Image courtesy of NHL.com
The Ottawa Senators are the darlings of the 2017 NHL playoffs. They are the last Canadian playoff team standing and have pushed the defending Stanley Cup Champs to a deciding 7th game. Awaiting them are the Nashville Predators, a team most of the hockey world is also sweet on.
The Senators are a strange organization. They reside in a small Canadian market in between the dogmatic, religious fandom of Toronto and Montreal, their current arena-ticket-sellout woes are well-documented (I mean, really well reported) and their roster doesn’t spark any fear into you on paper. They were projected to be a mediocre-to-average hockey club at the beginning of the year. The reality is, they just played good hockey and finished second in their division.
As someone who’s always observed the Senators from the outside for my hockey watching career, my central feeling is they’ve always been up to stuff. Something has always been happening with the Senators. Whether it’s regular appearances in the postseason, the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, or these newer more resilient teams who’ve gritted and battled their way to spring success (such as the Paul Maclean Jack Adams trophy year and the Hamburglar Andrew Hammond run of 2015) the Senators play good hockey.
The thing that’s continued to baffle me is how many stars have played for this franchise from the 2000s to today that have left in suspicious or dramatic fashion, yet the Senators go along tickety-boo, fire and hire a new coach, and win another playoff round next season. Alexei Yashin, Marian Hossa, Dany Heatley, Zdeno Chara, Ray Emery, Jason Spezza, and even the beloved Daniel Alfredsson all had bittersweet exits, many requested, many sending shivers down the spine of the Sens faithful. But some of those most recent moves haven’t hurt the Senators like anyone thought they would.
The lightning rod Dany Heatley trade ended up working out for Ottawa, many even believing they won the deal with Heatley’s fall-off-a-cliff second act, despite getting little market value at the time. The Jason Spezza departure (which player-wise still looks horrible) hasn’t crushed their scoring ability despite his dynamic presence gone from the top-six.
In fact, the Ottawa Senators have always struck me as a wheeling-and-dealing franchise that has lost and won deals, but continues to make them all the time. They make things happen for better or for worse.
The Bobby Ryan trade has looked ugly for a while as Jakob Silverberg’s development as a nice two-way forward with sick sniping ability (when he wants) has grown steadily. And I personally didn’t like trading Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard who I think is of similar ability.
But the Dion Phaneuf nine player trade has been fine despite his lucrative cap hit, the Mike Condon trade kept the season afloat with his 40 appearances and Burrows/Stalberg added depth for the team at the deadline. Not to mention the sneaky good deal of acquiring Kyle Turris for David Rundblad in 2011. (Rundblad has not turned into one of the great defensemen of the modern era despite the high billing all those years ago. He’s a just a guy).
The Sens gambled on Nikita Filatov, traded for Ben Bishop even though their crease was packed, traded him for the one-hit wonder Cory Conacher, danced with Ales Hemsky for a couple months, and after winning the David Legwand free agency sweepstakes, shipped him and Robin Lehner to the Sabres for the Colin White first-rounder. White appears to be a good young player.
Like it or not the Senators dabble and without stacking how many transactions they’ve made compared to other teams, to me they’ve always been this way. Bryan Murray was always staying competitive and turning over players in a market that isn’t spectacular.
So the question is, how have the Senators really done it. How have they climbed to the near zenith of NHL hockey despite a relatively ho-hum roster with a few huge upsides?
No one really has an answer.
They haven’t looked spectacular but that 5-1 win in Game 3 against Pittsburgh was filthy, and their overtime heroics from Pageau (who I’m certain scored another playoff OT goal against the Habs with a piece of stick in his face back a few years ago) and company have kept the train-a-rolling towards…a Stanley Cup berth?!
In a league where the Washington Capitals can’t get past the second round, the Sens despite an out of town arena, an owner who loves to put his foot in his mouth, a new GM who looks and acts smug, a lack of corporate support in the city and everything else that isn’t hockey related, Ottawa is 60 minutes away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final and having home ice advantage.
Obviously, the biggest reason for successis their best player is otherworldly. Erik Karlsson is doing yeoman’s work again and is the current favourite for the Conn Smythe. The soon-to-be 27-year-old could walk away with his third Norris Trophy if the voters snub Brent Burns but could win a few more and finish his career with 1000 points plus if health reamins.
Karlsson skates like Kyrie Irving handles a basketball, jumps into the rush seamlessly, and through slicing pain in his foot, still plays at a near point-a-game pace this playoffs; a season which started many months ago for Sweden at the World Cup. He also somehow was second in blocked shots behind Kris Russell which is just one of those things that boggles the mind. When I think Ottawa Senators and blocking shots immediately the mind jumps to Anton Volchenkov, not Erik ”fantastic hair” Karlsson.
Karlsson is the crown jewel of a core which the Senators have been forced to develop because of those major names wanting out. Their response to that adversity has worked. Mike Hoffman rips a puck quicker than Radek Bonk ever could, Mark Stone is a consistent 50-60 point producer, and J.G. Pageau is a smart, young third line centre.
Deep down though, these players know this might be their only chance at the drink. Considering, how volatile success is becoming, who knows what could happen – good or bad. But a trip to the final for a player like Erik Karlsson could raise him to a new pantheon of greatness. And a title would also mean “Canada’s” drought is over.
The chance is right here for Ottawa. A loss is crushing, but through my limited outsider’s perspective, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if two years from now we’re talking about another surprising Senators first round victory with a similar, yet different cast of characters.