Senators’ future looks promising but pressure’s on to get it right

Brian Burke and Elliotte Friedman hand out their awards for the NHL All-Star break, debating who the most improved player has been this season and which team has been the biggest surprise.

The all-star break offers a chance to pause and reflect on where an NHL team has been and where it’s going.

In the curious case of the Ottawa Senators, so much is going right because a lot has gone wrong.

Confused? That’s been known to happen when discussing a team headed to its third straight season in or near the basement of the NHL standings.

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Unlike two seasons ago, when Ottawa finished 30th, one year after reaching the Eastern Conference Final, this time the Senators are actually striving for a bottom finish and a lottery pick. On that score, they are killing it – losers of nine of their past 10 games heading into the break.

Last year, the Senators didn’t own their first-round pick and so the 31st-place finish was wasted.

That’s not going to happen this time. The wasted part, that is. Currently sitting 28th overall, the Senators could easily slip lower. And, because they also own the first-round pick of the collapsing San Jose Sharks, the Senators should be in line for a couple of selections in the top five or six spots of a deep and rich draft class.

This is all well and good. Ottawa lacks a true game-breaker up front and could draft one or two if it should get so lucky as to pick an Alexis Lafreniere and Marco Rossi, for example. On top of that, the Senators have three picks in the second round and an early third-round selection, which has general manager Pierre Dorion thinking he is going to land six players who could help this club in the short and longer term.

And that is before Ottawa adds further picks and possibly prospects as it heads into the trade deadline with about half the roster on expiring contracts.

But then what?

Landing high draft picks is just part of the rebuilding process.

Between 2010 and 2015, the Edmonton Oilers had FOUR first-overall picks, plus a third-overall in 2014 (Leon Draisaitl) and a fourth-overall in 2016 — and they still found themselves burning through coaches like it was a Salem witch hunt. Last spring, they hired a new GM in Ken Holland to piece together the talent.

And so, a full 10 years after that 2010 first-overall selection (Taylor Hall), the Oilers are a competitive team in the Pacific Division. But what a crooked path to get here.

Edmonton has also had solid financial backing, plus community support, and moved into a sparkling new home in the heart of the city, Rogers Place, in 2016. Everything seems to be in place for the Oilers, including an average attendance of 17,580 per game, and even still there will be further bumps along the road. There always are.

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When do fans buy in?

Compare that with Ottawa, playing its home games in a remote, outdated arena, before the smallest crowds in the NHL — the average attendance of 12,293 has been boosted by two strong recent dates, against the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames. Those Canadian stalwarts bring their own fans on the road.

Here’s the conundrum. As excited as many fans are about the rebuild, many wouldn’t be caught dead in the building. You know, paying for an actual ticket.

Judging by responses on social media, there is enormous interest in the young talent of the Senators, including flourishing Belleville prospects like Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton and Erik Brannstrom, among others.

Some of those same online voices vow they won’t support the franchise with their wallets until the team is sold. The organization can’t wait that long, and made an interesting off-ice hire earlier this month by bringing in Jim Little to be the new CEO. Little was a senior executive with Shaw Communications and the Royal Bank of Canada and was successful in growing several major Canadian brands, including the partnership between RBC and the Canadian Open.

Should the Senators land a player of Lafreniere’s status, we could imagine a major marketing push along the lines of what transpired with Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa’s first overall pick of 1993 (perhaps minus the nurse’s uniform pic).

Would the hype of a major prospect be enough to win fans over and forget the dark years in which the franchise parted ways with the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene and Mike Fisher among others?

Owner Eugene Melnyk has vowed the Senators would hang onto their next wave of young talent, and did support management’s 2019 move to extend defenceman Thomas Chabot and centre Colin White to long-term contracts.

The next significant contract could involve sophomore Brady Tkachuk, still on his entry-level deal through 2021 but surely ripe to be extended long before that.

Would that make fans believers of this rebuild?

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.

Will Melnyk sell?

Despite endless speculation that Melnyk would be selling the team to a group of investors who will move the team downtown to LeBreton Flats and a life-giving new central arena, Melnyk continues to own the Senators. The consensus is that he will continue to do so, likely beyond 2021 when that $650 million expansion money from Seattle gets distributed to rival franchises.

After that, who knows.

A fascinating storyline in Ottawa is about to play out.

And there is plenty of room on the bandwagon.

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