From the 1998-99 to 2006-07 NHL campaigns, the Ottawa Senators dominated the regular season with teams that were some of the best in franchise history. As we know, the Sens failed to capitalize in the postseason but came very close in 2007, making it to the Stanley Cup Final. However, the team that I believe was the best is the 2005-06 Senators. This team was the best chance that Ottawa has ever had for a Stanley Cup.
The Prelude to Dominance
With the Senators dominating in the regular season for nearly a decade with little playoff success, changes had to be made. The 2003-04 rendition of the Senators were once again good in the regular season, and secured a playoff position. They played the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons. When the Senators once again lost to the Leafs in 2004, it was clear something needed to change. The scapegoat for that series? Patrick Lalime, despite playing a decent series against Toronto, he was pulled in the Game 7 loss and sealed the Senators’ fate that season.
When the Senators rebounded from that defeat and were prepared to compete for the Cup again, the 2004-05 NHL lockout cancelled the season. When the dust settled, the Senators were not in such a precarious position as some other teams. While the lockout took its toll on teams that were filled with veterans. These teams, who were built to win now, lost a year of hockey and added on a year of age.
The Senators benefited from being a very good team, while also not being too old. With the exception of Daniel Alfredsson and Brian Smolinski, the Senators core players were young, and/or in their prime. Their players added on experience and muscle, rather than mileage.
The Senators Add Their Pieces
During the offseason of 2004, the Senators began to add their pieces that had been missing for a true run at the Stanley Cup. After his “poor” performance in the playoffs, Lalime was traded to the St. Louis Blues on June 27, 2004. This left the Senators with a large gap in their goaltending tandem — backup goalie Martin Prusek and 22-year-old Ray Emery were the options. The Senators needed to make a big splash, and they had an ace up their sleeve.
During the offseason, it had been reported that Dominik Hasek, one of the best goalies in NHL history, wanted to join a contender in free agency. It emerged that Ottawa was a possible destination for the six-time Vezina Trophy winner. On July 6, 2004, the Senators got their man. Hasek was officially signed. This gave the team a legitimate number one goalie, albeit a 41-year-old one. The lockout did add age to Hasek, but it wouldn’t make a difference. However, the best piece was yet to come.
In the lead up to the 2005-06 season, Dany Heatley requested a trade from the Atlanta Thrashers after he felt that it would be better if he went to a different environment. This came after his car accident that resulted in the death of Dan Snyder. The trade sent Marian Hossa and Greg De Vries to Atlanta on Aug. 23, 2005. While Hossa was and became a star in Atlanta, Heatley became a legend in Ottawa. He became the final big piece in the 2005-06 Senators.
What Did the Team Do Right?
The 2005-06 Senators went into the season as favourites for the Stanley Cup. They had a high-flying offensive that was led by Alfredsson, Heatley, and upcoming 22-year-old centre Jason Spezza. This was also anchored by one of the league’s best defensive cores. Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden were incredible young defensemen, supplemented by Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips. They were also joined by Ottawa’s 2004 first-round pick, Andrej Meszaros. If you add all this together with Hasek in the crease, all the pieces were there to win a Stanley Cup.
Ottawa came storming out of the gate, winning eight of their first 10 games. They were scoring at a break-neck pace. Led by the “Pizza line”, the team ended up leading the NHL in scoring. The defensemen also provided a stable presence both on the blue line and on the scoresheet. The addition of Hasek gave them the elite presence they needed in the net. Going into the Olympic break on Feb. 11, the Senators were comfortably in first place with a 37–14–5 record.
What Did the Team Do Wrong?
The 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, is where it began to unravel for the 2005-06 Senators. NHL players had been heading to the Olympics since the Nagano games in 1998, so the players and fans were well aware of the players going. The Senators were sending quite a few core players to the games that year. Heatley and Redden went for Canada, Volchenkov for Russia, Chara for Slovakia, and Martin Havlat for the Czech Republic. However, most importantly, Hasek was also a member of the Czech team.
Hasek had been to the Olympics three times before 2006. Once as an amateur in 1988, and again as a pro where he won gold in 1998 with Czechoslovakia, and 2002. So, for Hasek, it was nothing new. It appeared to be fine, until destiny interfered. In their first game against Germany, Hasek got hurt making a save. He missed the remainder of the Olympics, and did not return to the Senators for the rest of the year.
With all due respect to Emery, who did a passable job in Hasek’s absence, he was not the elite presence in the net that the Senators needed. The rest of the Senators roster did perform as expected for the rest of the regular season. When the season was over, the Senators had tied a franchise record for points with 113. Heatley scored 50 goals, Alfredsson set a career high in points, and Spezza established himself as a number one centre.
So, what went wrong? The Senators did win their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal match-up against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning but were dismantled by the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. In the playoffs, the depth disappeared. Aside from an excellent performance from Havlat, the only main contributors were the members of the Pizza line and Redden.
Emery was also not the goalie they needed him to be in the playoffs. He allowed more than 2.8 goals per game, alongside a mediocre save percentage of .900. All of the pieces were in place for Ottawa, but it didn’t work out. I strongly believe this is the best team that the Senators have ever had. If Hasek had not been hurt, history may have been different.
The Aftermath of 2005-06
When Ottawa was eliminated from the playoffs in 2006, it started a chain of events that haunted the team for years to come. Why I believe that the Senators could have won that year is because of the two-headed monster in Chara and Redden. When the season ended, both were up for new contracts, and Ottawa had to make a choice. Ultimately, they chose Redden, and obviously they made the wrong choice. (from ‘Redden’s locked up, but Chara set to walk,’ Globe and Mail, 07/01/2016)
Hasek didn’t re-sign and wound up winning a Cup in Detroit a few years later. While the 2006-07 Senators made it to the Stanley Cup Final, they were beaten up by the Anaheim Ducks in just five games. They wouldn’t reach another Eastern Conference Final until the 2016-17 season.
What will be the story of the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators when we look back at hockey history? I believe that this Senators team will go down as team a team that got unlucky. The team that year was surrounded by what ifs? What if Hasek didn’t get hurt? What if the lockout never happened? What if Emery stepped up? What if Ottawa’s depth had been more consistent? If the Senators got some better luck from the hockey gods, they may have been rewarded with immortality.
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