Last Thursday, while visiting family in Ottawa, I took my Dad & nephew to see the Senators take on the Avalanche at Scotiabank Place. The Avs, having finished as low as 29th overall in 2010-11, are a young team on the rise after having stockpiled some young talent through the Draft and via trade in recent years. One of their main building blocks is Gabriel Landeskog, the #2 overall pick in 2011, who has already established himself as a mainstay in Colorado’s top 6. His talents (along with teammates Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny & Eric Johnson, among others) were on full display on Thursday in a 7-1 win over the Sentaors, and after the embarassing defeat on home ice, it was obvious that the Sens are (or at least should be) in the midst of a similar all-out rebuild.
This franchise – celebrating the 20th Anniversary of its second coming – is at the beginning of a cycle of a building process that Ottawa fans are all to familiar with.
It’s a widely known fact that the expansion Senators set out with low expectations. The early years of this franchise were an experiment in building a competitive team by securing the highest draft picks possible (and this was pretty easy to do, considering the expansion roster and the teams that followed in the early 90s). In those early years, top draft picks would flow in with regularity, with some hits & (big) misses along the way. While Alexei Yashin (the team’s first ever draft selection in 1992, later to become the team’s first ever public enemy no. 1) developed into one of the NHL’s brightest young stars, the first overall draft choice in ’93 was essentially wasted on Alexandre Daigle, widely branded the biggest bust in NHL draft history. (It should be noted that Chris Pronger was taken 2nd overall that year – might have been the better choice). Ottawa would go on to select Radek Bonk in 1994, Bryan Berard (traded for Wade Redden) in 1995, Chris Phillips in 1996, Marian Hossa in 1997, Mathieu Chouinard in 1998 & Martin Havlat in 1999, all of whom (Chouinard, with 1 career GP excluded) would become (to varying degrees) solid NHL players that formed a talented core for the Senators moving from the late ’90s and into the early 2000s.
While this foundation was being put in place and developed, it was in 1996 – under the coaching of Jacques Martin, and with the emergence of Calder winner and future captain Daniel Alfredsson – that the pieces really started to come together, and Ottawa began a decade long climb that almost but not quite got them right to the top.
From 1996 – 2004, Ottawa made regular jumps up in the standings and qualified for the playoffs every year. While playoff success was at a minimum, they were able to make great strides in improving the respectability of the franchise and remaining strong year in and year out. They were able to parlay Yashin into Zdeno Chara and the #2 overall pick in 2001 (Jason Spezza), and would later trade Marian Hossa for Dany Heatley, who would help bring the team to its highest level of success to date, a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007.
A 15 year process of building from the ground up, with varying degrees of success and failure along the way.
Since that run in ’07, however, things have gone steadily down (not helped, of course, by the Heatley trade demand saga), and it’s at the beginning of another similar climb from the bottom that the Senators and their fans find themselves today.
The current makeup of this team seems stuck between the past and the future, with little to show for the present. Veteran players like Alfredsson, Phillips, Spezza and Chris Neil are still around, but the core that they had built up has largely moved on and been replaced by lesser parts. Other than Milan Michalek, one would be hard pressed to name more than a few of the players that Ottawa throws out on their scoring lines. To their credit, they have amassed an impressive group of young defensemen to build with (Karlsson, Rundblad, Cowen to name a few), and young Robin Lehner (currently in the AHL) has the look of the franchise type goalie that this team has never really had (minus an aging Hasek).
But the key for this team, once again, will be to build through the draft. This was kickstarted last Spring with the selection of Mika Zibanejad, and the process can be further fuelled by Nail Yakupov, the prize selection of perhaps any draft since Sidney Crosby himself.
The uber-talented sniper, currently playing for the Sarnia Sting in the OHL, leads the early-season prospect rankings and is widely viewed as the sure-thing #1 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. He scored 101 points in 65 games en route to winning CHL Rookie of the Year honours in 2010-11, and he already has seven goals and 18 assists in just 10 games with the Sting this season. He’s the kind of talent that can change the fortunes of any team, much like Crosby & Malkin or Toews & Kane or Ovechkin & Backstrom (to a lesser extent) have done for their respective clubs, and now what Hall & Nugent-Hopkins hope to do for the Oil.
The key point there, however, is that it often takes more than one top prospect to get the job done, meaning that the Senators will need to draft high and well over the course of a few years for there to be any chance of them getting back to where they want to be.
My suggestion for the Ottawa Senators is this: adopt the hashtag #suckforyakupov and get back to being intentional about building the right way. Throw away any notion that this group can be a playoff team in its current form, and just look to the future. The irony of this is that the Senators could have been in line for a higher pick and a talent like Landeskog had they not pulled off a deal that sent Brian Elliot to those very Avs for Craig Anderson last year. Anderson provided some stability in net that propelled a late season surge, lifting them up in the standings and down in the draft order. Dumb move. As such, maybe Melnyk needs to seriously reconsider allowing Bryan Murray to be at the helm of this rebuild.
Either way, the path for this team is pretty clear: to reach the top, you first have to hit rock bottom. And judging by the first few games of the season, they’re well on their way to meeting that goal.
End notes: Ottawa sported their ‘heritage’ jerseys for the first time on Thursday evening, and the feedback seems quite positive. Much better than anything to do with that lame centurion logo, IMO. Also, the scoreboard at Scotiabank Place is in need of serious replacement. It may have been state of the art in the Palladium days, but that thing is ancient compared to today’s standards. I tweeted during the game that it looks like it needs rabbit ears. Hey Eug, pony up some cash and join the 21st century. And one more thing: I firmly believe that the dumbest thing the Senators have done in recent years was to allow Zdeno Chara to hit the free agent market. Look at the trajectories of the Sens & Bruins since that signing, and tell me Ottawa was better off prioritizing Wade Redden over the Big Z.