Monday was unseasonably warm for a February day in Ottawa, with the high temperature expected to push near 10 C.
And while the outside temperature was emulating playoff weather on a spring day, the actions of the Ottawa Senators hockey operations department – hunkered in their war room inside the Canadian Tire Centre – served as another reminder that the return to postseason action was still a long ways off in this market.
In what many Sens fans are hoping is the final move in the jettisoning of veteran talent from the roster, Sens general manager Pierre Dorion sent Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the New York Islanders for a package of draft picks.
For the third season in a row, the Senators are languishing at the bottom of the NHL standings with a ‘For Sale’ sign seemingly permanently staked into their front lawn.
Dorion has wrestled with the conundrum of whether to re-sign Pageau or trade him to a Stanley Cup contender in the weeks leading up to Monday’s trade deadline. The fan base was seemingly split on this topic, with half seeing the merits of keeping the veteran around to help with the rebuild, while others felt like a rich contract extension for Pageau wouldn’t align with their window to compete for the Stanley Cup.
In an ideal world, when the Senators are ready to compete for a playoff spot, centres such as Logan Brown, Josh Norris, Shane Pinto – and yes, even Colin White – should be ready to eat significant minutes.
If at least two of those aforementioned centres reached their projected ceiling, Pageau’s role would most certainly be in a bottom-six capacity, meaning a $4-5 million cap hit might be too costly. Still, some felt that the idea of overpaying Pageau was palatable because the Senators aren’t anywhere remotely close to being a cap team and that there was value in retaining a legacy player.
Pageau was also one of the few Senators players who had marketing appeal on both sides of the river in the national capital region, having been born and raised on the Quebec side in Gatineau.
While the idea of what to do with Pageau was somewhat divisive, the one thing virtually every Ottawa fan could agree upon was that Dorion had to get a substantial return for Pageau if he shipped him out.
The oft-skeptical Senators fan base was somewhat underwhelmed with the returns for Dylan DeMelo and Vladislav Namestnikov – neither of whom fetched a much coveted second-round pick. So when word broke from TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie at 9:45 a.m. ET that Pageau had been traded to the New York Islanders, Ottawa fans were preparing themselves for a diluted return.
But Dorion was able to land an impressive haul for Pageau – including a first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft from an Islanders team that is not assured of its playoff spot just yet. Already armed with San Jose’s first-round selection via the Erik Karlsson trade, the bitterness of not holding a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft appears to be a distant memory for Ottawa fans.
The decision to move Pageau was not taken lightly by Dorion, as the centre had established himself as one of the most popular players in franchise history. Pageau’s popularity was not on the level of a Mark Stone or Erik Karlsson, but he certainly was in the same stratosphere as a Mike Fisher-type player – a two-way, likeable centre who was widely beloved by the fan base.
Pageau also carved out a niche as a playoff performer, delivering two signature postseason moments that will obviously be played during his video tribute when the Islanders pay a visit to Canadian Tire Centre next week.
His hat trick as a rookie in Game 3 of the 2013 playoffs against Montreal launched a “Pageau, Pageau” chant that mocked the Canadiens fans’ penchant for singing “Ole, Ole” during their home games. For a Senators fan base that often struggled to gain credibility with their Original Six rivals, the Pageau hat trick – and line brawl with the Canadiens in Game 3 – was a watershed moment for this franchise.
Pageau’s hat trick and the subsequent playoff series win over Montreal gave Senators fans something tangible to hold over a Canadian archrivals’ head for the first time. For a fan base that has always been treated like a younger sibling, the injection of confidence from that series win cannot be overstated.
And yet, arguably, the heroics against Montreal weren’t Pageau’s most iconic postseason moment in a Senators jersey. That may have come during Game 2 of the second-round series against the New York Rangers in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Pageau scored twice in the final four minutes of regulation time – his second and third goals of the game – to force an overtime period. Then, in memorable fashion, he came down the left wing during the second overtime period and blasted a shot past Henrik Lundqvist to cap a four-goal game.
Pageau’s ability to elevate his game in the postseason is even more impressive when you consider that Alexander Ovechkin – the greatest goal scorer of his generation – only has one playoff hat trick on his resume.
The Islanders are getting a proven two-way playoff performer, who will likely be tasked with shutting down the likes of Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin if the Islanders want to emerge from the Metropolitan Division.
The Senators, of course, are once again losing a piece of their soul.
The dismantling of this roster – which started at the trade deadline two years ago – must feel like a death by a thousand cuts for Ottawa fans. Of the team that went on that improbable run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, only Bobby Ryan and Craig Anderson remain on the roster.
But there is hope that the bleeding stops with the trading of Pageau. There is nobody left on the Senators roster who has created the type of moments and memories that Pageau has during his time with the club.
There is an argument to be made that Anderson is a legacy player, but at the age of 38, his departure would not carry the same sting. Thomas Chabot is locked up for eight seasons and Brady Tkachuk is eligible for a contract extension this summer and unrestricted free agency is still years away for him.
The worst is now in the rear-view mirror for Ottawa and if you’re a die-hard Senators fan who values their sanity, it’s best not to look back at the carnage and path of destruction over the past 24 months. Total rebuilds are always a messy endeavour, asking for patience and understanding from a passionate fan base can often be a futile exercise.
Around here, the focus will now shift squarely onto the 2020 NHL Draft, where the Senators are suddenly in possession of three selections in the first round.
The last time the Senators held three picks in the first round was during the 2011 NHL Draft, when they underwent a similar rebuild that could best be classified as a false start. In that draft, the player who had the biggest impact on the franchise was Pageau – who ironically was not taken until the fourth round.
The hope for Dorion and the Senators now is that one of these high-end draft picks in 2020 develops into a franchise player who can complement the likes of Chabot and Tkachuk. In an ideal world, that player will deliver some signature playoff moments for the franchise like Pageau did on multiple occasions.
The problem is that patience is going to remain an operative word in these parts, because the Senators are probably still a couple of years away from hosting a playoff game in Ottawa.