Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Five ways the Senators' season could go

So things aren’t going great for the Ottawa Senators these days.

Last week, they re-signed one of their best players, getting Mark Stone under contract prior to arbitration. That might seem like good news, but the deal was only for one year, meaning Stone will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he doesn’t agree to a long-term extension by then, he could walk away for nothing. So could Matt Duchene, another pending UFA with a recent history of bailing on struggling teams; if there’s been any progress on an extension for him, it’s been kept quiet.

And then there’s the ongoing Erik Karlsson saga, which these days has no end in sight. Maybe that’s a good thing — until he’s traded, there’s always a chance he could stay. But that still seems unlikely, and given the poor reviews from the Mike Hoffman deal and the general lack of confidence in the Senators’ front office, you could forgive their fans for expecting the worst.

They might get it. But they might not, because predicting anything in today’s NHL is tricky business. So today, let’s look at five ways the Senators’ season could play out. We’ll rank them from best to worst, although as you’ll see that doesn’t necessarily mean that more wins are better.

Let’s start with the best possible outcome: The one where we’re all worrying over nothing, because the Senators are actually good.

Scenario #1: The feel-good story

What happens: We won’t get crazy and predict a scenario where the Senators roll over the league and win the Stanley Cup. Even as a best case, that seems far-fetched. So instead, let’s imagine a 2018–19 season that looks a lot like 2016–17 did. In other words, the Senators play well enough to make the playoffs with room to spare, and once they get there they’re good enough to at least have a puncher’s chance against any team they run up against.

If you strip away all the off-ice drama, this kind of season doesn’t seem impossible. If they make it to opening night with Karlsson still on the team, the roster would at least bear a passing resemblance to the 2017 squad that came within one goal of the Final. Stone and Duchene will both have plenty to play for in contract years, so if the goaltending turns around, Bobby Ryan rediscovers his game and a few of the key youngsters make big leaps, well, who knows, right?

What doesn’t happen: Like any team, the Sens won’t go anywhere without decent goaltending, which means a big rebound year from Craig Anderson or Mike Condon or maybe someone else — remember, Anderson also reportedly wants out. If they get a full season of sub-.900 goaltending like they did last year, nothing any of the other players do is going to matter.

But beyond that, it feels like any kind of success on the ice would be tied to a lack of drama off of it. That includes any kind of panic moves around Karlsson, Stone or Duchene. It also probably means that Eugene Melnyk is locked in a storage closet somewhere deep in the bowels of the arena and isn’t allowed to talk to the media or anyone else.

Our first sign it might be happening: The schedule-maker didn’t do the Senators any favours, with a tough October that features seven playoff teams, plus teams like Chicago and Dallas that should be better. But if the Senators can come out of the month with something like a 6-3-2 record, November opens with a home-and-home against the Sabres. Win those, and the “Hey, this team might be better than we thought” vibe will flicker to life.

The odds that it happens: 10%. Is this too high? It’s probably too high. By this point, even the most diehard Sens fans seem to have accepted that the coming season will be a disaster, and are just waiting to find out how bad the damage gets. The idea that the year might actually turn out to be a success seems hopelessly optimistic.

But this is the NHL. If an expansion team can shock the world, and another team can go from dead last to the playoffs, and yet another team can go from last in its conference back to the playoffs all in the same year… well, like we said, who knows? We’re living in the NHL’s age of hyper-parity, and anyone who tries to tell you that anything is a sure thing hasn’t been paying attention.

“Who knows?” isn’t exactly an optimistic slogan heading into a season, but these days Ottawa will probably take it.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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