The expected trading of Senators captain Jason Spezza in the coming weeks spells the end of an era in Ottawa. Seven years after the Sens won the Eastern Conference, Spezza and fellow key cornerstone Daniel Alfredsson (who left via free agency last summer) will be gone – and only two players (Chris Phillips and Chris Neil) from that Stanley Cup finalist roster will remain with the franchise.
But that’s about the maximum life cycle of a Cup frontrunner in the modern era. If you’re an NHL GM talented and fortunate to build an elite team, you get seven years – if you’re lucky – to win with a particular group of players before you have to almost completely reboot your system.
Go back 10 years to the then-champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They thought they were set for a long time with two 24-year-olds (Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier), but only four years later, the team’s struggles and cap imbalances forced them to trade Richards to Dallas and the slow dismantling began. Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis lasted longer than most in one market, but they too eventually moved on. It was unthinkable at the time to picture them in other uniforms, but it should've seemed inevitable.
History shows us how fleeting ultimate success in the NHL can be.
The 2006 Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes proved to be one-year wonders and the Edmonton Oilers, their opponents in that Cup series, had their long-term powerhouse hopes derailed when Chris Pronger departed the organization. The 2007 champion Ducks suffered a similar fate when Pronger was dealt to Philadelphia, as Anaheim has never returned to the final since then. And it's no coincidence that, after Pronger helped deliver the Flyers to the 2010 final and was forced into de facto retirement a year later, Philly has never made it back to that level.
Examine the list of Cup-winners in the salary cap era and you'll see it’s clear the best a team can hope for is to win a Cup one year and return to try their luck in the next two or three seasons. Pittsburgh did that, first losing to Detroit in 2008 and then turning the tables on the Wings the following season. The Bruins won it all in 2011, then lost in the 2013 final against Chicago.
And look what has either happened to those teams already, or what is bound to happen to them: The Penguins have already removed Ray Shero, the architect of that Cup-winning squad, and Dan Bylsma, its coach. They’re going to make serious changes to their roster this summer and although they’ll likely never deal Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, virtually no one else is safe. The Red Wings have had no choice but to look Father Time in the eye and acknowledge Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk won’t be around forever, and they’ve been dealing with the retirement of icon defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom for two years now. The Bruins win in no small part due to the contributions of 37-year-old star blueliner Zdeno Chara, who will become less effective sooner than later. If they falter after he retires, it won't be a shock.
This is why drafting and development is so crucial to the ongoing well-being of an NHL team. Unless a GM is committing grand larceny on the trade market multiple times a season, building NHLers from within the organization allows turnover guaranteed by the salary cap, injuries and unforeseen twists of fate to take place without causing catastrophic damage to his team’s ability to compete.
The Senators haven’t been the league’s best team in that regard. But even if they were, this is about the right time for the organization and Spezza to part ways. Seven years is an eternity in NHL circles.
So don’t cherish your current idols too much – by 2021, they’ll likely be playing elsewhere.