Ottawa Senators first half report: Reality hits a rebuilding team

The Senators were rolling along and playing above expectations until they were hit with the injury bug. Guy Boucher sees multiple injuries as the biggest reason the Senators successful first half changed so quickly.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Senators were flirting with mediocrity.

This was just after their us-against-the-world training camp, and a decent start that had Ottawa receiving credit for being one of the pleasant surprises of the early NHL season. Remember when people were actually asking the question – which team has a better chance of making the playoffs, the Senators or Montreal Canadiens?

Those were good times, but early became passe and the Senators are a surprise no more. That sound heard just before the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve was the thunk of the Senators hitting rock bottom in the Eastern Conference standings. They have found their level.

How different things looked on a brighter day, back on Dec. 2. The previous afternoon, the Senators had just whipped Erik Karlsson and the San Jose Sharks 6-2 in Karlsson’s first return to Ottawa. It was an emotional victory and the young Ottawa roster was upbeat. At 12-12-3, two points back of Montreal for the last wild card spot, the organization could at least entertain the notion of being in the hunt. Pretend to contend. What happened next turned the Senators’ season around, or perhaps just restored proper order: back-to back 5-2 losses by Ottawa to Montreal as the scent of a playoff spot disappeared in the early winter wind.

Since those twin defeats to the Habs, the Senators have won just three times, 3-7-2 overall, including five straight losses to close out 2018 and an overtime loss to Vancouver (aka the Elias Pettersson Show) to open 2019.

Sadly, in the latest example of the Senators’ brilliant market timing, they recently released an upbeat video narrated by local songwriter Kathleen Edwards in which she actually says, “this year’s Senators are better than the pundits predicted.” Um, no. Finishing at or near last place was a popular prediction.

The video is good for a laugh. Or a cry.

Let’s take a quick look at the first half and the next.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

GOOD NEWS: THE KIDS ARE DEVELOPING

Head coach Guy Boucher, whose contract expires this spring, would have been fired over the summer had he not agreed to hand his young players key minutes instead of rewarding journeymen. Boucher relented, in some cases grudgingly, and it’s paid off in the accelerated development of defencemen Thomas Chabot (Ottawa’s all-star), Maxime Lajoie and Christian Jaros, centre Colin White, and rookie winger Brady Tkachuk.

If there has been a positive story from Ottawa in the first half, just one, it is this: there is young talent rising, and more to come in the system with Alex Formenton, Drake Batherson, Filip Gustavsson, etc.

BAD NEWS: INJURIES AND LOSSES PILE UP

The Senators were decent, at least on home ice, while healthy. In December, when they lost Matt Duchene (groin) and then Chabot (shoulder), goaltender Craig Anderson (concussion) and Jaros (broken finger) the facade fell. No team has given up more more shots than the Senators, nearly 40 per game. The Canucks pumped 45 at rookie Marcus Hogberg in his third NHL game, and third loss. Welcome to Ottawa, son.

The Senators are getting bad enough to become notable. After Wednesday’s loss to Vancouver, Ottawa became the first team to yield 163 goals or more through 41 games since the 1995-96 season (the Sharks, Senators and Edmonton Oilers surrendered 185, 166 and 163 respectively in the first half of 1995-96). The Sens check in at 163 after 41, to rejoin that dubious list. So there is that.

The Senators have been OK at home (11-7-4), but beyond horrible on the road at 4-14-1, the league’s worst record. You get what you pay for – the Senators lack elite talent beyond Mark Stone, Duchene and Chabot.

TRADE DEADLINE LOOKAHEAD

The Senators would love to recoup a first round pick. Sadly, the one they could really use, as a bottom finisher, is their own lottery pick, which they traded to Colorado to acquire Duchene.

As it is, the Senators are sellers with zero tank incentive. They will look to shed one or more of their journeymen assets to pick up players who might help their rebuild (which many in Ottawa classify as money-saving, not pure reconstruction). If Stone and Duchene are available, teams will be calling from far and wide.

Ottawa can use prospects at all positions, but especially at centre (if Duchene leaves) and on defence, where Chabot needs better support. Anderson has one year left on his contract, and would be a nice pickup for a contending team. Acquiring Anders Nilsson from Vancouver provides some NHL experience in net while Gustavsson and Hogberg compete to become the goaltender of the future.

MOST IMPORTANT STORIES OF THE SECOND HALF

UFAs: The biggest hockey story for Ottawa will emerge early – the fate of pending unrestricted free agents Stone, Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, ranked 1-2-4 in team scoring. It would hurt to lose Duchene plus the first round pick surrendered for him, but losing Stone, the de facto captain and heart of the team, would hurt more. Of the two key forwards, Stone seems the better bet to re-sign with the team that drafted him. But with the clock ticking toward the Feb. 25 trade deadline, confidence is not running high in the fan base that either deal gets done.

Few believe that owner Eugene Melnyk has the financial wherewithal to pay Stone and Duchene 8 X $8 million deals, let alone the big summer bonuses elite players are getting today. There is a concern that they’ll lose Stone and Duchene and sign Dzingel to save face. This scenario will not be well received in Ottawa, where Dzingel is recognized as a nice little player with no grit who can’t carry the skates of the two big forwards. If all three are dealt, the rebuild takes a deeper dive.

Arena watch: Off ice, few will be happy in Ottawa until there is news of an ownership change. Meanwhile, expect announcements from the National Capital Commission in late January and early February regarding the prospects for a new proposal for LeBreton Flats, just west of Parliament Hill. The concept may or may not include a plan for a new NHL arena. Meantime, Melnyk and John Ruddy are heading to mediation to try and resolve their differences.

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