Down Goes Brown: Five ways Ottawa Senators’ season could play out

Sportsnet's Steve Dangle joins The Good Show to discuss the dysfunction of the Ottawa Senators and the organization's uncertain outlook going forward.

So things aren’t going great for the Ottawa Senators these days.

Last week, they re-signed one of their best players, getting Mark Stone under contract prior to arbitration. That might seem like good news, but the deal was only for one year, meaning Stone will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he doesn’t agree to a long-term extension by then, he could walk away for nothing. So could Matt Duchene, another pending UFA with a recent history of bailing on struggling teams; if there’s been any progress on an extension for him, it’s been kept quiet.

And then there’s the ongoing Erik Karlsson saga, which these days has no end in sight. Maybe that’s a good thing — until he’s traded, there’s always a chance he could stay. But that still seems unlikely, and given the poor reviews from the Mike Hoffman deal and the general lack of confidence in the Senators’ front office, you could forgive their fans for expecting the worst.

They might get it. But they might not, because predicting anything in today’s NHL is tricky business. So today, let’s look at five ways the Senators’ season could play out. We’ll rank them from best to worst, although as you’ll see that doesn’t necessarily mean that more wins are better.

Let’s start with the best possible outcome: The one where we’re all worrying over nothing, because the Senators are actually good.

Scenario #1: The feel-good story

What happens: We won’t get crazy and predict a scenario where the Senators roll over the league and win the Stanley Cup. Even as a best case, that seems far-fetched. So instead, let’s imagine a 2018–19 season that looks a lot like 2016–17 did. In other words, the Senators play well enough to make the playoffs with room to spare, and once they get there they’re good enough to at least have a puncher’s chance against any team they run up against.

If you strip away all the off-ice drama, this kind of season doesn’t seem impossible. If they make it to opening night with Karlsson still on the team, the roster would at least bear a passing resemblance to the 2017 squad that came within one goal of the Final. Stone and Duchene will both have plenty to play for in contract years, so if the goaltending turns around, Bobby Ryan rediscovers his game and a few of the key youngsters make big leaps, well, who knows, right?

What doesn’t happen: Like any team, the Sens won’t go anywhere without decent goaltending, which means a big rebound year from Craig Anderson or Mike Condon or maybe someone else — remember, Anderson also reportedly wants out. If they get a full season of sub-.900 goaltending like they did last year, nothing any of the other players do is going to matter.

But beyond that, it feels like any kind of success on the ice would be tied to a lack of drama off of it. That includes any kind of panic moves around Karlsson, Stone or Duchene. It also probably means that Eugene Melnyk is locked in a storage closet somewhere deep in the bowels of the arena and isn’t allowed to talk to the media or anyone else.

Our first sign it might be happening: The schedule-maker didn’t do the Senators any favours, with a tough October that features seven playoff teams, plus teams like Chicago and Dallas that should be better. But if the Senators can come out of the month with something like a 6-3-2 record, November opens with a home-and-home against the Sabres. Win those, and the “Hey, this team might be better than we thought” vibe will flicker to life.

The odds that it happens: 10%. Is this too high? It’s probably too high. By this point, even the most diehard Sens fans seem to have accepted that the coming season will be a disaster, and are just waiting to find out how bad the damage gets. The idea that the year might actually turn out to be a success seems hopelessly optimistic.

But this is the NHL. If an expansion team can shock the world, and another team can go from dead last to the playoffs, and yet another team can go from last in its conference back to the playoffs all in the same year… well, like we said, who knows? We’re living in the NHL’s age of hyper-parity, and anyone who tries to tell you that anything is a sure thing hasn’t been paying attention.

“Who knows?” isn’t exactly an optimistic slogan heading into a season, but these days Ottawa will probably take it.

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Scenario #2: The true rebuild

What happens: The team struggles, trades a bunch of star players, and finishes last or somewhere close to it. And that’s all OK, because the 2018–19 season ends up marking the start of a true rebuild that sets the franchise back on the road to contending for a championship.

Consider it a controlled demolition, one where the team accepts some short-term pain in return for building a foundation for long-term success. We’ve seen that sort of approach build champions in places like Chicago and Pittsburgh, and more recently the Maple Leafs have made at least the early stages look easy. Of course, teams like the Oilers, Sabres and Coyotes remind us that just losing a bunch of games doesn’t guarantee anything. But in today’s NHL, it usually helps.

All that said, any kind of traditional rebuild in Ottawa would come with a catch: They don’t own their own first-round pick next year, after sending it to Colorado in last season’s Duchene trade. That derails the usual “bottom out and draft a franchise player” strategy. But on the other hand, they’ve got three big stars who are all in the last year of their deal and should fetch plenty on the trade market, and their lack of long-term commitments to just about anyone gives them a much cleaner cap situation than most rebuilding teams.

So imagine this: By the time the trade deadline passes, Karlsson is gone, and one or both of Stone and Duchene are, too, but the organization has reaped a windfall of picks and prospects along the way. The team is bad, but guys like Thomas Chabot and Colin White are playing big minutes and looking like future stars. They have plenty of cap space, some of which they use to add even more futures in exchange for taking on bad short-term deals. Pierre Dorion has a plan, the fans are buying in, and suddenly the future seems bright.

What doesn’t happen: The key here is that the front office has to be ready and willing to go this route. Publicly, they haven’t indicated that that’s the case. That’s fine, because it’s not the sort of thing teams tend to want to advertise. But there’s long been a concern about just how much Ottawa would support a lousy team, and whether the franchise can afford to find out.

For a true rebuild to work, everyone from ownership on down has to be on board. If attendance is down in November and Melnyk starts pushing for short-term moves, we can probably just skip ahead to Scenario #5.

Our first sign it might be happening: We could get it well before camp even opens, depending on how the Karlsson situation plays out. If the team makes a deal that’s heavy on future assets, that’s a good sign. If they can’t find fair value, or it feels like they’re more interested in padding out the roster with more Mikkel Bodker-type guys, look out.

The odds that it happens: 25%. This all relies on Melnyk being patient and level-headed, and history shows that’s not always a good bet. But depending on how the season kicks off, he may not have much choice.

Scenario #3: Stuck in the middle

What happens: The Senators aren’t good. But they’re also not all that bad. They’re just kind of… there. Not quite good enough to be worth getting excited about, but not bad enough to justify blowing the whole thing up and starting over.

In the salary-cap era, this is just about the worst spot a team can find itself in, since it typically means that you miss the playoffs but also can’t land an elite player at the top of the draft. The Senators don’t have to worry about their lottery odds this year thanks to the Avs owning their pick, but a middling season would complicate their decisions around Karlsson, Stone, Duchene and others.

In the worst-case version of this scenario, this sort of season can result in a Buridan’s Donkey type of situation where a team can’t figure out whether they should be buying or selling, so they just stay the course and do nothing, riding out a forgettable season and ending up without much of anything to show for it. Needless to say, staying the course doesn’t really feel like a great option in Ottawa these days.

What doesn’t happen: On paper, the Senators would need a lot of things to go right just to get to this level. If the team starts slowly and pulls the trigger on a big-name trade or two, the race to the bottom is probably on and we can forget about even hanging around the fringes of the race.

Our first sign it might be happening: To some extent, we can look at last year’s Islanders for some lessons here. They weren’t very good, but they weren’t awful, and were lurking around the playoff bubble up to the deadline. As a result, they froze on the John Tavares question. We all know how that worked out.

From the Senators’ perspective, watch for the dreaded “star player who doesn’t want to negotiate once the season starts” storyline. And if the team is eight points out of a wild-card spot in December but still talking about how they think they’re a playoff team, it will be time to worry.

The odds that it happens: 20%. Again, maybe this seems high if you’re already convinced that the Senators will inevitably be a train wreck. But remember, it doesn’t take much for even a bad team to look mildly competitive in today’s NHL. A solid six-week stretch from a hot goaltender could be all it takes.

Once that happens, it all really comes down to just how optimistic the organization wants to be — or pretend to be. Which leads us nicely into our next section…

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Scenario #4: Fool’s gold

What happens: The Senators are good again… kind of. The standings say they are, and maybe they even make the playoffs. But all other signs point to those results being a fluke, and the team not being anywhere near as good as their record indicates.

This sort of scenario has played out for plenty of teams in recent years, including the 2012–13 Maple Leafs, the 2014–15 Flames and Canucks, and (maybe most memorably) the 2013–14 Avalanche. To a lesser extent, you could also include the 2014–15 Senators, who weren’t very good until career minor-leaguer Andrew Hammond went on the hot streak to end all hot streaks down the stretch.

These sorts of seasons often do more harm than good to a team’s long-term hopes. On the one hand, wins are wins, the score is the only stat that matters, and all that extra playoff revenue sure looks nice on the bottom line. But these are the sort of seasons that convince teams they’re on the right track and everyone involved is doing a great job. Those in charge tend to double down on what’s clearly working, and lots of chest-puffing, back-patting and big-money extensions tend to follow. (Remember Dave Nonis getting five years from MLSE for “fixing” the Maple Leafs?)

Then the numbers even out, reality hits hard, and the team realizes it was all a mirage. By then, it’s usually too late, and the hole is even deeper than it was before.

What doesn’t happen: These sorts of scenarios can always be stopped in their tracks by a smart GM who has the confidence to read the situation correctly and not overcommit to something that isn’t there. Is Dorion that sort of GM? Maybe, but most of his NHL counterparts haven’t been.

Our first sign it might be happening: Most fans know the stats to watch for by now — unsustainably high shooting percentages, hot goaltending, a disproportionate number of points coming from overtime and shootouts. Put it this way: If you hear a lot of people mumbling about PDO, that’s bad. Also bad: If grizzled Avalanche fans keeps cackling evilly while shouting “You’ll see!”

The odds that it happens: 15%. The hockey gods like to pull this trick on at least one team every few years. Considering all the fun they’ve been having with the Senators lately, it would seem fitting.

 
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Scenario #5: Total disaster

What happens: The team is terrible on the ice, and a punchline off of it. They make bad trades on Karlsson and others, they plummet down the standings, and the team’s few remaining stars make it clear they want out. By the end of it, Sens fans just want it all to end.

In other words, this scenario looks an awful lot like 2017–18.

But as much as Senators fan won’t want to hear it, the 2018–19 season could be shaping up to be even worse. Last season’s disaster could at least hold out the promise of a high draft pick to dull some of the pain. If the Sens are bringing up the rear this year, Ottawa fans will be having visceral reactions to hearing the name Jack Hughes by mid-season.

And remember, the Karlsson situation could still end badly. Some Sens fans might prefer to see a trade happen now, if only to tear the band-aid off and get it over with. But with the market looking lukewarm at best, there’s at least a chance that 2018–19 starts off with the best player in franchise history being dealt for a handful of loose change. And then Stone and Duchene could be next. Or worse, maybe somebody gets hurt and the team can’t move them at all, only to see them bolt for the door when free agency arrives.

Mix in a Guy Boucher firing, a half-empty arena, a Melnyk meltdown or two, and every other fan base pointing and laughing all along the way, and by the end of the season you could see Sens fans reminiscing for the good old days of 2017–18.

What doesn’t happen: Anything good.

Our first sign it might be happening: Between the lack of a Karlsson bidding war, Anderson’s trade request, the Hoffman debacle and Stone’s one-year deal, you could make a good case that we’ve already seen it. If the season starts out with a losing streak, attendance flatlines and Dorion starts morphing into Ken Doral, we’ll know where we’re probably headed.

The odds that it happens: 30%. The pessimist will point out that we’re ranking this as the most likely scenario. And that’s true — there are days where the Senators just feel like a team that’s headed towards disaster right now.

The optimist will note that on balance, we still think this outcome is relatively unlikely, and that the season will turn out better than the worst-case. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence, but my read on the situation is that fans around the league have been too quick to conclude that the Senators are headed for disaster. They could be, absolutely. But in today’s NHL, there are no sure things, and every season serves up a few surprises that nobody saw coming.

Maybe this year’s surprise team is the Senators. Or maybe not, and we should all get our popcorn ready for the debacle that’s about to unfold. At the very least, let’s remember that there are still a few different ways this could all play out.

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