Knocking on the Door: A Recap of Good Sens News Over the Past Year
So the Senators were eliminated from playoff contention in a ridiculous 7-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in game 79 of the season. If you’re anything like me, you may have written off any idea of playoff contention after a brutal November stretch, but found yourself getting pulled back in like Michael Corleone in Godfather Part III as the Senators managed to make it interesting and mathematically possible right to the very end.
Things were looking so good that fans started a “We Want Playoffs” chant only a few weeks ago before an avalanche of injuries and overwhelmed goaltending did them in.
Blame coaching, goaltending, inexperience, voodoo curses, what have you. We have all summer to dissect the season and argue on Twitter over what changes need to be made.
Nah, I’m here to tell you that if you were on the bandwagon this year, you got on just at the right time, because not only was this a great news year on the way to a bright future, but you got in on the ground floor. After 5 miserable years mired in the basement as all the stars on the team got sent packing, this year was an exceptionally positive step in the right direction from top to bottom. It sure helps that we’re comparing this to the standards of the previous five seasons to be sure.
What a difference a year makes. Dealing with three or four meaningless games in nice April weather instead of 40 or 50 while you shovel your driveway after a 30 cm dump of snow is a nice step to take. The trick is to not get stuck in the mushy middle of teams, and make their stay at the top of the bottom third of the league a short one. It won’t be quite as rosy a picture if I’m writing a season-long recap without playoffs to look forward to next year.
Since you’re probably feeling a little down as a sixth straight spring without playoff hockey in the Nation’s Capital looms, this seems like a great time to do a good news recap from the past year. There’s been a lot of good news to go through, so strap in.
The conclusion of the Melnyk era:
The back half of Eugene Melnyk’s ownership of the team was marred by public spats with public officials and potential partners, unhinged behaviour, the alienating of current and former stars, mostly poor on-ice results, and if recent reports are to be believed, the leveraging of debt around the team to the tune of $450 million.
The team was simply not being run well and didn’t have the resources to compete. The situation was not sustainable, and regardless of the very sad circumstances of how it happened, a change in ownership was required for the long-term health of this franchise.
Even under the direction of an interim board of directors assigned by Melnyk’s estate, things got better immediately, in a multitude of ways. Every Sens fan needs to read The Athletic report on Melnyk’s ownership (even if it’s on a free trial). The positive, the negative, the crazy, the hurtful, and the generosity. Melnyk was a lot of things, and it is undeniable that he saved the team in a very shaky era. We owe him a debt of gratitude for putting in a board of directors and management team who kept things running in this time of great change.
Summers and Winters of Pierre and a Foundation for the Future:
The post-Melnyk era kicked off with an off-season the likes of which lifelong fans of this team have never seen. No one of consequence was sent packing at the deadline or in the off-season. Pending UFA Nick Paul was at least traded for a useful roster player in Mathieu Joseph instead of a few late draft picks and magic beans. Travis Hamonic was brought in for a mid-round pick that was derided at the time but seen as a savvy move that will likely see him re-sign in Ottawa for a smaller contract. The additions started slowly, but soon became a landslide.
Then the summer came. Trades for Alex DeBrincat and Cam Talbot came in through the news wire. An unrestricted free agent signing of Claude Giroux was instantly the best in franchise history. Recognizable names with pedigree. Brought in as free agents, or for draft picks instead of roster players. Actually taking on salary, and plenty of it. You tell a Sens fan a year ago that we’re getting those three guys, for the price the Senators paid for them, and they’d tell you to turn up the difficulty level on NHL Be a GM mode on your PlayStation. This is doubly true when you don’t include hindsight on the Talbot trade.
Franchise cornerstones bought in and signed long-term, always with Pierre Dorion’s smirking anti-poker face in the posted images on social media as these young guys held a pen to a piece of paper. 35 goal scorer Josh Norris, useful but utterly snakebitten third-line speedster and PK specialist Mathieu Joseph, and 21-year-old 85+ point scorer Tim Stutzle joined the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson as young, talented players who bought in to the vision of this team and the community that embraced them.
Dorion’s mostly stellar work continued into the season. Getting the Swiss-Army Knife that is Artem Zub signed to a reasonable 4 year contract. He turned Nikita Zaitsev’s albatross $4.5 million cap hit into Jakob Chychrun’s $4.6 million hit while giving up roughly the same low ball haul that was paid to bring in Debrincat. Maybe he did have a better poker face than we all thought as he waited out Arizona’s insane demands to pennies on the dollar from the initial asking price.
The outgoing players weren’t the slam dunk the incoming ones were, but were smart bets nonetheless. Say what you will about Filip Gustavsson’s blossoming in Minnesota coinciding with Cam Talbot’s utter implosion in Ottawa, but it was a move that was universally praised when it was made. Paying a few picks and %25 of Matt Murray’s salary to go to a divisional rival to let in 4 goals a game when he’s not injured was a hilarious and tidy piece of business too. Might have been nice to keep Connor Brown around though. Buying out Colin White was the right move, showing that Dorion is willing to cut bait with popular players without a big role.
If the biggest question mark on his resume over the past year is his loyalty to DJ Smith after another disastrous November, I’d say that’s a pretty good track record, especially if Smith gets replaced this off-season. Ryan Bowness has been a nice upgrade on the pro-scouting/assistant GM side of things.
Dorion’s best move? Probably keeping expectations for this team and his own excitement in check. As much as we’re all sick of hearing the phrase “meaningful games in March”, it sure as heck beats hearing “We’re a Team” or “my proudest day as a GM” after shipping out a beloved player for futures. He set the right expectations that this team matched, and he’s definitely bought himself at least one more year of employment under new ownership.
The Debates and Focus Around the Team Have Changed:
You don’t need to go back far to find that the existentialist dread and pessimism around the team were pretty toxic in the past few years.
You’ll notice that a lot of these questions have gone from a place of “Can we have any nice things” to “Should we do this because we can now?” I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be asking “Should we do this” questions instead of “Can we do this?” type questions. That’s an earth-shaking change in mindset that makes this team fun to follow again and shows that the team has regained some leverage over its destiny and direction instead of being a powerless victim of circumstance.
The team even handled a very uncomfortable Alex Formenton situation as best they could, a situation that I’m sure they would have face-planted into a quagmire of negative press in the past. Formenton notwithstanding, the biggest drama this season was the dismissal of our AHL coach in Trent Mann. We’ve come a long way from Hoffman/Karlsson drama, billion-dollar counter-lawsuits, and Ubergate.
Here’s a list of what the questions used to be circa 2018-2022 vs. what they are now.
Will the team be able to survive in Ottawa/Kanata or will it relocate? vs. Which site is best for a new cutting-edge arena?
Can we possibly keep Erik Karlsson or Mark Stone or even JG Pageau? vs. Should we sign DeBrincat long-term?
How will we hit the cap floor? vs. How will we squeeze all these players under the cap?
Can we keep any of our young guns? vs. How much should we pay them and for how long?
Can we get a top 3 pick if we lose enough? vs. What minor tweaks in the bottom half of the lineup and in net will get us to the playoffs next year?
Will Eugene ever sell the team? vs. Which competing billionaire group will pay the largest sale price in NHL history for this team?
Is anyone actually interested in owning this team? vs. How much longer till Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Alfredsson own a share? (Bonus question, can the Melnyk family please keep a share of the team as Anna and Olivia seem like quality and intelligent young women with a passion for the team?)
Have the fans quit on the team? vs. How will we accommodate all the fans in terms of transit to and from a new arena?
When will Thomas Chabot have any help? vs. Is Thomas Chabot even our number 1 D any more?
What spare parts will we create a patchwork roster this year with? vs. How will we get all these good players enough power play or 5 on 5 ice time?
No one wanted to be out of the playoffs this season, but a double digit point improvement is nothing to sneeze at. Last year the Senators missed the playoffs by 27 points. This year, that gap will be reduced to a single digit point total. Instead of wondering what whole sale changes are necessary to even make the team competitive again, we’re wondering things like “What if the Sens didn’t leave points on the table against inferior opponents like Columbus, Chicago and Vancouver” and “What if our goaltending didn’t implode” and “What if we had a fully healthy roster at any point this season”.
While it’s not a question per se, the fans in the stands even reflected this change in aura by going from “Fire DJ” chants to “We want Playoffs” after Chychrun’s arrival. Soon my friends. Soon. On both those points.
We don’t need to agree on the answers to the questions on the right side of the previous list, but I think we can all agree these are much nicer topics to discuss.
The Fans Came Back:
No, it’s not back to 102% capacity like it was in the Pizza Line heyday, yet. However, the Sens have become a draw at the box office again, averaging over 16,000 fans a game and selling out several games that weren’t temporary road games against Toronto and Montreal. The team had gotten a head start on Covid lockdowns by resembling a cavernous library and sub 10,000 fans before the pandemic.
Attending games this season, I never thought I’d be so happy to be caught in that prison of a parking lot, wondering if we can make it to our seats in time for puck drop or wondering how long we’ll be stuck in traffic after the game, compared to driving right in. The atmosphere in the arena has new life, and the players themselves comment on the difference and it’s usually visible in their play.
On a personal note, I had the privilege of celebrating my own bachelor party at a Senators game this past October, one where my 25-strong crew decided to dress me up in a ridiculous Spartan outfit only slightly less embarrassing than the Sens Spartan from 2008. Google it if you don’t remember, and no, the costume was NOT my idea. The Sens on this day would trounce the Arizona Coyotes by a score of 6-2, the same game where Josh Norris would injure his shoulder and miss most of the year.
The game was an amazing experience that made me feel more connected to my favourite team than I have in nearly 20 years. You may have actually seen it. Whenever the talking heads on TV discuss anything Pierre Dorion-related this season, they show a clip of some doofus in a way-too-revealing centurion outfit taking a picture with Dorion in the luxury suites.
I’m that doofus.
My bachelor party crew arranged for me to:
Get a tour of the lesser seen sections of the arena
Freeze my toes off riding the Zamboni in that ridiculous get up during the intermission
Have some cool chats with Marc Methot (pictured below), Claire Hanna, Spartacat, and Bruce Garrioch.
I somehow managed to see all six Senators’ goals with my own eyes despite being pulled in every direction away from the suite. Side note, the Sens also won on my wedding day on November 12th. It felt like this team was speaking to me personally this year, and I was able to recapture that childlike feeling of wonder being wow-ed by your favorite team. Maybe this experience makes me give them a lot more runway on those more frustrating losses this year.
I’m sharing this story, not to show off or brag, but rather to show what it looks like when fans connect with their team. When personal milestones coincide with what the team is doing. This year was like having a nice pint with an old friend after years of arm’s length distance and seeing them overcome some hardship to come out healthy on the other side. It’s obvious that I’m not alone in that sentiment within the larger fan base, although I’m probably alone in embarrassing fashion choices at Sens games.
The Kids are Alright:
We’re going to rapid fire it here. Tim Stutzle and Brady Tkachuk are now 80 point scorers. Drake Batherson and Alex Debrincat are knocking on the door of 70 points, the latter of which just set a career high in assists in a season filled with missed shots and posts. Josh Norris has already scored 35 goals in this league. All these guys are 25 and under, being guided by ageless 1,000 point scorer Claude Giroux and the savvy Derick Brassard before his nasty leg injury.
Shane Pinto and his 20 goals in his rookie(ish) season looks like a young Mike Fisher in that 3rd line centre role. Jake Sanderson is a dark horse Calder candidate and a likely future Norris contender who has arguably already seized the No.1 defenceman role. He joins a quality top 4 defence, one that we haven’t seen all healthy at the same time yet, the oldest of which is a 27 year old Artem Zub. For the criticism Thomas Chabot has taken this year, he has potential, with proper usage/deployment moving forward, to be the best second pair defenceman in the NHL. There’s a pair of raw but stud goalies in Mads Sogaard and Leevi Merilainen who need more seasoning, but whose timelines match this team’s upcoming contention window.
It also bears mentioning that effort was never a problem this season. Just look at how the team reacted as they all left the bench to mob Claude Giroux for his 1,000th point in the final home game of the season. The team played hard through bad bounces, terrible injury luck, seven different goalies often providing substandard starts, and the utterly unlikelihood of even getting back in the race at the end of November. They refused to be pushed around and came to each others’ defence.
These aren’t a bunch of floaters padding their stats here. This is a team that plays for each other, and they wanted it all season long. That bodes well for future runs. Even the 7-2 game against the Panthers that was the final dagger for their hopes came in a game where they outshot their opponent 58 to 30.
The Bridges with Alumni Have Been Rebuilt:
The boys are back! Daniel Alfredsson is dropping ceremonial pucks, skating and pseudo-coaching with injured players, and openly musing about taking on ownership and management roles as soon as next season.
Chris Neil had his number (deservedly) retired in a wonderful ceremony that ended with him leaving through the penalty box and remains with the organization. Chris Phillips is back after bring throwing his hands up in frustration in a previous role. Wade Redden dusted the cobwebs off the forgotten Ring of Honour and works with the team as a development coach.
Marc Methot has become one of the authoritative voices in media covering the team. Bobby Ryan and Jason York are also covering the team and staying connected. Even Derick Brassard came back to be a valued community member and veteran presence on the ice.
While it won’t happen, the fact that a reunion with Erik Karlsson was kiboshed by current roster construction and cap space instead of bad blood is a wonderful development. Mark my words, he’ll be back in the organization in one capacity or another in the coming years. Maybe on the ice after his contract expires, maybe alongside his buddy Alfie in management. That seemed impossible a year ago.
Deadpool is a Sens fan:
If Ryan Reynolds doesn’t own a piece of this team by opening night next season, someone royally messed up. Who knew that his Twitter handle @VanCityReynolds referred to Vanier instead of Vancouver? *citation needed* When an A-list, Marvel movie starring, sexiest man alive winning, other professional team owning, multi-faceted savvy businessman with more Instagram followers than every NHL team combined is leading the charge to buy the team, you make it happen. I mean, Deadpool is already wearing Sens colors. It’s a natural fit.
The Heavy Lifting is Done, Only Tweaking Remains:
As recently as a month ago, it seemed like the team would never be able to acquire that coveted top-four defenceman. We’re at a stage now where the roster is the envy of most of the league, despite missing out on a playoff spot. There’s nary a bad contract on the roster, and there’s still room for growth and improvement there. Can Tim Stutzle be a 100-point scorer by next season? Sure why not? Can Brady Tkachuk score 40 and make the opposition lose their minds and focus in the playoffs? Count on it.
Instead, the changes that are required are relatively easy compared to the hardship of years past. An established number 1 goalie on a medium term contract is an obvious one and there’s enough upcoming free agents or available netminders on the off-season goalie carousel to address that. Bottom-six scoring was an issue all season, but these are the kinds of guys you can develop or acquire for mid-round picks. The core is in place, mostly locked up long term.
Another fairly simple change to make moving forward is coaching. I would like to tip my hat to DJ Smith, as I now believe he was absolutely the ideal coach to turn these raw, young, talented players into professional hockey players on the ice, and quality young men off of it. Now it’s time for a coach with a better sense of systemic play, makes better roster and deployment decisions, and who is more capable of quick adjustments. These young guys needed a best friend as a coach to help them navigate these darker days. Now they need someone who will mould them into a cohesive unit and play a hard but intelligent game when the intensity is turned up. This should also be a straightforward change with several intriguing options available this summer.
Maybe the team just needed to get the last of the bad karma and luck out of their systems this year. Even a simple regression to the mean and average but healthy goaltending makes this team a near lock for a playoff spot next year.
In Conclusion, This is the Conclusion (to the Dark Days)
A new era begins, a really bright one. As you reflect on the disappointment of another “lost” season, I urge you to look at everything we’ve gained in the big picture. Get hyped, being a Sens fan is cool again. Rivals are looking over their shoulder at the Sens rapidly gaining in the rearview mirror as their rosters age and championship windows start slipping shut. The pieces are in place, the core is locked up, new deep-pocketed and hopefully passionate ownership is on the way along with it a centralized arena that cements the team in Ottawa for decades to come. A team full of players that play for each other and represent the market proudly.
To quote Bob Marley, “Baby don’t worry, because every little thing is gonna be all right.”
By Andrew Sztein | Sens Nation Hockey