The last two seasons have been the most painful in Ottawa Senators franchise history.
Finishing 30th and 31st in the overall standings has tested the resolve of even the most passionate and dedicated Senators fan in this market.
But just when you thought your team was out of the woods, virtually every preseason prognostication has pegged the Senators to once again finish dead last in the NHL standings in this upcoming 2019-20 campaign.
So, for a third straight season, we should expect the Senators to be languishing somewhere in the bottom five of the overall standings. The difference this time around, however, is this is exactly what needs to happen in order for the next stage of the rebuild to progress.
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The issue with the previous two seasons is that cratering to the bottom of the standings was never part of the plan. It certainly wasn’t in the 2017-18 campaign, when the Senators made an aggressive move to acquire Matt Duchene in the middle of the season – a trade that was supposed to push them into the league’s penthouse rather than propel them towards the cellar.
Finishing dead last in the standings in 2018-19 was certainly not by design when you consider the club didn’t own its first-round pick by virtue of the Duchene trade. In essence, the Senators unintentionally tanked in 2018-19 without the key benefit of a lost season – a first-round pick.
But as the 2019-20 season is now upon us, the Senators are headed into the 2020 NHL Draft with two first-round selections – their own and San Jose’s. While it would probably be a stretch for the Sharks to finish in the bottom third of the overall standings, it’s virtually a certainty that Ottawa should end up there.
The Senators now have a golden opportunity to potentially land the biggest piece they need in this rebuild, which is a generational, game-breaking forward.
The organization has an embarrassment of riches on the back end, with the likes of Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker and a number of other high-calibre defenders in the system. The Senators also have a glut of potential goalies in the pipeline including Filip Gustavsson, Marcus Hogberg, Mads Sogaard and Joey Daccord.
But the Senators desperately need someone with the skill set of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield – potential superstars and projected first-line forwards who are at the top of 2020 draft class. Finishing at the bottom of the standings in no way guarantees landing the first-overall pick, but it does greatly enhance their chances of picking at the top.
And considering Senators fans have been patient through two disastrous seasons that could only be characterized as a complete dumpster fire, a third consecutive campaign at the bottom of the standings will hardly feel painful – especially if it feels like there is a method to this madness. The last two seasons were a wild roller coaster ride that ended by abruptly falling off a cliff. This upcoming season should feel more like Sens fans are strapped into a collective hang glider. Sure, you’re jumping off a cliff together, but it should be a much smoother and controlled descent.
This post comes with the standard disclaimer that at no point should the players and coaching staff be complicit in a tanking situation. Creating a locker room environment that promotes or accepts losing could do a significant amount of damage to a group of young players.
But Saturday’s preseason finale against the Montreal Canadiens may have provided the perfect blueprint for what an ideal Senators game should look like in the 2019-20 regular season. The club was fast, hardworking and showed a high compete level for more than 60 minutes. There were flashes of offensive brilliance – most notably from the highlight reel goal scored by Anthony Duclair. Brady Tkachuk looked terrific in the offensive zone and Brannstrom flashed a little bit of his skill on the back end.
The team was entertaining but ultimately lost 4-3 in overtime. Entertaining and losing aren’t always synonymous terms, but Saturday’s game proved that it is possible to achieve both within the same 60-minute window.
Tanking is not a guaranteed path to success, as situations in Buffalo and Edmonton have proven over the past decade.
But what the Senators need to avoid is an unsustainable run to the playoffs that is built on a house of cards. The last few times the Sens have qualified for the postseason, they’ve done so with some smoke-and-mirrors magic that has left the hockey world skeptical of their ability to sustain the success.
The ‘Pesky Sens’ made the playoffs in consecutive seasons under Paul MacLean, but they were constantly outshot and outplayed. The Senators only qualified for the postseason in 2014-15 because of the remarkable Andrew Hammond ‘Hamburglar’ run – which actually serves as the best cautionary tale for this year’s squad.
Prior to the Senators going on that memorable run in the spring of 2015, they were sitting in last place in the overall standings near the trade deadline. Had the club continued on that trajectory, they would have ended up with the best odds of landing Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft.
In the moment, the Hamburglar run was fun, exhilarating and magical. It left us with such enduring images as Curtis Lazar eating a hamburger off the ice and Mark Stone celebrating that overtime goal in the home finale to cap an amazing comeback against Pittsburgh.
But almost every Ottawa fan would probably trade those burger-shaped memories for McDavid in his prime right now.
And that’s what the Senators have the opportunity to do with another season at the bottom of the standings. Sure, maybe they could catch some lightning in a bottle this season and make an unexpected dash to a wild-card spot. But the focus isn’t on this year in Ottawa – it’s on the rebuild. It’s counterintuitive for a sports fan to seek anything other than instant gratification, but in the midst of a rebuild, it’s critical to always be thinking big picture. Patience will be the operative word in the months ahead.
That same patient approach must also be adopted by the front office and ownership of the Senators, who can’t quickly change course if the team gets off to a fast start in the weeks ahead.
The total rebuild in 2011 – which was promised by management – never materialized because two fluky playoff runs in 2012 and 2013 clouded the direction of the franchise. That murkiness was best illustrated by the misguided move to trade multiple draft picks for Ales Hemsky at the trade deadline in 2014 – a desperate attempt to make the playoffs that made little sense. Instead of being focused on a rebuild, the Senators sharply veered off course, believing their two brief playoff runs were a harbinger of postseason success to come.
If the Senators truly want to establish themselves as a Stanley Cup contender by the year 2022-23, they need to make sure their playoff runs are sustainable – and not a mirage.
They need to get back to the formula that drove the organization’s success from 1999-2008, when every Ottawa fan rolled into training camp and wondered, “Is this the year we win the Stanley Cup?”
For the past decade, Sens fans have only rolled into training camp with the thought of potentially scraping into the playoffs – but only if everything falls into place.
So one more awful season is exactly what this franchise needs.
At least this time, Sens fans will be expecting it.