• By: Dave Gross

The transition from terrible to contender may be closer than you think

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire believes the Ottawa Senators will be a Stanley Cup contender in the next 2-3 years.

The veteran broadcaster made the comments this past week on Ottawa sports radio.

While ownership and management continue to rub their collective hands in glee and proclaim the Senators will soon be champions during this suddenly quick rebuild, McGuire added this caveat.

"I say contender . . . not necessarily champion."

Regardless of whose side you list towards, fact is, a team that defined 'doormat' the past three seasons is finally tilting in the correct direction.

Failure was an early visitor

Let's revisit.

The plummet to obscurity was quick and merciless for this once highly successful franchise.

Jet back to the 2016-17 season and Ottawa was within a goal of making the Stanley Cup finale and facing the Nashville Predators. A Chris Kunitz double overtime wobbler in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final had other intentions though, and sent the eventual Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins to the dance.

This was supposed to signal good-times-ahead. So very close; can't wait 'till next year!


A melee of mayhem and mismanagement.

After racking up a lusty 98 points in that oh-so-close season, Ottawa dropped to 67 in 2017-18 (2nd to last in the league), then 64 the next season (dead last) and putting the cherry on the cake with 62 in this past – albeit – shortened season (2nd to last).

So what happened?

Off-ice mess-ups were frequent

Off the ice it was a 'show' that starts with a word rhyming with mitt.

Incoming team president Tom Anselmi, who ended up resigning without explanation in February of 2018, thought it'd be great to tarp the upper-bowl seats (since no one was buying them anyway?).

Then an agreement – that appeared to hold promise – with a local government agency to redevelop property and build a shiny new rink downtown, eventually would fall flat (it's a long story folks, and still has legs).

Owner Eugene Melnyk then made some rather careless comments regarding his flagging fan base at the team's Outdoor Classic. The result was that very fan base initiated a billboard and social media campaign called #MelnykOut. Even the city's mayor hopped on board and was quoted, "it was time for a new owner."

Agreeing with his-honor was former team captain and Senators icon Daniel Alfredsson who, like Anselmi, suddenly bolted from his post as senior advisor of hockey operations. The explanation for the summertime move was that Alfredsson wanted to spend more time with his family.


Injuries and locker room descent lead to stumble

On the ice in 2017-18 the team had lost its moxie.

All-world defenseman Erik Karlsson suffered through an injury-riddle season. Ditto for star forward Mark Stone.

Defensively the club was a mess. Generally steady goalie Craig Anderson was anything but, posting a 3.32 goals-against average and a regrettable .898 save percentage.

There were rumblings of discontent in the dressing room as well. That would come to a head shortly thereafter when Karlsson and teammate Mike Hoffman slugged it out in an ugly court battle involving their significant others.

Did things shift the next two seasons?

Obviously not.

But along the way, general manager Pierre Dorion – he of the many slings and arrows from a sagging, angry and slipping away legion of followers – crafted a plan: gut the team and rebuild.

And I mean really, really rebuild.

Mass exodus

Dorion traded away Stone, Karlsson, Hoffman, Matt Duchene, Derick Brassard, Ryan Dzingel, Zack Smith, Dion Phaneuf, Cody Ceci, Kyle Turris, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Dylan DeMelo (originally acquired in the Karlsson-to-San Jose swap).

Not all the moves produced gold in return, but the majority turned out quite well and look to be solid building blocks for the future. From draft picks to prospects, Dorion stocked his hockey bag with hope.

This coming season, whenever that might don our doorstep, was supposed to be yet another in the long process of fixing a leaky boat.

Patience, patience and a touch more patience was the sermon.

Things have changed though in the past year, and even more so in the past few weeks, prompting the Pierre McGuire prediction. The transition from terrible to contender seems awfully close.

AHL, draft bolsters Senator lineup

First up, development.

The boys on the farm have grown in swift fashion.

The American Hockey League's Belleville Senators finished tied for second in their conference and did so with youth. Josh Norris, 21, Drake Batherson, 22, and Alex Formenton, 21, finished 1-2-3 in team scoring. Norris was tied for third in league scoring; Batherson sixth; Formenton seventh. All were all-star selections.

Add in 22-year-old giant centre Logan Brown (6-foot-6) who averaged better than a point-per-game and speedy blueliner Erik Brannstrom's near point-per-game production and there's a lot to spotlight.

At the recent NHL draft, Ottawa landed forward Tim Stutzle from Germany with the No. 3 pick. Two picks later, the Senators nabbed mobile defenseman Jake Sanderson.

Pundits hailed the draft as the league's deepest and best since 2003.

Stutzle, who draws comparisons to Chicago's Patrick Kane, will play with Ottawa this season while Sanderson joins other top Senator prospects Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker at the University of North Dakota this season (if there is a season).

That's a hefty farm system.

Already at the NHL level, and making significant noise league-wide, are nasty, talented forward Brady Tkachuk and all-star defenseman Thomas Chabot.

While Dorion's best work would appear to be at the draft table, an argument could be made for what he accomplished through trade and free agency the past week-and-change.

Murray solidifies netminding

First up, Dorion addressed goaltending which was a big hole as the team chose not to re-sign Anderson.

The GM sent a second-round selection to Pittsburgh for 26-year-old Matt Murray. The two-time Stanley Cup winner was then signed to a four-year, $25 million US contract.

The expectation in Canada's capital is that Murray steals a few for the points-starved Senators.

He'll need to bail out a spotty blueline though. It's circled as a weak spot.

Dorion did however go to work on adding muscle on the back end by picking up Ottawa native Erik Gudbranson and Josh Brown in trades.

Up front, rugged Austin Watson joins the team in a deal with the Predators.

Capping off Dorion's work was the signing of free agent forward Evgenii Dadonov. A bit of a shock. The 31-year-old was never connected with Ottawa as free agency swung open.

Dadonov adds scoring (although keep in mind he skated alongside star Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida the past few seasons), collecting 28, 25 and 25 goals the last three campaigns.

Ottawa is suddenly not just coming, but might have arrived.

This is all speculative of course, but if the kids with all their promise showcase even more progress and Murray steals a few games, the likelihood of a forgotten season seems to be no likelihood at all.