Next three weeks will define Senators’ direction for years to come

Chris Johnston joins Hockey Central to talk about Matt Duchene’s agent meeting with the Ottawa Senators and other news from around the NHL.

On the face of it, the Ottawa Senators are just another forgotten team on the scrap heap of the NHL standings.

They can’t even get their tank on, given that Colorado owns Ottawa’s 2019 first-round pick.

Despite the circumstances — 31st place team, no lottery pick in sight, little to play for beyond pride and the ego of trying to keep the Avalanche out of that damn draft lottery — there are workings behind the scenes of the Senators franchise that have made the coming three weeks one of the most important junctures since Ottawa rejoined the NHL in 1992.

In hockey operations, general manager Pierre Dorion is busy trying to sign one or more of his pending free agents – Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel – while preparing to trade one or more for assets if he can’t get them signed prior to the Feb. 25 trade deadline. On that front, Duchene’s agent Pat Brisson is in Ottawa this week discussing a contract for Duchene with Dorion. That little nugget quickly swayed the pack away from the ‘Stone is more likely to sign’ to ‘Duchene could be the guy.’ Expect more fluctuations in the days ahead.

The odds are running against Dorion being able to keep both big fish, Stone and Duchene, but as he told a group of season ticket holders in a private meeting on Saturday prior to the 2-0 home-ice loss to Detroit, the GM is determined to try to sign his "veteran players." What budget flexibility he has to get the deals done is the $64,000 question.

Considering Duchene and Stone are two of the bigger deadline pieces potentially available, with Dzingel a possible cheaper, effective addition for a contender (Dzingel has scored 20 of the quietest goals in the NHL this season), Dorion has enough on his plate to try to set the course for this team for the next few years.

While that plays out behind the scenes there are other closed door sessions, in Toronto this week, which could be the most important discussions about the future of the franchise since the hockey club moved out of the tiny Civic Centre and into the Palladium (now Canadian Tire Centre) in Kanata in January of 1996.

Mediator Warren Winkler, a former Ontario chief justice, has been assigned the challenging task of rescuing the RendezVous LeBreton bid to develop about 53 acres of land west of Parliament Hill – the so-called LeBreton Flats. That development project, which was to include a new arena for the Senators plus retail, housing and community fixtures, was a partnership between John Ruddy of Trinity Developments and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk under the RendezVous label. Unfortunately, the partnership has been a disaster almost from the very day it was anointed by the National Capital Commission, guardians of that choice land, in April 2016.

As things soured and trust waned, Melnyk sued Ruddy for $700 million and Ruddy sued him back, for $1 billion. Somehow, this partnership from hell ain’t dead yet.

In a strange twist, the second-place finishers in the bidding process, Quebec-based Devcore Canderel DLS (involving Cirque du Soleil and Power Corp giants) are now believed to be involved in the RendezVous rescue. Could Devcore become Senators investors, or arena builders?

The mystery will be unveiled as the clock ticks down to the Feb. 28 deadline imposed by the NCC.

Stream over 500 NHL games blackout-free, including the Flames, Oilers, Leafs and Canucks. Plus Hockey Night in Canada, Rogers Hometown Hockey, Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey and more.

In this way does the future of the franchise boil down to be a few select days in late February, the Feb. 25 trade deadline followed by the suits deadline at NCC HQ.

By the time the dust settles on these separate but linked story lines, the Senators could either be:

A) Led by newly appointed captain Mark Stone, who speaks with conviction about the glory days sure to come when the team moves downtown to LeBreton Flats sometime in the early to mid 2020s.

Or

B) Still holed up in Kanata with a major rebuild in store and no Stone, Duchene or Dzingel on the roster.

Or

C) Some combination of the above.

FANS FED UP

This much we know. Something needs to give. Fan unrest, and apathy, is at an all-time high. Management is aware, that’s why it invited select season ticket holders and small-business people, about 50 in all, to a private reception Saturday.

According to seven-year season ticket holder Andrea Girones, who was there, Dorion only spoke briefly and then left. Those in attendance were told two items would not be discussed: Contract talks with pending free agents and LeBreton Flats.

Dorion did say, as noted, he was trying to sign his pending UFAs and he blamed injuries for his team’s disappointing performance. Really? Other than missing No. 3 centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau for the first half, the Senators main wheels have been in place for most of the season. Dorion would have gained more street cred if he’d cited coaching or defensive structure.

"This was no friendly crowd," Girones tweeted from the event, sharing online some of the exchanges among fans, business types and Senators COO Nic Ruszkowski.

In an interview, Girones says there were really only a few questions answered because Ruszkowski delivered such long-winded responses.

"The questions definitely revolved around, is there enough money in the team, will they be bringing in a financial partner?" says Girones, a malpractice and injury lawyer.

In her Twitter profile Girones notes, "I lead the sad life of an Ottawa Senators fan."

There wasn’t much said at the gathering about the potential for outside investment – this is the owner we have, was the response.

As for the idea of moving closer to downtown, there was a strong pro-Kanata element in the crowd that didn’t necessarily view it as a panacea.

According to Girones, Ruszkowski said that "going downtown makes sense if it’s good for business, but not necessarily for the sake of being downtown."

Ruszkowski expressed to fans and business representatives that the Senators need their support, and that they are partners together.

Girones told the Senators she was not thrilled with the myriad ticket giveaways and discounted seats this season when she and her husband have paid full value for four tickets for 41 home games. They don’t want more tickets.

Furthermore, Girones said, "I don’t want to be your ticket broker," arranging for other people to go to games. A lot of season ticket holders feel "unappreciated," Girones says. Ruszkowski vowed to revamp the loyalty program with the upcoming season ticket renewals but offered no details.

A proud owner of a No. 61 Mark Stone sweater, Girones hopes for the best and fears for the worst, when it comes to her beloved team.

"It’s a shame, because it’s fun, I like going to the games," Girones says. "It’s dealing with all the other stuff, on the business side, that drives me crazy.

"Let’s hope things change one day."

Popular online video host Jillian Fisher has a gift for representing the deep-rooted feelings of all partisan NHL fans. In her latest segment, "Every NHL fan going into the second half of the season," Fisher fronted Senators fans in a single line:

"As long as Melnyk is our owner, I do not trust this rebuild."

Succinct.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.