When the Ottawa Senators made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017, fans of the team hoped that the deep playoff run might just be the first of many to come. Certainly there was some cause for concern beneath the surface, by almost any shot or scoring chance metric that Senators team was not very good, but there was also elite talent up and down the line-up: Erik Karlsson had a legitimate claim as the defenseman in the game and was one of the NHL’s most fearsome talents, Mark Stone was coming into his own as a dominant two-way winger, and Mike Hoffman was a goal-scoring dynamo. Kyle Turris, a healthy Clarke McArthur, and Bobby Ryan helped round out a formidable top 6. Just three years later, not a single player from that squad remains on the roster and the Sens are coming off seasons in which they have finished second-last, last, and second-last. After the disastrous 2017-18 season, the Sens traded Karlsson and kicked off a full-fledged rebuild. The pain of the two intervening seasons was sold to fans as what was necessary to build the team back into a contender for years to come. Which brings us to our question: on October 28th, 2020, after all of the suffering of the last three seasons, just how far along in this rebuild are we? Is the pay-off coming soon?
Hockey is a team game, but it’s also the case that the teams that are consistently at the top of the standings have super-star talent on their side. Thinking of the teams that have consistently racked up the most wins in the Eastern Conference over the last few seasons, the influence of their top players is apparent: the Boston Bruins are led by all-world centre Patrice Bergeron and winger Brad Marchand. The Tampa Bay Lightning have four of maybe the best 30 players in the world in Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos. I don’t think I need to go through who drives the bus in Pittsburgh and Washington. Stars matter.
Even when merely compared to the 2017 edition of the Sens, the 2020 squad doesn’t quite stack up. Thomas Chabot for all of his gifts, isn’t Karlsson — especially not the 2017 version of Karlsson. The same comparison is basically true for Brady Tkachuk and Stone; I love Tkachuk but I don’t see him ever reaching Stone’s hallowed heights. This is not a slight to Tkachuk, who is an incredibly valuable contributor and a legitimate top line forward. Not everyone can be Mark Stone. No, if the Sens are going to get a true game-breaker, Tim Stutzle seems like the most likely, and perhaps only true, candidate at this moment in time. In this regard, I feel like the Sens have fallen a bit short: without one more prospect that projects as a true star, I worry they won’t quite have the horses when push comes to shove.
That being said, where the Sens might lack in elite talent they have built one of the deepest prospect pools in the league. Looking just at the forwards, it’s not hard to imagine the 2022-23 Ottawa Senators icing a forward group that looks something like this:
Abramov - Norris - Batherson
Formenton - L. Brown - White
Balcers - Paul - Brown
There’s obviously a lot of fluidity, maybe Ridly Greig or Shane Pinto will make a case for their inclusion for instance, but a small change here or there wouldn’t change the central fact: the Sens have a deep talent pool at forward. Notice that I chose the year 2022-23 as a starting point. That would leave most of the key talent up front somewhere between the ages of 20 and 24, the point at which most forwards begin to have their biggest impact at the NHL level. Expecting teenagers, apart from the truly generational talents like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, to have big impacts on winning teams simply isn’t realistic. Even if this forward group turns out as well as it possibly could, the next two seasons will likely be difficult up front.
On the blueline, the Sens look even better. Yes, there still remain a number of question marks but Chabot’s evolution into one of the league’s top rearguards gives the team a big head-start in their plan to develop from the back. Much is yet to be determined, but the thought of a top six group on the back end comprised of Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Christian Wolanin, Jake Sanderson, and Lassi Thomson is enticing to say the least. As with the forward group, it’s difficult to envision the six names mentioned above carrying the Sens to contention in the next two seasons, but incorporating all six into the line-up in three years’ time is imminently achievable.
Finally, the future of goaltending in Ottawa strikes me as both the most and least certain position past this upcoming season. Matt Murray was acquired to be the goalie to lead the Sens back to contention, but the 26 year-old two-time Stanley Cup champion was only available because he was coming off what can be described as a pretty terrible season. After signing a four year contract extension with Ottawa, Murray will almost certainly be on the roster when this hypothetical contention window opens up but in what capacity? Like their forwards, the Sens don’t have a can’t miss superstar goalie prospect but their system is deep with potential options. Any of Marcus Hogberg, Filip Gustavsson, Joey D’Accord or Mads Sogaard could be the starting goalie in 2022-23 and I wouldn’t be surprised. The future is far from set, but between the veteran Murray and the promising youngsters I’d be surprised if the team couldn’t find at least league-average goaltending.
After three years of wandering through the proverbial desert, the outline of a good hockey team is starting to take shape. When the Sens embarked on their plan to tear the team down to the studs, fans understood that there would be lean times ahead. The reward would only be several years later; this is the compact we make as fans of a team that has made the choice to not be competitive in the present so as to maximize the chance of being competitive in the future. As the plan comes into focus, I feel fairly confident in saying the Sens’ organization has a chance to return to contender status by 2022-23. There are issues that need to be addressed, most pressingly left wing and the lack of game-breaking skill up front, but the outline is there. So how far along in this rebuild are we? I’d say about sixty percent of the way: three years down, two to go. There’s light at the end of the tunnel now, and that’s more than I could say twelve months ago.