The Ottawa Senators have had one of the worst years imaginable, going from overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, to a good bet for the bottom of the NHL standings in the upcoming season. During that time they used a big package of future assets to acquire Matt Duchene, had a public locker room problem that forced a clearance sale of Mike Hoffman, dealt with a legal scandal for one of their front office executives and couldn’t even win a draft lottery spot. That’s not even mentioning the potential trade of franchise defenseman and captain Erik Karlsson, which still may occur before the start of the season.
Even though there has been nothing but struggles for the Senators of late, a successful navigation of the next few seasons could set them up for a quick rebuild. The Senators currently only have one player, forward Bobby Ryan, signed for more than three seasons and will see at least eight roster players hit the unrestricted free agent market in 2019. That kind of financial freedom can really help a franchise, even one like Ottawa that doesn’t usually spend up to the salary cap and instead operates on an internal budget.
In a perfect world, the team would be able to re-sign Karlsson, Duchene and Mark Stone to multi-year contracts and supplement them with some young talent to compete right away. But it doesn’t seem like any of those things will be possible for the Senators, which might still leave them with a perfectly acceptable second option. Trading all three could immediately jump the Senators prospect pool to one of the best in the NHL, especially given their recent addition of Brady Tkachuk and Jacob Bernard-Docker. The fact that they don’t own their 2019 first-round pick hurts, but at this point is a sunk cost and has to be worked around.
There are other roster players who could still bring value back in trade, and given that almost all of them will hit UFA status in the next two seasons there may be a firesale coming before long. While that will cause a painful season (or two), there’s no reason to believe that the Senators can’t put it behind them in short order. They have just over $17MM committed to roster players in 2020-21, and a good chunk of that is Ryan who could potentially be strapped to Karlsson on his way out. Even if they’re only hitting the salary cap floor, by that point they’d still need to be adding somewhere around $45MM.
It’s hard to believe that a team experiencing such lows could be close to bouncing back, but we’ve seen it multiple times over the last few seasons. The Toronto Maple Leafs went from dead last to the playoffs in just one season, but it was clearing their future salaries that allowed them to have so much success so quickly. The team traded away hefty contracts like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf for whatever they could get, and built around a young core instead. Auston Matthews was obviously the spark that set the Maple Leafs competitive fire, but they were already headed in the right direction.
The Colorado Avalanche just experienced something similar, ironically moving Duchene to Ottawa in order to give their younger players more opportunity. Colorado jumped from a historically bad 2016-17 back to the playoffs last season, riding a young core of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen all season. Before signing Ian Cole, Philipp Grubauer and Matt Calvert this summer, the Avalanche too had a very bare future salary book. Only MacKinnon, Erik Johnson and Gabriel Landeskog were signed through 2020-21, giving them the flexibility to add when they were ready.
Ottawa already decided not to sign Kyle Turris and Derick Brassard to extensions, instead trading them away during the season. They also dealt Phaneuf’s contract away, though had to take Marian Gaborik back to do it. There’s more work to be done to build up the prospect system to a point where it could really compete in just a few years, but there is definitely potential to do so.