Last-place Senators stumble into all-star break with UFAs unsigned

Ottawa Senators centre Matt Duchene will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season if the team and the 28-year-old can't agree to a contract extension. (Justin Tang/CP)

The Ottawa Senators vowed to go into the all-star break on a strong note.

Instead, the final game before the break squelched like a whoopee cushion, beneath the seats of a small and quiet crowd announced as 12, 236 at the Canadian Tire Centre.

After 50 games, the Senators are dead last in the NHL with 43 points off a record of 19-26-5. For comparison, in the 2017-18 season that registered historic disappointment, Ottawa also had 43 points after 50 games (17-24-9).

So, this team is keeping pace with that snail. Then, there was worry about losing defenceman Erik Karlsson at the deadline (he was moved in September instead). This year, one month ahead of the trade deadline Ottawa’s top three forwards are all pending unrestricted free agents – winger Mark Stone, centre Matt Duchene and winger Ryan Dzingel.

As the rebuild ensues, it is expected that two of the three will be moved at or before the deadline, with Stone considered most likely to remain with the organization.

Regardless, the final 32 games will be a challenging exercise in maintaining some level of professionalism and focus for a rebuilding team that doesn’t have its 2019 first round draft pick (traded to Colorado in the Duchene deal).

Veteran defenceman Mark Borowiecki admitted it will be difficult for players to battle the distraction of potential trades and their fallout, heading into the deadline and beyond.

"Arguably, the core of our team, two guys especially (Stone, Duchene) are big, huge names on this team — foundational pieces — they’re in contract years where, we haven’t had quite the team success we would have liked to have had," Borowiecki says, putting it politely. "And that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

"As a player you work and work and get that chance at free agency and what do you do? It can be a distraction personally, individually, but as a group too.

Whatever happens, we have to do what we can as players to help this team grow and win more games."

That 26th regulation loss of the season, and 31st in all, was telling.

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Against an Arizona Coyotes team with few recognizable names and several players injured, including starting goaltender Antti Raanta, the Senators got outworked, outplayed and were full value for the 3-2 defeat.

The Coyotes lost captain and top defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an injury in the second period. And still they beat Ottawa to nearly every loose puck, putting on a work ethic clinic, just as the Coyotes did in Toronto against the Maple Leafs two nights earlier.

Arizona doesn’t have a single player with as many as 40 points, yet head coach Rick Tocchet has the team playing as though the players won’t get fed after the game if they don’t display a degree of hunger within it.

No category better defines work ethic and coaching than the PK stats and the Coyotes are the best penalty killers in the NHL with a success rate of 86.9 per cent. The Senators are 29th in PK (75.5 per cent), which shows that Duchene’s infamous Uber video chirp about Ottawa’s lame penalty killing strategy continues to ring true.

Much like the first 50 games, the final 32 will be about assessing and developing young players, that is if head coach Guy Boucher can forget about trying to save his job long enough to let the kids play. Against Arizona, Boucher and defensive coach Marc Crawford played veteran Cody Ceci 21:11 and rookie Christian Wolanin all of 8:08, despite the Senators trailing for most of the night. Wolanin has offensive upside, evidenced by his recent nomination for the AHL all-star team. Ceci is among those who could be moved at the deadline.

The Senators sent two of their young players, Wolanin and Rudolf Balcers, back to Belleville to get some playing time this weekend during Ottawa’s eight-day break.

Wolanin will likely rejoin the NHL club for Ottawa’s Feb. 1 game in Pittsburgh.

The best news for Senators fans after the all-star break will probably arrive in an off-ice development, rather than a win here or there — or the shallow victory of keeping Colorado from getting a lottery pick.

1. A Stone signing would go a long way toward lifting spirits, signalling that this franchise can keep the occasional star player, after letting such luminaries as Karlsson, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa get away, for one reason or another.

2. Positive news from the LeBreton Flats bid would warm the hearts of hockey fans throughout the National Capital Region. Mediator Warren (Don’t call me Henry) Winkler has until Feb. 28, just three days past the trade deadline, to find a resolution for the stalled RendezVous LeBreton proposal of Melnyk and his RendezVous partners John Ruddy and Graham Bird.

The wild card in this last-minute pitch to get the project approved, which would involve a downtown NHL arena, is the involvement of Devcore Canderel DLS, backed by Quebec billionaires Guy Laliberte and Andre Desmarais. Devcore appears willing to take on responsibility for financing and building the arena, with the Senators as tenants. It’s also possible Devcore could take an ownership stake in the franchise or buy the team outright.

These kinds of life-giving developments would put this lousy hockey season in a very different light.

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