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Stunning one-year rise and fall of Ottawa Senators

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The Ottawa Senators were one goal away.

One goal. One shot. One bounce. One lucky break. Any of those would have worked.

That was it. That was all they needed to have a chance to pull off what seemed to be, at the time, the impossible. After being a mostly middle-of-the-road team for the previous decade, the Senators came out of nowhere during the 2016-17 postseason with first-year head coach Guy Boucher and trapped their way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Given where the team was coming from, it was a stunning, shocking run and it would have been impossible for them to get any closer to the Stanley Cup Final without actually getting there, losing a double overtime Game 7, on the road, to the defending — and eventual — champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

For two months, Senators fans were able to experience something incredible, unexpected, and wonderful.

Unfortunately for them, it also may have been the worst possible thing that could have happened for the long-term outlook of the team.

That playoff run and everything that has happened since should be yet another cautionary tale for every team in the league to not overreact to the success or failures of a single playoff run.

Just one year later, the management team has decided to kick off a massive rebuilding project that was officially accelerated on Thursday with trade of franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson for a return that could only be described as — in the official words of the Senators’ own PR arm — “six assets.”

[Related: Erik Karlsson traded to Sharks as roster teardown continues]

It seems outrageous to say because it is literally the primary objective of every team in sports, but sometimes winning can be costly. Because half of the league ends up making the playoffs every season, the success or failure of those teams — and the players within them — is mostly measured strictly by what they do once they get to the playoffs. This mindset can have devastating results for teams that don’t really know what they have — or what they are doing — because they get fooled by something that happened over one or two months and may not be an accurate representation of their team.

Sometimes playoff success, or failure, is a big stupid mirage.

On the same day the Senators traded the best player they have ever had for pennies on the dollar, the Dallas Stars were signing Tyler Seguin to a massive eight-year contract extension, giving him a significant raise from his current contract that has been one of the biggest steals in the league. The Stars only have him on their roster today because Seguin’s previous team — the Boston Bruins — decided they had to trade him when he was still a 21-year-old with superstar potential because they weren’t sure he fit their team culture following a postseason run where he did not totally dominate. The Bruins could have had Patrice Bergeron and Seguin down the middle of their lineup for the past five years at a combined salary cap hit of around $12 million. It would have been the envy of every team in the league. But they just had to trade him for … reasons. It was a foolish, knee-jerk reaction decision that may have cost them a legitimate shot at another Stanley Cup.

The Senators had the exact opposite situation play out.

Instead of thinking a bad playoff run made them worse than they actually were, a surprising playoff run had them thinking they were better than they actually were.

The results are, today, potentially crippling.

Looking at things objectively, the 2016-17 Senators were every bit as average as every recent Senators teams that preceded it. They were a bottom-10 team in shot attempt differential. Their overall record was only 12th best in the league. They were actually outscored during the regular season, the only playoff team in the league that year to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential (and one of only five over the previous six years). But because Craig Anderson played great in the first two rounds, and because Bobby Ryan went on a hot streak at the right time, and because Karlsson put the team on his back and literally carried it so much that he actually received a Conn Smythe vote despite not even playing in the Cup Final, the Senators were able to pull off a couple of upsets and go further than anyone anticipated.

Their response was to not only go all in on that group of players, but to try and add to it.

After trading a top prospect for Alex Burrows at the 2017 deadline and immediately signing him to a two-year contract extension (a contract that has since been bought out), the Senators opened the 2017-18 season by paying what could end up being a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene: giving up Kyle Turris (a really good center that is pretty comparable to Duchene) and a draft pick that will almost certainly be top-five selection.

At the time, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was ecstatic with the move and called it a no-brainer that could help the team reach the next level.

“Sunday was a great day for the Senators franchise,” said Dorion in his first meeting with the media following the trade. “After a great playoff run last year, we feel we’ve added an elite forward to our group … someone we feel that can help us take to the next level. We’ve acquired a player that we’re really excited about acquiring. We felt this deal for us was a no-brainer in what we had to give up.”

The Senators were 7-3-5 at that point in the season. Good enough to keep games close and get to overtime and collect some points, but still decidedly average in every possible way. They were the fourth-worst possession team and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings. It still looked like a house of cards. Then the bottom quickly fell out afterwards on the ice, while the organization descended into turmoil off of it.

Now, not even one year after adding a significant piece to its roster in the hopes of “reaching the next level,” the NHL roster is in the process of being gutted in a scorched earth rebuild. It is not just who has been traded that makes it all so — for lack of a better word — embarrassing for the Senators. It is how it has all happened.

After trading Mike Hoffman to the San Jose Sharks for what amounts to a bad contract in Mikkel Boedker, a fringe prospect, and a late-round draft pick, the Sharks turned around and almost immediately flipped Hoffman to the Florida Panthers — a team in Ottawa’s own division — for what was probably a better return (a collection of better draft picks — including a second-rounder in 2019 — and no bad contract).

Obviously the circumstances around Hoffman’s trade out of Ottawa are not as simple as “rebuilding team trades good player.” It was clear the Senators had to move him, and had to move him quickly. So they didn’t have a ton of leverage there. But they still ended up getting the worst of the two returns in the trades involving their own player! All it did was enable San Jose to dump a contract it didn’t want to help clear some additional salary cap space for another big addition before the start of the season.

The big addition turned out to be Karlsson.

That’s right: After basically helping the Sharks clear salary cap space to put themselves in a position to acquire Karlsson, and after being embarrassed in the series of transactions, the Senators went right back to that same team and traded their franchise player to them for “six assets.” And you know the Senators know they got taken in the previous trade because they attached this condition to the next trade:

If Karlsson is on an Eastern Conference roster (reserve list) during the 2018-19 season, the Senators will receive an additional first round pick from the Sharks no later than 2022.

The only possible reason that condition could exist in such a trade is because the Senators know San Jose embarrassed them in the previous trade.

Now the Senators are in a brutal position.

Given the plan recently outlined by owner Eugene Melnyk and the recent trade of Karlsson, it is simply a matter of when, and not if, Duchene and Mark Stone get traded.

They are going to enter year one of this rebuild as the early favorites to be the worst team in the league this season and they have no true cornerstone player coming through the pipeline to center a successful rebuild around. Typically teams in this position plan on starting that rebuild around a top draft pick, but the Senators won’t even have that luxury this year because their 2019 first-round pick is in the hands of the Colorado Avalanche as a result of the Duchene trade.

The condition on that trade is that Ottawa had the option of sending its first-round pick in either 2018 (which turned out to be No. 4 overall) or 2019 to Colorado. The Senators chose to keep the No. 4 in 2018 and send the 2019 one to Colorado.

Given everything what has been said by the people in command of this now three-ring circus it is a very curious decision.

On one hand, it is awfully difficult to give up the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, and it might be a tough sell to your locker room to essentially tell the players returning, “you guys stunk last year and we think we’re going to be worse this year.”

But if your goal is to rebuild the team through prospects, and youth, you have to put yourself in a position to get a superstar. The Senators had to know their best hope would be the top of the 2019 draft and Jack Hughes. Why do I say that? Because Dorion said on Thursday that this has been the Senators’ plan since February, and that they pretty much knew Karlsson was going to be traded because he would bring the best return in their rebuild.

[Related: Highlights from Eugene Melnyk’s bizarre Senators video]

If you know Erik Karlsson is going to be traded, and if you know you’re going to put a team on the ice in 2018-19 that is going to be made up primarily of rookies and new players (at least according to Melnyk’s plan), then you have to realistically look at that team and say “this team is probably going to be worse.”

Does it really matter what the players in that locker room think about that strategy when, by your owners own admission, almost none of them are going to be in there within the next year anyway?

Now, given the NHL’s new lottery process having the worst record in the league doesn’t guarantee you the top pick or even a top-two pick. But it still gives you the best chance. Once the Senators ended up with the fourth pick in 2018 and didn’t win the Rasmus Dahlin lottery, they should have sent that pick to Colorado (and this is not hindsight on my part; I already made this argument before the draft this year and before the Karlsson trade). If this team is as bad as we are anticipating it could be and probably will be, the Senators probably wouldn’t end up any worse off than fourth or fifth overall anyway and would at least still have the hope of getting a franchise-changing player in which to give their fans some amount of hope.

It sure beats the nothing they have to look forward to now.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Pageau, Panarin stay hot; Blues sign Brouwer

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Three Stars

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers may not be where they want in the standings right now, but Panarin has been everything they could have possibly expected him to be and more. He extended his point streak to 12 games on Wednesday night with a two-goal effort in the Ranges’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Panarin has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 19 games this season and has at least two points in seven games during his current streak, including three in a row. Read all about the Rangers’ big win right here.

2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. Don’t look now but the Senators are just a single point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and have played in one less game. The biggest reason for the Senators’ recent surge has been a goal-scoring binge from Pageau that has seen him score 10 goals in the month of November, tops in the league. His goal on Wednesday to open the scoring in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal was his 13th of the season and 10th of the month. He is on track for a career year offensively. The timing could not be better for him personally as he is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will also increase his trade value for the Senators if they look to continue their rebuild by dealing him before the trade deadline.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Goaltending (mostly from Anders Nilsson) is the other big reason for the Senators’ recent improvement, and on Wednesday it was Anderson doing his best to steal two points by stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced against the Canadiens. It was probably Anderson’s best performance of the season.

Blues add some forward depth

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues made a roster move on Wednesday by signing veteran forward Troy Brouwer to a one-year contract. He spent the 2018-19 season playing for the Florida Panthers, scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in 75 games. That move comes on the same day the team announced that forward Sammy Blais will be sidelined for 10 weeks after he was injured in the Blues’ win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. The Blues are already playing without Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, and recently traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlight of the Night

Brady Tkachuk was the overtime hero for the Senators, finishing a great breakaway and taking advantage of a miscommunication by the Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Henrik Lundqvist earned his 454th career win, moving him into a tie with Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Panarin’s 12-game point streak is the Rangers’ longest since Scott Gomez during the 2007-08 season. [Rangers Stats & Info]
  • Pageau just needs more three more goals in November to tie the Senators’ franchise record for most goals in a month. Ottawa has five more games this month.  [NHL PR]
  • John Carlson added another assist to his total for the season, giving him 36 points on the season. Entering play on Wednesday he and Bobby Orr were the only defensemen in NHL history that needed only 23 games to hit the 35-point mark. [NHL PR]
  • Nick Suzuki scored the only goal for Montreal, giving him six on the season. That is second among the NHL’s rookies this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 2, Montreal Canadiens 1 (OT)
New York Rangers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.