The Ottawa Senators’ teardown is all but complete. Now the building back up has to begin.
On Monday, general manager Pierre Dorion traded the last meaningful remnant of a roster that was one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final not even two full years ago when he sent Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights. It was a huge trade that could significantly alter the Western Conference both, now and in the future with Stone agreeing to new terms on a contract in Vegas, and gave the Senators what should be one of the biggest pieces of their rebuild in stud defense prospect Erik Brannstrom.
That trade followed the other pre-deadline deals that saw them send Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a collection of draft picks and prospects that will be used for this massive overhaul of the organization. Together, all means that in under two years the Senators have now parted ways with Duchene, Dzingel, Stone, Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, and Mike Hoffman. That Turris-Duchene trade also included what will be this year’s first-round pick … which will almost certainly have the highest odds of being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
It has to be a brutal time for Senators fans because not only was that the foundation of a team that was on the threshold of a championship (literally one goal away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final!), but because there is no real hope for short-term success. We saw that play out on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. when what is left of the Senators’ roster was just completely and totally steamrolled by the defending champions.
There is going to be a lot more of that the rest of this season, and probably even into next season.
What is even more troubling is long-term outlook could be potentially bleak as well because no one really knows how this rebuild is going to go.
The Senators have tried to be transparent with their plans (sometimes uncomfortably so) and they do have some intriguing pieces to build around.
Keeping their 2018 first-round pick (fourth overall) over the 2019 selection as part of the Duchene trade could prove to be disastrous if it ends up being the No. 1 overall pick, but they did get a really good player in Brady Tkachuk out of it. He has flashed top-line potential this season and looks like a keeper.
Thomas Chabot has also been a positive development this season and stepped in admirably to, as best he can, replace what the team lost in Karlsson on the blue line. He has been one of the league’s most productive defenders this season and after all of the trades is the leading scorer — by a wide margin — of the remaining players on the Senators’ roster. He figures to be the centerpiece of the rebuild along with the recently acquired Brannstrom.
Dorion could not say enough positive things about his newest top prospect, referring to him as a “star” and also saying it “was a long day, but we did something good for the Ottawa Senators today.”
If Brannstrom develops as the Senators hope he can, they should have the makings of a dominant defense pairing with him and Chabot.
Even though they lost the chance to potentially land Jack Hughes this season, they still managed to get back a first-round pick (and maybe a second next year) as part of the Duchene trade and now have 27 draft picks over the next three years, including five in the first two round of the 2020 draft. From a pure hockey standpoint they have at least tried to put a foundation in place to potentially build something. They still have to make the picks, and they still have to develop them into NHL players, and they still have to hope players like Tkachuk, Chabot, and Brannstrom become the star-level players they are anticipating they will become.
But what is truly going to make-or-break this rebuild is one man, and one man only — owner Eugene Melnyk.
He recently outlined an aggressive spending plan that, in his words, will lead to an unparalleled run of success that will feature the Senators spending to the league’s salary cap every year from 2021-2025. That would line up with what would be the peak years for players like Chabot, White, Tkachuk, and Brannstrom and leave the door open for the team to be aggressive in free agency or in trades.
On paper, it all sounds like a great plan. But it has to actually happen in the real world for any of it to matter.
Here is why it is hard for me — and why it should be hard for Senators fans — to just blindly accept that it is going to happen.
First, the Senators under Melnyk haven’t shown anything close to a willingness to do that in recent years, even when the team was good. They have consistently been well below the league’s salary cap for the past decade, even when the team was good and a playoff team.
Second, we just watched them send out two homegrown All-Stars in Karlsson and Stone, one of which is probably the greatest player the team has ever had and one of the best players ever at his position, because they could not convince them — or were unwilling to match their salary demands — to re-sign.
If you, as an organization, are not willing or able to pay up to keep players like them, then why should we be confident the team will be willing to keep a player like Chabot, or Brannstrom, or Tkachuk in the future if they become the players the Senators hope they will become?
The answer is you shouldn’t, because actions speak louder than words, and all of the recent actions of this organization suggest this is just going to be a never-ending cycle where the Senators look more like a farm team for the rest of the NHL than any sort of legitimate championship contender.