Two Years In: How does the Sens current rebuild stack up?

CALGARY, CANADA - FEBRUARY 27: Mika Zibanejad #65 of the Ottawa Senators celebrates his hat trick goal in the third period with Mike Hoffman #68 during their NHL game against the Calgary Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome on February 27, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
CALGARY, CANADA - FEBRUARY 27: Mika Zibanejad #65 of the Ottawa Senators celebrates his hat trick goal in the third period with Mike Hoffman #68 during their NHL game against the Calgary Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome on February 27, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

Despite the turbulence of the past few years, the Ottawa Senators franchise has been one of the most fortunate in the league in terms of continued success

Since first making the playoffs in 1997, the team has only missed the playoffs seven times, including this year’s expanded format, while their current three year drought marks the longest the team has endured since its expansion seasons.

That run of success included 11 straight post-season appearances, a President’s Trophy, two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Because of this remarkable consistency the team exemplified for over a decade, the current rebuild is uncharted territory for many Sens fans.

Yet despite their success, the Sens have actually undergone a rebuild before. Their run of 11 straight playoff seasons ended in the 2008-09 season where the team’s 83 points left them well short of a playoff spot. That season had already seen the team unload the likes of Antoine Vermette, Mike Comrie, and Martin Gerber as well as the hiring of Cory Clouston as head coach.

The biggest domino fell during the off-season as top sniper Dany Heatley requested a trade out of Ottawa. When the team sent him to San Jose on September 12, 2009, it was clear that Ottawa was firmly about to enter rebuild mode.

This current rebuild was kickstarted in eerily similar fashion as nearly nine years to the day of the Heatley trade, on September 13, 2018, the team traded superstar captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose and officially began to tear apart the roster. The process continued during the 2018-19 season, with the team shipping Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to Columbus in two separate trades, as well as Vegas acquiring Mark Stone at the trade deadline.

Of course, the two rebuilds don’t sync up perfectly, as even after the Heatley trade the Sens still had many of the pieces from their decade of dominance, whereas just three years later, almost all of the players the team dressed for Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals are gone. Furthermore, the 2009-10 season saw the Sens return to the playoffs and battle the defending champion Penguins for six games before bowing out in round one, whereas the 2018-19 team put up the franchise’s lowest points percentage since the expansion seasons.

That said, as we approach the 2020 Draft, the Sens are in a very similar position to the one they found themselves in before the 2011 Draft, where they took multiple players who would come to define the next era of Sens hockey. By looking back on the only other real rebuild in team history, we can compare it to now and know what to expect from the current one.

Despite the team’s underwhelming 74 point 2010-11 campaign, there was still plenty to be optimistic about within the organization. Players such as Patrick Wiercioch and Robin Lehner made their debuts, while the likes of Erik Karlsson, Zack Smith, Nick Foligno, and Milan Michalek gave the team a deep collection of young players already making an impact at the NHL level. David Rundblad, Jared Cowen, Kaspars Daugavins, Mike Hoffman, and others were nearly ready to become full-time NHLers and the Calder Cup-winning Binghamton Senators were yet another reason for hope.

While we’ll never know how this year’s AHL season turned out, when the season ended the Belleville Senators were first in the North Division and their .643 points percentage ranked sixth in the entire league. Belleville’s top four scorers (Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Vitaly Abramov) were all 21 or younger while other prospects such as Logan Brown, Jonathan Davidsson, and Erik Brannstrom were also key contributors.

At the NHL level, Filip Chlapik and Rudolfs Balcers began to establish themselves, as did Marcus Hogberg who looks like he may be able to be an at least passable NHL netminder for next season. This year also saw Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Anthony Duclair, and other youngsters continue to develop at the NHL level, albeit not without some speed bumps along the way.

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Why 2010-2011 was different

The major difference though between then and now, however, are the players not yet mentioned. The 2010-11 team’s top players were veterans Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, and Sergei Gonchar, as well as those traded away mid-season such as Mike Fisher, Alexei Kovalev, Chris Kelly, and Jarkko Ruutu. The 2019-20 team’s top players were the aforementioned young stars with a supporting cast of other young players such as Chris Tierney, Connor Brown, and Nick Paul, along with a small handful of quasi-productive veterans including Ron Hainsey and Bobby Ryan.

This distinction is crucial, as the 2011-12 Senators made the playoffs and took the 109 point New York Rangers to a seventh game in the first round. While there’s certainly reason to expect the 2020-21 team to be better than this year’s even sneaking into the playoffs may be wishful thinking.

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Why the current rebuild has more promise

The flip side of the coin, however, is that while the 2011-2017 Senators only won one playoff round before Erik Karlsson dragged them to within a goal of the finals in 2017 on one foot, this current crop of players has the depth required  to potentially develop into one of the league’s elite teams, not merely a above average one that occasionally makes some noise.

The crucial part of this rebuild, however, is coming up in October, or whenever the NHL gets around to starting their off-season: the draft. In 2011, Ottawa held the 6th overall pick and two more first rounders. Altogether they made 10 picks in that draft, the most for the team since 2004.

With the 6th overall pick, the Senators took Mika Zibanejad, who quickly developed into a 20-goal centre and has flourished the past few seasons, scoring a career high 41 goals in just 57 games in 2019-20. Of course, this breakout came for the New York Rangers, as he was traded there for Derick Brassard in the 2016 off-season.

The other two 2011 first rounders, Stefan Noesen and Matt Puempel, never developed into anything beyond fringe NHLers, but thanks to the high total of picks, the Sens were still able to select Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Fredrik Claesson, and Ryan Dzingel, all three of whom were part of that core’s peek with the 2017 Conference finals run.

As it stands right now the Sens hold at least 12 picks in 2020, including at least 2 first rounders. Assuming the Islanders don’t end up picking first overall, that total jumps to 13 picks and 3 first rounders. The fact that the team will pick third and fifth means they’ll have the potential to grab two players ahead of the sixth slot where they drafted in 2011, and the Islanders first plus four second rounders should mean plenty of potential impact players will flood into the system this off-season.

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Of course, any piece on the current rebuild would be remiss if it did not address the valid concerns over management’s ability to convert potential into results, and especially the willingness of ownership to pay the price required to take the next step. That said, the last rebuild eventually led to game seven of the Conference finals and had significantly less in terms of prospects and picks.

While there may not be the instant satisfaction of a playoff run in the immediate future, the fact is the Sens current crop of youngsters blows last rebuild’s out of the water, and the potential of these players is something worth getting excited about.