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Chris Johnston: The time has come for the young Ottawa Senators to go from rebuild to results

This hockey season is a referendum on one thing in Ottawa. Over the coming months, the Senators will reveal if general manager Pierre Dorion was correct in announcing his rebuild completed.

“The rebuild is done,” Dorion said in September. “Now we’re stepping into another zone.”

The new era begins inauspiciously, with Brady Tkachuk unavailable for Thursday’s season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs because of a contract stalemate. Tkachuk is important enough to the organization that he would almost certainly have a C sewn on his sweater in conjunction with putting his signature on a long-term contract, but so far his camp has shown more of an inclination toward something shorter.

What the impasse highlights is the challenges inherent in the ascent.

A rebuild requires all useful assets to be converted into a pool of young talent, a process the Senators embarked on following an unexpected trip to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2017.

Then you’ve got to pay the talent fair-market rate while trying to leave enough room to field a competitive team around them. There is also the question in Ottawa of whether owner Eugene Melnyk will make good on his promise to spend close to the salary cap for what he predicted would be a “five-year run of unparalleled success” from 2021 to 2025.

That declaration was made before the pandemic and before the Senators had serious trouble drawing fans to the Canadian Tire Centre during the pre-season.

While cap space is not part of the dynamic in Tkachuk’s negotiations — the Senators have the NHL’s lowest payroll without him on the roster — there must be consideration for deals Josh Norris, Tim Stützle, Shane Pinto and others will need in the near future.

Business and the stalled Tkachuk talks aside, this team is worthy of buzz. The organization appears to have hit a home run with the hiring of head coach D.J. Smith, who had his players collectively punching above their weight class in the second half of last season.

The Senators earned a measure of respect despite a sixth-place finish in the North Division. They consistently played opponents hard. And they didn’t fold the tent after starting with just two wins in their first 15 games.

Teen star Tim Stützle like the Senators’ young core, which includes the likes of Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, Thomas Chabot and, if they can get his signature on a contract, Brady Tkachuk.

“Obviously with their record last year … I didn’t know what to expect (from them) and they didn’t start off the greatest,” Montreal Canadiens winger Tyler Toffoli said recently. “Then we go in there and we’re like, ‘All right, we’re going to win,’ and I don’t think I even touched the puck. Like they worked so hard and then they have these young guys that are super skilled that are playing the right way.

“They’re a team to watch, for sure.”

A sign the rebuild is over would come from challenging for a playoff spot, which won’t be easy in the reunited Atlantic Division where Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto are perennially the top three and Florida and Montreal are pushing to displace one of them.

The Senators haven’t shown themselves to be play drivers, so they’re going to need some saves. Matt Murray, who is questionable for Thursday’s opener with a non-COVID-related illness, is coming off the worst statistical season of his career. Injuries and inconsistency have him trending in the wrong direction. And his partner, Anton Forsberg, has only played more than eight games in one of his six NHL seasons.

That tandem will need to produce better than last year’s 28th-best team save percentage.

Optimism is found in the organization’s forward composition, which features Norris, 22, and Pinto, 20, as the top two centres. Stützle has a game-breaking quality and is still just 19. Throw in Tkachuk — hopefully sooner rather than later — plus 23-year-old winger Drake Batherson and 24-year-old defenceman Thomas Chabot and you have a foundation worth building on.

“I think the young core we have is really special,” said Stützle.

It’s understandable why management has pushed so hard to get Tkachuk on a maximum-length eight-year deal. He was taken fourth overall in 2018 with the pick that essentially kicked off the rebuild, and finished with the NHL’s second most shots on goal and second-highest hits total last season.

Getting a long-term commitment from him following those already made by Batherson and Chabot would make a strong statement about the direction of the program. It would be a sign that they’re building something capable of enduring the test of time after four losing seasons.

“Guys want to be here. They want to be in Ottawa,” said Chabot. “We want to bring this team to be a playoff team every year and have success every single year.”

The conditions might not be ideal as the Senators try to make that leap right now, but the expectations have been set right from the top.

They’re out of the business of playing for high draft picks.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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