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NHL

The Senators’ Rebuild Is Far From Done

Brady Tkachuk is separated from Mikko Rantanen
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The most efficient way to make yourself a figure of derision in sports is to show some unearned arrogance, or to make a bold prediction that turns out poorly. Think LeBron saying he would win upward of seven titles with the Miami Heat, or Freddie Mitchell calling out Rodney Harrison before the Super Bowl in 2005, or Matt Hasselbeck’s “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score.” Another efficient way to make yourself a figure of ridicule is to work for the Ottawa Senators.

Unfortunately, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion found a way to combine the two after signing a contract extension in September, as he appeared to wildly overrate the team he had put together as they set out trying to break a streak of four straight missed postseasons.

“A lot of our younger players have reached a maturity stage in their career where they should be leading us and not be considered young players anymore,” Dorion added. “As a group, it’s time to start winning.”

I’ll admit it: I was kind of excited about these Senators heading into this year! In the COVID-shortened 2021 season, though they finished sixth out of seven teams in the Canadian division, the Sens on the ice showed a certain feistiness that could make them into worthy opponents on any given night, while their beaten-down fanbase’s often good-natured reaction to all the struggles charmed many writers at this website. On top of that, the Senators were starting to enjoy the fruits of those losing seasons, in the form of a bunch of promising young players. Honestly, if you took away their team’s woeful 2-12-1 first act, there was a lot to be proud of, and reason for optimism as they approached a new, seemingly more normal season.

Unfortunately, the dream of a respectable Ottawa Senators is still just that. Not only has the ugliness of COVID refused to fade into memory—the team had an outbreak this month that quarantined nearly a dozen players and required three games to be postponed—but the results haven’t been there on the ice. Only the Coyotes have endured a worse opening stretch in the NHL this year, and after a 4-11-1 start (including a 1-7-1 run so far in the month of November), I already feel extremely comfortable making a prediction of my own: This will not be the year the Senators return to the playoffs.

I was reminded, however, of the shameful excitement last year’s Sens could inspire when I watched them take on the Colorado Avalanche last night. In their return from the COVID outbreak, while still missing a crucial player in Drake Batherson, they benefited from a bad night for Avs goalie Darcy Kuemper but still couldn’t manage to come away with a tangible reward. The Sens lost 7-5 as they gave up the final three goals of the game.

The Sens got their asses kicked in this one from a possession perspective, going the first 13 minutes of the second period without a shot and getting doubled up in that category for the game. But against a hot contender picking up the pieces from a rough first month, Ottawa showed flashes of that lovably infuriating bunch from last year, most notably on the third goal of Zach Sanford’s hat trick. This one was just so silly. The new arrival, who won the Cup with the Blues in 2019, took the puck behind the red line, faked a wraparound, came back to his original side, watched Kuemper completely lose his footing, then from an absurd angle fired the puck off the goalie’s shoulder and in for a 5-4 lead. That’s what Senators hockey is all about.

A goal off a rebound for Alex Newhook to break a 5-5 tie with under two minutes to go, then an empty netter, kept the Sens from getting even a point from this pretty thrilling affair. But if Kuemper hadn’t been such a mess, this would have been another lopsided loss for Ottawa, and the difficulties of this opening stretch show just how far they still have to go.

Last year, the Sens were a leaky defensive team kept afloat at times by streaky offense. So far in ’21–’22, they’re just as bad and perhaps even worse at stopping goals, and the forwards are picking up even less of the slack. There still isn’t a clear long-term solution in net, as none of the team’s three options has been able to prove himself as capable of filling a starter’s role. (Filip Gustavsson, at age 23, is the most promising, but he still only has 14 career NHL starts.) On the blue line, Thomas Chabot has come into his own as a guy who devours minutes while keeping the ice tilted away from his goalie. (Say what you will about plus/minus, but the fact that he’s +3 while averaging an astonishing 27.5 minutes per night on a team that’s -18 is pretty damn impressive.) But aside from the neat Russian find Artem Zub, there is absolutely nobody on the back end who can hold their own, and the Sens are so far allowing more shots per game than anybody else in the league.

On offense, despite some encouraging early play from former first-round pick Josh Norris (22) and diamond-in-the-rough Drake Batherson (23), it’s been slow sailing. Team captain Brady Tkachuk, though he’s as prickly as ever, might be feeling the effects of an entire offseason spent waiting on a contract, as he’s tallied three goals in his first 13. Connor Brown, the team’s reigning scoring king, has just two in 12. And Tim Stützle, one of a few eye-catching rookies from last year, is experiencing some growing pains at just 19 years old and is ice cold with one goal in 16.

This is ultimately just the nature of a young team (the youngest in the NHL, actually) filled with guys who haven’t sniffed their prime yet. Players will run hot and cold as their bodies and minds adjust to the professional grind, and while sometimes you’ll get lucky and catch them all enjoying a good night together, other times mistakes and inexperience pile up to cause mass dysfunction. This is an acceptable stage to be at as a hockey club, provided your momentum is generally carrying you towards improvement.

The problem, however, is the one that got the Senators into this rebuilding situation in the first place—thinking the work was done before the job is actually completed. After a fluke trip to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, Dorion adopted a win-now approach that fell flat on its face, making debilitating moves like sending a king’s ransom to Colorado for Matt Duchene while presiding over embarrassing incidents like the Mike Hoffman fiancée cyberbullying allegations and the time multiple players were caught joking about how bad the coaches sucked. (In 2016 he also swapped Mika Zibanejad and a second rounder for 139 games of Derick Brassard. Oops.)

While the wreckage is nowhere near as bad as it was a couple of years ago, the fact that Dorion declared the time for winning to be now, when the on-ice results do not back him up in the slightest, should set off some alarm bells. Ottawa’s worst enemy right now might be complacency, because getting and making promising draft picks is only one part of building up a team, and it’s clear that there are many transactions left to be made if the Sens are going to reach respectability (plus time for development of players and systems). The path forward is clearer than it’s been in years, but seeing the path and walking it are two entirely different things. It’s still OK to feel decent about where the Sens currently sit, but the rebuild won’t be done until they actually build something that wins.