Senators begin to shed basement brand with transformative off-season

Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion speaks about the message his team is sending to the players and fans after inking Matt Murray to a contract extension and acquiring Matthew Peca, Logan Shaw and Erik Gudbrandson.

OTTAWA -- On a Zoom call last week, Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion repeated a line he has used often during this period of player acquisition and blue chip draft picks for Ottawa.

“I’m not going to make any bold statements,” Dorion said, flatly, when asked how much his hockey team has improved from the one that finished 30th, 31st and 30th the past three seasons.

To which owner Eugene Melnyk said: Hold my caffeine-free, citrus-flavoured drink.

Bold statements are Melnyk’s forte. And he didn’t disappoint in a recent feature interview in the National Post.

“I truly believe that we are a Stanley Cup winner within four years,” Melnyk said. “It can happen any time, but within four years.”

But no pressure, guys.

The thing is, Melnyk’s bold prediction didn’t cause a ripple in the pool of fans who religiously follow the daily happenings of the Senators. The marketplace is used to Melnyk forecasting greatness in his hockey club, as he did in February of 2019 when he envisioned his team being “all in” for a “five-year run of unparalleled success” in the early 2020s.

According to the “112-page” team plan, drawn up by Melnyk and Dorion, Ottawa will spend “close to the cap” every year from 2021-25. Now, Melnyk could have been excused for tempering or deferring the team’s timeline to greatness -- due to the global pandemic that has racked economies and straight-jacketed sports leagues -- but instead he doubled down with a Stanley Cup prediction.

Within four years.

Ho hum. No one is going to rent out a ‘MelnykOut’ billboard over this, as they did in February of 2018 when it seemed the only solution to what ailed the Senators was for Melnyk to sell the team. This was the owner, after all, who had presided over the departures of Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone et al; who had hinted at moving the franchise over poor ticket sales, who said the team’s future was downtown, before the LeBreton Flats plan blew up in 2019 and he had to retrench in Kanata.

In fact, Melnyk told NP reporter Joe O’Connor he hopes to build a new arena in Kanata in five years' time. So, for those scoring at home (where else in 2020?) -- pencil in a Cup and a brand spanking new building by 2025. Fuel for pandemic dreaming in Ottawa.

Again, there was next to no reaction in the Nation’s Capital over these bold prognostications, from fans grown immune to an NHL owner’s musings and spitballing. And interestingly, for the first time in years, there seems to be a grudging sense of acceptance in the community that the Senators’ boss is in it for the long haul.

Either Melnyk is growing on people or they are wary of tying hopes to a saviour-buyer just around the corner, which is the role Melnyk himself played in 2003. There is no sign of Melnyk letting go of the reins anytime soon, and his harshest critics have to admit he has done a pretty good job of staying out of the way (and out of videos) over the past year -- and more critically, of financially backing contracts to new player additions like goaltender Matt Murray and free agent forward Evgenii Dadonov.

Talk is cheap. These deals were not. Four years, $25 million for Murray; three years, $15 million for Dadonov. Ottawa also used its ample cap room to take on the final year of defenceman Erik Gudbranson’s $4-million contract. The 28-year-old Gloucester, Ont., native will be looking to play his way into a new deal here or elsewhere.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but there has been a period of relative calm around the franchise and dare we use the word -- hope -- that the hockey club is turning the corner after three long years in or near the league basement.

Not that there aren’t severe challenges ahead. How does a franchise sell season’s tickets when fans don’t even know when the season will begin or if and when arenas can hold fans?

Melnyk speaks of a plan (club president Anthony Leblanc has touched on this as well) to attract up to 6,000 fans, spaced by empty rows and two empty seats between ticket holders, engaging in socially-distant hockey games in the New Year. At what point fans will be comfortable doing this isn’t clear, but Melnyk hopes to have bums in seats by February. The NHL talks of a Jan. 1 start to the 2020-21 regular season, but no one knows for certain.

Regardless of the season logistics and attendance question, the bigger picture surrounding the Senators is rather bright, all things considered. They have just come off a draft in which they acquired two of the top five players in forward Tim Stuetzle (third overall) and defenceman Jake Sanderson (fifth overall), to go with a waft of talent at the AHL and NCAA level, plus the recent signings that stemmed from free agency and trade.

Waiting in the wings from their AHL Belleville experience are players like Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, Josh Norris, Logan Brown and Erik Brannstrom. At North Dakota alone are four excellent prospects -- three defencemen and a forward in Jacob Bernard-Docker, Sanderson, Tyler Kleven and Shane Pinto.

Lest we be accused of wearing rose-coloured specs in the glare of the Nation’s Capital, consider that Corey Pronman of The Athletic placed the Senators third in the NHL in his recent rankings of organizational prospects (22 and under). The New York Rangers were ranked first.

“There is a cavalry coming to help,” Pronman wrote of the Senators’ young guns. "I think there are better days ahead for this organization."

Meanwhile, whether or not Murray is the answer in goal or Dadonov can spark the offence is less significant than the fact the Senators were willing and able to sign established players to medium-term contracts. These deals instilled a belief that the franchise is a breathing, functioning entity.

At 26, Murray could have signed for a year or two and then played the market. Dadonov, a proven 25-plus goal scorer for the Florida Panthers, had other options. Both saw a future in Ottawa, Murray digging in for four seasons and Dadonov for three. Dadonov said on a Zoom call he thought the Senators were a “perfect fit” for him.

“It shows where we are going as a team,” Dorion said, on the day Dadonov signed for an average annual value of $5 million. “Dadonov was excited to come here.”

During that call, Dorion thanked Melnyk for his support and for providing the leeway for the club to sign these players. Could it be that Ottawa, a virtual outpost that free agents avoided like a virus, has become a place that players here speak of glowingly, especially those who enjoy the honesty and energy of head coach D.J. Smith?

As the Senators inched past a $60-million payroll, the message to the room was amplified in the fan base -- not everything is doom and gloom anymore. The sun has come up since the departures of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Stone and Karlsson. There may or may not be a Stanley Cup in the offing, but there is a sense of a team on the upswing and fewer cynics calling the rebuild a sham.

During the historically vital 2020 draft, the Senators put a fresh look on their fresh outlook -- a logo and jersey rebrand of the 2D Centurion of the original Senators of the 1990s. Modelling the new brand were two core players, defenceman Thomas Chabot, under contract through 2026-27 and Brady Tkachuk, who will have RFA status next summer.

The day Tkachuk is signed on, long term, is the day the Senators will prove the quest to win is for real.

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