There are two distinct schools of thought — Two Solitudes — concerning the present and near future of the Ottawa Senators.
The first group, let’s call them…
Camp 1. Pollyanna Plans a Parade
This segment of the fan base stands tall when GM Pierre Dorion walks into a room and gets excited when Dorion says: “We have a plan!” Quite savvy on social media, this eagle-eyed camp is all-in on the daily thrill of watching every Senators prospect under the sun, in junior, college and Europe to the high-flying Belleville Senators of the AHL. “Norris scores his 30th!” will make the rounds on Twitter, accompanied by a video highlight of that killer wrist shot of Josh Norris, the centre prospect who came to Ottawa as part of the Erik Karlsson trade in Sept. 2018.
Not without basis, this camp of believers notes that the Senators have good prospects in the system — Norris, Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom, Alex Formenton, Christian Wolanin, etc. — and those early 20-somethings (Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot having already arrived) are about to be supplemented by a truckload of draft picks from what Dorion calls “one of the deepest drafts that I can remember… in the last 20 years.” (The truest believers grow weak at the knees).
Ottawa has two lottery picks, theirs and San Jose’s. The Senators could easily be drafting two of the top-five players available, or even two of the top three, and if the lottery balls fall correctly, could get the clear No. 1 pick — Alexis Lafreniere.
With nine picks in the top-three rounds and 13 in all, the Senators have the kind of draft wealth, system prospects and cap room that any GM would envy. This kind of total rebuild based on top draft picks is no guarantee but has delivered multiple championships to Chicago and Pittsburgh. What’s not to like?
Members of our other group will tell you. Let’s call them…
Camp 2. Doubting Thomas stays home
This group would rather spend money on an anti-owner billboard campaign than splurge for a game ticket. Judging by the atrocious attendance at the Canadian Tire Centre, there are enough people in this camp of cynics to launch a proper rebellion.
Rebuild? What rebuild? Non-believers call it cost-cutting, pure and simple. They don’t buy into the legitimacy of the “Plan,” because they have grown jaded by the sight of Karlsson, Daniel Alfredsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, etc., heading out the door to greener pastures.
When Stone left for Vegas, he instantly praised his new team owner’s “commitment to winning.”
Pageau left for Long Island at this week’s deadline and said the Islanders’ new arena for 2021-22 “makes me believe the owners of the Islanders want to win.”
It wasn’t lost on anyone that these players were leaving a city where the prospects of a new, downtown arena at LeBreton Flats went up in smoke as the partnership between Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Trinity Developments fell apart — in the ugliest, you-sue-me, I’ll-sue-you, means possible.
It is accepted wisdom there will be no NHL arena at LeBreton as long as Melnyk owns the team. And so, the club retrenched in Kanata, as the season-ticket base dipped to an all-time low. Some fans say they won’t support the team until ownership changes. Meanwhile, head coach D. J. Smith directs a band of hard-working players who risk their necks for the cause in front of thousands of empty seats — unless they happen to be filled with Maple Leafs or Canadiens fans when those teams are in town.
When does this standoff end?
The bridge solution
There is a way to bring these two disparate groups together, even without a sudden, magical change in ownership, although an influx of ownership partners would surely help. It may be as simple as crossing over the broad shoulders of Brady Tkachuk to get to the other side, a place of happy medium, where members of Camp 1 can live in harmony with Camp 2.
Tkachuk, at 20 years of age, is a wrecking ball of a hockey player and akin to a mythical figure in his ability to inspire fans, especially young floss-dancers. When ‘Tkachuk wore an ‘A’ on his No. 7 jersey this week, after Pageau was traded, hearts were aflutter. Many envisioned a day when Tkachuk changes that ‘A’ to a ‘C’ and leads the Senators to the Promised Land.
The antithesis of this story is what the cynics already imagine — Tkachuk and the organization not agreeing to a long-term deal and Brady leaving for “assets,” picks and prospects. That can’t happen. The hockey team needs to sign Tkachuk this summer, before the final year of his entry-level deal, which would make him a restricted free agent by 2021.
Signing Tkachuk, after the contracts given to Thomas Chabot and Colin White (who has struggled) would be a signal that this rebuild is for real (and “spectacular”– Seinfeld reference) and that ownership/management will keep a strong core of this next wave of talent. The Senators are going to draft at least two high-end talents in June. Combine that with the incoming wave of prospects and it could result in a competitive team in two years.
The rationale for letting Pageau go was that he wanted too much money for what could be a third-or-fourth line role in the future, when Norris, Brown (and Lafreniere?) are front and centre. Now the organization has to prove the plan by getting its core talent signed while using its plethora of draft picks to acquire a few choice veterans to support the talented kids. If they don’t keep the best of this maturing wave, it all falls apart, the last shreds of belief gone with it, and it all starts with Tkachuk, a symbol of a bridge of faith.
The teardown is complete. Now the Senators are in a place Tkachuk knows well, having grown up in Missouri. You know, the “show me” state.