The perception, especially outside of Ottawa, is the Senators are a tire fire that smoulders from the very top of the organizational flow chart.
It smoulders still.
Yet, there is a potential development that would dramatically alter the outlook, sending a signal of commitment and hope to the players inside the dressing room and beyond to the fan base:
1. Mark Stone gets signed.
2. Matt Duchene gets signed.
If those building blocks are in place, the mood around the hockey club and trust in it from the broader community would be transformed.
Cynics expect that Stone and Duchene, the Senators’ top forwards and two of the few veterans left on the roster, will be next out the door. A well-advertised rebuild has already sent superstar defenceman Erik Karlsson and goal-scorer Mike Hoffman packing in trades. Is the bleeding over?
On the morning of Wednesday’s pre-season game day between the Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, Stone had to put out a small fire when he was asked about a TVA report from Louis Jean in Montreal that Stone wants out of Ottawa.
“I’ve never heard of Louis Jean before, so I don’t know where he got that information from,” Stone said.
“I love it here,” he added. “This has been a great month for me. I’ve enjoyed my previous four years here and I want to continue to be here. Again, I don’t know who Louis Jean is and never once did I ever say that.”
Jean, of course, is a respected television reporter who once covered the Senators, years before Stone there. On Twitter, Jean clarified his report.
“I said IF the team doesn’t sort things out on and off the ice, he will leave. I also said he is a key cog and someone they want to build around, and that may be enough to keep him.”
Amen to that thought, say Senators fans.
This summer Stone avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $7.35-million contract that makes the productive two-way winger the highest-paid player on the team.
Senators general manager Pierre Dorion has repeatedly said he hopes to extend Stone in the new year (he can’t before Jan. 1), and hinted the two sides weren’t far off on a long-term deal at the time they settled on a one-year pact.
Stone is the de facto captain of the Senators, even if the team avoided assigning the ‘C’ to anyone after Karlsson left. They don’t want to look silly if they can’t sign Stone and yet another captain goes out the door.
If they can lock him up long-term, a No. 61 jersey with a ‘C’ on the front would likely be part of the package.
Even centre Chris Tierney, who has been with the Senators for just one week since coming over from San Jose in the Karlsson trade, knows Stone’s status.
As the Stone scrum spilled over into Tierney’s stall, a reporter apologized for being in Tierney’s way.
“That’s alright,” said Tierney, Stone’s new centre. “It’s what I get for being beside the Big Dog.”
The “Big Dog” has given every indication he would like to be here to lead this team, inspired by such rising talent as Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk (Stone’s protege and linemate), Colin White, Alex Formenton and more.
“I like what I see in this locker room, ” Stone says. “We added some good pieces, some good people. If you look at the youth, we have high-end youth, we don’t just have guys coming in and filling roster spots.
“We’re going to have young guys contributing right away. It’s exciting, not just for me, but for everybody returning from last year.”
Money will tell part of the tale. It will likely take something in the $8-million range per season for each player, to ink Stone and Duchene long-term. They appear to be a package deal. Stone will be more willing if he knows Duchene is sticking around. Likewise for Duchene, whose cap hit is $6 million in the final year of his contract.
As players they couldn’t be more different — Duchene, 27, is flash and dash and spinorama. A highly skilled centre drafted third overall by Colorado in 2009.
Stone, 26, the poster boy for late picks everywhere (drafted 178th by Ottawa in 2010), is not overly quick, can appear awkward at times, but is insanely effective — his hockey IQ is off the charts. Tied with Karlsson for the team lead in points in 2017-18 with 62 in just 58 games, Stone is the NHL’s premier takeaway artist – seeming to have Spiderman’s webbing on his stick blade, as the Leafs’ Auston Matthews discovered Wednesday when Stone picked his pocket.
Money aside, Stone and Duchene seem enthused by changes in a dressing room that some in the organization considered broken last season, not just because of the now well-publicized online war between the partners of Karlsson and Hoffman, but also due to cliques in the room.
These 2018-19 Senators may not win a ton of games but are expected to stick together.
“The guys that are here are going to be playing as hard as they possibly can every night,” said Stone, before busting a hump in a meaningless exhibition game, a 4-1 loss to Toronto at the Canadian Tire Centre.
“The one message (to fans) is, the group is really forming a bond as a team. We’re looking at ourselves as a 22-man group, not a one- or two-man show.”
Was that a reference to Karlsson and Hoffman, two of Ottawa’s best showmen?
Perhaps. At the Senators camp, culture change is a catch phrase.
“We’ll have a better culture in the locker room this year and it starts with the older guys leading the way,” Duchene has said.
Goaltender Craig Anderson, 37, also hinted at a fractured dressing room. Reported to have requested a trade earlier this summer, Anderson didn’t confirm that request but did speak in late August about wanting to return to Ottawa, “if everything going on this summer gets cleaned up … I’m too old for drama.”
Off-ice drama has been a Senators specialty, when it’s not tragic-comedy.
Since camp has started, Anderson confirmed, “100 per cent I want to be here,” speaking about a fresh start with the personnel changes and infusion of youth.
The roster cleanse must stop somewhere. The Senators need to secure their top forward pair.