Eugene Melnyk has an unwavering belief that his team is ready to contend for the Stanley Cup, and the oft-maligned owner of the Ottawa Senators wants everybody to know it.
“I truly believe that we are a Stanley Cup winner within four years,”Eugene Melnyk (from ‘The Master Plan: Biotech player turned Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk faces off against COVID-19’, Financial Post – 14/10/20).
This was not an off-the-cuff comment that was pulled out of context and blown out of proportion. It was a carefully planned, purposeful statement designed to put the organization, the fans and the media on notice– Melnyk expects to win now.
The most common reaction seems to be skepticism, even mockery. After all, the Senators finished with the second-worst record in the NHL last season, ahead of only the historically futile Detroit Red Wings, who struggled through one of the worst campaigns in modern-league history.
But is it so ridiculous to think the Senators could go from (near) worst to first?
Melnyk made another bold proclamation last season, assuring fans that the Senators would spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year in their planned five-year window of contention, starting in 2021. There were plenty of eye-rolls; the Senators are the only team to have one of the five lowest payrolls in each of the last three seasons.
To the surprise of many, Melnyk opened his wallet and threw his support behind general manager Pierre Dorion as he spearheaded an aggressive and productive offseason makeover. In the first half of October, the Senators have added seven new players through trade and free agency at a combined cost of $50.85 million in salary over the next four seasons.
Two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray is a massive upgrade between the pipes. Hometown blueliner Erik Gudbranson and scrappy winger Austin Watson bring size and toughness, and Evgenii Dadonov will inject some sorely-needed scoring into the lineup.
The organization is deeper and more talented than they’ve been in years. A bounty of draft picks (including the third and fifth overall picks in 2020) should replenish the pipeline. Talented prospects Drake Batherson and Joshua Norris seem primed to make an impact at the NHL level after dominating with the Senators’ AHL affiliate.
There are still many concerns. The team did not extend a qualifying offer to Anthony Duclair, last season’s leading goal-scorer. The Senators bought out the remainder of Bobby Ryan’s contract weeks after he was awarded the Masterton Trophy, removing a veteran voice and fan favourite. Only five Senators finished with a positive plus-minus last season (minimum 20 games played); none of them remain on the roster.
Speaking of roster turnover, fans will likely point to the team’s exhilarating playoff run in 2017 that ended in a double-overtime Game 7 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins as the main reason why they don’t trust ownership. Colin White played less than three minutes in a single game that postseason; he’s the only player from that group who’s still on the roster.
Play the Odds
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup and that turned out to be the smart bet.
The Senators (+20000) had the longest odds; even the Red Wings (+10000) were considered twice as likely to take home the title. Bookmakers have shown the Senators a bit more respect this season – they’re still listed with the second-highest odds (+7600), but their improvement is evident.
However, the numbers get a significant boost in Melnyk’s proposed window of contention: the odds that the Senators will win the Stanley Cup in any of the next four seasons is +1000.
If History is Any Indication
The Senators don’t need to look very far to find inspiration.
The St. Louis Blues might be the only team to pull off a miraculous in-season turnaround, but another team recently climbed from the depths of the standings to become champions in short order. In 2007-08, the Los Angeles Kings finished with the second-worst record in the NHL, and that was not the only commonality they shared with the 2019-20 Senators.
|2019-20 Senators||2007-08 Kings|
|Penalty Kill (%)||76.1||78|
|Power Play (%)||14.2||17.4|
The similarities don’t stop there. The Kings played seven different goalies that season and three of them made at least a dozen starts. The Senators rotated through a trio of goaltenders; all of them started at least 19 games. The Kings were a bottom-three team the previous season and the Senators finished last in 2018-19.
At the time, it seemed like the Kings had hit rock bottom. In their 40th season, the franchise was still searching for its first championship. Fourteen seasons earlier, the Kings made their lone appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. Wayne Gretzky led all playoff scorers in goals (15) and points (40). The Kings lost three one-goal games in the Final, and the Montreal Canadiens hoisted the Stanley Cup after a convincing 4-1 win in Game 5.
That same year, the Senators joined the NHL as an expansion team. They made their only Stanley Cup Final appearance in the franchise’s 14th season. Daniel Alfredsson led all playoff scorers in goals (14) and points (22). The Senators lost three one-goal games in the Final, and the Anaheim Ducks hoisted the Stanley Cup after a convincing 6-2 win in Game 5.
The following season, the Senators were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Penguins. After their disastrous 2007-08 campaign, the Kings used their second-overall pick to select Drew Doughty and made a series of trades to improve their depth. Jonathon Quick seized the starting role in net, while Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown blossomed into franchise cornerstones. The Kings made the playoffs each of the next two seasons, losing consecutive first-round series.
Then in 2011-12, four years after they finished second-last in the NHL, the Kings won their first of two Stanley Cups in three seasons.
The blueprint is there, and Melnyk believes he is following it.
The Senators hope Jake Sanderson is the missing piece on their blue line and that Tim Stuetzle can become an impact player. The franchise acquired plenty of depth via free agency and the trade market. Murray was brought in to be a steadying presence in net. Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot have shown flashes of star potential, the type of players you can build a franchise around.
The Stanley Cup is often called the hardest trophy to win in professional sports. Eleven of the NHL’s 31 franchises are still seeking that elusive first championship. Melnyk insists the Senators’ wait is almost over.
*All stats came from Hockey-Reference and NHL.com