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Flames are saying right things about Mike Smith’s workload

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The Calgary Flames put all their eggs (goaltending-wise) in the Mike Smith basket last season, and that worked out better than most expected … yet they still failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That thought has to gnaw at all but the most optimistic people involved with the Flames. At least, it should, as for all the bold changes “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving made, they’re rolling with the same goalies behind Smith in 2018-19.

As a reminder, the rotation of David Rittich, Jon Gillies, and Eddie Lack absolutely flopped last season, with Rittich’s less-than-ideal .904 save percentage representing the high water mark behind the often-dazzling Smith.

One of the criticisms of the Smith acquisition revolved around his injury history, and when that issue reared its head last season, the Flames really took on water. Players don’t exactly become sturdier as they age, so it would be foolish for Calgary just to “hope for the best” with the 36-year-old netminder, especially since Smith is one of many towering NHL goalies who are tall enough to serve as an NBA small forward. That big frame doesn’t exactly lend itself to longevity.

It’s also not as if Smith’s enjoyed a low-impact stroll to 36; this isn’t the equivalent to, say, Tim Thomas not really logging those big NHL reps until he was 31.

Since joining the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2011-12, Smith’s played the seventh-most games (367), and tellingly, faced the second-largest volume of shots (11,256, only trailing Henrik Lundqvist). Smith could be a Zdeno Chara-level fitness freak, and he’d still be jarringly susceptible to additional injuries.

So, there are enough red flags to make you worry.

Yet, while the Flames decided to cross their fingers that they’d settle upon an in-house solution (barring a desperate training camp phone call to, say, Steve Mason?), they aren’t sticking their hands in the sand about the fine line they need to walk with their grizzled veteran of a goalie.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

“The wear and tear, remember, isn’t just the shots, it’s getting ready, getting the gear on. You hear people say: ‘Oh, he wasn’t very busy tonight. Only 26 shots’ … well, he’s mentally preparing on every shot,” Treliving said, via George Johnson of the Flames website. “There might’ve been 12 blocks and 20 misses. So he’s still preparing for 58. How many up-and-downs is that? It can take a toll.

“We’ve got a plan but a lot of it is predicated on Mike. But it’s a balancing act. He wants to get his work in but there’s a time once the season is up and going where discretion is the better part of valour.”

Treliving brings up an important point even beyond all of the “ups-and-downs,” as goalies need to focus and track the puck all game long. When Braden Holtby discussed fatigue during that hiccup during the 2017-18 regular season, his emphasis was as much on the mental rigors of the game as the physical challenges.

“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” Holtby said. “If you’re fatigued physically, that’s on you. That’s not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up.”

Holtby (who recently turned 29) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (now 24) both acknowledged being tired last season, and they’re far younger than Smith, so it’s positive to see Treliving discuss taking an approach with Smith that would echo the way MLB teams obsessively protect the arms of their pitchers.

Of course, it’s one thing to say all of the right things in mid-September, but what about if the Flames need those critical points in March, particularly if Smith is once again lapping his backups?

It’s also worth asking if Bill Peters – a coach who must be agonizingly anxious to finally clinch a playoff berth – would be willing to look big picture and give his big goalie needed rest. That would be a concern with any coach, yet especially one who admitted to handling things poorly with Eddie Lack, and whose goalies floundered in Carolina.

(There’s no guarantee that Peters is at fault for faulty Hurricanes goaltending, or to what degree he might be to blame. Still, he was a common denominator as Carolina struggled in that area.)

Even for those of us who thought they erred in trading away underrated defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the Flames look like a fascinatingly dangerous team on paper.

On the other hand, they looked just as formidable heading into last season, only to fall well short of expectations, even with a mostly spry Smith. For a team that clearly holds some pretty lofty ambitions, it’s awfully scary to risk so much on the health and freshness of their 36-year-old goalie.

At least they don’t seem totally oblivious to the risks they’re taking.

MORE PHT FLAMES COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Flames
Under Pressure: Brad Treliving

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

‘NHL 19’ brings some legitimately big changes

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Sports video games tend to trot out new wrinkles that end up being forgotten in months, let alone years. And when we remember them, it’s sometimes for how they fail; football fans may still shudder at Madden’s dreaded “QB Vision” cones.

When you put yourself in the developer’s shoes, it’s tough not to feel some sympathy, as it can’t be easy to churn out a new game every year.

Fair or not, “NHL 18” received some of the typical “glorified roster update” charges that come with annual updates. Even as an easy mark for the series, I must admit that the title felt a little stale. There was a worry that the series was losing steps faster than Corey Perry.

Delightfully, “NHL 19” is its own beast, and presents a surprisingly large step forward for the series. Perhaps it only makes sense with “World of CHEL” bringing the game outdoors.

Today, PHT will look at some of the biggest changes, and how they mostly work for the better. Tomorrow, we’ll trot out a wishlist of sorts for changes we’d like to see in the probable event that EA will release “NHL 20.”

(With that in mind, absolutely share your own wants and hopes in the comments.)

World of CHEL, the good sort of fresh coat of paint

On one hand, “World of CHEL” feels like a repackaging of the series’ many online game modes. If you want to be sardonic about it, this mode sometimes resembles a memorable Jim Gaffigan bit.

While I’ll admit that I’m still very early on when it comes to this mode, so far, it seems like it mostly works.

Personally, I’ve never been all that into heavy player customization; “World of Warcraft” and other online-heavy modes have rarely been my bag. (Considering how addictive many of those games can become, that’s almost certainly a good thing.)

A lot of people do love decking out their characters with “Office Space”-approved flair, though, and this mode seems to bring previous “Be a Pro” elements to a new level. Credit EA with not ruining “World of CHEL” by adding microtransactions, either. Maybe you can chalk it up to HUT covering those bases, or just the backlash to NBA2K’s decisions and EA’s own heartache with Star Wars titles, but it’s nonetheless appreciated.

Ones of a kind

After introducing a more arcade-style, 3-on-3 mode title “Threes” in last year’s game, “NHL 19” adds “Ones.” It’s hockey’s answer to pro wrestling’s triple-threat match, as three individual players battle for the puck and try to score the most goals against a computer goalie.

Yes, it’s as hectic as that sounds. It’s also a fantastic “palate cleanser” compared to more straightforward modes.

As someone who misses the days of arcade-style games (EA’s own “BIG” label churned out truly fantastic titles like SSX and NBA Street, for instance), I appreciate the efforts with these modes. Actually, such thoughts make me hope that EA goes even further with the zaniness in future editions.

Regardless, it’s a nifty, refreshing new flavor for the NHL series.

Cutting edges

A lot of times sports games will trot out gameplay tweaks with goofy, corporatized titles. “NHL 19” isn’t immune to this when it comes to “Explosive Edge Skating.”

Luckily, skating really is drastically improved in this one.

In earlier additions, players sometimes felt like they pivoted with the grace of tugboats. Mediocre responsiveness exacerbated issues where star players didn’t always stand out enough compared to their peers.

“NHL 19” makes big strides in that area, as it’s far easier to turn on a dime and find space, particularly with the Connor McDavids of the world.

Such improvements are felt in other ways – hitting has improved – but you’re most likely to feel the difference in skating.

Death of the pokecheck?

In recent titles, I’ve “spammed” the pokecheck button on defense, albeit at the right moments. Sometimes it almost felt a little dirty that it was so successful, so often.

“NHL 19” shakes a finger disapprovingly at my old methods, however. Penalties generally seem to have been ramped up in this version, with a borderline overcorrection happening regarding pokechecking leading to tripping penalties.

It’s not clear if EA found the sweet spot with this yet, but after grumbling through some early growing pains, I think it’s probably for the best.

EA Hockey Manager

Sometimes you want to feel the rush of deking around defensemen, landing big hits, and roofing pucks beyond a goalie’s glove. Other times you want to feel like you’d do a better job than Marc Bergevin and Dale Tallon.

In past NHL games, you’d probably get an overly inflated feeling that you’d school Bergevin, aside from maybe in a bench-pressing contest. If you engage with all of the modes in “NHL 19,” you may actually end up feeling some empathy for the league’s most embattled execs.

That’s because the franchise mode feels a lot beefier.

For one thing, scouting feels closer to the spreadsheets-as-games experiences you could get if you nerded out with “Eastside Hockey Manager” or “Franchise Hockey Manager.”

Rather than merely budgeting time in weeks and sending a scout out to different locations like in previous games, “NHL 19” allows you to hire and fire scouts. You can align your pro and amateur scouts in a number of ways, including which details you survey in a given prospect.

(Bonus points for EA adding the player comparison element to prospect profiles, so you can experience the fun of some 18-year-old never becoming the next Zdeno Chara. How life-like!)

You can see how it works in greater detail by watching this video, but in short, it brings this series closer to the deeper scouting elements seen in other sports games.

Refreshingly, you’ll need those pro scouts if you keep “fog of war” on, and that element might be what makes you feel a simulation of a GM’s pain.

In past NHL games, you’d know the rating for every player – even ones on opposing teams – aside from players you were scouting. If fog of war is toggled on in “NHL 19,” you’ll sometimes only get hazy reports, and you’ll need to trust the accuracy of your professional scouts.

It opens the door for fascinating differences of opinion. Maybe you’d also pull the trigger on a trade akin to Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson if you were going off the opinion of a C-grade pro scout?

If this all sounds like way too much for a video game – understandably – note that customize it by turning fog of war and other things off. (Personally, I tend to turn off owner mode, as I’m not really interested in deciding how much money I should spend on bathroom repairs.)

HUT gets some tweaks

One bummer with long-lasting NHL modes is that they don’t carry over. Your franchise mode team can’t continue on, and your Be a Pro must be a scrappy up-and-comer even if your “NHL 18” version made the Hall of Fame.

It might be worst with Hockey Ultimate Team, however, as real-life dollars are frequently spent to improve HUT rosters. (This FIFA story is basically a parent’s nightmare.)

So, on one hand, I’m not sure how I feel about soccer-like “loan players” in HUT. I’m also not sure if changes to player ratings are really just a way to nudge the mode closer to “pay-to-win.”

Either way, seeing fairly noteworthy tweaks to HUT might make it easier for those who’ve paid for previous teams to start from scratch. Maybe.

As far as the wider quality of the mode goes – particularly how feasible it is to be competitive if you make it a point not to spend an extra dime on “NHL 19” – it will probably take months to know for sure if it’s truly better, the same, or worse. Early on, there’s some value to the sheer novelty it represents.

***

Long story short, “NHL 19” presents more than just token changes to EA’s formula for NHL games. These changes should be refreshing for series veterans, while the improved gameplay and other tweaks make for a solid start for anyone new to the titles.

More than anything else, it all feels so much better to play, even if it’s unlikely to convert its loudest critics.

This series has been providing quantity for quite a few years, and you’re getting even more of that with “NHL 19.” Thankfully, this iteration presents a big jump in quality, too.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Unsigned restricted free agents as NHL camps open

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With NHL training camps underway and the big trades we were all waiting for (Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty) completed the next big thing to watch around the league are the remaining unsigned restricted free agents.

There are seven of them around the league and they all find themselves in a similar situation: They are either 22 or 23 years old, they are coming off of their entry-level contracts, and none of them had any arbitration rights this offseason. As much as everyone around the league hates the arbitration process, there is no denying that it gets things done (either before arbitration or during it), something Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee recently pointed out as he deals with one of the ongoing RFA situations with defenseman Shea Theodore.

“People get pressured into getting a deal done or you go to arbitration,” McPhee said at the start of training camp this past week, via NHL.com. “There’s a group of 10-15 good young players in the League that don’t have arbitration rights and don’t have contracts right now. And it just seems to take a while to work them out.”

A lot of times the big issue at play is the team preferring to sign the player to a shorter-term bridge contract, while the player tends to want the security that comes with a long-term contract.

Let us go around the league and take a quick look at the seven teams and players that still need to reach a deal.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs — Nylander is the big one still out there because he’s a front-line player and, well, he plays for Toronto and that immediately makes him a big story. He’s already missed the first days of training camp and there are reports that the two sides are still far apart on a deal as Nylander doesn’t want to sign a bridge deal. And quite honestly, neither should Toronto. At this point we have a pretty good idea of the type of player that Nylander is (a really good one) and he is just now entering his peak years. Signing him to a two-year contract now and then signing him to a long-term contract after that after he’s continued to develop into his prime years is probably going to end up costing Toronto more money than if it just signed him to a long-term deal now that is comparable to, say, the one David Pastrnak signed in Boston before the 2017-18 season.

The concern that everyone will have here for Toronto is making this all work under the salary cap. The team spent big money on John Tavares in free agency this summer and after this season will have to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to new contracts. They will not be cheap.

Some might argue that Toronto will have to trade one of the young guys (either Nylander or Marner, with Nylander usually the one being suggested) but the Maple Leafs can make this work with all of them.

Keep your young, impact talent.

Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights — Theodore’s absence and lack of a contract is a pretty big deal for Vegas right now.

Not only was he one of the Golden Knights’ top defenseman a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes a night and finishing with 26 points from the blue line, but with Nate Schmidt set to miss the first 20 games of the season due to a suspension the team is already going to be shorthanded on the blue line.

As recently as Friday afternoon the word here (via TSN’s Pierre LeBrun) is that the two sides were far apart.

Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers — Like the situation in Vegas with Theodore, the Oilers really need Nurse on the ice because an already undermanned unit became even thinner when the Oilers lost Andrej Sekera to injury. On Friday Nurse’s agent told the Edmonton Journal the two sides have a disagreement on what Nurse’s value is currently is, resulting in the 23-year-old defenseman returning to Toronto to continue to train.

Via the Journal:

“We have a disagreement on what Darnell’s value is and at this time there’s no meeting of the minds,” said Nurse’s agent Anton Thun, who feels there’s no reason for Nurse to stay in Edmonton now.

“He’s not under contract with the Oilers. He’s gone back to train where he did all summer, training in the same rink and gym. He can skate with a university or junior team. He won’t be skating by himself,” said Thun, who doesn’t feel Nurse, because of his age (24) is losing that much by not being in camp right now.

“If he didn’t know who his defence partners were or didn’t know the team, it would be important to be on the ice learning the ropes but this is his fourth year in the organization.”

Nurse appeared in all 82 games for the Oilers a year ago and set new career-highs across the board and played more minutes than anyone on the team. (UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal.)

Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres — Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, may never be a superstar but his production through the first three years of his career has been remarkably consistent, and he should still be viewed as one of the team’s core players along with Jack Eichel and top pick Rasmus Dahlin.

He set new career-highs a year ago with 25 goals (tied for the team lead) and 50 points for the Sabres.

Still, there is a bit of a mystery as to what he can still be. At 22 he is still fairly young and probably has not entered his prime years yet, but after three consecutive years of 20-25 goals and 45-50 points, how much more untapped potential is there with him?

We can try to figure that out a little bit.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season there have been 31 forwards — including Reinhart — that have played at least 149 games through their age 22 season and averaged between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game (here is the list of players via Hockey-Reference).

Overall, it is a fairly strong list with some really good players.

The three best players that went on to become All-Star level players are Corey Perry, Zach Parise and Jakub Voracek, while there very few players that regressed or failed to go on to have productive careers (Steve Bernier, Peter Mueller, and Ryan Strome might fit that category). So there is a chance he could still really break out, but most likely this is probably close to what you should expect from him going forward. If you have a forward that can consistently get you 25 goals and 50 points you have yourself a pretty good top-six forward. Not a superstar by any means, but a player you can certainly win with.

Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils — Wood was one of the many young players the Devils relied on last season as they made their return to the playoffs. His 19 goals were fourth-most on the team (behind only Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier) and he did that while playing just 12 minutes per game over 76 games. On a per-minute basis he was one of the Devils’ most productive goal scorers and it wasn’t really the result of an unsustainably high shooting percentage. He was legitimately good.

General manager Ray Shero said at the start of camp that the two sides are pretty close, but that there are “some philosophical issues that need to be worked out about how the system works.”

Added Shero, via NJ.com, “That’s not just a situation with his agents or Miles himself.”

So chalk another one up under the system isn’t perfect category.

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets — This isn’t the first time the Jets have had an RFA contract dispute with a young defenseman, going through this pretty regularly over the past few years with Jacob Trouba. That situation has reached a point where it remains unlikely that Trouba remains in Winnipeg long-term. They really do not want that storyline to repeat itself here. Morrissey isn’t quite as good as Trouba, but he is still a former first-round draft pick that has developed nicely and was one of the team’s top-four defenders a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes per night. (UPDATE: Morrissey is now signed.)

Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks — Of all the remaining unsigned RFA’s Ritchie is the one that probably has the least amount of leverage because his career to this point has been, for lack of a better word, uninspiring. The No. 10 overall pick in 2014, Ritchie has appeared in 186 games in his NHL career and recorded just 26 goals and 33 assists (59 total points), including only 10 goals in 76 games a year ago. He is not quite a bust, but he also has not really taken a significant step forward (he actually scored four fewer goals this past season than he did the year before. If there is any player out of this group that should be destined for a “prove it” bridge type of contract, Ritchie is almost certainly the one.

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.

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.