Success and failure are easily defined in the zero-sum NHL.
Except, franchise success is hardly exclusive to the Stanley Cup champion from season to season. If it were, we would be limited to just four “successes” over the last eight years. Instead, we tend to assign success to teams who make discernible strides, gain invaluable experience, and put up a valiant fight in situations in which they’re overmatched. We’ll even applaud teams who make the decision to start over, knowing that it comes with no promise of prosperity down the road.
Who we don’t normally laud are teams who maintain a minimum standard.
The Ottawa Senators aren’t like most clubs. They are a small-market team existing in the shadow of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens – two division rivals, but, more importantly, national institutions in Canada. It’s a franchise with limited corporate backing, and which relies on a comparably small group of fans to regularly trek to an unfavourable arena location in order to remain viable.
There isn’t an endless stream of income pouring like cement into the foundation of the franchise; sound business practices are required to keep things stable. It really wasn’t so long ago now that they fended off the financial grim reaper.
Hockey operations mirror this small-club mentality. It’s an organization that would much rather take care of its own, and to reward within, than to splurge on assets in the free-agent market. This, too, reveals the franchise’s heightened sense of community and belonging.
While avoiding over-priced assets would certainly be included in the “Best Practices” section in the executive how-to manual, there are pitfalls associated with allowing loyalty to factor into decision-making in a league where mistakes and misevaluations invariably come back to haunt.
But again, they aren’t like most clubs.
The Senators secured an unlikely berth into the Eastern Conference Final with a 4-2 triumph over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night and have since drawn the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 3 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final at stake.
Remarkably, this conference final bid, the Senators’ third in their history, comes in their 16th postseason appearance in 20 seasons. And more remarkable, only the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks have more over the same time period.
There are two clashing viewpoints of this. Either the Senators don’t receive enough credit for the consistent success that the program has achieved, or their single Stanley Cup Final appearance in their previous 15 tournaments reveals an approach that is limited at its core.
But for the Senators specifically, you have to ask yourself: Is there a better alternative to what’s been, at minimum, essential mediocrity?
It’s widely believed the most sound path to a Stanley Cup in the salary cap era is to be awful, perhaps for many seasons, in order to assemble a championship talent pool. The Penguins were, and so too the Chicago Blackhawks, while the Los Angeles Kings sunk to the bottom of the standings to draft Drew Doughty, and together these teams have accounted for seven of the last eight Stanley Cups.
But to wander down this path intentionally, it comes with no promise of similar fruit. In fact, there are as many, if not more, cautionary tales than instances of the ends justifying the means. Too many teams toil in the depths of the league standings due to the fickle and random nature of acquiring game-changing talent.
Still, if not involuntary, it’s really no sweat for teams firmly embedded in the corporate world, while a similar decision could imperil a budget franchise. Not to mention one pursuing public money to build a new area.
So the Senators do things their way. And even if one of the league’s most successful unsuccessful teams is continuing to seek solutions for the general malaise within their fanbase, hockey operations deserves credit for its part.
The Senators have been blasted for giving up future assets for Dion Phaneuf, Derick Brassard, and Alex Burrows, among others, over the last several months. But in sticking with a win-now mindset, they have successfully exploited a window identified in this transitional period in the Atlantic Division. And perhaps more important than the happenings with their rivals, they have targeted the remaining few seasons before Erik Karlsson reaches his maximum earning potential in free agency.
Without question, shortcuts have been taken and mistakes made by current and former regimes, which have toggled through coaches while working to maintain the organization’s need to remain competitive (and satiate the hunger for postseason revenue).
And for a team that has separated themselves by the slimmest of margins all season (they were the only playoff team with a negative goal differential in the regular season and hadn’t won a postseason game by more than one goal before Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s empty netter in Game 6), they might be in for a rude awakening.
The Senators are colossal underdogs against Pittsburgh. But whatever happens next shouldn’t diminish what this group has accomplished over the last month, or the program’s success over the last two decades.