The Hamilton Spectator
Senators suddenly the team to watch
Nothing’s official yet, but there will be at least two Canadian entries in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Maybe three. Four? Keep your fingers crossed.
It has not been a banner year in the Great White North, to be sure. Nothing like the Canadian Division of the NHL’s COVID era in which games between those teams was all we had, and seemed to matter more. Those were the days, my friend.
But that was then, and this year we pretty much know Edmonton and Toronto will be there in the playoffs. Both made significant moves before Friday’s trade deadline to prepare for runs lasting more than one round — they hope.
Montreal and Vancouver, meanwhile, were kicked to the curb a long time ago. Don’t know when we’ll be seeing either the Canucks or Habs in the post-season again. Montreal, at least, seems to have a plan.
That leaves us with Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary still hoping for a playoff berth with a quarter of the season remaining. The bad news for Canadian fans, of course, is that for the Flames to make it the team they may have to beat out is the slumping Jets.
In the nation’s capital, meanwhile, there’s all kinds of intrigue and excitement, and for good reason. The Sens are hot and have a shot at making the playoffs. More important, for the first time since 2017, Ottawa was a big-time player at the deadline and came away with a prize that arguably transformed their short-term possibilities more than any other club.
Teams such as Toronto, Boston and Tampa Bay made moves, but they didn’t appear to shift the power balance. The Rangers added Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, but the Blueshirts appear to have little chance of moving out of third place in the Metropolitan Division and will start the post-season on the road in Raleigh or Newark.
The Senators’ acquisition of defenceman Jakob Chychrun was a little different than moves made by teams higher up in the standings, because it seemed to reposition Ottawa from a playoff long-shot looking more toward next season to a red-hot team with a real shot at post-season play, and a chance to stir up some trouble.
The Leafs wanted to finish second, but they’re thinking more about what happens when the second season begins. The Sens, however, are hoping to vault over a pile of teams and into post-season play. Their season is on the line now.
They are in a battle with the Islanders, Penguins and Sabres for the final two spots in the East. Sure, the Lightning appear to be falling like a stone and lost again on Saturday afternoon, this time 5-3 to Buffalo. But it seems unthinkable that Jon Cooper’s team won’t pull itself together enough to finish third in the Atlantic at the very least.
Pittsburgh, with aging Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, is looking to make one more run, but didn’t improve much before the deadline. The Islanders got Bo Horvat, but haven’t yet soared with the former Canucks captain. The Sabres have shaken off tough times in November and actually added at the deadline.
The 24-year-old Chychrun, meanwhile, is not only a player who may bolster the Sens. His acquisition has substantially changed the conversation about the franchise. There has been, after all, so much negativity about this team for so long, this blast of positive news seemed to feel that much more powerful.
Yes, a young core led by captain Brady Tkachuk has been growing together for some time. But there has also been concern about attendance and the possibility of a new downtown arena. The passing of owner Eugene Melnyk produced both sadness and some controversy about exactly how he ran the team. Shifty forward Josh Norris and goalie Anton Forsberg were lost for the season with injuries. There’s also uncertainty over who will end up owning this team, and what that might mean.
Despite all of this, general manager Pierre Dorion says a hard-fought loss to the first-place Boston Bruins on Feb. 20 convinced him that his team might have something more to give. Sure enough, the Sens got hot. Their 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night was their fifth in a row, and they are 12-3-1 in their last 16 games.
The arrival of Chychrun seemed to be a case of Dorion patiently outmanoeuvring his peers. Trading for a player coveted by so many teams — for the first time since Matt Duchene was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team swap in 2017 — altered the dynamic of what Ottawa had seemed to become in recent seasons. Moreover, while Duchene ended up being part of a rebuild rather than a playoff contender, Chychrun seems a much better fit with the young Senators as they continue to take steps forward.
The price — a 2023 first-round draft pick (top-five protected) and two seconds — was manageable given Ottawa’s prospect cupboard. Chychrun has two years remaining before unrestricted free agency and, like free-agent forward Claude Giroux last summer, Chychrun’s ties to the Ottawa area are genuine and could keep him in a Senators uniform for a long time.
This was a trade that didn’t just improve the team; it improved the atmosphere around them. Ultimately, it may breathe new life into the Battle of Ontario with the Leafs, as well.
“We’d like to win the Stanley Cup eventually,” Dorion said. “Our goal is to try to make a push and play meaningful games, and that’s what we’re doing. The core we have now hasn’t played meaningful games this late into the season.”
So, the Sens are in many ways the team to watch down the stretch. This could end up being like that amazing April in 1997 when a Steve Duchesne goal got the rebooted Senators franchise into the postseason for the first time.
Let everybody else focus on the playoffs. The Sens get to play meaningful hockey right now.