OTTAWA – In Gatineau Park and on local golf courses, patches of red and yellow leaves are spreading a message.
The season is changing and hockey is about to take its usual place in our life. That is, at the centre of it.
Around the Ottawa Senators, the sense of change – or is it the Sens of change? – is pervasive. And that is before Michael Andlauer finally gets the green light from the NHL board of governors to assume ownership of this team.
Talking to reporters from the NHL and NHLPA player media tour in Las Vegas, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that while the major work has been done on the transaction, the degree of background checks and paperwork required is high because of the number of minority partners in this new ownership group. That includes Farm Boy CEO Jeff York and the operators of Claridge Homes, the Malholtra family, but also other partners.
That Andlauer, a former minority owner of the Montreal Canadiens, is dying to step into his new role is evident in his ghost-like presence around the club. He was spotted at rookie development camp, made a cameo appearance at a season-ticket holder event last week and has let it be known it will hound him if he can’t participate in the Senators kickoff golf tournament next Tuesday as the team’s majority owner.
Careful not to say or do too much before his reign is official, Andlauer nevertheless approved the long-term deal given to cornerstone defenceman Jake Sanderson, oversaw the trade of Alex DeBrincat to Detroit and the free-agent acquisition of Vladimir Tarasenko. Andlauer has also overseen a modification of the staff, adding assistant coach Ben Sexton and, for the first time in the Ottawa organization, a full-time director of analytics in Sean Tierney, known for his work with Sportlogiq.
But the biggest change of all has nothing to do with players or staff, coming or going.
It is the change in attitude around the Senators.
When was the last time we heard a 21-year-old sophomore defenceman like Sanderson professing that “we’re going to win within the next couple of years … and I want to be here for it.”
Speaking on the same day that Sanderson signed an eight-year contract extension, defenceman Thomas Chabot agreed that “everybody has that will” to be a playoff team for the first time since any of this young group – and select veterans – joined the franchise.
“Everybody wants to be part of the dance at the end of the season,” Chabot said.
Well, who doesn’t love to dance? Especially when it involves the Lord Stanley dance held in certain North American venues every spring.
Sens fans identify Chabot as the old young guy on the Senators. At 26, he is still coming into his prime hockey years, yet he is the one player on the roster who was drafted by Ottawa before its last playoff appearance, in 2017. Chabot actually played one game for the Senators in the 2016-17 season, making his NHL debut on Oct. 18, 2016, before returning to the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL.
From the time-flies department – Chabot has now played six seasons for the Sens without a sniff of a playoff run. The closest Ottawa has been was last season’s finish six points out of a wild-card spot. To say that Chabot is eager to move out of the rebuilding phase and into a regular appearance in the post-season is to understate. A couple of years ago, when the Senators were languishing, Chabot was among the most outspoken of players at the year-end meetings with the coach and GM. Without going so far as to print “SOS” on a poster board, he let it be known the team needed more resources. Two of the biggest additions wound up being through the draft, delivering top-five gems Tim Stützle and Sanderson.
Sanderson’s outstanding rookie season is taking some of the time burden off Chabot and should result in having a more reliable Chabot in an effective pairing with Jakob Chychrun.
As for Stützle, the 21-year-old centre is on the brink of stardom. And he is feeling it.
Add Stützle’s name to the list of young players talking boldly about the Senators upcoming season in the days leading up to the Sept. 20 training camp liftoff. Speaking to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek, Stützle implied that the group here is all-in on winning. Right now.
More specifically, Stützle was asked if he played any part in trying to talk DeBrincat into staying in Ottawa instead of moving on, eventually to his home-state Detroit Red Wings.
“If he doesn’t want to be there, I don’t want to make him have to be there,” Stützle said of DeBrincat. “You know, like, that’s fine to us. I think the whole group, we’ve been saying it, we want(ed) him to stay. We want(ed) him to be part of this group and he’s a great guy, great player.
“If you don’t want to be there, then good luck, on your way.”
Some are construing this as bulletin-board material for the Red Wings, but seriously? How slow is your news day? Having been around Stützle for his entire, engaging three seasons, I think this notion that the kid was taking a shot at DeBrincat is waaaaayy off base. In his second language, Stützle was saying that – look, if you don’t want to live in this community or be part of what’s developing here, we won’t stand in the way, and we wish you luck. But those of us who are here, believe we are onto something big and special.
That is my interpretation of Stützle’s message.
Meanwhile, from Las Vegas and the media/player tour, captain Brady Tkachuk told reporters that adversity over the past few seasons has set the team up for appreciating the success on the horizon.
“Each year, we’re getting closer to where we want to get to,” Tkachuk told the Canadian Press. “That’s what’s gonna make it special. When we do accomplish what we want to accomplish, we faced that adversity, faced the tough times, and got better because of it.”
Four thousand kilometres from Vegas, at a downtown Ottawa breakfast event with mayor Mark Sutcliffe, Senators GM Pierre Dorion was filling in for the yet-to-be-appointed owner, Andlauer, on Thursday morning.
The better this team gets, the more circumspect Dorion seems to be with his forecasts. Which is kind of cool, when you think of it.
“I got in trouble a few years ago when I said, ‘The rebuild is over,’” Dorion told Sutcliffe. “Which is not exactly what I wanted to say, but sometimes you get caught off.
“All the pieces are in place now. Most of our young core is signed long term. We feel like we’re almost there. I see a lot of good things for this team, not just for this year but for many years to come.”
So there it is. A cautious GM, bullish players. Sounds like a recipe for good things in the near future.
Bailey on board: The Senators signed veteran forward Josh Bailey to a professional tryout (PTO) and the former New York Islanders mainstay will join the Sens camp next week. Bailey, 33, (he turns 34 on Oct. 2) has played more than 1,000 NHL games, all with the Isles. As a junior, Bailey played two seasons for the OHL Windsor Spitfires, where current Senators head coach D.J. Smith was then an assistant coach.