Yes, the Ottawa Senators currently occupy the space reserved for the team that is the joke of the NHL.
They’ve traded away the rights to what could be the first overall pick in the NHL draft. Their owner is hated by members of the fan base. They seem to be frittering away a chance to move from the suburbs to prime real estate on the edge of downtown.
Laugh away, but remember that the Senators are also Canada’s most successful team of the salary-cap era:
- Eight playoff appearances (tied with Montreal) since 2005-06.
- Seven playoff rounds won (Montreal and Vancouver have six each).
- A Stanley Cup appearance in 2007 — matching Vancouver (2011) and Edmonton (2006).
How far are they from getting back to being at least a playoff contender? Well, even without a shot at the next generational talent to come along — forward Jack Hughes is the consensus top prospect, and the Avalanche own Ottawa’s pick — the Senators don’t think they’re far off at all.
“It can be a little bit quicker than a lot of people are envisioning,” said Senators interim coach Marc Crawford. “If you end up getting young players that progress … if they can play, and come in and be responsible, and can play with speed, and have the courage to really try to be an impactful player every night, then I think the progression is a lot quicker than it was definitely in the 1980s and 1990s and even the early 2000s.
“I think the transition can happen a lot quicker. You need a couple of surprises along the way.”
They’re building around a rookie-of-the-year candidate in 18-year-old Brady Tkachuk, who has 21 goals, and a 22-year-old defenceman in Thomas Chabot, who seems destined for a Norris Trophy one day. He leads a core of blue-liners that also includes up-and-comers Erik Brannstrom, 19, and Christian Wolanin, 24. Even Cody Ceci is only 25 despite having played six seasons in the NHL. Forward Colin White, at 22, is starting to show the promise that made him a first-rounder in 2017.
Meanwhile, the AHL’s Belleville Senators are heading to the Calder Cup playoffs led by forwards Drake Batherson, 20, and Nick Paul, 23. And forward Alex Formenton will soon make the jump from the London Knights.
Wolanin is a bit of a late bloomer, but the rest should be familiar to anyone who watched the draft or world junior hockey championship closely.
“This is a good nucleus,” said Crawford. “They all still need a little bit of seasoning. Whether that happens here or in Belleville, we at least know they’re headed in the right direction and the future is bright.”
That’s not to say the Senators don’t have their work cut out for them. GM Pierre Dorion’s job is safe, at least according to owner Eugene Melnyk. The team is looking to boost its front office with a president of hockey operations. And Crawford remains an “interim” coach with a fuller search to be conducted in the spring. But it’s safe to say the worst is behind them.
“You’ve seen teams go from last place to playoff positions,” said veteran goalie Craig Anderson. “Montreal was supposed to be in the basement with us this year, and look at them. They’re pushing for a spot.
“If you get the right structure … gelling with the character of guys, you get some talented players that we have, then who knows how long it can take. Is it next year? Is it two years from now? Hard to say. The league has such parity.”
Here’s a look at what lies ahead for the other teams that have already been eliminated from playoff contention:
The Flyers are impatient, after making the playoffs just three times in the last seven years. Gone is Mr. Patience, GM Ron Hextall. In his place: Chuck Fletcher, who was unafraid to commit big bucks on long-term deals to the likes of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, turning Minnesota into a perennial playoff contender. After years of looking for a goalie, the Flyers believe they have their No. 1 in Carter Hart. Forward Travis Konecny and defencemen Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim need new deals, but Fletcher has about $35 million in cap space. Betting he spends it. A new coach to replace interim Scott Gordon is also in order.
The Panthers have been knocking on the door, but haven’t been able to break through to the playoff side despite a glowing young core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad. Goaltending is an issue, with Roberto Luongo toying with retirement. It’s no sure thing that Samuel Montembeault is ready, but that’s the idea. GM Dale Tallon cleared salary-cap space at the deadline and is believed to be in the hunt for pending free-agent forward Artemi Panarin, or might even make a run at Erik Karlsson in a bid to take that next step.
The big-market Rangers — trade deadline sellers for two seasons in a row — seem to be handling GM Scott Gorton’s rebuild just fine. Coach Dave Quinn has been able to use the end of this season to get a look-see at some of the young players the team has built its hopes around, including Brendan Lemieux and Lias Andersson. They are no longer big, unwise spenders. Gorton speaks frequently of creating “flexibility,” when it comes to roster spots and cap space.
There might be more drama off the ice, with the Red Wings believed to be courting former captain Steve Yzerman for an executive role. Yzerman abruptly stepped down as Lightning GM prior to this season, but remains on the payroll. Will Yzerman replace GM Ken Holland? Or will he move into some other role? Holland has done a nice job assembling young pieces and draft picks. Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha form the core. Watch for the Wings to get into the free-agent market to buy time until some of the prospects and draft picks pan out.
Coach Phil Housley is on the hot seat. The Sabres’ playoff drought will hit eight seasons, and could be the longest in the NHL if Carolina (nine) makes it this year. GM Jason Botterill is happy with his goaltending tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. They need help everywhere else, so re-signing Jeff Skinner seems obvious. Some experienced defenders to help out rookie Rasmus Dahlin should also be a priority.
Extensions for Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier are the priority for a team that needs help everywhere. A high draft pick might help, but they need at least two top-six forwards and two top-four defencemen to get back to contention. They have plenty of cap space. The good news is that goalie MacKenzie Blackwood seems like the real deal.
Corey Crawford’s health is probably all that stood between the Blackhawks and the playoffs, so depth in net is an issue for GM Stan Bowman. Jonathan Toews has had a career year, Patrick Kane has been among the scoring leaders all season, Alex DeBrincat has 41 goals and Dylan Strome came to life in a Blackhawks uniform. Some help on defence is needed, but they have some high-end prospects on the way. Brent Seabrook’s contract (five more years at an average value of $6.875 million, all dollars U.S.) is a bit of an albatross. He can still play, but better with less ice time. They have plenty of cap space, though, and might take a run at reacquiring Panarin.
Where to begin? A new coach, a new GM, a new vision. Somehow, they need to add help at all levels — they desperately need secondary scoring, an upgrade on the blue line and in net — with hardly any cap space. A tall order. The Oilers will have $12 million and eight openings. Their contracts are so big and hefty, with players underperforming or on no-movement deals, that trading will be hard. Winning the draft lottery (they couldn’t again, could they?) would go a long way. It would help if the likes of youngsters Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto can play at the NHL level.
The Ducks took a huge step back this season, costing Randy Carlyle his job. A new coach is in order, with Dallas Eakins the front-runner. Younger and faster is the order of the day. If they can find a taker for Ryan Kesler (three more years at $6.677 million per) they should jump at it. Maybe Patrick Eaves, too ($3.15 million next year). The defence is solid, and if they can squeeze out a bit more from Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf while Sam Steel and Maxime Comtois develop, all will not be lost.
The Kings are also among those in need of a coach, and needing to get younger and faster. They have eight players over 30 earning between $4 million and $10 million next season, including some of their least productive, such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Dustin Brown. The Jake Muzzin deal with the Leafs was the beginning, with Carl Grundstrom off to a good start. Adrian Kempe needs to take a bigger role next year. And 2017 first-round pick Gabriel Vilardi needs to be healthy after back problems.
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran