The Ottawa Senators open their 27th NHL season of the modern era on Thursday, and they’ve never faced a situation like it:
• They have no captain after trading away franchise defenceman Erik Karlsson. (The Senators announced Mark Stone and Matt Duchene will wear A’s home and away, while Zack Smith and Mark Borowiecki will share an ‘A.’)
• They have a lame duck coach, as Guy Boucher enters the final year of his three-year contract with fewer player talent resources than ever.
• Their general manager, Pierre Dorion, is under fire after a 30th-place 2017-18 season that was easily the most disappointing in franchise history. Moreover, Dorion is viewed as a first-time GM at the beck and call of a meddling owner.
• Said owner, Eugene Melnyk, has become the poster boy of fan discontent, blamed for the departures of Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Daniel Alfredsson (twice) and others, while sending mixed messages about the future of the franchise. So disliked is Melnyk among a segment of the fan base, he became the subject of a billboard campaign in Ottawa and an online blitz with the hashtag #melnykout.
• Their two best players, forwards Duchene and Stone, are pending unrestricted free agents and are already being talked about as prime candidates to be moved to contending teams before the trade deadline.
As the Chicago Blackhawks roll into Ottawa for the season opener, there are tickets available in nearly every section of the Canadian Tire Centre, although a recent push at the box office, with several thousand seats sold in the past week, will create a decent crowd. Not that they all paid. Every season ticket holder was offered an additional two free seats for the opener, an indication that papering the house to avoid embarrassment is back in vogue in Ottawa after several years of legitimate crowd totals.
There will be seats available all season long. Off an average gate of 15,829, the Senators ranked 24th in NHL attendance in 2017-18. This season, Ottawa can only dream of reaching such heights, now that season’s ticket sales have fallen to the 4,000-5,000 range. House papering or not, expect some frighteningly sparse crowds at the CTC, likely some of the lowest in club history.
Anti-Melnyk forces often preach a boycott of the Senators, as though staying away from the arena will force new ownership and the dawn of a new day. If only it were that simple. Melnyk seems determined to hang on, at least for the short term. Considering he has threatened to reduce player payroll even further if revenues are down, this game of chicken between an owner and the fan base could get ugly.
In the meantime, any boycott of the team serves to punish players who deserve support. If Ottawa’s pride as a sports community doesn’t trump its dislike of ownership, there will be a lot of camera shots of empty seats on national TV this season.
US AGAINST THEM
A possible saving grace: the young and hungry Senators play hard and well enough to charm reluctant fans.
The Senators training camp and pre-season were remarkably upbeat, except for that time when popular centre Smith was put on waivers, sparking a Duchene sound bite (“It’s a kick in the balls for us”) that will be replayed around here forever.
And that other time when Melnyk cheerily sat down and conducted a rambling video with hard-nosed defenceman Borowiecki.
Despite it all, players have had a spirited camp and energetic pre-season, for what that’s worth. The rally cry – stop us if you’ve heard this one before – is us against the world, given that the world doesn’t believe this team is very good.
“You’ve got a chip on your shoulders for sure,” Borowiecki says. “I think we’re going to be a little bit better than people give us credit for.”
Select your favourite cliche, the Senators feel they can overachieve by having an all-for-one mentality. Though they have no captain, the players are hopeful that losing hotshots like Karlsson and Mike Hoffman might result in a better, closer dressing room.
As one Senators player privately told a local hockey writer, “we’re moving from a dictatorship to a democracy.”
Time on ice will be more democratically distributed as well, for one simple reason. There isn’t as much talent. Minutes by committee, especially on defence, will be a theme.
Veteran goaltenders Craig Anderson and Mike Condon, both coming off poor seasons, will be tested behind a defensive group of Codi Ceci, Borowiecki, Thomas Chabot, Max Lajoie, Dylan DeMelo and Chris Wideman.
A top six of Ryan Dzingel, Duchene, Bobby Ryan and rookie Brady Tkachuk, Smith and Stone is decent, although Tkachuk will miss the opener with a groin strain. Heaven help the Senators if Duchene and Stone are dealt for prospects and picks.
The next six won’t scare opponents, but could surprise if Alex Formenton and Colin White, who slides onto Line 2 with Stone and Smith in Tkachuk’s absence, can make the grade. They will be helped by veterans like Chris Tierney, Mikkel Boedker, Tom Pyatt and Magnus Paajarvi.
Let’s face it, as unlikely as it is for Ottawa to contend for a playoff position, this season may not hold much interest beyond watching the kids develop. Boucher promises an aggressive forecheck and a speed game.
“We just have to play hard, fast, skilled hockey,” Stone says. “The way the game is going now, the amount of speed that is out there, if you’re not in your opponent’s face at all times taking away their time and space they’re going to make plays.
“(Thursday) night is a prime example. If you’re not taking away the time and space of Chicago’s skilled players, especially (Patrick) Kane, he’s going to have a fun night.”
Creating “fun nights” for the home crowd will be the Senators’ challenge in 2018-19.