As Ottawa Senators faithful brace themselves for the impending doom that is an Erik Karlsson trade, they also celebrate a somber anniversary. It was on this date five years ago, July 5, 2013, that the Senators watched the original face of their franchise and then-best player to ever lace up for the organization, Daniel Alfredsson, decide his time in Ottawa was over. And on the five-year commemoration of the departure of the Senators’ all-time great, the only modern-era player to have his jersey retired by the franchise, one can’t help but reflect and feel as though his exit from Ottawa started a ripple effect that has brought the Senators to the precipice of another excruciating goodbye.
It should first be made clear, though, that Alfredsson’s decision, while undoubtedly his to make, wasn’t his first option. When Alfredsson left the Senators as a free agent in 2013, he did so after attempting to find a deal that would work in Ottawa. In fact, in the weeks following Alfredsson’s signing of a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, he said his decision to leave the only NHL franchise he had known to that point in his career boiled down, at least in part, to contract negotiations that had stalled. He had wanted to stay in Ottawa but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement that would see him remain a Senator to end his career.
As has been the case with many of Ottawa’s troubles in recent years, too, it all boiled down to money. And not just the money that Alfredsson was seeking, either. No, when the first domino fell in the aftermath of the longtime captain’s departure, it became clear that money also mattered when it came to keeping Alfredsson while also surrounding him with the talent necessary to win. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told the Ottawa Citizen in August 2013 that it was a one-or-the-other proposition: pay to keep Alfredsson or add another high-priced talent. Both couldn’t be done given the team’s internal budget.
And this is where the first ripple happened. Alfredsson’s decision to leave prompted the Senators to act, to add scoring and talent up front and fill a sizeable hole on the wing. So, whether there were irons in the fire prior to the longtime captain’s departure or not, Ottawa went out and acquired Bobby Ryan in a blockbuster trade with the Anaheim Ducks on the exact same day Alfredsson put pen to paper on his deal with the Red Wings.
In the interest of providing a quick refresher, the trade broke down as such: Ryan headed to the Senators, while the Ducks received Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen and a 2014 first-round pick, which would eventually become the 10th overall selection. (Nick Ritchie was selected by Anaheim, but still available were Jakub Vrana, Dylan Larkin, David Pastrnak, Nick Schmaltz and Julius Honka, among others.) From the start, it was a trade that garnered mixed reviews, but the early returns were somewhat favorable for Ottawa. Ryan scored 23 goals and 48 points in 70 games in his first season as a Senator, and his performance earned him big bucks ahead of the 2014-15 campaign. He inked a seven-year, $50.75-million extension that carries a $7.25-million cap hit.
At the time, the contract wasn’t as widely criticized as it is today. But from Alfredsson’s departure to Ryan’s new deal, the first ripple was complete while the next would cost the Senators another significant piece. Committed to Ryan long-term at big dollars, the Senators were facing pending free agency for another major face of the franchise, Jason Spezza. With money tight in Ottawa and the Senators finishing outside the playoff picture, Spezza, depending on who you believe, had asked to be traded. It was clear at the time the Senators weren’t planning to add another big salary, weren’t going to be a major player in free agency and, thus, Spezza wanted the chance to win elsewhere.
Faced with the option of Spezza leaving for nothing or getting something as a return, the Senators chose the latter. Though, it could be argued they managed to still get the former. In fact, Nick Paul is the only player with real promise among the bunch, considered a decent prospect still in the Senators’ system. Meanwhile, Alex Chiasson played 153 games in Ottawa before he was moved along (to Calgary for Patrick Sieloff, no less, whose unfortunate hit on Clarke MacArthur would play a role in his eventual retirement), Alexander Guptill ended up in the ECHL and recently inked a deal to play in the UK’s top league, and the second-round pick acquired as part of the deal was eventually flipped to select Gabriel Gagne, who has not yet suited up for the Senators and was ranked seventh among Ottawa’s 10 best prospects in THN’s 2018 Future Watch.
However, left in the wake of it all — the Alfredsson ordeal, Ryan contract and Spezza trade — was a team that was still somehow competitive. They made the post-season in the campaign following Spezza’s exit and were in the mix leading up to the 2015-16 post-season. The failure to get worthwhile pieces to bolster the roster in areas of need, though, saw Ottawa fall into another trap in what was essentially a contract-dumping deal for the Senators and rival Toronto Maple Leafs. The big name acquired in a nine-player blockbuster between the two teams was Dion Phaneuf, brought in to bring some support to an Ottawa blueline in need of help.
The truth is Phaneuf’s stay with the Senators wasn’t altogether poor. But the issue was never really his play. Rather, it was his contract. And when it eventually came time for the Senators to send Phaneuf elsewhere, Ottawa had to saddle itself with $1.75 million of his cap hit and three years of Marian Gaborik at $4.875 million annually — though he’s paid less in actual salary — to get the blueliner off the books.
While Phaneuf while still a member of the roster, though, a few more instances of mismanagement hurt the team. Ahead of the 2016-17 season, the Senators flipped Mika Zibanejad, one year away from becoming an RFA, to the New York Rangers in a deal that saw the Senators receive Derick Brassard. He was effectively the second top-six center that Ottawa had been seeking since Spezza’s exit. At the deadline ahead of the 2016-17 post-season, Ottawa also flipped quality prospect Johnathan Dahlen to the Vancouver Canucks for the Alex Burrows in a deal that was puzzling from top to bottom. Regardless, Brassard and Burrows played a part in the Senators’ stunning run to the Eastern Conference final during the 2016-17 post-season. Trouble is, the good times didn’t last in Ottawa, the acquisitions of both players put the Senators in another money crunch and nothing of great value was added ahead of the 2017-18 season.
Then, to the surprise of almost no one, the Senators regressed and regressed in a big way. They finished with the second-worst record in the NHL, shipping out Phaneuf and Brassard and also moving along Kyle Turris, whose salary demands were reportedly too rich for Ottawa’s blood, in exchange for Matt Duchene in a deal that looked better as the season went on but stands to backfire in a big way should he bolt next summer as a free agent. That’s not to mention Burrows is gone as well, bought out this summer after managing six goals and 14 points in the wake of signing a two-year, $5-million extension the day he was acquired.
So, sure, the Senators have undeniably had their successes in the years since Alfredsson left for the Red Wings as a free agent, but were it not for his departure, the Ryan deal may not have happened and the dominoes that fell thereafter may have instead stood sturdy. Unfortunately, the Senators don’t have a DeLorean handy and there’s no going back to fix their past mistakes. And the end result may very well be that instead of having one anniversary to rue every July, the departure of one all-time great to mourn, the Senators may have two.
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