Behind the scenes, media that cover the Ottawa Senators are engaged in an ongoing debate.
It has less to do with assessing the team, its management, coach and personnel and is more a reading of the tea leaves regarding Daniel Alfredsson.
Will he or won’t he retire?
That’s right, the same “experts” who guessed wrong about where the Senators would finish this season (most predicted them to be at or near the basement), are now fearlessly back in the forecasting business, seeking signs that might tip us off. And there is very little consensus on the will he/won’t he front.
“He’ll be back,” one will say. “He can still play, he’s oviously having fun and the team is closer to being a legitimate contender than it was a year ago.”
“I don’t know,” another will counter. “I think he’s done. Did you see his children skating with the Senators flags for the Game 6 pre-game? When have the Senators ever done that? It was a farewell gesture.”
The man himself keeps saying he needs to some time to think about it, much as Swedish countryman Nick Lidstrom is taking pause to consider the direction dictated by his body, his mind and the wishes of his family.
Standing in the visitors room at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, wearing a grey suit and calmly discussing everything from Ottawa’s Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers to his first days in the NHL, Alfredsson said he needs to be honest with his personal scrutiny.
“Do I have what it takes to play at a high level in this league?” Alfredsson said he needs to ask himself.
Those who watched No. 11 playing like a man possessed in Ottawa’s 2-1 Game 7 loss would offer a resounding “YES!” to that question. But the future of Daniel Alfredsson doesn’t rest on his ability to fire it up for one big game or playoff series. What he needs to decide – has perhaps already decided – is whether or not he still has the energy to train all summer to prepare for one of the longest grinds in professional sport – an 82- game NHL season (or less, depending on Collective Bargaining Agreement talks).
His performance itself in New York, all-out, all night, on nearly 21 minutes played and six shots on goal (tying Milan Michalek for the highest in the game) offers contradictory hints about this future. On the one side, was that not proof the guy can still play? And that rocket from atop the circle, for Ottawa’s only goal, affirms that his shot is actually better than it was several years ago (further proof that Alfredsson has continually worked on developing his skills).
At the same time, not a bad way to go, a heroic performance in a losing cause – a brilliant flame extinguished, like a post-Olympic torch.
Alfredsson’s post-game address was his second lengthy media event of the day, many of them direct or thinly veiled probes into will he/won’t he territory.
The look-backs on his career, which Alfredsson is happy to oblige, are viewed by some as mini Alfie-goodbye signals. What does a player do at the end of his career but reflect? But they are also in keeping with a season of celebration for Alfredsson, his brilliant comeback from back surgery to the All-Star Game and festival that morphed into an Alfredsson love-in.
To rebound as he did and score 27 goals and 59 points is also double-edged, either inviting “One More Year,” as the burgeoning Alfie Fan Club chants, or becoming the perfect sendoff to a great career.
Another factor to consider: Alfredsson suffered two concussions this season, and this husband and father of four does not take this aspect of his life for granted. He wants to be able to play golf and wrestle with his kids without health issues.
Every pro athlete would like to control his exit strategy. Most don’t get that chance.
In the end, the magic that was 2011-12 will either be the perfect note on which to depart, or just too good to leave for a 39-year-old.
“This year has been unbelievable,” Alfredsson said on Thursday night, referring to a “great group of guys” in the room.
“I’m a grumpy old man at times, and they made this year very enjoyable for me.”
Teams usually convert 3-2 leads in a series, but in the final two games against a first-place team, Ottawa looked very much the rebuilding group we forgot it was. Asked if he thought the Senators were close to re-joining the NHL elite, in other words a team to win a Stanley Cup with before he retires, Alfredsson said: “I don’t know. We’ve taken another few steps.”
And then he named several of the up and coming players on the roster, players who would be better off learning from the master.
But it’s Alfredsson’s call. And he needs his space to make it.
Either way, I predict continued adoration from this town and maybe even a few converts from New York, including those who watched him get off the team bus outside MSG after Game 7, to greet and shake hands with Senators fans who had made the trip.
The legend grows.