Senators have hope for the future, but patience is required

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There were seven teams that did not qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff field this past season. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at each of them to examine whether or not they are capable of bouncing back this upcoming season. We continue today with the Ottawa Senators.

It was only three seasons ago that the Ottawa Senators were in double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, just one shot away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Even though it may have been a Cinderella run that came out of nowhere, it was still a very talented roster with its share of high-level players: Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Craig Anderson. It was a good team that, for the most part, was either always in the playoffs or right there in the hunt.

It all seems like an eternity ago.

Fast forward to the present day, and there is not a single player that remains in Ottawa from that 2017 roster. All of them are gone, and that seemed to be part of the plan that owner Eugene Melnyk started to outline for his scorched earth rebuild of the team back in October of 2018 (you remember that video, right?) when he said that within two years 16 of the 22 players on the roster would be new faces. Mission accomplished. And then some.

So where does that leave the Senators’ rebuild now?

Let’s dig in.

The new core

At the NHL level the two main building blocks are clearly Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot. They are the best players on the roster, are still only 21 and 23 years old, respectively, and are both already very good. They have already committed to Chabot long-term with an eight-year, $64 million contract that begins this season. Tkachuk is in the final year of his entry-level deal.

Beyond them, the current roster is very thin in terms of established players. Evgenii Dadonov was a smart pickup in free agency, while Connor Brown and Chris Tierney are very serviceable.

The key to all of this long-term is going to be the development of their recent draft picks and prospects.

Through all of their trades to overhaul the roster, the Senators stockpiled a massive amount of high picks. They had two first-round picks in 2018, three of the top-37 picks in 2019, and in this most recent draft class had an almost unbelievable six of the top-61 picks. That included four of the top-33, including three first-rounders. Two of those first-rounders were in the top-five (No. 3 and No. 5 overall).

Add in 2016 first-round Logan Brown, as well as Erik Brannstrom (the No. 15 overall pick in 2017 by Vegas, and the key part of the Stone trade) and Josh Norris (No. 19 overall in 2017 and acquired in the Karlsson trade) and there are a ton of recent first-round picks here. Not all of them will pan out. But giving yourself that many swings certainly increases your chances of connecting on a home run or two.

What could make or break all of this is the development of those top two picks this year, forward Tim Stuetzle and defenseman Jake Sanderson.

Since 1979 the Senators are just the fifth team to have two top-five picks in the same draft class. The previous four teams produced very mixed results.

• The 2000 New York Islanders selected Rick DiPietro (No. 1) and Raffi Torres (No. 5)
• The 1999 Vancouver Canucks selected Henrik Sedin (No. 2) and Daniel Sedin (No. 3)
• The 1997 New York Islanders selected Roberto Luongo (No. 4) and Eric Brewer (No. 5)
• The 1988 Quebec Nordiques selected Curtis Leschyshyn (No. 3) and Daniel Dore (No. 5)

The Canucks crushed it, and the 1997 Islanders could have crushed had they not traded each player within two years.

The Senators have given themselves a lot of swings. Let’s see how many times they connect.

The Matt Murray question

The most fascinating move of the offseason was the Senators’ dive into the crowded goalie market.

Not so much because they went for a goalie (they needed one) but because of the investment they made, acquiring Matt Murray from the Pittsburgh Penguins (for prospect Jonathan Gruden and a second-round draft pick) and then signing him to a four-year, $25 million contract. Of all the goalies that changed teams this season, this is the one that had the largest investment in terms of assets given up and salary cap commitment (no free agent goalie signed to a bigger cap hit this offseason).

It all comes down to which version of Murray you think the Senators are getting.

He still has “two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie” in big letters at the top of his resume. But he has not consistently played at that level, and there is still some question as to how good of a goalie he can be and whether or not he can return to that championship form.

If he does, then it is a big position that gets solved relatively easily. If he doesn’t, that is a big contract with a modified no-trade clause that you have to deal with.

Their other long-term goaltending option is prospect Filip Gustavsson, also acquired from the Penguins a couple of years earlier.

The outlook

This team is going to be very bad again this season, and best case scenario for a potential playoff spot is probably at least two years away.

Still, there is some reason for long-term optimism.

They have two very good building blocks in place (Tkachuk and Chabot) and they have all of the recent high draft picks that have entered the organization.

There are two things that will determine the success of this rebuild.

The first is the actual development of those prospects. If players like Brannstrom, Stutzle, Sanderson, Norris, and Drake Batherson do not pan out, then it is hard to see how this thing ever turns around anytime soon.

The second is Melnyk. His entire ownership has been one saga of chaos after another, and at some point you have to see some proof that he is going to invest and commit to building a championship caliber roster. Without that, absolutely nothing else matters.

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.

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