The Ottawa Senators. They are...a team. A team currently in a four-way tie for last place in the NHL. For a rebuilding team, that wouldn’t normally be an issue. But the Sens are in the unique position of starting a rebuild without a first-round pick in this year’s draft. That’s because they mistook their hot percentage run in 2016-2017 for good hockey and traded this year’s pick as part of a trade package for Matt Duchene early last season. That trade looked bad at the time and looks unconscionable now.
With every loss, instead of being one step closer to a top draft pick, the Sens are one step closer to watching the Colorado Avalanche make that pick. Being this bad and depriving your fans of even the small joy of late nights rewatching Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko highlight videos on Youtube is a particularly spectacular incompetence.
Spectacular incompetence is Eugene Melnyk’s specialty. He’s prolific in this space. Botched arena deals. Entrusting the organization to an overmatched General Manager. Running the front office on a bake sale budget. Saying the wrong thing at every opportunity. Failing to respond appropriately when members of his organization face criminal charges. The team being bad is almost an afterthought.
All of this is unfair to the fans who just want to watch a normal hockey team. Instead, they watch a team already without Karlsson and now facing the prospect of both Duchene and Mark Stone being pending free agents. Recent reports have been optimistic that the team can re-sign both. They certainly have the cap space. But you’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical. The team went to arbitration with Stone just last summer, settling for a one-year deal. Hard to imagine any other team in the NHL that would allow that to happen with their best player.
And Mark Stone is their best player. If we’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the Sens, Mark Stone is a real one. Not only is he the best player on the Sens, he’s one of the best hockey players on the planet. In a just world where team results didn’t impact voting for individual awards, he would be in the Hart Trophy conversation.
He’s currently fourth in the NHL in WAR according to Evolving Hockey and the numbers he’s posting with so little help are heroic. He’s first in expected goal adjusted plus-minus, meaning that he’s the best play driver in the league. Coincidentally, the second best player by that stat is Erik Karlsson. Kind of begs the question of what might have been.
But we’re being positive now. So we’ll focus on how important the Sens re-signing Stone is. With him, they have a cornerstone. They have a player capable of carrying a team. They have a name to put in bright lights on the marquee.
After him, they have two other players in the top twenty in WAR. Matt Duchene and Thomas Chabot. Duchene is doing his best to justify the hefty price the Sens paid to acquire him. Chabot has exploded in his first full season looking like he can be a top pairing defender for the future.
The most important events for the Sens organization over the second half of the season won’t take place on the ice. They will occur in the front office. Ideally, the team would make progress toward extensions for Stone and Duchene over the next few weeks. Because if they don’t, the team will have to decide if they want to roll the dice and wait for the summer or consider trading one or both players before the deadline to ensure they don’t lose them for nothing. Having to trade one or both would be another haymaker to a fanbase that is already looking wobbly.
On the ice, the most important thing will be the development of the young players. Thomas Chabot continuing to look this good would be huge. Brady Tkachuk improving on his solid start to the year and showing he can be a reliable top six forward for the foreseeable future would give the team another bright spot.
Re-sign Stone. Re-sign Duchene. The kids keep improving. Draft smart this summer. If I squint, I can almost see a path to a successful rebuild for Ottawa over the next couple seasons. The problem is that none of the team’s leadership has given us any reason to think they’ll be able to thread that needle.
So far, they’ve stuck that needle into their own thumb over and over and over again. Successfully accomplishing even the most basic tasks seems unlikely for this group. But they have a chance to prove me wrong over the next few months. And for the sake of Sens fans, I hope they do. No one deserves to root for a team run this poorly.