The Rebuild that began when you weren’t looking

I hear some Sens fans lamenting how this team needs to have an extended stay at the bottom of the standings in order to have a true rebuild of the roster that results in them being perennial Cup contenders as opposed to middle of the road fringe playoff squads.  “Look at Pittsburgh, Chicago and Edmonton.  That’s how you do it…”  Of course, it would be blasphemy to these fans to note that Pittsburgh became elite the second their lottery ball was randomly chosen in the Sidney Crosby draft, Chicago was irrelevant and terrible for almost 20 years before suddenly winning a Cup before almost missing the playoffs the following season and losing in the 1st round and Edmonton has a bunch of exciting young forwards skating alongside nondescript defensemen and goaltenders who all like to lose a lot more hockey games than they win.

You could also point to fellow “be awful and then be great” devotees like the Panthers, Blue Jackets and Islanders who seem to have absolutely mastered the “be terrible” part of the equation but not much else.  In fact the Panthers finally scrapped that strategy this year and went out and signed 50 free agents this offseason so that they could be a good team, instead of an awful one that gets to flaunt all of its high draft picks.

This is a roundabout way of saying that there are plenty of ways to build a winner in this league and just because you’re not ringing up Top 5 draft picks every year, does not in any way mean that you’re destined for eternal mediocrity.  I’m fairly certain the Red Wings don’t care a whole lot about drafting anyone in the Top 10 and they have good reason to.  This is because a) they’re too busy winning Cups and b) their scouts and talent developers are awesome.

This is why, as a Sens fan, I’m not worried.  The accepted notion is that finishing in 9th-10th in the Conference is the worst thing in the world.  And while it’s definitely not ideal because you miss out on that sweet playoff goodness as well as the anticipation boner that all shitty teams in Top 5 slots get leading up to the Draft, if you know how to draft, it’s still not a bad position to be in.  The thing about drafting in the Top 5 is that a monkey could do it.  Central Scouting does your job for you and teams just tend to take the consensus ranked player at that point and assume he’s going to be great because that’s what everyone says.  The Sens have been down that road before with pretty good (Phillips, Spezza) and not so amazing results (Daigle, Berard or Bonk would not be considered “home run” Top 3 picks).  But if you can scout, then you can find elite and core players all over the place.  In fact, many of the Sens best draft successes have come from picks in the mid to late 1st round (Hossa, Havlat, Volchenkov and Karlsson for example) which is where you tend to draft if you make the playoffs or just miss out on them.

And after taking stock of what the Sens have done at the draft table since the current administration has been put in place (including Bryan and Tim Murray along with Pierre Dorion), I think it’s safe to say that this team can draft.  And because they were drafting and drafting well in the years immediately after the Cup Final appearance regardless of how the team on the ice was finishing, this rebuild has quietly been underway for some time.

All it takes to see this is the difference between the crap that was the Sens prospect pool in 2007 to what it is now.  Peter Regin, Brian Lee and Nick Foligno (and technically late bloomers Colin Greening and Eric Condra) are all that remain from that underwhelming group but in the last 4 years, the Sens have been able to fill in their defense depth chart (Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen, David Rundblad, Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Borowiecki, Chris Wideman, Bryce Aneloski, Frederik Claesson and Jordan Fransoo) draft a blue chip goalie prospect (Robin Lehner) and more recently address their lack of scoring talent at forward (Mika Zibanejad, Matt Puempel, Mark Stone, Jakob Silfverberg, Shane Prince, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Andre Petersson, Mike Hoffman, Derek Grant, Marcus Sorenson) to go along with more gritty, character forward prospects (Zack Smith, Stefan Noesen, Jeff Costello, Darren Kramer, Corey Cowick).  The Sens have also added to this group in non-traditional free agent signings like Jessie Winchester, Bobby Butler, Stephane Da Costa, Wacey Hamilton and David Dziurzinsky.  They even were able to gamble on bringing in Nikita Filatov to see if he could figure out how to be an NHLer in this organization after falling out of favour in Columbus.  Now obviously, not all of these guys are going to work out but the sheer volume of highly regarded prospects that exist put the odds in the Sens favour that they’ll be able to build much of their core from this group.

This group of players will all be integrated at different times.  Already you’ve got some established NHLer’s (Karlsson, Cowen, Rundblad, Smith, Winchester, Butler etc) as well as guys who are knocking on the door either this season or next (Lehner, Filatov, Borowiecki, Zibanejad, Silfverberg, Da Costa etc).  The rest either fall into more project classifications (Wiercioch, Petersson, Hoffman, Grant, Cowick, Sorenson etc) who could go either way or players who are more in the 2-3 year time frame of really pushing for NHL jobs (Puempel, Prince, Noesen, Stone, Pageau, Kramer, Claesson etc).  The Sens also have a vital component already in place that 2/3rds of the teams in the league are dying for: a 1st line centre.  In any case, if the Sens had even a fraction of this pool of higher end prospects when they were making their Cup run, then the dropoff in on-ice results would not have been nearly as steep.

Many of these players were acquired when the fanbase was focused on the trials and tribulations the Sens were having during their identity crisis on the ice after making the Finals, not realizing that they were on a sharp downward trajectory until it was too late.  But luckily, the future is very bright and Sens fans can take heart in the fact that this rebuild did not just begin with Eugene Melnyk’s pronouncement last January and Mike Fisher’s subsequent trade.  It’s also why I don’t feel bad when I look at the standings and see the Sens hovering around the dreaded “tweener zone” of 8th spot in the Conference.  Keep this playoff push going long enough fellas and I’ll be a contented fan.  And so should you.