Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Senators Core Group Starting To Fade
Note: It's been quiet this week on Black Aces but I'll be posting regularly again very soon. First Christmas with a baby has been much more chaotic than even I could have imagined. For now, here's an article I wrote just before the Senators rang off a couple of wins. The pessimistic tone may seem a little out of place at the moment, but a couple of wins doesn't really change the overall outlook here.
Happy Holidays to all my readers and I'll be back soon with regular columns.
Sometimes it takes a while for it to really sink in, but soon enough, the signs are there for all to see.
When it’s over, it’s really over.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s what a core group of these Ottawa Senators who have grown up together in better times are starting to think right now. If they aren’t, then at least a lot of others are as they watch the 2010-2011 season slowly slip away for the Senators.
And that’s how it usually happens – slowly. Almost imperceptibly, a gradual weakening of the identity and team spirit through attrition and by letting important personalities leave, and soon enough three and a half seasons have gone by and the good times seem like ancient history for the Senators.
Yet it wasn’t always this way for a key group of Ottawa players who were once the darlings of this city.
For a full ten seasons, from 1997 to 2007, the Ottawa Senators were always on their way up, building towards a Stanley Cup that Daniel Alfredsson once famously said was not a matter of if, but when.
Starting from that foundation year in 1997, the Senators quickly turned into a powerhouse club, winning at first with defensive determination and character under Jacques Martin, and later, as a team that could score at will. It was a fine stretch of hockey, albeit with a few major playoff disappointments to the Toronto Maple Leafs .
Ten years of winning, exciting hockey. Not many teams outside of Detroit, New Jersey and Colorado could boast of similar consistency during most of that era.
And a lot of that consistency came from a small group of players the Senators drafted who became their heart and soul over the years, a tight-knit group of friends who were close on and off the ice. It maybe wasn’t the “Boys On The Bus” mystique of the 80’s Oilers, but there was a while there when Ottawa’s young and talented core was the envy of the league. They were the guys that were going to put it all together and win the Stanley Cup.
Daniel Alfredsson, Alexei Yashin, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Zdeno Chara, Ray Emery, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.
They came and went, most notably the swapping of Heatley with Hossa, and that trade nearly put the Senators over the top with Heatley and Spezza starting the second wave of youngsters to compliment the established guys like Alfredsson and Redden.
But of that core group, only Marian Hossa has a Stanley Cup ring and three finals appearances to his name. And of course, he did it in another uniform, four teams removed from his Ottawa days.
And if the remaining group of Senators from that era want that same ring, and you know they desperately do, they might also have to leave the only organization they’ve ever known to do it.
For many, the time may be near.
Alfredsson, whose presence on the team naturally coincided with the rise of the organization, looks like a player who has run out of miracles. During the previous decade, he was sometimes able to will his team to wins when they didn’t have any gas left in the tank. He could drive to the net and protect the puck with those tree-trunk legs whenever he felt like it. He was the real captain, the “people’s choice”, even when Alexei Yashin wore the “C” on his sagging chest.
Now Alfredsson, while still a great player, doesn’t seem to be able to do it all on his own anymore. And no one is begrudging him that. On a team headed nowhere fast, he remains its best player. But will the constant losing make him rethink playing out the last years of his contract? Or even, dare we say it, accept a move to a contending team, something he has never completely ruled out when asked in the past?
As the season starts to tick away to oblivion, you can bet he is going to be asked those questions. And we may be surprised by the answer we eventually hear.
Then you have Chris Phillips, battling through a tough year, playing big minutes with different partners and doing it all without a contract for the next season. You can bet uncertain thoughts are running through his mind right now. For a player who has given everything to his team and to his community, he unfairly dangles in the wind most likely because General Manager Bryan Murray doesn’t even know if he’ll be back to manage the team next season. Like Phillips, Murray is waiting on a contract as well, one that might never materialize, depending on Eugene Melnyk’s frame of mind when the smoke has cleared after this season.
Phillips has already seen his best defensive partner of the past decade, Anton Volchenkov, leave town during free-agency and walk right into the disaster that is the New Jersey Devils, a team that is going through much of the same problems as the Senators after a fall from grace. Phillips may be looking at that situation and thinking the grass isn’t greener, but he may not even be offered a contract when it’s all said and done.
Mike Fisher has been in Ottawa almost as long as the others but he continues to struggle with injuries and inconsistent play. With a lot of good years still left in him, it would be inconceivable that he would be moved but if a shakeup of the core was deemed necessary, he’s the obvious candidate to offer up to the rest of the league once his full no movement clause expires after this season.
Jason Spezza is the tweener, just starting to round out his game as the franchise begins to decline. He’s too young and talented to consider moving but too old to be the basis for a complete rebuild. Spezza is also a player who needs a sniper on his wing to utilize his full talents but the Senators are incapable of providing that for him right now, and likely won’t be able to until they draft one. Don’t hold your breath.
For the most part, the remaining core players on this team have played well, even through the last three mediocre seasons, but they are also getting less and less support as the losses pile up. Moves made by Bryan Murray to bring in Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar have the feel of desperation about them, as if he is running out of fingers to plug holes in the dam that has started to leak like a sieve. Kovalev and Gonchar were important, key players on the teams they were plucked from, but the transplant didn’t take and the Senators are left with a bunch of spare parts that no longer seem to work together.
These moves, especially the Kovalev signing, don’t look good in hindsight, but it should also be remembered that Murray took over a team that already had its best years and he was presented with a host of problems that cropped up after losing the Stanley Cup final in 2007, this current team’s last gasp at greatness.
He inherited a lot of expiring contracts and a few swelled heads who quickly got bent out of shape when their roles were reduced by various coaches Murray brought in.
Murray will ultimately wear the failure of this team, but you could say they were headed this way anyways because of the difficulty of keeping teams intact during the salary cap era. Murray has, at least, shored up the farm club and because of him, there are a slew of good prospects in the pipeline and one or two skating with team right now.
And none more so than Erik Karlsson, the player who truly represents the future of this franchise.
Murray will likely be long gone by the time Karlsson realizes his full potential, but as the familiar names of Alfredsson, Phillips, Fisher and Spezza start to fade or are sent away, there is at least one player who carries that same sort of promise with him, in the way he skates, in the way he can change the pace of the game, in the way he competes when it means the most.
That promise of good times ahead may be carried by a skinny 20 year old, but at least someone is carrying the torch, as dark as the present may be.