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NHL Rebuild Review: Ottawa Senators

Tony Ferrari does a deep dive into how the Senators went from the bottom of the standings to having one of the more promising young groups in the league today.
Jake Sanderson

When the Ottawa Senators went to the Eastern Conference final in 2017, taking the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins to double overtime in Game 7, there was a lot of hope the team could turn it into something more soon.

Just a year later, they finished second last in the NHL and a rebuild was beginning.

Now that the Senators have built their roster back up to what looks to be a competitive and entertaining product, it seems like the perfect time to look back at how they went from Erik Karlsson flip passes that go the length of the ice for a Mike Hoffman goal in the playoffs to signing Tim Stützle, the future of the franchise, to an eight-year deal.

False Hope and Setting Themselves Up for Catastrophe

Coming off the conference final heartbreak of losing to the Penguins, the Senators had high hopes for the upcoming season. Karlsson started the season late because of offseason surgery in which he had some tendons in his foot repaired after playing through it in the conference final run. Despite missing their captain for the first five games of the season, the team started strong.

Sitting at 6-3-5 early on, the Sens made a franchise-altering move. Ottawa acquired center Matt Duchene, who was unhappy in his situation with the Avalanche. The price was steep though. With Nashville involved as a third team, the trade broke down as follows:

Ottawa received: C Matt Duchene (COL)
Nashville received: C Kyle Turris (OTT)
Colorado received: 2018 conditional first-round pick (OTT), 2019 third-round pick (OTT), C Shane Bowers (OTT), G Andrew Hammond (OTT), D Samuel Girard (NSH), C Vladislav Kamenev (NSH), 2018 second-round pick

The haul that Colorado got in that trade helped them build the Stanley Cup-winning team they became last year. Meanwhile, the acquisition of Duchene was the beginning of the end for the Senators as a competitive team. That’s not to say it was Duchene’s fault, but everything started to fall down from there.

Karlsson was still able to contribute offensively, but his defensive game completely imploded as his foot was still healing when he got back into the lineup and plagued him throughout the season. The goaltending was atrocious, the scoring dried up and the team never could find their mojo.

The underlying data showed this was possible, though. Whether it was goal differential from the previous season where they were the only playoff team with a negative goal differential or the fact that they were greatly out-chanced in the shots and scoring chance department. They finished bottom 10 in the league in expected goals in 2016-17 and remained there through the start of the 2017-18 season up to the Duchene trade. 

Signs were pointing them towards being a pretender more than a contender.

Finishing 30th in the NHL, going 11-31-4 post-Duchene trade, the Sens were in a pickle. That condition on the pick was one of the team’s biggest decisions as the draft loomed large for the now clearly rebuilding team. With the relationship between the team and captain Erik Karlsson deteriorating due to contentious extension talks, the Sens attempted to trade the star defender at the deadline. When no deal materialized, he reiterated his desire to stay in Ottawa and his love for the city. With a rebuild on the way though, the end was near for Karlsson and the Sens.

Draft Day Dilemma

The Senators slipped in the lottery and ended up with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft. The only problem with that was that it was sent to Colorado in the Duchene trade conditionally. The condition on the 2018 first-round pick in the Duchene trade was that if the pick wound up being a top-ten pick, they could swap it for their 2019 first-rounder instead.

With the Sens expected to be as bad or worse, general manager Pierre Dorion was faced with making the pick and giving up their pick the following year with the hopes that they out-perform a bit and give up a pick later than the fourth overall pick. On the flip side, they could bottom out further and give up the first overall pick. Ultimately, the Senators decided to keep their pick at fourth overall and selected winger Brady Tkachuk, a player who has become an organizational pillar and their captain.

The Karlsson Fallout and Trade

The summer of 2018 was a weird one for Ottawa and Karlsson. With rumors of him being sent out of town running wild since the season came to a close, the future Hall of Fame defender was constantly in the news and a point of discussion when pondering where he could wind up and what the package coming back to the Sens could be.

Before the trade, there was an incident made public in June between Karlsson’s wife, Melinda Karlsson, and teammate Mike Hoffman’s longtime girlfriend, Monika Caryk. Caryk was accused of harassing and cyberbullying Karlsson after the Karlsson's firstborn child had passed away. The story led to Hoffman being sent out of town at a steep discount in a trade to the San Jose Sharks before being instantly flipped to Florida in a deal where the Sharks got a significantly better return.

In September, on the first day of training camp, Karlsson was traded to the Sharks. It finally ended months of speculation and rumors, fully signaling the rebuild beginning for a team that had been to the conference finals just 16 months prior. The return for Karlsson felt a bit underwhelming at the time but it’s turned out to be one of the rare trades where a star traded for a bunch of “stuff” – as so many pundits phrased it – worked out for the club trading the star.

Ottawa received: C Chris Tierney, D Dylan DeMelo, C Josh Norris, W Rudolfs Balcers, conditional first-round draft pick, 2019 second-round pick
San Jose received: D Erik Karlsson, W Francis Perron

The captain of the franchise and one of the greatest players in Senators’ history was out the door. At the time, Josh Norris was a good but not great prospect. A goal scorer who was playing at the University of Michigan but not blowing anyone away with his play. Rudolf Balcers was a middling prospect who was drafted three years earlier and delivering solid AHL results. Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo were additions that could jump onto the NHL roster and fill a roster spot as the team worked through the rebuild.

The real prize was the first-round pick. It was originally a 2019 pick but became a 2020 first-rounder because the Sharks made the playoffs that season. This would work out so much better for the Senators as the Sharks and Karlsson imploded the following year, finishing third last in the NHL, one spot ahead of the Senators. We will come back to that a little later though.

The Uber Incident

Not long into the 2018-19 season, the Senators were already reeling. Falling to 4-5-2 after a loss in Arizona that made it four straight defeats, a few Senators players got into a Uber and as many of us do, they were venting about their jobs with their co-workers.

The issue? The Uber driver was recording them and released the footage to the public. New Senators Duchene, DeMelo, and Tierney, along with Chris Wideman, Thomas Chabot, Alex Formenton, and Colin White were the seven players in the car. They criticized the team’s penalty kill, powerplay, and overall coaching with then assistant coach Marty Raymond, who ran the powerplay the year before and the penalty kill that season, receiving the bulk of the criticism.

Although it was an off-ice issue and the players and team released a statement apologizing to their coaches and teammates, this was a massive black mark in a string of off-ice incidents that made the Senators' rebuild all the more painful.

Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel Sent Packing at the 2019 Trade Deadline

With the Senators in free fall during the 2018-19 season and no first-round pick due to their decision to keep their 2018 first-rounder after acquiring Duchene, the Senators were ready to move anyone and everyone that would net them a good return.

The first of which was moving Duchene after realizing the error in their thought process in acquiring him. They recovered a first-round pick, albeit a later one than the one they’d eventually send to Colorado, which was a massive boon for the rebuilding club.

Columbus received: C Matt Duchene, D Julius Bergman
Ottawa received: C Vitaly Abramov, W Jonathan Davidsson, 2019 first-round pick, conditional 2020 first round pick (contingent on Duchene re-signing, never exchanged)

Acquiring a prospect in Abramov that had some promise and a load to skill was a nice addition on top of recouping the lost first-round pick, eventually used to select Finnish defender Lassi Thomson.

A day after Duchene was sent packing, the Sens and Jackets made a second deal. Columbus acquired Senators fan favorite Ryan Dzingel to help bolster their team as they headed towards the playoffs. The return was centered around young forward Anthony Duclair who was an all-star with Sens in his lone full year with the squad.

Ottawa received: W Anthony Duclair, a 2020 second-round pick, a 2021 second-round pick
Columbus received: C Ryan Dzingel, 2019 seventh-round pick

While Duchene and Dzingel both hurt in their own ways for Sens fans, the final trade of the deadline was the most impactful, and unfortunately, the trade with the return that Senators fans and analysts were most unhappy with. Mark Stone, who many viewed as the next captain, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in a deal that didn’t net the Sens a first-round pick.

Ottawa received: D Erik Brannstrom, W Oscar Lindberg, a 2020 second-round pick.
Vegas received: W Mark Stone, W Tobias Lindberg

Overall, in exchange for Stone, Dzingel, and Duchene the Senators acquired one first-round pick, three second-round picks, NHL contributor Duclair, and a couple of prospects of note in Brannstrom and Abramov. 

The Lost Season of COVID

The 2019-20 season is one that is almost difficult to remember from a hockey perspective for many teams. The Senators more than others.

Toiling at the bottom of the league throughout the year, it was a rough year for the Sens but not all was terrible in the Canadian capital. The Senators were led in scoring by a sophomore Brady Tkachuk who had 44 points. Thomas Chabot stepped up and played a league-high 26:00 minutes a night. They got a taste of some of the youth coming up as well.

One of the highlights of the NHL season throughout the entire league was the return of Bobby Ryan after taking a step away to deal with his alcohol abuse through the NHL/NHLPA assistance program. Ryan scored a hat trick in his return to Ottawa, receiving a standing ovation and capturing headlines across sports.

Still, they sat second to last in the NHL when the world shut down in early March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had hit North American sports and the NHL followed the NBA’s lead by hitting the pause button on their season, hoping to resume and finish their year in the summer. When they did resume in the late summer, the Senators and the rest of the bottom feeder teams were not included, bringing a welcomed end to a dumpster fire of a season.

In a largely forgettable season with so much more at stake in the world because of the health crisis afflicting the world, the hockey side of things had a silver lining for the Senators. Not only would they have their own top-five pick but they were also in possession of the Sharks' pick from the Karlsson trade, a pick that would also be a top-five selection because of their fall from grace.

Hope Bubbles Up at the 2020 NHL Draft

With both their own and San Jose’s pick set to be a high selection, the Senators’ were poised to have a massive 2020 NHL draft. When the lottery was said and done, the Sens were set to pick third (San Jose) and fifth. With the Islanders’ first-round pick also in their back pocket thanks to a trade that sent Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the island, they were poised to change the future of their franchise with one draft with three first-round picks. They made ten selections in total, trading up a couple of times in the draft to get their man.

Sitting at third overall, the Senators seemed to have clear top-three players with Alexis Lafreniere expected to go first overall and a debate between Quinton Byfield and Tim Stützle at the next two picks. When the Sens came up to the podium, with Lafreniere and Byfield taken, Stützle was the easy choice for them. Adding the electric German forward to their prospect pool ensured that they had a dose of the high skill and pace that the modern NHL game is moving towards.

At fifth overall, many expected Ottawa to balance out their selection of a forward with a high-end defender.  Ultimately, the Senators took Jake Sanderson, who they viewed as the most complete defender in the draft class at the time.

Just before the first round came to a close, the Senators had a third pick in the opening round. Ottawa decided to select WHL winger Ridly Grieg, a feisty and high-energy player who attacks every play with vigor. While there was certainly more skill on the board, the Sens opted to add some grit and pest to their prospect pool. His discipline has been an issue at times but he also brings an element that isn’t always easy to find in functional annoyance.

The second round featured a few more impactful moments. The selection of Roby Järventie added a high-end finisher to their prospect pool. They traded up with the Maple Leafs, sending two picks to Toronto for the right to draft Tyler Kleven. The Leafs wound up selecting Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemelä with those two picks. Kleven is a hard-hitting defender who is quite raw but boasts the size and mobility that they can build from. Budding fan-favorite and over-aged draft-eligible Egor Sokolov was the final pick in the second round and he’s already snuck into a few NHL games.

Overall, while the public grades for the Sens draft all agreed that they played it quite safe with all of their picks, the Senators made sure to fill their prospect pool as the team began the build back towards relevance.

The Senators also traded for two-time Stanley Cup-winning netminder Matt Murray. They sent a mid-level prospect and a second-round pick to Pittsburgh who was looking to move the goalie after he had fallen out of favor with the organization and needed a new contract as an RFA. The move was looked at as a solidifying piece for the organization at the time, until it wasn't.

Sens Sickos in the North Divsion

What will forever be known as the “COVID season” of 2020-21, the league didn’t begin to play until January because of the playoffs going until August and a fall outbreak of COVID. The season was littered with COVID issues, new temporary divisions, delays and rescheduling, missed games, empty arenas with no fans, and so many other oddities that were a direct result of the unprecedented global pandemic.

The Senators competed in the North Divison (aka the Canadian division) and while they certainly didn’t have an amazing season, finishing sixth of seven teams in what was almost unanimously deemed a soft division, the Senators had a number of moments that stood out and kick-started the “Sens Sickos” movement.

They returned to the 2D logo in a rebrand that fans had clamored for. Their highly touted top prospect, Stützle, made his NHL debut and had himself a solid rookie season, flashing his electric speed and skill. Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot established themselves as true leaders on the team. Stützle got his first hat trick and fans made sure to show him love by throwing hats into his back yard. Additionally, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson established their presence in the organization.

The ‘Sens Sickos’ movement was meant to encourage Sens fans to poke fun at themselves a bit while cheering for a young and exciting team that wasn’t winning very much. It was about finding joy in making life difficult for other teams and even occasionally ruining their night with a win in the oddest of circumstances.

The defining moment of the season, however, was the game that spurred the movement to the mainstream. A 6-5 win over the rival Toronto Maple Leafs in which the Sens were trailing 5-1 on a cold February evening as the team toiled along with a 3-12-1. The comeback epitomized the ‘Sen Sicko’ attitude and made the Senators one of the most fun teams to follow, even if wins were few and far between.

“The rebuild is done.” But it wasn’t

As the ramp-up to last season began, Pierre Dorion was given an extension as general manager and with that, he declared that "The rebuild is done. Now we're stepping into another zone."

Prior to the season, Tkachuk was named captain and then proceeded to hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. Stützle approached 60 points as a sophomore and looked quite a bit improved, especially in the second half of the year. Norris and Batherson solidified their standing as top-six forwards league-wide. Chabot continued to show why he was a difference maker when he wasn’t injured. Artyom Zub proved that his rookie season wasn’t a fluke and looked like a top-four defender.

Unfortunately for Dorion, the rebuild was far from over. The Senators finished 26th in the league with their young roster and although improvements individually were made, the team itself finished worse than it did the year before.

End of an Era: Eugene Melnyk Passes Away

As the season was coming to a close last year, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk passed away on March 28th, 2022 at the age of 62. The oft-involved owner was responsible for pulling the team from bankruptcy when he purchased them in 2003 and helped them reach the 2007 Stanley Cup final and the Eastern Conference final in 2017.

The polarizing owner was dedicated to the team for almost two decades. He was responsible for some of the franchise's greatest highs and some of their more questionable lows. From the on-ice success to the off-ice controversy, Melnyk was constantly in the news. He received a liver transplant in 2015 after a public appeal for a live liver donor. He also discussed the possibility of moving the team on the eve of the Ottawa Senators’ outdoor game, the NHL 100 Classic at Parliament Hill.

After his passing, Melnyk’s daughters, Anna and Olivia, took ownership of the team. Whatever opinion is held of Melnyk by Senators fans - or NHL fans in general - one thing was very clear. Eugene Melnyk wore his heart on his sleeve and he loved the Senators and hockey. He may not have been able to live to see the Senators rebuild but he was a part of it nonetheless.

Hot Dorion Summer

With so much buzz around the Senators' young core and the budding stars such as Tkachuk and Stützle, this summer was going to be pivotal in the rebuild. After finishing 27 points out of a playoff spot last year, major improvements would have to be made. The Senators’ general manager was more than up to the task.

In what’s been deemed ‘Hot Dorion Summer’, the Sen’s roster received an influx of talent and the moves made by Dorion looked intelligent, calculated, and they were overwhelmingly looked at positively.

The Senators started by acquiring 24-year-old 41-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat at the draft to bolster their top-six forward group. Soon after the draft, Dorion sent much-maligned, oft-injured, and underperforming netminder Matt Murray to the Toronto Maple Leafs without retaining any of his salary. In a contrasting move, the Senators acquired goaltender Cam Talbot from the Minnesota Wild to form a tandem with the solid Anton Forsberg.

Dorion wasn’t done there though. When free agency kicked off, Ottawa locked down offensive star Claude Giroux to a three-year deal worth $19.5 million. Long being rumored to be in on the former Philadelphia Flyers captain, many outside of Ottawa doubted their ability to actually secure him to a deal.

The summer also included contract extensions for key pieces such as Mathieu Joseph (four years, $11.8 million), Norris (eight years, $63.6 million), and most recently revealed at a Senators’ media event, Stützle (eight years, $66.8 million).

Whether you refer to it as ‘The Summer or Pierre’ or ‘Hot Dorion Summer’, the fanfare around the Senators’ moves has been nearly unmatched around the league and the hopes of Sens fans haven’t been this high in years.

The Sens Today

With training camp having kicked off and the new-look Senators ready to get their season started, the expectations for this squad are all over the place. The most optimistic of fans and analysts have the Senators as a playoff team while the most pessimistic have them improving a bit but still well outside of the playoffs.

The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. A fringe playoff contender that ultimately just comes up short despite a big step forward. The reality is that every team in the eastern conference that made the playoffs last season had at least 100 points, while the Senators finished with 73. It won’t be easy to make up a 27-point gap, even with the improvements and development of young talent.

The defensive group wasn’t improved the way the forward group has been with Chabot and Zub standing alone as the only established top-four defenders and both have flaws of their own. Top prospect Jake Sanderson and youngster Erik Brannstrom should be making their impact felt this season but asking either to step in and become major difference makers is asking a lot. They have underwhelming veterans filling the other spots on their blueline who may also be supplanted by young players such as Jacob Bernard-Docker or Lassi Thomson. Either way, the defensive group will be in tough.

Their forward group has improved greatly with the additions of Debrincat and Giroux to go along with Tkachuk, Stützle, Norris, Batherson and company. Rookie Shane Pinto should provide a spark in the bottom-six. Joseph may finally have the opportunity to step into a bigger role, a luxury he wasn’t afforded on a loaded Tampa Bay team. The forward group should be greatly improved.

The final piece of the puzzle is the goaltending tandem of Talbot and Forsberg. The newly acquired Talbot has been solid over the last couple of years behind a good Minnesota defense but has struggled at times in less stable systems in his career. Is Ottawa going to be able to provide stability for him with their defensive questions? Anton Forsberg has shown some promise and looked good towards the end of last season but he’s turning 30 in November and his track record of success is limited to last year’s small sample. There seems to be some optimism around this tandem but it’s certainly no sure thing.

The Ottawa Senators are coming out of their rebuild. Pierre Dorion may have been a bit premature when he declared that the rebuild is over just over a year ago but it certainly seems like it may be close heading into this upcoming season. The build towards contender status is as close as they’ve been in a half-decade. A few additions on the blueline along with the development and arrival of prospects such as Sanderson or Bernard-Docker could very well get them closer.

Unseating the ‘big dogs’ in the Atlantic division may be a bit tough this year. The future is bright though as the powerhouses in the division may not be as intimidating as they once were. There’s aging Boston team, a Florida team that’s all in right now with little draft capital to make more improvements, a Tampa squad that has won two Cups and may be getting closer to the end of their window, and a Toronto team growing frustrated as they have the star power but continues to falter in the playoffs.

Ottawa may not be there yet, but the Sens are coming. Be sure of that. 


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