National Hockey League types tend to avoid using the word “rebuild” at all costs. Three years ago, Mike Babcock went the euphemism route when he spoke of the “pain” to come for a downtrodden Toronto Maple Leafs team he’d just agreed to take the reins of. More recently, ahead of the 2018 trade deadline, the New York Rangers issued a letter to fans that spoke of “losing familiar faces” and the Vancouver Canucks followed suit, releasing a slightly softer version of the same “let’s focus on a bright future” sentiment.
There are ways to get your message across without saying, “Everyone grab a crowbar, cause we’re tearing this thing down.” And no team has a better opportunity to telegraph the fact it has made a difficult, but prudent, choice in the next couple days than the Ottawa Senators.
By now, you probably know the Sens are required to send either the fourth overall pick in Friday’s NHL Draft or their 2019 first-rounder — regardless of where it falls — to the Colorado Avalanche as part of the Matt Duchene trade that was completed last November, when Ottawa believed it would be a participant in the 2018 playoffs.
Senators GM Pierre Dorion has previously stated his intentions to keep this year’s pick, though he does not have to decide on a course of action until right after the third selection is made in Dallas.
Had the Senators simply fallen short of the post-season mix, retaining the pick would be an entirely defensible stance: There figures to be a fine young player in that spot. But in the weeks and months that followed the transaction with Colorado, Ottawa has morphed into something much uglier than a scuffling team looking to get back on its feet. The situation — starting at the top, in most minds, with volatile owner Eugene Melnyk — is so rotten that commissioner Gary Bettman was asked ahead of the NHL Awards in Las Vegas if he felt the league needed to intervene. (Predictably, he did not.)
Regardless of what the commish thinks, it’s clean break time on a number of fronts in Canada’s capital and that means forking over the fourth selection to the Avs in the hopes you’re hanging on to something better that can kick start a top-to-bottom do over.
Before we get to why Ottawa should punt on this year’s pick, let’s quickly outline the logic for keeping it. The opening and closing statement for that argument goes like this: Erik Karlsson is certain to sign an extension on July 1 that keeps him in Ottawa for eight seasons past 2018-19.
Seriously, though, Karlsson is the fulcrum that determines which way the Sens will tip and, even with Mike Hoffman traded and the messiness of an unimaginable situation involving both players’ significant others somewhat resolved, it’s nearly inconceivable that Karlsson would be ready to commit the next decade of his life to this cartoonishly incompetent team right now.
About the only way things could deteriorate is if Colorado, not Ottawa, ends up with super prospect Jack Hughes in next year’s draft. And even if the 31st-place team holds less than a 20 per cent chance of winning the 2019 lottery, the Senators cannot go about their business for 12 months with the possibility of losing that pick hanging over their head. Hey, if you trade Karlsson, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene — no half-measures here, people — your odds of drafting at least fourth overall one year from now are pretty solid.
A total teardown is a lot for fans to stomach at the best of times, let alone when the man leading it — Dorion, don’t forget, signed a three-year extension in February — is being clobbered in every corner of the hockey world for getting far less for Hoffman than San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson was able to acquire mere hours after Wilson ended Hoffman’s Ottawa tenure, then flipped him to the Florida Panthers.
But if you’re a Sens backer looking for crumbs of hope to cling to, don’t forget Dorion has a scouting background and has been part of front offices that found Karlsson 15th overall in 2008, Hoffman 130th overall in 2009 and Stone 178th overall in 2010. The picks you could accumulate from trading basically any roster player except 21-year-old defenceman Thomas Chabot would provide all kinds of opportunity to convert promise into results. Throw everything you have at drafting and developing and see what grows.
As for Hughes, he looks to be at a level where you do whatever you can to buy a lottery ticket and take the ride. The 17-year-old Yank put up 1.9 points-per-game competing for the U.S. National Team Development Program under-18 squad this past season, a number that slightly trumps the 1.6 PPG 2007 first overall pick and three-time Cup champion Patrick Kane posted for the same outfit in his pre-draft season of 2005-06.
If it’s haunted dreams you’re after, let that guy land on another team with your draft pick.
Should the Sens’ obvious, if not on the record, goal be losses next season, they figure to get lots of help from the clubs in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston were all very good this past year and don’t figure to slip much, if at all. Additionally, Florida — “Hey, how did that Hoffman guy get back in our division?!” — and a Buffalo Sabres team that’s about to add a freakish talent of their own in the form of 2018 draft headliner Rasmus Dahlin are getting better, not worse.
The next few years are a perfect time for Ottawa to take a knee and build two things: A fantastic young core and an arena. That way, if the organization can make the dream of a new downtown facility a reality, the Sens will move in with a crop of early-20s players ready to achieve greatness.
That’s something you’ll want to tell the world about.