It’s remarkable how quickly things can change in a few months. Heading into the 2017-18 campaign, the Ottawa Senators had high hopes. After all, the organization was months removed from an Eastern Conference final berth, one which saw them come one goal shy of playing in the Stanley Cup final for the second time in franchise history. And with most of that group intact, save a few parts such as defenseman Marc Methot and depth wingers Viktor Stalberg and Tommy Wingels, there was reason to believe the Senators could, at the very least, earn themselves another playoff berth and see if they could repeat their post-season performance.
Suffice to say, things haven’t exactly gone as Ottawa would have hoped as they enter into the second half of the 2017-18 NHL campaign.
On Wednesday night in Detroit, the Senators, try as they might to get back on track, needed all of six seconds to drop an overtime contest to the Detroit Red Wings. Off the opening faceoff in the extra frame, Red Wings speedster Andreas Athanasiou sped forward, chipped the puck to himself and scored. And with that goal, one that came faster than Ottawa could even settle into overtime, the Senators dropped their second straight game, sixth in seven games and skated away with just their 16th point in the past two months of play. That’s no typo, either: since Nov. 3, Ottawa has collected only 16 of a possible 50 points. No team in the league, not even the lowly Arizona Coyotes or Buffalo Sabres, has been worse.
The unfortunate reality for the Senators now is that there is almost no way this season can be saved. Entering Thursday’s action, Ottawa sits 11 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with six teams ahead of them in the race. For a divisional playoff berth, the Senators would need to close a 15-point gap on the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Impossible? Maybe not. Unlikely? Incredibly so. And with Ottawa having next to no chance at earning a post-season berth on the heels of a run to the conference final, Senators GM Pierre Dorion has been left in a position to take stock of his roster and decide which players he can and can’t do without going forward.
Among those it appears Dorion is willing to part ways with is Mike Hoffman, the 28-year-old winger who has been a consistent scoring threat over the past three seasons. Signed to a four-year, $20.75-million deal ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, Hoffman’s name has cropped up in the rumor mill on a near daily basis since the Senators started their descent down the standings. That’s with good reason, too. In each of the past three seasons, Hoffman has scored at least 26 goals and despite Ottawa’s abysmal performance this season, he’s again on pace to flirt with 20 tallies. A pure shooter, Hoffman has the type of speed and knack for the net that is certain to draw interest, and there’s little doubt he could be had for the right price.
Hoffman isn’t the only name who has been floated in trade discussions, however. Over the past several weeks, Derick Brassard’s future as a Senator has been questioned with the veteran center seen as a potential second-line pivot for contending teams. Likewise, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, one of last season’s playoff heroes, has popped up in trade speculation, and defenseman Cody Ceci has heard his name mentioned, too.
But no matter who moves along — and it seems a near certainty that someone will be gone by the Feb. 26 trade deadline — the Senators need to be very wary of what the return is and what it means not just for the long-term future of the franchise, but the short-term, as well. Reason being is that while a team such as the Colorado Avalanche, whom the Senators dealt with earlier in the season as part of the Matt Duchene swap, could afford to load up on futures, Ottawa isn’t exactly in the same position. That’s not because the Senators couldn’t use the picks and prospects, but rather because doing so could put their ability to sign their superstar rearguard, Erik Karlsson, in jeopardy.
As it stands, Karlsson is in the penultimate season of his contract, making him eligible for an extension in July. And one has to wonder, from Karlsson’s perspective, why he would want to sign a long-term, big-money contract with the Senators this coming off-season if the team is more focused on the future than the present. Trading away the likes of Hoffman or Brassard or Pageau for picks and prospects doesn’t do much to drive the team forward and put them in a position to take a step towards a championship. In fact, it would do the opposite. And if Karlsson is taking stock of the Senators’ roster and his chances at a Stanley Cup during the prime of his career, he might not look favorably upon a group of picks and prospects that will need two or three seasons to develop into full-time contributors on a contending team.
Make no mistake, either, that Karlsson knows he’d have options to win elsewhere if he were to hit the open market. He’s a two-time Norris Trophy winner and has either won or been the runner-up for the award in four of the past six seasons. Around the league, GMs would be falling over themselves to sign Karlsson, and rightfully so. He’s a game-changing defender, a rare breed in any era. And that puts Dorion and the Senators in a position where they need to not only ensure they get back talent that can help down the road, but players in return for their top assets that will help Ottawa compete as soon as next season.
Don’t discount Dorion’s ability to do so, either. At a contract impasse with Kyle Turris, the Senators GM managed to rope the Nashville Predators into a three-team deal that brought Duchene to town. That move saw Ottawa to replace an effective two-way center with an offensively gifted pivot, even if it doesn’t seem as though that’s been the case given Duchene’s struggles since arriving. And trades of a similar ilk — say, shipping out Hoffman for a younger, up-and-coming goal-scorer or trading Brassard to a contender for a player who’s ready to breakout in a bigger role — are the deals that the Senators must seek out. Those trades are evidence that the organization believes a retool, not a rebuild, is all that’s necessary. And deals of that variety could be enough to convince Karlsson there’s a brighter future for him in Ottawa than elsewhere.
Of course, there’s always the option of blowing things up entirely. At that point, Karlsson doesn’t need to be take into consideration, because if that’s the course of action Ottawa sees as its best way forward, there’s no better place to start than with their all-world defenseman. If the Senators want to contend again in the near future, though, Karlsson will be key, and so, too, is the execution of whatever deals they feel necessary as the deadline approaches.
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