Since Wednesday’s horrific Achilles tendon injury to Erik Karlsson, Senators fans have been working through their stages of grief.
Initially, there was denial and anger. How could this happen to Ottawa’s best player? The fact that serial offender Matt Cooke wore the skate blade that did the deed — even if Cooke was ruled blameless by the NHL — only fuelled fan fires.
The next stage in the process was self-pity. Woe is Ottawa. What else can go wrong? And how did things turn so quickly? As of Friday, it had been just 33 days since the club held a post-lockout media conference, off the charts bullish about the pending season. Team owner Eugene Melnyk beamed as he spoke about the Senators hitting the ground running — with 17 of 23 roster players having played during the lockout.
One of those players, centre Jason Spezza, who spent 28 games with Raperswil-Jona in the Swiss League, was booked for back surgery five games into the NHL season. By then, cornerstone defenceman Jared Cowen had already had his hip surgery and was ruled gone for this season.
A string of other minor, short term injuries hit several others in the organization before Karlsson went down so horribly.
And yet, even as the injuries mount, and as Karlsson begins the long road to recovery and rehabilitation for next season, there are several reasons why this injury, at this time, is not the end of the world some would have you believe.
THEY WILL RETURN
After being disgustingly healthy in 2011-12, the Senators were due to run into injury issues. Maybe that means next year they’re relatively healthy again. Most importantly, the prognosis for Spezza, Karlsson and Cowen is excellent. Barring setbacks, they should all be at 100 per cent next fall when the club can finally assemble the roster the organization imagined coming out of the quarter-final playoff series against the New York Rangers.
THIS WASN’T THE YEAR
The moment Cowen was pronounced gone for the season, there was a growing sense in Ottawa that the lockout wasn’t such a bad thing after all, from a local point of view. And if the NHL did return to action in the New Year, most Senators fans understood this wasn’t likely to be THE year to contend. Not with Cowen out. Not with the team trying to break in an array of rookies: at forward — Jakob Silfverberg for sure, and possibly Mika Zibanejad or Mark Stone as well. And on defence — Patrick Wiercioch and Andre Benoit or Mark Borowiecki. As it turned out, with added injuries up front and on the blueline, the march of rookies out of AHL Binghamton to Ottawa became a parade in this year of regrouping.
This one is key. As painful as it was for members of the organization to watch Karlsson hobble off the ice in Pittsburgh on one good leg, general manager Bryan Murray made the salient point at his media briefing on Thursday — Murray has Karlsson, 22, under contract. Not for the short term, but the long haul, for seven years, through to 2019. Considering Karlsson was in the process of raising the bar on his Norris Trophy winning season, his $6.5-million salary cap hit is more than manageable. It’s a bargain. He will return to form. Does anyone even remember Teemu Selanne tearing his Achilles — by 85 per cent, more severe than Karlsson — in his second NHL season? The Finnish Flash went on to score another 566 NHL goals after his surgery and at age 42 is still going strong with the Anaheim Ducks. By the time Karlsson is done playing, this injury will register as a tiny blip on a brilliant career. The best is yet to come.
Fortunately for the Senators, their style of play is not predicated on run and gun, a Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks-style attack. Karlsson was the anomaly. The one player with free reign to wheel. Why not, when he is blessed with unrivalled skating ability and anticipation. Otherwise, the Senators score by committee, and have to work their tails off at that. What endeared the Senators to their fans last season was head coach Paul MacLean’s lunch pail approach. They played hard. Ticket buyers appreciated the effort. That shouldn’t change just because the two most talented offensive players, Karlsson and Spezza are missing. If anything, the blue collar approach is all the more necessary. Ottawa players won’t have trouble buying in — they’ve already seen it work.
The proverbial Bingo bus unloaded a few more players on Friday, prior to the road trip to Toronto and New Jersey. Dave Dziurzynski, Derek Grant and Eric Gryba are just the latest in a string of minor league call-ups since the start of the season. Not that the Senators don’t believe they can take a run at a playoff berth — they do, against all odds. But whether they achieve a top eight position in the Eastern Conference or not, players like Silfverberg, Zibanejad and Wiercioch are going to get more minutes, experience more situations, take on more responsibility than they otherwise would have. That should make them more valuable down the road, when the core group is healthy and the Senators have a chance to be a legitimate contender in the east.
Feel better yet, Senators fan?