If you’re going to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, you want to do it the way the Ottawa Senators did in 2020-21 – winning four of your final five games, with the final victory coming in overtime when your best player and future captain jumps on a loose puck and feeds it to the guy who is primed to become your top scorer.
More than anything else, professional sports are about selling hope. And the Senators have that particular commodity in abundance these days. But with that hope comes a level of expectation. At some point, the consumers are going to want to see a tangible return on their investment. A great run and an overtime goal in a nothing game are nice, but there has to be a sense that this team is moving forward.
So what do we make of this Senators team? Keeping in mind that great late-season runs by teams facing no playoff pressure are usually meaningless, are the Senators the team that was plagued by terrible goaltending and got off to a 2-12-1 start, or the band of brash and talented youngsters who might have contended for a playoff spot if they hadn’t run out of runway? The Senators finished the season looking like a legitimate contender in the North Division – oddly, they were the only team in the NHL that avoided being shut out this season - but the reality is that overall, they were only marginally better than they were last season. Improvement has come, but it must be more than incremental.
If the world actually does return to normal next season, it’s difficult to see the Senators making the playoffs in the Northeast Division. But the measure of success is whether or not they’re playing meaningful games in the final quarter of the season. You go from there to thinking about the playoffs in 2021-22 and making playoff noise at some point after that.
Seems pretty clear-cut, doesn’t it? But in order for that to happen, the Senators are going to have to do two things. First, they have to sign Brady Tkachuk to a new deal, preferably a long-term one. Second, we get it, you have a lot of great young players. Now is the time to use those two precious commodities – young assets and cap space – to go out and get some established players to show these youngsters the way.
Let’s deal with Tkachuk first. What we do know is that, at the age of 21, Brady Tkachuk is going to get bigger and stronger and meaner and more assertive. What we don’t know is whether or not his offensive game will ever develop to an elite level. If it does, the Senators will have one of the most unique players in the league on their hands, a modern-day Brendan Shanahan. His expected goals are right there with the best players in the NHL, his actual goals are not. Is that because he’s destined to not be an elite offensive player? Maybe. Is it because of bad luck, the players around him? But even if the offensive isn’t elite, the Senators have the equivalent of Tom Wilson, hopefully without the stupid stuff. Either way, Tkachuk is a valuable player who has given every indication he wants to stay in Ottawa and see this through.
You do not screw around with that. On a long-term deal, it’s difficult to fathom that Tkachuk doesn’t merit the same eight-year, $64 million deal the Senators gave to Thomas Chabot that kicked in this season. The Senators have made an awful lot of hay touting their future and who represents that more than Tkachuk? And if his offensive game catches up to the rest of his tools, the Senators will have a team-friendly contract steal on their hands. But whether it’s a long-term deal or a shorter pact that’s done while both sides wait to see what he becomes, something has to get done. No missing training camp or early games next season in a contract dispute. That would be potentially disastrous for everyone involved. Because of a collective bargaining agreement that doesn’t provide arbitration for entry-level players, Tkachuk has no other leverage in negotiations than to withhold his services. That simply can’t happen.
As far as the second part of the equation, that will be a little more difficult, given the financial constraints in Ottawa. But the accumulation of assets is complete. In fact, the Senators have too many young players for the number of positions available. Can Chabot, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Erik Brannstrom, Victor Mete, Lassi Thomson and Jake Sanderson all occupy the same blueline and ultimately be paid what they’re worth? Can the Senators ultimately find enough room, ice time and cap space for Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle, Shane Pinto, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton and Logan Brown? The Senators also have a promising future in goal with the likes of Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord and Mads Sogaard, one of whom may very well render Matt Murray to becoming a very expensive backup.
So why not use some of that youth to go into a market where teams are squeezed by the cap and might be willing to part with some established players for relief? If the Senators truly want to progress, they’re going to have to do this. Another lost season or two will set back the development of their young players and even with eager and talented young men, the more you lose, the easier it becomes to accept.
As head coach D. J. Smith said after the Senators’ last game, the players learned a valuable lesson this season when the season got away from them by the 15-game mark. “I think we’re in a good spot going forward,” he said. He may be right, but what the Senators do between now and the beginning of next season will dictate how good that spot actually is.