Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final goes Thursday night, and there’s no question which team has more to lose. Hint: it’s not the defending Stanley Cup champion, the team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel still in their primes and Matt Murray just starting his.
It’s the Ottawa Senators, of course, the team we at THN picked to miss the playoffs, lose Round 1, lose Round 2 and lose Round 3. They’ve overcome bad regular season possession numbers; personal anguish for goaltender Craig Anderson and his ailing wife; seemingly career-ending concussion problems for Clarke MacArthur; and multiple fractures to superstar D-man Erik Karlsson’s left foot. They appear to be this season’s “magic” team. And with that comes the sense this is the Senators’ shot, that they’re never going to get a better opportunity at a Stanley Cup. After all, they’re facing a Penguins team absolutely decimated by injuries, especially to its defense corps. The Nashville Predators have looked outstanding in these playoffs but are nevertheless the No. 16 seed, with first-line center Ryan Johansen out the rest of the year. There’s no denying how 24-karat golden Ottawa’s opportunity is right now.
The question is whether it’s the last great chance for this group. There’s an argument to be made that it is. For one, poor possession teams often click for one lucky year – see the 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche and 2014-15 Calgary Flames – only to flop the next season, as the bad tendencies catch up to them. Secondly, the Sens do have several core players on the wrong side of 30. Anderson is wrapping up one of his best campaigns but is 36 and has been injury-prone in the past. Backup Mike Condon is set to hit unrestricted free agency, and the Sens don’t have a can’t-miss netminding prospect in their system. Blueliner Dion Phaneuf is 32 and had been declining for several seasons before this spring’s deep run. Marc Methot is 31.
But look at the skaters contributing the most for Ottawa. Karlsson is 26. Not only is he in his prime, but he also seems to be getting better, becoming a more complete player under defense-minded coach Guy Boucher. Karlsson is one of the best three players on Earth right now, bar none, and can singlehandedly dominate games. Merely having him makes Ottawa dangerous next year and beyond. The Sens’ best forwards, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, are early in their NHL careers and, even if they’re done ascending, won’t start declining for many seasons. Top centers Derick Brassard and Kyle Turris are 29 and 27, respectively. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, one of the league’s best shorthanded scoring threats, is just 24. Top-four blueliner Cody Ceci, a 2012 first-round pick, is only 23, which is especially young for his position. He has more room to grow.
And while the Sens don’t have the NHL’s deepest farm crop, they have some real gems at the top. Thomas Chabot, Colin White and Logan Brown finished third, 12th and 14th, respectively, in our scouting panel’s league-wide prospect rankings for THN Future Watch 2017. Chabot had a monster breakout year, becoming the first defenseman to win MVP at the world juniors. He’s an absolute horse with top-pairing ability, a guy who could wind up teamed with Karlsson some day. White is a dynamite college player and world junior standout in his own right. He’s a two-way maven sometimes compared to Patrice Bergeron. Brown is a towering pivot with mammoth offensive upside if he can shake off his health concerns. Chabot and White are ready to challenge for roster spots by next year. White already got a taste of the NHL in Game 6 after spending the playoffs as a black ace, while Chabot’s competing in the Memorial Cup right now with his Saint John Sea Dogs alongside Brown’s Windsor Spitfires. In other words, all three blue-chippers are sponging up valuable big-game experience right now.
So as much as the Sens are a cute, cuddly, underdog story, we may not look back on 2016-17 as their one shot. It’ll be an amazing opportunity lost if the Sens fall in Game 7 to Pittsburgh, but it might not be the end of anything. Most of Ottawa’s best players are young, and its top prospects are on the way. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning look like the early frontrunners to win the Atlantic Division next year at the moment, but can we confidently rank Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, Florida or Detroit above Ottawa for 2017-18 right now? Hardly.
So maybe we shouldn’t treat the Sens’ remarkable playoff run as a one-and-done.
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