Facing Mark Stone a painful reminder of what Senators gave up in rebuild

Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone, left, celebrates after scoring a goal. (Isaac Brekken/AP)

Players come and go so frequently from NHL rosters, fans become immune to it.

To a point.

In every organization there is a single player, or a select few, whose departure represents a watershed moment in the club’s history.

Remarkably, the two most prominent departures in the history of the Ottawa Senators were both late sixth-round draft picks, both right wingers with out-sized hearts who blossomed from that lowly draft position to become franchise players.

We speak, of course, of Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Stone.

Stone, a Winnipeg native and power forward who couldn’t impress junior hockey scouts with his skating but is money in the NHL, will face his Senators pals for the first time on Thursday in Las Vegas. Stone signed an eight-year, $76-million US contract after being traded to the Knights at last year’s deadline and the weight of that contract has been… not an issue. Stone is en fuego in the early season. He leads Las Vegas with five goals, five assists in seven games, at times putting the team on his broad shoulders.

Speaking of which, Stone seems to have grown, or is it Sin City magic that he is now listed at six-four, 219 pounds in Vegas when he was six-foot-three, 210 in Ottawa? No matter, to fans in Ottawa he was already larger than life.

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Alfredsson barely crossed paths with Stone, having bolted for Detroit in 2013-14, before Stone had played a full season with the Senators. After retirement, Alfredsson signed a one-day contract to retire as a Senator, had his No. 11 jersey retired and joined the organization in the hockey operations department, only to leave again in 2017, an apparent clash with ownership, though he declined to outline the reasons. It wasn’t lost on the fan base that the most beloved Senator in the modern history of the hockey club would leave the organization twice.

Stone’s departure is fresher, but no less significant than the pointed exit of Alfredsson.

Had he stayed, Stone would have been the next captain, an honour that remains on hold until Thomas Chabot or Brady Tkachuk steps into the role.

He was also Tkachuk’s mentor, linemate and landlord, and it was emotional for both players when Stone left Ottawa just as it will be when he faces his former team on Thursday.

"He had a huge impact on me this year, both on and off the ice," Tkachuk said at the time. "I was lucky enough to play with him all year. He welcomed me into his home when he didn’t have to, and he kind of took me under his wing and it means so much to me. He didn’t have to – it’s just the type of guy he is."

Seven months later, one Ottawa reporter still has a pinned tweet of Stone scoring his first goal for Las Vegas after the trade. The caption: "Seems like the kind of guy you could build a team around."

And this is what rankles the fan base in Ottawa – it’s fine to talk about undergoing a rebuild and keeping their good young players, like Chabot (signed to an eight-year, $64-million extension last month) and Tkachuk.

Why wasn’t Stone the first building block?

It was an ominous signal when Stone agreed to a one-year contract with Ottawa for $7.35 million US on Aug. 3, 2018. He might as well have signed an exit clause.

Stone went on to produce 62 points in 59 games, while helping Tkachuk break into the league. Tkachuk and centre Colin White have entertained a revolving door of right wing candidates since Stone left.

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Though he is anything but flashy, at times a bit awkward, Stone is a dream player for any coach. His iron will and work ethic mesh with A+ hockey sense, one of the best takeaway sticks in the NHL, and a touch around the net that makes him a constant threat. A five-time 20-goal scorer, Stone, 27, had a career-high 33 goals last season between his two teams, and seems poised to blow past that number this season.

As much as Stone felt loyalty to the organization, there wasn’t enough faith in the direction of the Senators to keep players like Stone, Erik Karlsson or Matt Duchene, although attempts were made with all three. Karlsson was dealt on the first day of training camp last fall. Duchene, like Stone and Ryan Dzingel, was moved at the deadline.

None of the departures hurt the marketplace more than Stone leaving. He felt it too. From the heart, Stone spoke to reporters in the Vegas room Wednesday about how difficult it was to leave the team that drafted him and a city that embraced him.

"It was a hard four months for me," Stone said. "It was mentally draining, and obviously with no success for the last month, month-and-a-half I was there made it even worse. I tried to think hard every single night about it, but ultimately we couldn’t come to an agreement and I made the decision I was going to move on."

Stone decided that if he couldn’t reach a deal in Ottawa it would be Vegas.

"It worked out for me, I’m happy to be here, but I miss a lot of things about Ottawa," Stone said.

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So many players are gone from the Senators roster Stone knew, it was a smaller group of ex-friends that he joined for dinner Wednesday night. Tkachuk and a few others.

Though he’s unsure what emotions he’ll feel playing against the Senators for the first time, he expects it will be difficult.

"It’s going to be different. I’m excited," he said. "I’ve never been traded before so it’s the first time I’ve ever played an old team. But it’s going to be fun."

Playing against the Senators in Vegas is one thing. When Stone returns to Ottawa and his longtime fans for a game at the Canadian Tire Centre on Jan. 16, emotions will run higher.

"I loved living there," he says. "I still go back there. It’s an awesome city to live in, our fans are awesome. They embraced me from Day 1. We had some really good times there."

Note the "our" fans reference. As though he plays here still.

"They’re going through a major rebuild and I’m excited to be here, excited to be in Vegas long term," Stone said. "And I wish nothing but the best for the guys I played with."

His fans in Ottawa wish nothing but the best for Stone, as much as it hurts that he’s gone.

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