A long streak of bad luck, poor timing and multiple crises have led some to call the Ottawa Senators 2017-18 season the darkest in franchise history. For most of last year, crisis after crisis struck the Senators on and off the ice. As one predicament faded, another appeared. To top it off, the Senators finished the season with an abysmal record of 28-43-11 for a total of 67 points. This was bad enough to rank the Sens 30th out of 31 teams in the NHL.
Generally, most teams disappointed about their season enter the offseason with a list of changes. These changes can involve tactics like replacing the head coach, buying out player contracts, signing free agent talent or engaging in trades to address weaknesses. Using these tactics, teams can add talent, improve team culture and chemistry or employ a different coaching philosophy.
Despite these options, Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion has done little this summer to improve the Senators. This should concern Sens fans when considering what’s happened in the rest of the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Power Surge
This offseason has been a busy time for NHL teams in the Atlantic Division.
Toronto Maple Leafs
On July 1, 2018, the Leafs successfully landed the biggest free agent in recent memory when they signed John Tavares to a seven-year deal worth a total of $77 million. Tavares joins a rebuilt and re-energized Leafs team, which includes budding stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander along with experienced veterans Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri. In 2018-19, the Leafs have a good chance to make the playoffs and, depending on who is asked, they may also be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Across Lake Ontario and the Niagara Peninsula, the Sabres have been active. At the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Sabres selected top prospect Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick. The Sabres later engaged in two high-profile trades. The first shipped Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for a package that included veterans Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, prospect Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick. In the second trade, the Sabres acquired Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes for prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks. After years of disappointment, optimism blooms in Buffalo.
Even the Panthers, who missed last year’s playoffs by a single point, improved their roster this offseason. The Panthers biggest upgrade came from the San Jose Sharks through the acquisition of former Senator and sniper Mike Hoffman. Hoffman immediately improves a young Panthers team and adds scoring ability on their left wing. In the past four years in Ottawa, Hoffman has averaged 26 goals per season.
The Atlantic Division is already home to the talented Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. Add the roster improvements to the Leafs, Sabres, and Panthers and it becomes clear that this division is playing to win. In 2018-19, the Atlantic Division could be the most competitive division in hockey.
Uncertain Times in Ottawa
As training camp approaches, clouds of uncertainty are rolling in on the Senators.
Ownership and Relocation
First, speculation has been fanned by campaigns like #MelnykOut and comments made by former captain and Senators All Star Daniel Alfredsson. That chirping aside, there are no guarantees of success in the negotiations between the RendezVous LeBreton Group and the National Capital Commission. RendezVous LeBreton is a major redevelopment project aimed at revitalizing the LeBreton Flats in downtown Ottawa. A key feature of this proposal is the construction of a future NHL arena to relocate the Senators from Kanata.
Uncertainty hovers above the Ottawa roster. These questions start with legendary All Star, two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman and team captain Erik Karlsson; and they end with the 24 other contracts in the Senators organization set to expire on July 1, 2019. Included in these expiring contracts are veterans like Matt Duchene and Mark Stone.
Earlier this summer, starting goaltender Craig Anderson reportedly requested a trade. If true, the Senators will need to find a new starter immediately. If false, a new starting goaltender may still be in the Senators best interest. Anderson turns 38 next year and went 23-25-6 last season with 3.32 goals against average and a .898 save percentage.
Perhaps the most suspenseful consideration will be the year-long uncertainty around the final value of the first-round pick that Dorion traded to the Colorado Avalanche last year in the Duchene trade. The 2018-19 season will determine first-round position of the pick, but if the Senators’ season results in projected generational talent Jack Hughes ending up in Colorado after next year’s draft, it will be a wincing development for Ottawa fans.
There’s one more thing. The Senators’ logo might be changing. Again. A story written by Steve Creamer indicates that nearly everything surrounding the Senators is a guessing game: http://http://news.sportslogos.net/2018/04/30/ottawa-senators-undecided-about-which-logo-to-use-going-forward/
While teams around the NHL prepare for a fresh pursuit of Lord Stanley, the Senators’ embrace of the status quo is perplexing. The biggest question is whether the Senators will follow through on their promise of a major rebuild. If RendezVous Lebreton becomes a reality, the physical rebuild will literally start from the ground up. But a competitive rebuild is what Ottawa fans want most to see.
That’s been promised: Six months ago, the Ottawa Senators chief executive officer, owner, and governor Eugene Melnyk penned a letter to Ottawa Senator fans. Melnyk wrote:
I have every intention of rebuilding the Senators to become the finest team in the NHL and bringing a Stanley Cup to Ottawa.
Half a year later, the Senators roster looks roughly the same. As a new season approaches, the patience of Ottawa fans may be the biggest uncertainty.
–Billy Morrison lives in Ottawa and covers the Ottawa Senators and the NHL for Full Press Coverage.