A year ago at this time, the Ottawa Senators were cleaning out their lockers after a disastrous season that saw them plummet to 30th place in the overall standings.
There was a genuine feeling that the club had bottomed out and would start to climb back up in the standings after a tumultuous 2017-18 campaign. The marketing slogan for this season was actually ‘Ottawa Rising’ – a not-so-subtle nod to the fact the club felt its darkest days were in the rear-view mirror.
Then this year’s edition of the Senators managed to sink one spot lower in the standings – finishing dead last in the NHL with just 64 points.
But there was a palpable sense of optimism around the room as the players cleaned out their locker stalls Monday morning, which certainly might seem counterintuitive when measured against the overall standings. But those players who were around for both catastrophic seasons in Ottawa say there’s no comparison as to which season was more taxing on them.
“Everyone had high expectations for us last year and this year was a bit different,” said centre Zack Smith. “We heard right from the start it was going to be a rebuild and they made that evident with some of the moves they made too. It’s never easy finishing at the bottom of the league, but we’re growing. So there is more positive out of this year for sure, even though we’re still at the bottom.”
“I can say there is a better feeling,” added Jean-Gabriel Pageau. “I think two years ago we went to the conference final and the year after that we finished pretty much last. That was a big slap in the face.”
“I think it’s different because the expectations this year were not what they were last year,” said Craig Anderson. “I think there were a lot of heavy hearts and letdowns last year because of where we finished. I think this year, from the outside sources, we were expected to be in this situation.”
Anderson went on the record last summer that he wasn’t keen on another season full of drama and politics swirling around the club. But the 2018-19 edition of the club still had its fair share of controversial moments, including the waiving of popular veteran Smith, a leaked Uber video that showed a disconnect between the coaches and players, the trading of star players Matt Duchene and Mark Stone and the firing of head coach Guy Boucher.
But somehow the past six months seemed relatively tame compared to the previous 12-month cycle when it felt like the Senators were producing negative stories on a weekly basis. Sure, the club could be a laughingstock again on Tuesday at the NHL draft lottery in Toronto if the Colorado Avalanche ends up with the first-overall pick with Ottawa’s draft selection, but the players now feel like the worst is truly behind them.
“I think last year was particularly hard because of the guns we had here. This year, we knew it was a rebuild and we would probably take our lumps on some nights,” explained veteran defenceman Mark Borowiecki. “We kind of mentally prepared for that a little bit more. I think the year prior to this was probably a bit worse.”
A major difference between the two seasons is the fact there is more stability with the roster moving forward. Last summer, there were questions surrounding the futures of Erik Karlsson, Stone and Duchene. The biggest questions this off-season surround the front office and coaching staff as the club needs to hire a new head coach and potentially a president of hockey operations.
General manager Pierre Dorion didn’t address the media on Monday, but when he does he will likely be peppered with questions about not having his own first-round pick this June.
Dorion’s gamble to punt his first rounder to Colorado this year has obviously backfired as his rationale of the club finishing higher in the standings in 2018-19 didn’t come to fruition. However, Dorion’s decision to keep the club’s fourth-overall selection last year and take Brady Tkachuk has looked slightly better, given the emergence of the teenager in his rookie campaign.
In a season that left many fans feeling jaded and bitter towards ownership’s inability to keep star players, even the most cynical hearts were melted by Tkachuk’s boyish enthusiasm and 22-goal campaign.
A year ago, it felt like the Senators could not commit to a face of the franchise because of the uncertain status of Karlsson, Stone and Duchene.
Now it seems like Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot – who had a breakthrough season of his own with 55 points – will be the central figures in the club’s marketing campaign going forward. Tkachuk and Chabot are the young, fresh faces who embody the rebuilding effort.
For his part, Chabot led the team by averaging more than 24 minutes per night – a significantly high number for a player still on his entry-level contract. But the trades of Karlsson and other veterans pushed the likes of Chabot and Tkachuk to the forefront this season, allowing Senators fans to get a glimpse into the future.
“I think everybody took a bigger role. I don’t think it’s that easy of a task to be that young and have that kind of role on an NHL team, but I think everybody responded well,” said Chabot. “For the future, we know we will be guys to play a lot for the next couple of years. I think everybody is looking forward to that and looking forward to the challenge.”
Tkachuk took time Monday to express appreciation for the support he received from Senators fans in his rookie campaign.
“For them, they support us through thick and thin. We just want to make them proud. That’s a message that we can show – that we’re just getting started – and I think that’s the message we want to leave with them,” said Tkachuk.
The Senators saw their attendance figures dip into the bottom five in the NHL this past season, averaging just 14,553 in 41 home games. While much of the decline has been attributed to a lack of faith in the direction of the organization, Anderson believes that the product on the ice is the most important factor in whether or not the fans are in the seats.
“I think a lot of it has to do with our play. I think if we as players play the way we’re capable of playing on a nightly basis, the fans will respect that and support us,” he said.
The players are acutely aware of the restlessness in the marketplace and are echoing management’s plea to fans to buy into a long-term plan that might take two or three more years to realize.
“People need to be a little bit patient with us, but I get it from a fan base’s perspective,” Borowiecki said. “My dad and I, we’ve been with this team for a long time and we went through some lean years around here. It sucks as a fan, but there needs to be patience in a rebuild.”