The Ottawa Senators enter 2017-18 in a puzzling position.
They came within one goal of eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup–champion Pittsburgh Penguins yet, externally at least, expectations are modest.
Having already lost Marc Methot’s fingertip, Ottawa said good-bye to the rest of its long-serving top-pair defenceman in the expansion draft, and role-playing forwards Chris Neil, Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly, and Tommy Wingels walked as well.
This was partly so GM Pierre Dorion, who’s ballin’ on a budget team, could bring back Mike Condon, one of the best insurance goalies in the NHL, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Ryan Dzingel, two forwards hitting their stride in their mid-20s.
More significant contract extensions lurk on the horizon. Top centre Kyle Turris turns UFA on July 1. The underpaid Mark Stone and right-shot defenceman Cody Ceci will be restricted free agents this summer. A couple of biggies — Erik Karlsson and Derick Brassard — hit the open market in 2018.
Every move Dorion makes must be made with the Karlsson extension in mind.
When the puck drops, Ottawa will already be behind the eight ball. Clarke MacArthur failed his physical. Karlsson and Brassard are sidelined, and much-hyped centre prospect Colin White broke a wrist when he absorbed a pre-season slap shot and is gone until November.
Ah well, just another coaching challenge for Guy Boucher to solve.
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
Thomas Chabot — reportedly the Avalanche’s ask in a potential Matt Duchene trade — is, by all accounts, the real deal.
The departure of Methot and the injury to Karlsson (foot) have only increased the already strong chance that the 2015 late-first-rounder is ready for the show.
In 2016-17, Chabot returned for a fourth development season in junior and propelled the Saint John Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup appearance and captured the Émile Bouchard Trophy as the QMJHL’s top defenceman. The 20-year-old posted 10 goals and 35 assists in just 45 regular-season games, then another 23 points in 18 playoff games.
Again: He plays defence.
“He’s probably further ahead than I was when I got here, which is always a good sign.” Karlsson told the Ottawa Citizen.
Strong words, considering the source. Depending where coach Guy Boucher decides to slot inexpensive veteran Johnny Oduya, Chabot could crack the Sens’ top four and the power play as a rookie.
“It’s on your mindset,” Chabot told reporters at training camp regarding his intense approach to the game.
“You get ready every day and you know it’s going to be a tough practice and you get ready for it. That’s just how I put it in my mind. All summer when I went on the ice, I tried to go 100 per cent and try to go hard.”
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
A healthy, top-form Karlsson, for starters.
In most of these previews, we define success as taking a step up in how they finish. Yet if the Senators fail to jump from Eastern Conference finalist to Stanley Cup finalist, few would consider the season a failure.
We may look back at the off-season and circle the Sens’ handling of the expansion draft as their great undoing. Methot was a perfect fit to Karlsson’s left, and we can’t say the franchise’s relationship with top-four D-man Dion Phaneuf is better than it was in May.
Considering the rash of early injuries Ottawa is dealing with, and the step forward expected from their improved Atlantic Division foes — Florida, Toronto, Tampa and Buffalo can all be better — making the playoffs is a success.
Make them healthy and confident, and Boucher has a chance to out-coach just about anybody.
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
How quickly can the Senators solve their arena issue?
The Senators certainly have their share of question marks. Due to a suffocating, committed defensive system and a Hart-conversation super-duper star, they managed to make the NHL’s final four despite being the only playoff team with a negative goal differential and ranking among the bottom third league-wide in offence, power play, and penalty kill.
But the giant, headline-snatching issue is the Canadian Tire Centre — that architectural monster in the middle of nowhere.
In response to the embarrassment of some non-sellouts during a fantastic postseason run and to boost the ol’ supply-and-demand ratio, the club already chopped the rink’s capacity by 1,500 seats.
The Senators are redeveloping LeBreton Flats, a splendid location for their potential new arena, but there are kinks to iron out, and a best-case-scenario 2021 opening may get pushed.
“We got to figure out how does it work, how does it get funded, who are the partners, what role does each of the stakeholders play and all that kind of stuff,” team president and CEO Tom Anselmi told Prime Time Sports.
“I quite often say these buildings take two years to get built, but that is usually the easy part, building them.”