Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion had no choice but to ignore the 100-megawatt warning signs. His team was simply too close to glory. So he stomped on the gas pedal and, like Thelma and Louise, plunged the car off a cliff.
It was Nov. 5, 2017. The Senators had started the season 6-3-5. Not bad, but not good enough for a team that defied everyone’s expectations the previous spring, pushing the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
The Senators looked healthy and strong on the surface, a burgeoning Stanley Cup contender, but they were sick on the inside. Even during that amazing playoff run, Ottawa had the second-worst regular-season 5-on-5 possession numbers of any team in the field. Goalie Craig Anderson was 36 years old. Superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson’s ankle had to be literally taken apart in the summer.
The wisest course might’ve thus been a conservative one. Dorion could’ve kept building around his growing prospect core of Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Logan Brown, Shane Bowers and Drake Batherson. But, no, attendance was down and expectations were up. So Ottawa went for it with the three-team Matt Duchene blockbuster, which cost them Bowers and a first- and third-round pick. Inexplicably, they also surrendered Kyle Turris, who is at least three-quarters the player Duchene is, sending him to Nashville. Ottawa gutted its future and even some of the present in pursuit of greatness, and, well, we don’t have to waste any more ink discussing what a disaster 2017-18 turned out to be.
In a cruel twist, as the Senators explore Karlsson trade options, they can look at their own massive overpayment for Duchene as the baseline of what they’d want for Karlsson. Worse yet, Ottawa decided to defer the first-rounder it gave Colorado to next year, and with Ottawa projected to finish 31st overall this season, that pick could be No. 1 overall phenom Jack Hughes.
The lesson in this tire fire: don’t ignore the warnings. When all the numbers suggest your team’s progress was an anomaly, respect the numbers or, at least, don’t finish your rebuild until you’re confident you’ve built a group than can sustain your team’s competitiveness in the long term.
Which brings us to two of last season’s surprise teams: the Avalanche and New Jersey Devils, who made unexpectedly enormous leaps in the standings, making the playoffs, and produced the first- and second-place finishers in the Hart Trophy race in the Devils’ Taylor Hall and the Avs’ Nathan MacKinnon. Fascinatingly, despite reigniting fan excitement in their markets, these were two of the off-season’s quietest teams. Colorado upgraded its goaltending with Philipp Grubauer and added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole. The Devils were even quieter, making no moves of consequence and getting worse on paper as trade-deadline rentals Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner left in free agency.
With both teams fielding close to the same lineups as last season and many rivals improving around them, we’ve projected Colorado and New Jersey to slide back out of the playoffs. And that’s totally OK. Avalanche GM Joe Sakic and Devils GM Ray Shero deserve a ton of credit for keeping their eyes on the long-term prize and not being distracted by ahead-of-schedule success, as the Senators were.
Colorado has one of the best lines in hockey, with MacKinnon between Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, and landed top-flight prospects in center Vladislav Kamenev and D-man Samuel Girard from Nashville in the Duchene deal, but Sakic understands his team has a long way to go. The Avs are waiting on big-time prospects Cale Makar and Conor Timmins to join their defense, while they expect Tyson Jost to make strides as a sophomore. The Devils, meanwhile, hope to see 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier blossom into stardom in Year 2 and will keep building around defenseman Will Butcher and, someday, Ty Smith. And Mikey McLeod will add significant speed to their forward group as early as this season.
Both these teams are prime examples of the right way to rebuild. Even if they take minor steps back this season, they’ll be far better off in the long term by not getting ahead of themselves with aggressive roster upgrades too soon.
If only Dorion and the Senators realized that a year ago. They’re a cautionary tale for whichever team emerges as 2018-19’s cuddly underdog story.
This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.