasn't really an 8th seed. They under-performed tremendously in the regular season in 2011-12 and had all the pieces to win a Cup.
In today's NHL the only way you are going to win is if you are truly a top 5-7 talent level team or a bunch of high seeds get knocked out early like they did in 2005-06 for Carolina. Ottawa has never been close to a top-5 team in the league in the past nine years, and the sad thing is, they have a core to build around. I truly believe that they can be a quality team with some smart moves.
Erik Karlsson is the stud blue-liner you need, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are first line talents, Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad are solid top-6 centres, Bobby Ryan can still give you 50+ points, and Craig Anderson is still a solid starting goaltender. It's not as if there are no positives, as I can find plenty (like we identified yesterday). The issue is that they have never had the depth to compete with top teams, and the defense has never been close to good enough.
In the nine years since 2007, they haven't taken a real step forward. In 2007-08 they started out 15-2-0, but faltered miserably the rest of the way. The year after that they were about as good as they are this year, and sent out a lineup with tons of holes. 2009-10 represented a positive change, but 2010-11 brought things back to Earth. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons gave fans optimism with the young core that was being built, but in the three seasons since they have managed to make the playoffs just once.
The 2013 season was a high point, but many of us were simply blinded by the teams crazy .935 SV%, which made the defense look like a non-issue. Since that season, they have not taken a legitimate step forward to become a team that has a real chance at doing damage in the playoffs.
So how have they done in the past nine years compared to other teams? I made a table with every NHL teams playoff round wins, top-5 picks, and top-5 regular season finishes since 2007-08, and it does not look good for Ottawa:
|Playoff Round Wins||Top 5 Picks||Top 5 Finishes|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||0||2*||0|
|Detroit Red Wings||10||0||2|
|Los Angeles Kings||10||2||0|
|New Jersey Devils||3||1||1|
|New York Islanders||0||5||0|
|New York Rangers||9||0||2|
|San Jose Sharks||6||0||4|
|St. Louis Blues||1||1||4|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||5||2||1|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||0||3*||0|
*Boston's top-5 pick was from Toronto. Also, as of now Calgary, Columbus, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver are in the bottom-5 in the standings for this season.
There are 11 teams with one or zero playoff round wins since 2007, but all of them have varying circumstances. We know that the Oilers and Leafs have been extremely poorly run in the past, and the Jets (as the Thrashers) were as well. The Sabres have been in flux for a while, but they may be a force quite soon if more of their prospects pan out. The Blues and Islanders have not fared well in the playoffs, but they both have lots of talent, and St. Louis has had four top-5 finishes so they certainly are contenders.
The rest include the Flames, Avalanche, Blue Jackets, and Panthers, who have all had their struggles at some point. The Panthers at least have a chance this year to do some damage, while the Avalanche have the ability to be a pretty good team if their front office can figure out how to run a team.
The one thing I find interesting about this table is that Minnesota is the only other team besides Ottawa that has never finished in the bottom or top five. I would say Minnesota has a similar issue to Ottawa in that they have hit their ceiling as a team and really need to make some big changes if they want to improve.
The Senators are not in a good spot right now as they have been this same middling team for years, and something has to change. Either they add very good depth players to make all their lines competent, bottom out and trade everyone, or hope that a star player falls in their lap. Drafting Auston Matthews is exactly what the organization needs right now, because they simply can't matchup against Chicago with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane or Washington with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
While having some quality players on the roster, it would be almost impossible to trade everyone and start over. But if the team isn't going to spend more or acquire better role players, then they have no chance at winning until the core is past its prime and they are traded. The thing is, the internal budget is clearly holding them back, and I can't see them competing with these perennial contenders while they are spending $5-10 million fewer.
It's certainly not encouraging to see what has transpired for almost a decade. It's not as if getting top-5 picks is going to be a sure-fire way to be a good team (as Edmonton has shown), but there is a hope that you can get a franchise caliber player. Mika Zibanejad was a 6th overall pick, and he has been a good player in his career. However, he isn't somebody that Ottawa couldn't miss out on, he's simply a solid young player.
Of course I realize that my table of information is not necessarily a perfect way to evaluate what has happened with the team, but it illustrates that they really have been in no man's land for far too long. They haven't gone through a true rebuild due to their financial incentives, yet they have refused to push towards contention. There are teams that have less playoff wins than Ottawa, but many of them are at least building a team that is taking steps forward. I love some of the players on this team, but they aren't being supplemented by anything at all.
I actually wrote this article before Bryan Murray stepped down and the coaching staff was fired, which is an encouraging sign that maybe they realize next year cannot be more of the same. However, my message still remains the same because the results speak for themselves. I definitely feel better than when I initially wrote this, but the team itself needs improvement as well. It is Pierre Dorion's job to make some significant moves this summer, and he has to try something different.
It's hard to see how this team is going to be a contender in the near-future unless they begin to spend. Getting Colin White and Thomas Chabot to be quality players, drafting in the top-3, adding to the defense, and hiring more outside staff would give them a chance, but I doubt all of those things will happen. It's just extremely frustrating to watch a team preach patience and say all along that a good young team is being built, when really, we have been waiting around for nine years for the next great Senators team.
It's not as if we are in the year 2013 where we can say that we have a loaded system with players like Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Cody Ceci, Mark Stone et al., because they are already completely developed and don't have much higher ceilings to reach. Now the system is quite barren besides White and Chabot, whether fans want to admit that or not. You can always draft and develop good players in the coming years, but this team needs to put a better product on the ice immediately or at the very least, in 2017-18.
I think it's pretty clear that with this group of players, their ceiling is a wildcard team. Dorion and the organization need to recognize that, and either make a real push to acquire quality players, or at the very least add solid depth that makes the bottom six and bottom pairing much better. I have some faith that he will be a better GM than Murray, but he needs to make an impact right away.
I always use to think that it would be the absolute worst if my team was always a playoff bubble team but never got a high draft pick. For a while that team was Calgary, and it has also been Carolina for a long time. Without even realizing it, the Senators have now become that team that I fear the most. I am cautiously optimistic that Dorion will bring some change, but we don't know that for sure just yet.
Perhaps some of you don't mind watching wheels spinning in the mud, but I sure can't. Call me negative, call me a bad fan. But I need to see some progression, because this has gone on long enough. It's all up to Dorion, and hopefully he begins his tenure by hiring an experienced, quality coach.