The Ottawa Senators open the regular season with the lowest expectations in the NHL.
The Senators don’t have to be great, or even good.
If they show up on time to every game they will meet the targets of most pundits.
Realistically, a Senators club that works hard, wins a few games, develops their young prospects and doesn’t embarrass the city of Ottawa with an off-ice controversy will lay down a positive season.
True to the strange logic that is a deep rebuild, doing poorly could actually be the best hope in the big picture for the Senators – the better to harvest an elite forward from a high draft position next summer. Ottawa already has five picks in the first two rounds of 2020.
Unlike a year ago when a certain Uber video and other controversies raged, plus Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel had one foot out the door (in Karlsson’s case, both feet), this season there are no tire fires and no major pending free agents. Goaltender Craig Anderson, 38, is in that category but would leave with the team’s blessing and a good service award should he opt to move.
The fan base is buoyed, for a change, by the long-term contracts signed by young core players Thomas Chabot and Colin White. Chabot, the heir to Karlsson with an eight-year, $64-million contract, remarked on the fresh feeling as a page gets turned on last year’s sordid history.
"It’s behind us and we’re happy with what we have in the locker room," Chabot says. "We’re a team that skates really fast, we’ve got a lot of speed up front and on the back end we’ve got guys who can move the puck and skate really well. I think if we use that and get in the face of the other team all night, that’s the thing that is going to give us success all year."
Everywhere there is optimism – born of the fact that even slight improvement seems possible off a 31st-place finish last year, but also from a new coach, his long leash and boundless energy.
"This year’s vibe has been a fun, upbeat, light kind of mentality," says Anderson, who has seen a lot of players come and go since 2011. "It’s been nice to just come in here and have a lot of fun at the rink."
It’s all fun and games until you lose a string games. That will happen, likely with regularity.
The Senators will open Wednesday against their biggest rival, the stacked Toronto Maple Leafs. For Smith, the ex-Leafs assistant, and four former Toronto players – Ron Hainsey, Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis and Nikita Zaitsev – it will be a homecoming of sorts.
On the other side will be former Senator Cody Ceci, offering a twist of lime to the Battle of Ontario beverage.
Ottawa has 12 players who weren’t with the club last fall. It will be their task to swim with the sharks of the Atlantic (Division). Recognizing that, Smith is trying to keep his kids from harm with a buddy system, similar to swimming in ocean waters.
Rookie Erik Brannstrom gets paired with that ancient mariner, Hainsey.
Ottawa’s top line features the broad shoulders of sophomore winger Brady Tkachuk, with his pal White at centre and Brown at right wing, trying to replace some of the offence lost when Stone departed.
As much as their defence has been lamented for leading the league in goals and shots allowed, the Senators are going to have to manufacture goals from new sources.
The loss of Karlsson, Stone, Duchene and Dzingel represents 102 goals gone, based on their 2018-19 production.
The highest remaining scorer is Tkachuk, who had 22 in his rookie season. Can he reach 30, without Stone?
Brown has been a 20-goal scorer (2016-17 with Toronto) and will have to be again.
Duclair had 50 goals in 59 games in his best junior season, with the 2013-14 Quebec Remparts, and will be given opportunities to provide offence on his fifth NHL team.
The team will be tougher with Scott Sabourin, the Orleans native who finally cracked an NHL roster after seven years in the minors. The 27-year-old winger once scored 30 goals for an Oshawa Generals team coached by Smith, but made this team due to his ability to fight.
These Senators will play a certain style. They will hustle. Hound pucks like pests at a picnic. Vow to outwork opponents.
Consider yourself a true Senators fan if you say to yourself: "Hey, this sounds like a reboot of the Pesky Sens of 2014-15."
That team surprised opponents with their hustle and went on a miraculous second-half tear to eke into the playoffs behind the unlikeliest of heroes, journeyman goaltender Andrew ‘The Hamburglar’ Hammond (20-1-2 that season).
"We’re going to make it a little tougher for teams to get to our net," says defenceman Mark Borowiecki, one of the few left from the Pesky Sens lineup.
"Those shots against start from different places on the ice. A lot of times it’s in the neutral zone, our gaps as defencemen weren’t good enough, and that leads to zone time. Shots against – it’s a pretty simple formula."
The test begins on the road against one of the Eastern Conference favourites, a well-known enemy in the Maple Leafs, in a building the Ottawa coach has worked in for the past four seasons.
"Being a Canadian kid, it’s two Canadian teams in Toronto," Smith said. "Can’t get better than that … for me, I’m just excited to get this chapter started."
Smith feels his team has put the required work in at camp: "We’re ready."
Ready as they can be.