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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.

Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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We know the Boston Bruins are going to be hosting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and now we know when that game will take place.

We just need to wait and find out which team will be facing them.

The NHL announced the schedule for the 2019 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night and the series will begin on Monday, May 27, in Boston, where the Bruins will play the winner of the Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.

If there is a Game 7 necessary, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011.

The Sharks and Blues are hoping to win for the first time ever.

The Sharks most recently reached the Stanley Cup Final during the 2015-16 season (where they lost in six games to the the Pittsburgh Penguins), while the Blues have not reached it since the 1970 season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series (All times ET, subject to change).

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC

*If necessary

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.

Sharks’ Karlsson set to play in Game 5 vs. Blues

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The San Jose Sharks will have one of their best defensemen in the lineup when they host the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Erik Karlsson is set to battle through whatever is ailing his groin, a nagging injury that appeared to aggravated in a 2-1 loss against the Blues in Game 4 on Friday.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson grimaced on the Sharks bench, where he sat from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period. Karlsson was able to play out the final 1:55 of the game as the Sharks went hunting for an equalizer.

How effective Karlsson will be is up in the air. NBC Sports analysts Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Sharp broke down some tape of Karlsson, who was certainly hobbled by the injury.

Karlsson finished Game 4 having played 24:33. He has two goals and 16 points in these playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 3.

At the very least, Karlsson’s presence will help Brent Burns, who is already playing nearly 29 minutes a game and probably doesn’t need more added to his plate.

[More: The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series]


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

U.S. tops Germans 3-1 for 5th win in row at world championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Dylan Larkin scored a tiebreaking goal midway through the third period and the United States went on to beat Germany 3-1 Sunday at the world championships.

Jack Eichel put the Americans ahead by two goals late in the third and Cory Schneider was strong in net, helping them win a fifth straight game in Group A since opening the tournament with a 4-1 loss to the host Slovaks.

Frederik Tiffels put the Germans ahead 1-0 midway through the first period and James van Riemsdyk pulled the Americans into a tie less than two minutes later.

The U.S. closes the preliminary round Tuesday against rival Canada.

Michael Frolik scored to help the Czech Republic beat winless Austria 8-0 in Bratislava in Group B.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

In a series where a loss has been met by a response from the team that most recently fell, it’s the San Jose Sharks turn to answer the bell.

The Sharks had their chance to put the St. Louis Blues on the ropes in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, but as has been the case throughout this series, winning two straight hasn’t come easy and the Blues prevailed to make this series a best-of-three.

Game 5 goes Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

“Maybe the best I’ve felt about our game in the series so far, even though we lost. We put two goals in our own net off our own guys. Didn’t get the start we wanted, got on our heels the first shift, took a couple penalties … then not finding a way to get a couple more goals. I thought we did a lot of good stuff.”

The Sharks managed 73 shot attempts in the game, more than doubling the Blues output in that regard.

San Jose’s issue? Jordan Binnington. The rookie netminder stopped 29 en route to his 10th playoff win. And men flailing themselves in front of oncoming rubber: the Blues blocked 21 shots in the game. And then misfiring, given the number of shot attempts that never turned into bona fide shots: 22.

“We were trying to keep them to the outside as much as they can,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We don’t want those guys up top shooting too. We were trying to limit the rebounds and second opportunities. I thought we did a good job of pushing their guys out.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Sharks are 0-6 in this postseason when leading a series, a number that hardly screams, “clutch.” What they are good at is finding wins when series are tied. They’re 10-2 when trailing or tied in a series, including winning two Game 7s along their journey to the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

San Jose lost for the first time when allowed two goals or fewer in a game. Not in the playoffs, but all season. They entered Game 4 with a 39-0-0 record and left with their first blemish.

The Sharks, then, need to find some killer instinct if they’re going to advance to the Final. Martin Jones has given them a chance between the pipes, but he needs a few to start reciprocating.

Tomas Hertl, for instance, doesn’t have a point 5-on-5 in this series. Ditto for Joe Pavelski and likewise for Evander Kane. Kane doesn’t have a goal in his past nine games.

Those 73 shot attempts are encouraging, but they’re meaningless if you manage just a single goal. In wins, the Sharks have managed to score 11 goals in this series across both games. In losses? Just three.

The Blues have embraced the grind from the beginning. The Sharks need to figure out how to match it.

And they may have to go at it without defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Winners of Game 5 when a series is deadlocked 2-2 go on to win 70.3 percent of the time.

There’s no shortage of motivation for either team today.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT Conference Finals predictions


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

Sharks, Blues confident, and even, heading into Game 5

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks have been at their best this postseason when they had little margin for error.

That’s probably why they feel comfortable heading home for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against the Blues after a lackluster start led to a Game 4 loss in St. Louis.

Having squandered a series lead for the second time in this matchup, the Sharks know a loss Sunday could mean they won’t get to play on home ice again this postseason.

”It’s a great spot to be in,” coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday. ”This is supposed to be hard. What happened with Boston on the other side, that usually doesn’t happen. Usually these are all six, seven hard-fought games, hard-fought series. We’re right where I expected we would be, in a good spot going home, and we’ve got to get the job done.”

After alternating wins in the first four games, the Sharks and Blues now have a best-of-three to decide who plays the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston swept Carolina in the East and will have 10 days off before the start of the next round May 27.

Nothing has come easy for San Jose or St. Louis. The Blues went six games in the opening round against Winnipeg before needing double overtime in Game 7 of the second round against Dallas to make the conference final.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have endured two seven-game series – Vegas and Colorado. That’s happened in part because they have appeared to let up when leading a series before responding with greater desperation.

San Jose is 0-6 this postseason when leading a series. But it is 10-2 when tied or trailing, including four wins in elimination games sparked by a comeback from 3-1 down in the opening round to the Golden Knights.

”There’s a lot of emotion in the playoffs,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”We’re in the conference finals. We’ve had overtime wins, we’ve had game sevens. We’ve had emotional games for sure. You just lace them back up next game and you compete.”

The Blues got a goal from Ivan Barbashev 35 seconds into Game 4 and added another late in the first period before hanging on for the 2-1 win Friday.

It was an impressive rebound from a crushing Game 3 loss when the Blues allowed the tying goal with 1:01 left in regulation and then the winner in overtime after the officials failed to see a hand pass by San Jose that set up Erik Karlsson‘s goal.

”We’re in a good spot,” coach Craig Berube said. ”So just pushing and keep fighting and be aggressive. Just be aggressive as a team and be confident as a team. That’s our message. You’re going to have ups and downs in the playoffs and you have to move on from it. You really do. As much as we had to move on from that Game 3 loss we have to move on from last night’s win.”

The Sharks need to come out in Game 5 with the kind of play they showed in the final two periods Friday. They controlled the puck and hemmed the Blues into the defensive end for long stretches.

The only problem was St. Louis rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who stopped all 11 shots in the second period and then nine of 10 in the third. He allowed only a power-play goal to Tomas Hertl on the way to his franchise-record 10th win this postseason.

Binnington improved to 11-2 this season in games following a loss.

”As soon as people start doubting him, he pulls another sick performance,” Blues forward David Perron said.

Another big concern for the Sharks is the health of Karlsson, who played only one shift in the final 9:24 after an apparent injury. Karlsson missed 27 of the final 33 games in the regular season with groin injuries that have hampered him in the playoffs.

He’s had big moments, with 14 assists and two goals, including the disputed overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues. But he also seems to labor at times, as he did in the third period before taking an extended break when the Sharks were fighting for the tying goal.

He returned for the final 1:55 game with the goalie pulled but mostly stayed positioned at the point for passes and shots, his skating limited. DeBoer offered no update Saturday on Karlsson’s condition.

The Blues will again be without defenseman Vince Dunn, who took a puck to the face in Game 3.

AP freelancer Joe Harris in St. Louis, Missouri, contributed to this report

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports