Looking at how everything has unfolded around the Ottawa Senators just this week, it’s hard to imagine they were a goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup final less than two years ago. Now, every release or note from them seems to include “the rebuilding Ottawa Senators” to describe the team, a sort of constant reminder of how long the road is ahead.
So as the Senators continue to plummet towards the best draft lottery odds in the league, with six losses in a row and five points behind the NHL’s 30th-place team, we’re going through a rundown of just what the heck happened that transitioned Ottawa from a Stanley Cup hopeful to basement dweller in a relatively short period of time.
THE MATT DUCHENE TRADE
This is really where it all began, a little more than five months after the Senators were eliminated in the Eastern Conference final. It was a crucial turn for two reasons.
1. The price paid to bring in Duchene was huge
2. The evaluation of where the team stood in the spectrum between rebuilder and legitimate contender turned out to be flawed.
You can easily see and understand how the Senators wanted to believe they were contenders and how acquiring a centre like Duchene might lock them in there. Not only did they outlast the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers in a couple of six-game series in 2017, but they took the back-to-back champion Penguins to Game 7, where they lost in double overtime.
The Senators started the 2017-18 season off well, too, with a 6-3-5 record and standing second in the Atlantic Division when this deal went down.
But, there was data at the time you could point at and make the case why Ottawa was a bit of a paper tiger. The most obvious was that, even though they finished second in the Atlantic in 2016-17, Ottawa was the only one of the 16 playoff teams that finished the regular season with a negative goal differential. Even over the last two months of that regular season when the Sens posted an 11-6-4 record, they had a minus-1 goal differential.
Drilling deeper, they had the seventh-worst scoring chance differential in the league and were bottom-10 in high-danger scoring chance differential in 2016-17, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
And even though they started 2017-18 with a pretty decent record, 10 of those first 14 games were at home and they had lost six of their previous nine games before making the trade for Duchene.
But Ottawa went ahead and gave up first-round prospect Shane Bowers and either their 2018 or 2019 draft pick to Colorado, plus sent Kyle Turris to Nashville in the deal. They made an upgrade to their lineup down the middle, but was it big enough to justify such a hefty return? Certainly not for a team that would soon have to head into a rebuild.
This trade set the table for the disasters that followed.
THE REST OF THE SEASON AND AN IMPORTANT DRAFT DECISION
From the day Duchene was acquired through to the end of the 2017-18 season, Ottawa’s 19-31-4 record ranked 29th in the NHL and they finished 30th overall on the season. This meant that when the trade deadline season came Ottawa were sellers, not the buyers they had been a few short months prior, trading out Derick Brassard and flipping Ian Cole for a collection of assets headlined by goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson and Pittsburgh’s 2018 first-round pick, used to take Jacob Bernard-Docker.
Bad draft lottery luck dropped them down to the fourth overall selection, though, and GM Pierre Dorion had a tough decision to make: stand pat and pick Brady Tkachuk, or forfeit the pick to Colorado. He decided to take Tkachuk, doubling down on the idea that his Sens weren’t this bad and would recover again in 2018-19, and thus handing over their 2019 pick to Colorado to complete the Duchene trade without any conditions attached.
It is worth saying that Tkachuk is a great prospect having a solid season for the Senators with 32 points in 53 games, but Ottawa sits at the bottom of the standings right now and staring down the prospect of handing Colorado Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. Both of those players have the potential to be key and cornerstone pieces for a rebuilding team, and you probably wouldn’t trade either for Tkachuk.
ERIK KARLSSON TRADE
Before the next season even started, two more productive members of the Senators were gone — led by Erik Karlsson — and in both cases the primary assets coming back were more about setting up longterm success and not necessarily pushing Ottawa forward in the immediate future.
The first to go was Mike Hoffman and that deal had more to do with off-ice developments than anything about his fit in the franchise. Because this was an untenable situation Ottawa figured it had to move on from, they got peanuts back for a player who scored 30 goals for the first time this season. Mikkel Boedker and a sixth-round pick in 2020 is all that’s left in Ottawa’s organization from this trade.
But the bigger deal came a few months later when Karlsson was sent to the Sharks just as training camp opened. Heading into the last season of his contract before becoming a UFA, Karlsson’s price tag was going to be high and he was the biggest name that should have been able to pull in the best return of futures.
Karlsson was nearly traded at the 2018 deadline so it wasn’t unexpected at all, but when the trade actually happened, some corners viewed it as the darkest chapter in the team’s history and was the moment Ottawa dove head-first into a rebuild.
And while some fans held out hope their captain would still re-sign, Karlsson said after the trade that there wasn’t a lot of talk about a new deal with management. This trade, it seemed, was always going to happen.
“I haven’t spoken to any of them really since November of last year when they asked for my no-trade list,” Karlsson said. “That’s the way it is, I guess. That’s the only situation I know that’s been like this. It was what it was. I was there to play hockey and I did that to the best of my ability with what we had. That’s all that I worried about.”
In return for Karlsson, Ottawa acquired first-round prospect Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers, a 2020 first-round pick and a 2021 first-round pick if San Jose both re-signs Karlsson and makes it to the 2019 Stanley Cup final. On top of the futures, NHLers Dylan DeMelo and Chris Tierney were brought in — a couple of young-ish complementary players.
2019 TRADE DEADLINE SELL OFF
Without their own first-round pick and free-falling to the bottom of the standings, Ottawa traded away each of its notable pending UFAs: Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to Columbus and Mark Stone to Vegas.
In terms of key rebuilding assets, Duchene fetched a 2019 first-rounder and Vitaly Abramov, a highly productive QMJHL scorer and third-round NHL draft pick with skating concerns. Dzingel brought back a couple of second-round picks and though Stone returned highly touted prospect Erik Brannstrom, Ottawa did not get another first-round pick for one of the best two-way wingers in the game.
In its wake, the 2019 deadline sell-off left Ottawa with 14-goal rookie Brady Tkachuk as its top scorer and 22-year-old sophomore defenceman Thomas Chabot as its top point-getter. And while that’s a promising point to start from for a rebuilding team, it’s a tough pill to swallow for fans to have to give up on this season (and probably a few more after it) when the team doesn’t even hold its own first-round pick.
LEBRETON FLATS FALLS THROUGH
At one point a bright light at the end of the tunnel, a deal that could have given the Senators a brand new downtown arena in a few years fell through this week after the trade deadline. So now the Canadian Tire Centre will continue to be a trek for Senators fans to get to and with no real prospects of contending soon, attendance figures to be an ongoing challenge.
The LeBreton Flats saga involved partners suing and counter-suing each other and when the deal finally fell apart Senators owner Eugene Melnyk blamed the others involved for its collapse. In a follow up statement, Melnyk said he wasn’t giving up on a new home, saying he was “determined and committed to explore alternative approaches in central locations that could accommodate a world-class hub. We are here for the long term and want a world class venue where Ottawans will live, work and play and enjoy the best the city has to offer.”
Meanwhile, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson laid the blame at Melnyk’s feet.
“There has been a lot of frustration dealing with Mr. Melnyk on a number of fronts,” Watson said. “I don’t think he’s made this process easy. His musings about not going downtown, going downtown, hurt his credibility and hurt his team’s credibility.”
GUY BOUCHER FIRING
Throughout this whole saga of an unravelling would-be contender, the storyline has centred around how there is a crisis of confidence from the fans’ perspective to believe in what the organization says and does. That confidence took another blow Friday when Dorion fired head coach Guy Boucher, just four days after saying any decision like this would be made in the summer.
To make the perception of all this just a little bit worse, Dorion revealed at his press conference that — after trading away all the talent he did at the deadline — he told his players that their recent play was not acceptable.