At a corporate event on Tuesday, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk pledged that he and the organization would commit the resources necessary to make the team competitive once again, with the goal of bringing the Stanley Cup “to its rightful place in Ottawa.” This news was relayed in a press release sent during Wednesday night’s 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The statement mentions that more time is needed to rebuild the roster, but that as early as 2021, the team will begin a sustained period spending close to the salary cap ceiling. Here are the final two paragraphs from the release:
“Mr. Melnyk also confirmed during the presentation that on the hockey side of the business, the expectation is that the Senators rebuilding plan will take another season or two from now, but when his general manager confirms that the Senators have all the pieces of the foundation in place, he made the following pledge to the guests in attendance:
“The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success – where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025. He reiterated that the Senators’ current rebuild is a blueprint on how to bring the Stanley Cup home to its rightful place in Ottawa.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the obvious place to start is whether the Senators could even be in a position to contend as early as this timeline suggests. Of course, so much depends on the future of pending unrestricted free agents Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, the team’s top two scorers. During Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, Bob McKenzie reported that the primary concern for both players does not involve dollars and cents, but rather how soon the team would become competitive. That remains a major question considering the Sens are at the bottom of the NHL standings. To make matters worse, the potential lottery pick they would get as a “reward” for cellar-dwelling actually belongs to Colorado as a result of last year’s Duchene trade. That puts even more pressure on general manager Pierre Dorion to get deals done for his two best forwards.
Optimists can point to the return Ottawa got from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal, which included a heavy dose of draft picks. But a Sharks postseason appearance this year (a virtual lock at this point) means that Ottawa won’t receiving a first-rounder from them until 2020. So, barring another significant move, it will be at least another year before the Senators pick on day 1 of the draft.
Another reason to believe Ottawa can pivot quickly is that the modern NHL is rife with parity and turnover amongst playoff teams. Each of the past two seasons, seven teams made the playoffs after missing the prior year. And the Senators themselves are familiar with this, having missed the playoffs in 2015-16 before making it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final the following year. Then again, relying on recent trends does not make for a sound strategy.
Moving beyond the proposed timeline of the rebuild, how will Senators fans interpret the latest statement from their team’s owner? Over the past year-plus, Melnyk has delivered mixed messages about the franchise, most notably in December 2017, when he stirred up a controversy by raising the possibility of relocation. Though Melnyk did walk those comments back shortly thereafter, it is still understandable that fans might view this “blueprint” with a degree of skepticism.
Regardless of how this plays out, it is encouraging that Melnyk offered a specific plan for how the team will approach the future, and it gives fans something to hold him accountable to. But before Melnyk and Dorion can begin spending to the cap ceiling, they must focus on the negotiations with Duchene and Stone so the roster doesn’t suffer another Karlsson-sized subtraction. Perhaps these comments will serve as part of the sales pitch to keep them in the fold long-term.