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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.

Reinhart eagerly rejoins Sabres with new contract signed

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — If Sam Reinhart‘s objective was to carry over his point-a-game pace from the second half of last season, the Buffalo Sabres forward understood that it wasn’t doing him much good sitting at home waiting for contract talks to be resolved.

”I don’t know if worried’s the right word,” he said after practicing for the first time Thursday, a day after flying in from Vancouver, British Columbia, and signing a two-year, $7.3 million contract. ”I think the best thing for the team and myself was to be here as soon as possible.”

Reinhart missed five days of training camp and two preseason games.

With two weeks to catch up before the Sabres open the regular season by hosting Boston, the No. 2 player selected in the 2014 draft is focused on proving he can consistently produce over the course of an entire season.

That was the knock on Reinhart last year, when he had just seven goals and 13 points in his first 44 games. He then went on a tear, scoring 18 goals and 37 points his final 38 games, and finished with a career-best 25 goals and 50 points.

The down-then-up season was one of the reasons the Sabres balked at offering the restricted free agent a longer-term deal.

”Whether it was a one-year or an eight-year, it’s not changing my mentality,” Reinhart said. ”I know the player I can be.”

General manager Jason Botterill said the key to Reinhart’s turnaround was how he established himself as a player unafraid of playing in front of an opposing net. He said it’s on both Reinhart and his coaching staff to continue his development.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Botterill was impressed with Reinhart’s approach during contract talks. He kept in touch with the team over the summer and traveled to Buffalo to take part in informal workouts with his teammates before camp opened, then returned to Vancouver last week.

”I think it’s just not words, it was his actions,” Botterill said. ”It’s been evident that Sam wants to be part of our solution here in Buffalo.”

The two-time 20-goal scorer has 65 goals and 140 points in 249 career games.

Reinhart rejoins a roster that was overhauled this summer after the Sabres finished last in the standings for a third time in five years. Despite the additions of forwards Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner, Reinhart is being counted upon to reclaim his role on one of the top two lines.

Coach Phil Housley said there’s a chance Reinhart could make his preseason debut as early as Saturday, when Buffalo hosts Toronto.

NOTES: Botterill expects Sheary to be ready for the start of the season despite the forward suffering an upper body injury on Sept. 14. … The Sabres are buying out the final year of Vaclav Karabacek’s contract after the forward cleared waivers. Karabacek was Buffalo’s second-round pick in the 2014 draft and had eight goals and 16 assists in 51 games split between the Sabres’ two minor-league affiliates over the past two years.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE:
Reinhart, Sabres end stalemate with two-year bridge deal
Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

Ilya Kovalchuk quickly getting up to speed with Kings

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We’ll see how the skills we witnessed over 11 NHL seasons are following five years home in the KHL, but Ilya Kovalchuk is off to a good start after his first two preseason games with the Los Angeles Kings.

After picking up an assist in their first game, the 35-year-old Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year contract over the summer, scored a highlight-reel tally in a split-squad loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

“That’s the type of player he is,” said Kings assistant Dave Lowry via LA Kings Insider. “He’s a very dynamic guy, he has the ability to break open games, he’s a very highly skilled guy.”

Is the NHL faster than what Kovalchuk remembers? “I’ll tell you after the [season opener],” he said. Playing on a line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, the Kings captain said they’re still working on developing chemistry as he gets used to going from Milan Lucic‘s “north-south” game to the Russian winger’s “east-west” style.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Kovalchuk’s goal scoring abilities didn’t dry up during his time in the KHL, so he’ll be relied upon to play a big role in increasing the team’s offensive output in 2018-19. That will come. After two preseason games, he wasn’t ready to declare himself up to speed with the NHL’s pace just yet.

“Actually today, I felt much better than the first game, so a few more games will be more than enough,” he said.

MORE: Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Pavelec retires; NHLers love coconut water

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• After 11 NHL seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets and New York Rangers, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is retiring at the age of 31. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• How Max Domi‘s suspension could open the door for Nick Suzuki to find a full-time spot with the Montreal Canadiens. [Sportsnet]

Erik Karlsson isn’t giving out any details on why he thinks he was finally traded from the Ottawa Senators. [Toronto Sun]

• Ted Lindsay, Glen Hall, Bobby Hull, and Alex Delvecchio talk about their names being removed from the Stanley Cup after the top band was taken off following the Washington Capitals victory. [NHL.com]

• Hockey players and coconut water: it’s a love affair. [ESPN]

• Everything about the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2018-19 season rests on Corey Crawford‘s health. [The Hockey News]

• The Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltending situation didn’t get any clearer with the news that Alex Lyon will miss four weeks with a lower-body injury. [Inquirer]

• How do we rank this San Jose Sharks blue line now that it features Erik Karlsson? [Five Thirty Eight]

• A look at the impact John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen will have on the Dallas Stars’ lineup. [Dallas Morning News]

Daniel Carr‘s mission during camp: prove he’s an NHL regular with the Vegas Golden Knights. [Sin Bin Vegas]

Brooks Orpik is back with the Washington Capitals and playing a vital role despite less ice time. [NBC Washington]

• Finally, here’s part one of the series following Brent Burns‘ off-season adventures:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL not tough enough with preseason suspensions

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When it comes to the court of public opinion the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is always going to be a no-win position.

Their job is a brutally difficult, thankless one that by its very nature is going to anger almost everyone watching the NHL. No player receiving a suspension is going to be happy about it, while their team and fans will usually think the punishment is too harsh. Meanwhile, the other side is always going to come away thinking the punishment wasn’t severe enough. Then there is always the neutral third parties in the middle that have no rooting interest with either team and will always be split with their opinions.

In short: It’s a job that a lot of people like me (and you!) enjoy yelling about. Sometimes we think they get it right; sometimes we think they get it wrong.

When it comes to Max Domi‘s suspension for the remainder of the preseason for “roughing” (the official wording from the league) Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the near universal consensus seems to be a gigantic shoulder-shrug and the understanding that this isn’t really a punishment.

[Related: NHL suspends Max Domi for remainder of preseason]

Sure, it goes in the books as a “five-game” suspension, because the Canadiens still have five games remaining in the preseason. And it will impact Domi in the future if he does something else to get suspended because it will be added to his history of disciplinary action that already includes a one-game suspension from the 2016-17 season for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a game. This roughing incident, it is worth mentioning, also occurred while Domi was attempting to instigate a fight. Too soon to call that sort of action with him a trend, but it’s close.

The problem is that he isn’t losing anything of consequence as a result of the “punishment.”

He will not miss a single regular season game.

He will not forfeit a penny of his $3.15 million salary this season.

He basically gets to take the rest of the Canadiens’ preseason games off (and he would almost certainly sit at least one or maybe even two of them anyway, just because that is how the preseason works) and be rested for the start of the regular season on Oct. 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The only possible defense (and that word should be used loosely) of the DoPS here is that because the Canadiens have five preseason games remaining, and because suspensions longer than five games require an in-person hearing as mandated by the CBA, the league would have had to handle this incident with an in-person hearing to take away regular season games. In the eyes of the CBA, a suspension for five preseason games counts the same as five games in the regular season.

The only logical response to that defense should be: So what? Then schedule an in-person hearing if that is what it takes and requires to sit a player that did something blatantly illegal (and dangerous) for games that matter. Players tend to waive their right to an in-person hearing, anyway.

When it comes to dealing with suspensions in the postseason the NHL seems to take into account the importance of those games and how impactful even one postseason game can be in a best-of-seven series. If we’re dealing in absolutes here the same logic is applied, because had Domi done that same thing in a regular season game he probably doesn’t sit five games for it.

In the history of the DoPS “punching an unsuspecting opponent” typically results in a fine or a one-game suspension, unless it is an exceedingly dirty punch or involves a player with an extensive track record of goon-ism. The only two that went longer were a four-game ban for John Scott for punching Tim Jackman, and a six-game ban for Zac Rinaldo a year ago for punching Colorado’s Samuel Girard. Both Scott and Rinaldo had more extensive and troubling track records for discipline than Domi currently does.

If you want to argue semantics and say that Domi was suspended for “roughing” the point remains the same, because only one roughing suspension over the past seven years went longer than one game, and none went longer than two.

So looking at strictly by the number of “games” he has to miss he did, technically speaking, get hit harder with a more severe punishment than previous players.

But at some point common sense has to prevail here and someone has to say, you know what … maybe this translation isn’t right and we have to do something more. Because, again,  and this can not be stated enough, he is not missing a meaningful game of consequence or losing a penny of salary for blatantly punching an unwilling combatant (one with a history of concussions) in the face, leaving him a bloody mess.

The point of handing out a suspension shouldn’t just be for the league or an opposing team to get its pound of flesh when a player does something wrong and champion the fact they had to miss “X” number of games.

It should be to help deter future incidents and aim for meaningful change for the betterment of player safety around the league. That is literally why it is called “the Department of Player Safety.” It is supposed to have the safety of the players in mind. And that was the original goal of the DoPS — to try and put a stop to blatant, targeted hits to the head that were ruining seasons and careers (and, ultimately, lives).

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

No one with an ounce of common sense is looking at this and thinking that this suspension does anything close that. And the NHL has to know that, too. How so? Because when a player does something in a previous season or postseason that warrants a suspension that will carry over to the following season (as was the case with Raffi Torres in 2011-12, and then Brayden Schenn in 2015-16), that carryover suspension starts with the regular season games — not the preseason games.

This, of course, is not the first time the league has handed out what is, ultimately, a meaningless suspension that only covers meaningless games.

Last year there were two such suspensions, with Washington’s Tom Wilson earning a two preseason game suspension for boarding St. Louis’ Robert Thomas, which was followed by New York’s Andrew Desjardins getting a two preseason game ban for an illegal check to the head of Miles Wood the very next night.

(It should be pointed out that upon Wilson’s return to the lineup in the preseason he earned himself a four-game regular suspension for boarding).

During the 2016-17 Andrew Shaw (who like Domi was playing in his first game with the Canadiens following an offseason trade to add more grit, sandpaper, and energy) was sat down for three preseason games for boarding.

There were four other similar suspensions in 2013-14.

Since the formation of the DoPS at the start of the 2011-12 season, there have been 21 suspensions handed out for preseason incidents. Only 12 of those suspensions carried over to regular season games. Of those 12, eight of them occurred during the initial DoPS season when the league was far more aggressive in suspending players (there were nine preseason suspensions handed out that season alone).

That means that over the previous six years only four of the 11 incidents that rose to the level of supplemental discipline resulted in a player missing a game that mattered.

That can not, and should not, be acceptable.

So, yeah. Five games for Max Domi. Given the circumstances, it is not even close to being enough.

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.