The 2020-21 season has come to a close, and once again, the Ottawa Senators are outside of the playoff picture and near the bottom of the league. It’s the fourth consecutive playoffs that they’ve missed since their magnificent 2016-17 run to the Conference Final. Since then, the team has undergone a massive rebuild, and only two players remain from that postseason run: Ryan Dzingel scored three points in 15 games, and rookie Colin White made a single appearance against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round.
There’s good reason to believe that their playoff drought will come to an end soon, possibly as soon as next season, but that still leaves Senators’ fans without anything to do now. Some may be feeling bitter that they are once again on the outside looking in and plan to largely ignore the 2021 Playoffs apart from hoping for a Toronto Maple Leafs collapse. That’s totally fair; it definitely feels as though the Senators are cursed at times, which gave rise to the ‘Sens Sicko’ meme, something even D.J. Smith has gotten behind. So why not keep it up, cheering for teams to lose?
And yet…despite how much fun it is to cheer for someone else’s downfall, it’s usually more fun to cheer for someone to win. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon of the year’s best team, however, Senators’ fans should cheer for players who either started in Ottawa or passed through the city. We are an amalgamation of our experiences, which means that if an ex-Senator wins the Cup, it’s like the Senators also won the Cup. Kind of.
So that logic may be flawed, but it’s still nice to see our former stars and fan-favourites succeed, so here are Senators’ fans three best choices to cheer for in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoff.
The Nashville Predators will have one of the toughest matchups in the first round, taking on the red-hot Carolina Hurricanes, but they’re an excellent candidate for a Senators fan due to the sheer number of ex-Senators on their roster. The easiest to cheer for is none other than ‘Boro Cop’ Mark Borowiecki, who signed with the Predators prior to the 2020-21 season. However, it’s only the second team he’s ever played for, having spent the first nine seasons of his career in Ottawa. He became a fan-favourite not only for his grit and leadership but also for his community work, as he was one of the few Ottawa locals on the team. The only issue is he’s been on the injured reserve since April 3.
Ben Harpur was another popular defenseman who started his career with the Senators, having worked his way up through both the ECHL and AHL before earning a permanent roster spot in 2018-19. The 6-foot-6 behemoth has become a reliable depth player and has seven assists this season with the Predators, but he likely won’t be playing much in the playoffs.
One player who will be playing lots is Matt Duchene, who will start on the first line despite yet another regressed point total. It’s something the Senators are all too familiar with; when he was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in 2018-19 for a first-round pick, he was supposed to become the team’s next star. That didn’t happen, of course, and he was sent out of town the very next season for Vitaly Abramov and a first-round pick, which they used to select Lassi Thomson. The package from the Columbus Blue Jackets has since taken some of the sting out of his time in Ottawa, but in true sicko’s fashion, seeing the Predators sign him to a seven-year deal helped even more.
The final ex-Senators and most recent is Erik Gudbranson, who was sent to Nashville at this season’s trade deadline. He also spent the least amount of time in Ottawa of the four, only playing with the team from January to March. He, too, didn’t live up to expectations, but he still was somewhat popular due to being another Ottawa local. That means that if the Predators manage to win it all, both he and Borowiecki will get a chance to bring the Cup back home and celebrate their victory in Ottawa. It’s not as great as if the Senators won it, but it’s a close second place.
Toronto Maple Leafs
It may be blasphemy to suggest that a Senators’ fan cheer for the Maple Leafs, but there is a compelling reason to let bygones be bygones, at least for two months. That reason is Jason Spezza, who ranks among the most deserving Old Guy Without a Cup, or OGWAC. He started his career with the Senators back in 2002-03 and quickly established himself as one of the franchise’s best players, reaching 30+ goals four times and 90+ points twice. Sadly, he left in 2014-15 after several years of disappointment and contract struggles, and although the 37-year-old’s career has been on the decline, he has been revitalized this season with the Leafs, posting his highest total since 2016-17.
Then there’s Nick Foligno, who also started his career in Ottawa back in 2007-08. A promising power forward, he didn’t stick around as long as Spezza, getting traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012-13 for defenseman Marc Methot. There he revealed why he was a first-round pick in 2006, reaching 31 goals and 73 points in 2014-15. The Maple Leafs acquired him at the 2021 Trade Deadline to add some grit and leadership to the young team, and at 33 years old, he likely doesn’t have many opportunities to win a Cup. While it would have been nice to see him succeed with the Senators, at least fans can be comfortable in the fact that Ottawa helped him become the star he is today.
Finally, there’s Scott Sabourin, who was with the Senators for just 35 games last season, scoring two goals and six points before going down with a scary head injury. He was left as a free agent for 2020-21 but earned a one-year deal with Toronto after playing a few games with the Toronto Marlies and has played one NHL game since. He also from the nearby town of Orleans and played his junior hockey in Kanata and Oshawa. While it’s unknown if he’ll appear in a playoff game, he could bring the Cup back to Ottawa if the Leafs go all the way, which is looking like a real possibility for the first time in many years.
Vegas Golden Knights
While the Predators have several former fan favourites and the Maple Leafs have a couple of OGWACs, the Vegas Golden Knights are the best choice for a Senators’ fan to cheer for in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoff. For starters, they have the greatest chance to win the Cup of the three listed here, finishing their regular season with a league-leading 40 wins and tying the first-place Colorado Avalanche with 82 points.
But, most importantly, they have two former Senators who are playing major roles on the team and will be big parts of their success. The first is their current captain, Mark Stone, who leads the team in points with 61 and is a regular Selke Trophy nominee as the league’s best defensive forward. But he has humble origins, starting his career as a 6th-round pick by the Senators in 2010 and spending three seasons in the minors before breaking out in 2014-15 as one of the league’s best rookies, and soon, the Senators’ best forward.
Stone ended up becoming a casualty of the Senators’ rebuild in 2018-19, getting traded to the Golden Knights for Erik Brannstrom and a second-round pick in 2020, which they used to select Egor Sokolov. With both the latter players becoming stars in their own right and Stone becoming one of the top wingers in the NHL, there’s an argument that everyone benefitted from the move, making the Golden Knights an easy team to cheer for.
However, that’s not all they have going for them. Robin Lehner, who just won the Jennings’ Trophy along with Marc-Andre Fleury for allowing the fewest goals of any team, also started in Ottawa. He joined the Senators in 2010-11 and was heralded as the team’s goalie of the future, but was unable to dethrone starter Craig Anderson and was upstaged by the likes of Andrew Hammond and Ben Bishop. So, in 2015-16, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres along with David Legwand for the 21st pick in the 2015 Draft, which they used to select Colin White.
Lehner struggled with the Sabres, however, and he signed a one-year deal with the New York Islanders, where he suddenly became the goalie that everyone thought he’d be back in 2010. It turned out he had been struggling with mental health problems and finally had a breakthrough in that area, helping him rediscover his game. It earned him the Bill Masterton Trophy, as well as a new deal with the Golden Knights, where he teamed up with Fleury to become one of the best tandems in the NHL.
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So, while no player on the Knights hails from Ottawa, the two stars have had a special place in Senators fans’ hearts. Seeing them hoist the Cup after careers filled with ups and downs would be a heart-warming story, not only for the Senators but for every hockey fan.
While these three teams are arguably the most deserving to earn a Senators fan’s support, there are others that could be considered honorable mentions. The Boston Bruins also have a couple of ex-Senators in Mike Reilly and Curtis Lazar, plus Ottawa-native Zach Senyshyn, but then you’d be hoping for the city of Boston to have yet another championship parade, and they’ve probably had enough for the next several decades. The Edmonton Oilers have a trio of former members in Kyle Turris, Tyler Ennis, and Alex Chiasson, but they also beat the Senators nine times this season, and the nerves are still a bit raw. Anderson, another well-deserving OGWAC, is the current backup for the Washington Capitals, but the hockey community at large may not be ready to cheer on Tom Wilson just yet.
In the end, it’s all about having fun. The playoffs are a great time to watch some excellent hockey and follow the stories that come from it. While fans eagerly await for the Senators to return to the grind of the postseason, take some time to enjoy the finale of one of the weirdest seasons the NHL has ever seen and cheer on a team that you believe is the most deserving to win the Cup this year.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.