The Ottawa Senators’ off-season has been a certifiable nightmare. Beyond the constant speculation about the future of superstar captain Erik Karlsson, the franchise has dealt with an off-ice issue that resulted in the trade of top-line scorer Mike Hoffman, came to a head-scratching one-year extension with top forward Mark Stone, listened as goaltender Craig Anderson talked about a possible move out of town and watched on as assistant GM Randy Lee resigned amid harassment charges.
But the Senators attempted to extinguish the seemingly ever-growing flames late Monday night by releasing a six-minute video in which Mark Borowiecki did his best Larry King impersonation in a sit-down interview with owner Eugene Melnyk.
To say the attempt was unsuccessful might be an understatement, though, as the baffling video left us with more questions than answers, and that’s even if we ignore the question about Melnyk’s jersey choice. (Why wear the Reebok Edge jersey, last worn during the 2016-17 season, when there’s a row of the new Adidas threads hanging on the wall?)
From the outset, Melnyk addressed the current state of the franchise and expressed hope for the coming campaign. He said the team isn’t heading anywhere, nor is he going anywhere as their owner. And he noted that he feels the team has a good base built to begin to make strides towards a brighter future.
Most concerning about the interview, however, was Melnyk’s statement on the way Ottawa will build going forward. They’re getting younger, of course, as any rebuilding franchise would, but it’s the sizeable, nearly full-scale injection of youth that raises some red flags. “I think this coming year, 10 out of the 22 players are going to be new, meaning they’re either rookies or played under 10 games last year,” Melnyk said. “Then the following year, it’s going to go up to about 15 of the 22, maybe 16. That’s a total turnover, which is exactly what should be in a rebuild.”
Take a second and do the math on that, though. At present, there are maybe four forwards (Logan Brown, Colin White, Brady Tkachuk and Filip Chlapik) and three blueliners (Christian Wolanin, Ben Harpur and Christian Jaros) who fit the bill. Harpur’s inclusion on that list is even debatable. So, by Melnyk’s estimation, Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion is going to need to find a way to insert a few more fresh faces into the lineup this season, and the Senators are going to want to add another five first-year or sophomore-aged skaters to the roster by the 2019-20 campaign. While the likes of Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton may be ready by then, it’s difficult to see how the Senators are going to add more young talent.
That is, of course, unless the current roster is blown to smithereens and traded for parts. And the more you ruminate on Melnyk’s comments, the more it seems as though that has to be the play here.
If Melnyk is projecting that only six or seven veteran skaters will be around come the 2019-20 season, it almost certainly means that the future in Ottawa is bleak for the nine pending free agents, which includes Stone and Matt Duchene. Likewise, one has to wonder if the writing is on the wall for the likes of Marian Gaborik, Mikkel Boedker, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zack Smith, not to mention the perennial rumored-to-move Bobby Ryan.
And maybe that’s where Melnyk gets the idea that Ottawa has or will have so many draft picks at their disposal. In speaking with Borowiecki, Melnyk said the Senators were “loaded up with draft picks for the next four, five, six years.” However, this coming season, a year in which Ottawa is considered to be in the running for the first-overall pick via the draft lottery, the Senators are without their top selection as a result of the Duchene acquisition from the Colorado Avalanche last season. Ottawa is also without their own third-round pick, too, and are only currently slated to have one two-pick round — the third round in 2020 — in the next three drafts. That hardly seems like a team “loaded” with picks.
Trading Karlsson could change that overnight, though. If the Senators can’t get players who can play now, they can certainly land a nice haul of futures for a two-time Norris Trophy winning blueliner who is almost inarguably the best offensive defenseman of his generation. But trading Karlsson stands to have a ripple effect that goes on down through the rest of the team.
For instance, even if the Senators wanted to retain either of Stone or Duchene beyond this season, it’s hard to fathom that either will be all too keen on sticking around through a retooling of the franchise, let alone a scorched-earth rebuild that sees massive turnover in the next two seasons. And while Stone’s aforementioned contract means he’ll be a Senator this season — or at least to start the campaign — the 26-year-old will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end with the opportunity to bolt to the team of his choosing as early as July. Duchene, too, will become a free agent at season’s end, and though he noted earlier this summer that he would entertain the option of returning to the Senators, it was just last week that he said during the NHL’s Player Media Tour that he’s going to take the wait-and-see approach to re-signing in Ottawa. Can’t imagine he likes what he sees less than a week later. And if neither Stone or Duchene are willing to re-sign by the deadline, they're nothing but trade fodder.
Thus, if Karlsson goes, Stone and Duchene aren’t far behind. If that happens — or once that happens — it’s difficult to see how this franchise is anything but a basement dweller for the next few seasons. We’ve seen what that can do to young talent, too, with the Edmonton Oilers’ prolonged playoff drought the prime example of the tank-and-draft strategy falling well short of producing a consistent winner. The Senators are only one full season removed from coming within a single goal of the Stanley Cup final. Two seasons later, the franchise is seemingly prepared to tear the whole thing down and start anew. And even though there may be some light at the end of the tunnel at some point, it’s almost impossible to see it right now.