The Ottawa Senators just completed year 5 of an arduous rebuild that has left fans hungry for playoffs and cup potential. Every season fans hope for the playoffs, and while I agree with the sentiment, I’ll put it this way. Rebuilds are about patience. Rebuild sucks until the team makes the playoffs. I’ll elaborate.
Deciding when it’s time to rebuild
The first part of any rebuild is to decide to hit that reset button. That can either be when a team’s core has aged out and is not producing up to the standard expected of them, a team quits playing for each other, the team is not making the playoffs consistently, or a sudden drop-off. For the Ottawa Senators, it was a BIT of all of these factors. For years the Sens were in tweeners ville, making the playoffs one year and missing the next. The core of Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris(traded in part for Matt Duchene), and Mika Zibanejad (who was then traded for Derick Brassard), and the company started to age out into their UFA years and also stopped responding to each other. The team also stopped responding to their head coach, coming to a bit of an explosion and plummeting in the standings. Dorion decided to hit the reset button when he realized that the current core would not get to the next step.
Dorion decided to sell at the perfect time. That started with trading away Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Mark Stone for pretty decent returns. next, it was trading away Erik Karlsson that proved to be a challenge. The goal was to essentially blow everything up and start from zero. Dorion traded those four players for picks, prospects, and players to help develop young prospects like Anthony Duclair, Chris Tierney, and Dylan DeMelo. It can actually be argued that Duclair was an upgrade on Dzingel, but that’s a topic for another day.
Building the foundation via the draft and growing prospects
All good rebuilds are centered around the draft, as you hope to select players that will be your core for decades, thus calling it the foundation. In the draft, the Senators were able to select Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Jake Sanderson, Shane Pinto, Ridly Greig, Mads Sogaard, Leevi Merilainen, and others. Those seven names are the youngest players in the organization but also hold the most value in terms of drafted players. There you have your elite first-line left winger, your superstar number-one center, your future number-one defenseman, a great third-line center (who could be a legit second liner elsewhere), a great third-line forward (who could also be a great second liner elsewhere), and your future goalies. Added to that is Josh Norris, who is one of the best second-line centers in the entire NHL in my opinion, who’s great at both ends of the ice and would certainly be the first-line center on many teams, Erik Brannstrom who was acquired in the Mark Stone trade, and Tyler Kleven who was drafted in 2020.
Tkachuk – Stutzle – X
X – Norris – Batherson
Grieg – Pinto – X
X – X – X
Chabot – X
Sanderson – X
Tyler Kleven – Erik Brannstrom
Acquiring the rest.
The pieces acquired earlier are great members of the core, but you’re missing a top 6 winger or two. That’s when Pierre Dorion decided to make a push to acquire Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux, and Jake Chychrun. In DeBrincat you get a young elite goalscorer who is capable of scoring 40+ goals in the NHL, in Chychrun you get an elite top 4 defenseman and Claude Giroux is the quality veteran presence that helps mentor the young guns. In a lucky waiver wire acquisition, Dorion was also able to acquire a stopgap starting netminder in Anton Forsberg to not rush Sogaard to a starter’s role. Mark Kastelic is also developing as a legit fourth-line center. In a bit of a gamble, the Senators were able to acquire a top 4 defenseman through free agency in Artem Zub and he has literally made everyone he’s played with better.
DeBrincat – Stutzle – Giroux
Tkachuk – Norris – Batherson
Grieg – Pinto – X
X – Kastelic – X
Chabot – Chychrun
Sanderson – Zub
Kleven – Brannstrom
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Finishing it off
What’s left now are a few assets that still need to be identified, but that’s okay. Rebuilds take a long time and it’s important to be patient instead of rushing things (A la Filip Gustavsson for Cam Talbot) and rather let it marinade. A slow-cooked meal is amazing because it’s cooked at a lower temperature but over a longer period of time, and it’s almost always amazing. The Sens are just a few pieces away from legit contention, and that is simply assembling a good enough bottom 6, and waiting for Sogaard to establish himself as the goalie of the now instead of the goalie of the future, which will take time, but that’s okay. The last piece to assess is coaching. Is DJ Smith the right guy for the job? I’m not sure, but that HAS to be established sooner rather than later as the Sens are at the midway point of their climb to the top and have to make that next step soon for it to be worth it.
I get it. Rebuilds suck. The Ottawa Senators went from one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, to missing the playoffs for 5 years in a row. It sucks. But I promise you that in time, the Ottawa Senators will be contending for the playoffs. This current core will be debated as one of, if not the greatest cores in Senators’ history.