The Ottawa Senators are hoping this is the year they can accurately announce their rebuild is over. They had hoped it was over last September.
“I think we’re at a stage where, for us, I think the rebuild is over,” said GM Pierre Dorion. He made the declaration to the local media, as his club prepared for the new season.
After the Senators finished well out of the playoffs in 2021-22, Dorion then openly discussed how he would like to acquire another top-four defenceman and top-six forward. It’s a sensible desire. But it definitely didn’t sound yet like the grand opening of a fully completed rebuild.
This rebuild started in 2018. The Sens had gone from being 2017 Eastern Conference Finalists to the league’s second worst team, 30th place overall. As if that didn’t sting enough, expansion Vegas finished 5th overall and went to the Cup Final that year – their very first year in the league. That was a slightly different expansion experience than the one Ottawa fans endured in 1992-93. The first year Senators finished 62 points out of a playoff spot that year.
As the Sens got started on their 2018 tear down, the 24th place New York Rangers were over on the other side of the conference, embarking on their own rebuild. In February of 2018, the Rangers sent out a letter to their fans:
We began the process of reshaping our team this past summer, when we traded for assets that we believe will help us in the years to come. As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.
And off the Rangers went, starting their rebuild around the same time as the Senators.
So why are the Rangers (as of this writing) leading the NHL’s 2022 Eastern Conference Final, while the Senators finished this season 27 points out of an Eastern playoff spot?
Oh, there are reasons. Let me count the ways.
For one, New York City is obviously an attractive city – a highly desirable NHL free agent destination. For example, star forward Artemi Panarin wanted the Rangers as badly as they wanted him. Norris trophy winner Adam Fox is a New York kid and forced his way back home out of Carolina. Had the ‘Canes not dealt him to New York (for almost nothing), he would have returned to school for his final season and become an unrestricted free agent. Either way, Fox was going to realize his dream of being a Ranger by next season. Very few NHL stars have ever placed Ottawa at the top of their wish list.
The Rangers also have a bottomless pit of money and more than happy to spend it. While Ottawa’s rebuild was a complete gut job, right down to the studs, the Rangers hung on to a few of theirs. They kept guys like Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider around, and paid them handsomely to help lead the group. The Senators are a budget team and the slower rebuild is partially a case of getting what you paid for.
That includes investment in coaching. Last June, the Rangers picked up the experienced, well-liked Gerard Gallant, a former Jack Adams winner. They gave him a 4-year deal worth $3.5 million per season. Gallant has had a huge hand in the club’s success. Last July, after missing the playoffs two straight years (and a third one since then), Sens head coach D.J. Smith got a two-year extension with a club option for a third year. Smith is now locked up through the 2023-24 season and possibly 2024-25. The jury is still out on Smith, but a rookie coach learning on the job can’t touch what Gallant delivered this year.
Smith’s financial terms were not released but Melnyk was once asked if he would pay big money (the kind of money Gallant received) to a hire a top head coach and replied, “Does he walk on water?”
And finally, luck has also played a hand in the rebuild fortunes of these two teams. No one would ever have expected Chris Kreider to become a 50-goal scorer (his previous high was 28). No one thought goalie Igor Shesterkin would emerge as a Hart Trophy candidate, not even the Rangers. If they had any serious notion he might be their starter someday, they wouldn’t have drafted Sault Ste. Marie goalie Brandon Halverson 59 picks before him. They finally took Shesterkin with their fourth pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
Speaking of drafts, what’s luckier than winning the NHL draft lottery two years in a row? That landed them Kaapo Kakko (2nd overall) in 2019 and Alexis Lafreniere (first overall) in 2020. The Sens have never moved up in any draft lottery, let alone two in a row.
The Sens have had some luck, but all of it was bad. They had far more than their share of key injuries and COVID postponements that would have knocked any team off their stride.
Both clubs have had hits and misses along the way, but the Rangers’ heavy advantages over a team like Ottawa have turned all rebuild comparisons into apples versus oranges. The good news is, both are pretty sweet and Sens fans shouldn’t have to wait much longer for their product to mature and ripen.
By Steve Warne | Sens Nation Hockey