Cold and rainy conditions Tuesday couldn’t dampen the spirits of the Ottawa Senators players and coaches as they gathered for their first official team event of the 2019-20 season.
"I think this year there’s a whole new mindset. It’s a change for everybody," explained Brady Tkachuk, shortly before the rain opened up on the players’ annual golf tournament. "This year has a different feel around it. It should be a lot of fun."
"I think everybody is kind of excited to see where everything will go," said Thomas Chabot. "I think last year at the end of the season we created a different identity and I think that’s something we’re going to bring to camp. Everybody is excited to be here and to get things going."
The current optimism around the club is in stark contrast to the situation that was on the golf course at this event last September when the club was also surrounded by a dark cloud – although it was a much more ominous shadow that hung over the team.
A year ago, the Senators were arguably the most intriguing NHL team at the start of training camp, as they were mired in a seemingly never-ending series of controversies during the summer of 2018. On the eve of the golf tournament in 2018, team owner Eugene Melnyk tried to alleviate the fears of the fan base, with a pre-recorded video that fell short of its intended mark.
And on the day of the 2018 golf tournament itself, Erik Karlsson showed up and declined to speak to the media, deftly avoiding dozens of cameras and reporters. The superstar defenceman was sporting a pair of bright teal golf shoes that would ultimately serve as a harbinger of his trade to San Jose 48 hours later. There were also questions swirling around the futures of pending free agents such as Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. Craig Anderson had reportedly asked for a trade out of town as well.
Quite simply, the Senators were like a bad reality television show people couldn’t stop watching.
But on Tuesday, the Senators had a different feel around them altogether.
There were no awkward videos from the owner. No superstar players potentially on the trade block. And no testy and terse moments with the media.
“It’s a different vibe for sure. A little less turmoil, a little less tumultuous times for us here in Ottawa,” Mark Borowiecki said.
“Last year was a tough year with all the ‘Who knows who's going to be back?’ and ‘Is he going to get traded?’ or ‘Is he going to be signed?’ ” added Chabot. “Now that it’s over, we’ve all moved on from that. We’ve got some new players cracking up the lineup and it's just exciting.”
The toxicity in Ottawa has been replaced by an aura of cautious optimism, as the Senators try and make the difficult transition from an embarrassment – to an organization with an embarrassment of riches.
"I think if the players step up to the plate, we can surprise some people. I think the worst is behind us. I’ve said that many times," said general manager Pierre Dorion, who hired former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant D.J. Smith as his new head coach in May after the firing of Guy Boucher in March. "We’ve had some ups and some downs but with the new players that we’ve brought in we’ve got a new enthusiasm around this group."
The Senators are loaded with young talent with the likes of Tkachuk, Chabot and Colin White leading the way. The club is optimistic that Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson will take the next step forward and become productive NHL forwards this season. Erik Brannstrom will be given every opportunity to make this club in training camp, as the organization is eager to show off their return for Mark Stone. Other young stars like Logan Brown, Christian Wolanin and Josh Norris could also leave their fingerprints on this team this season.
Coupled with the fact the Senators have two first-round picks in the upcoming 2020 NHL Draft – their own and San Jose’s via the Karlsson trade – many people are convinced the Senators have the necessary pieces to be a contender down the road.
But after consecutive seasons in which they’ve finished 30th and 31st respectively in the overall standings, most experts are also picking the Senators to finish in that same part of the standings in 2019-20. And for the players, it’s a potential rallying cry inside the dressing room that the hockey world is dismissing them as a potential playoff team in 2020.
“Play with a chip on your shoulder – you’d be stupid not to,” Borowiecki said about his team's playoff chances. "There’s no expectations on this group, so why play tight, why play scared and timid? Just go out and play.
"Look what Carolina did last year. Nobody expected that," said White. "There are a lot of teams that weren’t expected to do well that came out hot and had good years. I think it’s something we want to do this year."