OTTAWA – The end of January brings the dog days of winter for every NHL team, even the great ones preparing for Stanley Cup chases. But the season’s doldrums can feel extra long and heavy for the teams sitting nowhere near playoff contention. And in the case of the Ottawa Senators, that’s particularly true this season, as they have so many players whose fates remain largely undetermined with the Feb. 24 trade deadline looming.
Dynamic two-way center Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a pending UFA and will be highly coveted leading up to the deadline, as he’d be a dream No. 3 pivot and penalty-killing weapon on a top-tier contender. Teams looking to fill out their forward depth might target pending UFAs Tyler Ennis and Vladislav Namestnikov. Grizzled blueliners Ron Hainsey and Mark Borowiecki, not to mention the underrated right-shot Dylan DeMelo, are also pending UFAs and could attract additional calls to GM Pierre Dorion’s phone. Of the players currently on their roster, including UFAs, RFAs and those on injured reserve, the Sens have 17 players unsigned for 2020-21.
That puts the team in an ideal position as a rebuilder, not bogged down by any long, expensive veteran pacts. In the short term, however, it’s tough to play for the Ottawa Senators in late January knowing half the guys on the team are candidates for deadline-day deals, especially after Ottawa said goodbye to Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Mark Stone in succession last winter.
As a result, it’s safe to say February is a month Ottawa wants to pass quickly. Too bad it’s a leap year.
“Yeah for sure,” said star defenseman Thomas Chabot Friday morning in the bowels of the Canadian Tire Centre. “It’s always that time of the year that we start hearing more things. But as of now, the locker room is fine. We were happy the way we played the last few games, and we just want to keep going that way. What happens at the end of the month is going to happen. There’s nothing we can control. All we can control is what we do on the ice, and that’s what we’re trying to focus on toward the next couple games.”
Approaching the deadline, the names on the block receive the most media headlines. They field questions about whether they might re-sign with their teams and whether it’s hard to wait with bags packed, unsure if they’re about to uproot their lives to join playoff pushes. It’s a different experience for the young core members on a rebuilding team – such as Chabot or left winger Brady Tkachuk. They know they aren’t going anywhere, but it can be eerie not knowing who will be playing with them in a month.
Because of that, as Chabot suggests, all the young Senators can do is focus on finding positives in an otherwise lost season. The Ottawa power play, for instance, ranks dead last in the league at 14.4 percent but has converted five times in its past seven tries across the past three games, during which the Sens have scored 12 goals as a team. Right ringer Drake Batherson, making the AHL look downright easy a second straight season, is back up with the team and picked up two assists in Ottawa’s last game, a 5-2 win in Buffalo. Back on the farm in AHL Belleville, all the team’s top-tier prospects have shown major offensive potential, including Erik Brannstrom on defense and Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Logan Brown and Vitaly Abramov up front. Depending on which veterans Dorion might move at the deadline, several of the farmhands should get additional NHL opportunities in the last six weeks of the season before returning to the AHL for some Calder Cup playoff experience.
The Sens already own a first-round lottery pick for an excellent 2020 draft class, not to mention a first-round pick from the San Jose Sharks as a result of the Erik Karlsson trade. With San Jose ravaged by injuries and sliding out of the playoff race, and that pick not lottery protected, it appears the Sens will have two major lottery-ball sources. Sorting the standings by points percentage, Ottawa would hold the No. 4 and 6 draft slots right now, meaning the two shots at first overall would give the Sens a 17 percent chance at winning the lottery – the second-best odds. The Detroit Red Wings probably have a lock on 31st overall (18.5 percent odds), but if the Sens and Sharks finish 29th and 30th: 25 percent odds at the first pick for Ottawa. Whatever happens, Ottawa will secure two top-end prospects no matter what. In a best-case scenario based on current points percentages, Ottawa could score the No. 1 and 2 picks in the draft. In a worst-case scenario, getting bumped down three times with both picks, Ottawa would pick seventh and ninth. And that doesn’t even factor in the possibility of securing another first-rounder by trading Pageau.
So while it’s a hard time to play for Ottawa or cheer for Ottawa, better times lie ahead, and the team can focus on savoring any small strides it can make. Preparing to face a long-successful franchise in the Washington Capitals Friday, Tkachuk pointed out the years they had to spend at the bottom of the standings early in the Alex Ovechkin era. Tkachuk admires their tight chemistry and social media presence and sees them as a model for Ottawa to follow down the road.
“That’s a team that a lot of other teams look up to,” he said. “They’ve had struggles before, so there’s some resemblance here with the work ethic and how we’re pursuing one goal. And hopefully we can be that team one day.”
Every great team has to start somewhere. The Sens are a long way from contention, but they have one of the league’s best farm harvests, and it’s about to get better. Once the trade deadline is over with, it’ll be easier to focus on the future – and the positives.