It’s often said you have to wait five years before you can fairly judge an NHL trade, especially when it involves picks and prospects. It was five years ago, on Canada Day, the Ottawa Senators traded captain Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars for Alex Chiasson, Alexander Guptill, Nick Paul and a 2nd round selection in 2015. History will show it was exactly the right time to move Spezza, who had two good seasons in Dallas before he began to fade. But, as recently as two months ago, it still looked like the Stars had stolen Spezza.
Every part of the deal had fizzled out for the Sens and most fans felt like they didn’t need five years to see it. Chiasson was generally ineffective in his two seasons here. Guptill never played. The Sens used the 2nd rounder to select Gabriel Gagne, who’s since been traded for Morgan Klimchuk, a former Calgary Flames’ first-rounder, currently providing organizational depth in Belleville.
Nick Paul also remained from the trade and, as an NHL player, he just didn’t seem to have it. Over 5 years, Paul appeared in a grand total of 56 NHL games and tallied just 8 career points. Observers began to wonder what the Sens were seeing in him. But to their credit, they kept bringing him back. The tools were all there, the potential untapped. Maybe this would be the breakout year, the year he finally gets his act together. He’d just completed a very good AHL season, after all. But in September, he failed to make the team again and was again assigned to AHL Belleville.
One can only imagine what it’s like for Nick Paul to hear the words, “You’re going down to Belleville.” Remarkably, it was the 14th time he’d heard them. 14 times you’re skating with the big club. 14 times you feel the sting of demotion. But he didn’t beat himself up about it. He took a new approach this season.
“My first couple of years, I was really tough on myself,” Paul said in a recent TSN interview. “I was my worst critic. So I started meditating and letting everything go. I had a problem with bundling everything up, keeping the stress on myself, which ended up making me crack. Now, (with meditation), it’s “Okay, I got rid of it. I’m good.’
Paul didn’t have to ward off disappointment for very long. He played just 3 games in the minors (picking up 4 points) before getting the call back to Ottawa on October 14th. Since then, Paul has been a revelation. Something has clicked and it’s hard to properly describe. It’s like he’d been playing all this time with a pebble in his skate and now it’s suddenly been removed. He looks faster, confident, the first guy on the backcheck, difficult to knock off the puck and dangerous on every shift. Sens head coach D.J. Smith even used Paul in the 3 on 3 overtime on November 7th, which would have been unthinkable two months ago. He paid Smith back by helping to set up the winning goal in that overtime game. Afterward, Smith broke the news that Paul could go get a house, a decision they made just 25 days after his recall.
That announcement, in front of cheering teammates, had to be a tremendous life moment for Paul. Finally, the guy who’d been sent to the minors 14 times gets to feel the sense of belonging he’s waited on, dreamed of, for 5 years. It’ll probably be a long time before he’s ever sent down again. If the Senators try, his current play makes it very unlikely he’d ever clear waivers again.
It also re-opens debate on the Jason Spezza trade. Maybe the Sens didn’t lose that deal after all.
By Steve Warne