Last week, we commenced a series profiling the seven teams whose 2019-20 seasons have officially ended. Next up: the Ottawa Senators (25-34-12), a franchise that has endured a lot of misery on and off the ice in recent seasons but has potential to build a powerhouse in the next several years.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Having already sold off key cogs Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone the previous season, the Senators were quite clearly a scorched-earth rebuild team entering 2019-20, picked by the plenty of analysts to finish with the league’s worst record.
If it weren’t for the Detroit Red Wings becoming the worst team in 20 years, the Sens might’ve fulfilled all those 31st-place projections. They were a bad team. When the season froze after their 71st game, their top scorer Brady Tkachuk had 44 points. Goalies Craig Anderson, Anders Nilsson and Marcus Hogberg combined for a .904 save percentage. Ottawa iced the league’s worst power play at 14.2 percent. Only the Red Wings allowed more goals. The Senators trudged through the year while also continuing to dismantle, trading away pending UFAs Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Vladislav Namestnikov, Tyler Ennis and Dylan DeMelo at the deadline. With most of its top prospects still marinating in AHL Belleville, Ottawa’s NHL lineup badly lacked depth, especially after the trades.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Considering how stripped down the roster was, winning 25 games qualifies as an accomplishment. Territorially, the Sens were poor but weren’t a laughing stock. Per naturalstattrick.com, They were the 26th-best possession team in the NHL at 5-on-5, they generated the 11th-most scoring chances per 60 at 5-on-5, and they actually recorded more high-danger chances than they allowed. So that represents a degree of progress under first-year coach D.J. Smith.
The most important development for the Sens was just that: development. The young cogs continued to sponge up experience. Tkachuk got a season under his belt as a first-line left winger and didn’t miss a game. Defenseman Thomas Chabot logged an NHL-high 26:00 of ice time per game. While not every prospect flourished and most of them bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL, many of them at least cut their teeth in various stints, from Josh Norris to Drake Batherson to Logan Brown to Erik Brannstrom.
Independent of any standings result: Bobby Ryan’s first home game back in Ottawa after leaving the team for several months to confront his alcohol abuse through the NHL/NHLPA assistance program was the team’s most inspiring moment of the season. Amazingly, he scored a hat trick and was moved to tears by a standing ovation. He’ll be a strong contender to win the Masterton Trophy this season.
Anthony Duclair scored 23 goals from October through the end of December and earned himself an All-Star Game invite, but his game cratered in the second half. Pageau was probably the best all-around Senator of 2019-20, but it feels strange awarding a team MVP to someone who didn’t play for the team by season’s end. So the award goes to Chabot, who had a viciously difficult assignment every game on a team that gave him little help. Among 197 defensemen who played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. Chabot ranked 19th in Corsi relative to his teammates. His most frequent partner was Ron Hainsey, who turned 39 in March.
General manager Pierre Dorion’s mission was to pile up draft picks by auctioning off expiring assets. Though some will wonder if he should’ve sold high on a career year from rugged blueliner Mark Borowiecki, Dorion netted plenty of futures from the trades he did make. DeMelo, Namestnikov and Ennis returned a 2020 third-, 2021 fourth- and 2021 fifth-round pick. Cashing in Pageau, who finished with a career-best 26 goals on top of providing a big lift on faceoffs and the penalty kill, brought in a 2020 conditional first-rounder, a 2020 second-rounder and a 2022 conditional third-rounder. The Islanders promptly re-upped Pageau, 27, on a six-year pact at a $5-million AAV.
The 2020 conditional first-rounder in the trade shifts to 2020 if the Islanders pick in the top three – which is still possible. Ifa qualifying-round seed gets pulled in the first phase of the lottery June 26 and they lose their qualifying-round matchup to the Florida Panthers, the Isles would have a chance to win one of the top three selections. Given they lost their final seven games heading into the March-12 shutdown, it’s entirely possible they lose to Florida. As for the 2022 conditional third-rounder in the trade, it disappears if the Isles win the Stanley Cup this season.
The Sens are obviously the team to watch at the June-26 lottery. It’s their Stanley Cup. Because they have San Jose’s 2020 first-round pick, acquired in the 2018 Erik Karlsson trade, and because the Sharks ended 2019-20 with the NHL’s third-lowest points percentage, the ping-pong balls combine to give Ottawa a league-best 25-percent chance of landing the first pick and nabbing Alexis Lafreniere. If they get the top pick, they’ll still have their own pick or San Jose’s pick available to be drawn for the No. 2 or 3 spots. That means Ottawa has a far-less-than-zero chance to land two of the first three picks in the draft, whether it’s 1 and 2, 2 and 3 or 1 and 3. Even under the worst-case scenario, in which Detroit, Ottawa and “San Jose” lose the lottery, the Sens’ two picks can only drop as low as fifth and sixth in the draft – plus they can use the Islanders’ first-round pick later in the round if it’s not a top-three selection that pushes the traded pick to next year.
Headache yet? Sorry. Bottom line is: Ottawa is going to walk away with two of the elite group including Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield, Tim Stutzle, Jamie Drysdale, Marco Rossi and Lucas Raymond. The 2020 draft will bring a tectonic shift to the franchise. If Islanders condition doesn’t trigger, Ottawa will pick 13 times, including seven times in the first two rounds. Wow.
What makes Ottawa’s future scary-exciting: even before we factor in the 2020 draft, this team has quite an impressive prospect pool. Our Future Watch 2020 panel of active NHL scouts and executives graded the Senators’ farm system third overall. The crop of talent included six players ranked inside the overall top 100 individual prospects: Brannstrom (12th), Alex Formenton (37th), Norris (39th and probably climbing since then, having won AHL rookie of the year honors), Lassi Thomson (46th), Shane Pinto (46th) and Jacob Bernard-Docker (62nd). Add that group to core that already includes youngsters Chabot, Tkachuk and Batherson, and then import a 2020 draft class that could yield multiple players ready to jump to the NHL in 2020-21 or 2021-22, and the Sens are looking stacked.
The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs better get going on their Cup quests, because the Sens (and Montreal Canadiens) are set up to rise up the Atlantic in a few years.
Having dealt several pending UFAs, Dorion has only nine players signed for next season. A flat cap of $81.5 million would give him close to $40 million. This off-season obviously isn’t about aggressively chasing any major free agents, of course. Dorion must lock up depth-level RFAs such as forwards Duclair, Connor Brown and Chris Tierney. Under a non-COVID-19 NHL calendar, Tkachuk would be eligible to sign his first extension July 1, 2020. Per a source, the start date to sign an extension under the return-to play rules is still being negotiated – along with the payment of July 1 signing bonuses.
The Sens should be much closer to a salary-floor team than a cap team, but they’ll likely chase a couple veterans on one-year deals hoping to flip them for picks at the deadline next year – just like they did with Ennis last summer.
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