Such an easy headline to write: June 9, 2016: “Ottawa Senators bring Stanley Cup home to Canada after an absence of 23 years.”
It’s a simple matter of following the trend line. In 2012, the team finished eighth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference and went out in the first round. In 2013, they finished seventh and went out in the second round. Next year, then, it should be the sixth position and out in the third round, fifth and out in the final the year after that, and then fourth and the Stanley Cup championship.
Unfortunately, the only trend that seems to hold true in playoff hockey is the officiating deteriorates with each round.
Still, there can be no doubt the Senators had an unusually successful season, despite being walloped 13-5 in the final two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean put it when last Friday’s match was over and the Penguins were on their way to the Eastern final: “I hope they don’t bill us for the clinic.”
The Senators are still far from the Penguins or the Boston Bruins – the team Pittsburgh will meet next – but, as general manager Bryan Murray said Tuesday: “I think we’re a serious contender.”
The Senators finished seventh and dumped No. 2 seed Montreal Canadiens in only five games. They played much of the year without the services of their five top players – top play maker Jason Spezza, top goal scorer Milan Michalek, James Norris Memorial Trophy winning defenceman Erik Karlsson, No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson, top young defender Jared Cowen – all lost at various stretches to injury and, in four of the cases, surgery.
“We didn’t plan to play without five of our best players,” MacLean said.
“The only disappointment of the whole year,” Murray added, “was that we could never find out just how good we were.”
What they discovered, instead, was how deep they are. The injuries allowed players who otherwise would never have had a sniff at the NHL – centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau, defenceman Eric Gryba, several others – to get some NHL experience, at the same time opening up positions in Binghamton for prospects further down the chain to see action in the AHL.
“Two years of growth in our players in one season,” MacLean said. “I am tremendously pleased with where we are in the process of becoming good.”
Murray and MacLean spent Tuesday morning naming those players who had far-exceeded expectations – centres Kyle Turris and Zack Smith, in particular – and largely avoiding comment on those players who simply came up short.
Big forward Guillaume Latendresse was an experiment that failed and he will be gone, as will be the likes of Peter Regin, Mike Lundin and Jim O’Brien.
Sergei Gonchar, a 39-year-old defenceman at the end of a contract that pays him $5.5-million (U.S.) a year, says he’d like to come back – but that is unlikely, given the promising young defencemen in the system and Gonchar’s clear difficulties against his old team (Pittsburgh).
The Senators have fabulous goaltending in Anderson and back-up Robin Lehner, should have Karlsson back to his old self after full recovery from a partially severed Achilles tendon, but they utterly lack scoring.
Turris led the team in the lockout-shortened season with but 12 goals. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, who, at 40, is contemplating retirement, had 10, as did rookie Jakob Silfverberg.
“Obviously,” Murray said, “we have to score more goals.”
Rookie Cory Conacher ended up with 11 goals, but he was most effective with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the diminutive (5 foot 8) forward’s production fell off noticeably after coming to Ottawa at the trading deadline in exchange for goaltender Ben Bishop. With the Sens, Conacher managed but two goals.
“Do I want Cory to be 6 [foot] 5 in the fall?” Murray joked. “Of course.”
The GM hopes Alfredsson decides to return, but it will take more than that. Murray made it clear either some of the youngsters will need to prove they can step up or he will make a move himself through trades or the signing of an unrestricted free agent.
Already under the salary cap (set at $64.3-million for 2013-14) and sure to dip even lower once such contracts as Gonchar’s are history, Murray said the money would be there for the right player.
“We don’t worry about the cap too much,” he told reporters. “I’ve got to be open-minded.”
Murray said he would be looking for “big and strong and competitive” players.
MacLean agreed, saying the Pittsburgh “clinic” taught the Senators that “size, speed and skill are important parts of the game.”
They want to get bigger, and they want to get better – especially since next season the Detroit Red Wings, a perennial playoff team, will move into the Eastern Conference and could bump the lower 2013 playoff teams back a spot or two.
“It scares me to death,” MacLean said when contemplating the higher expectations now placed on his team. “I’m sweating already. I’m scared. I’m really scared. But to me, that’s a comfort.”
He told reporters he will have no difficulty finding motivation in that fear.
“We’re a good team now,” he added. “We’re going to be a contender when we’re a contender.”