Lockouts have a way of ripping scabs off old wounds, of causing players and fans to wonder what might have been.
This reminder hit me as I was scrolling through old Citizen stories from eight years ago: Did the last NHL lockout cost the Ottawa Senators a Stanley Cup?
The Senators’ potential 2004-05 roster wasn’t my focus — I imagined a where-were-they-then story of how players on that year’s team spent the lockout. Of course, you remember that centre Jason Spezza went to Binghamton and won an AHL scoring title, but did you remember that Marian Hossa was still a Senator and split the season between the Slovak and Swedish leagues?
That’s when I wondered again about lost glory, seeing the list of Ottawa players that would have lined up for the 2004-05 NHL season, had there been one.
Spezza and Hossa were just the start. The Senators in 2004 also had a 31-year-old captain named Daniel Alfredsson, in his absolute prime. Need proof? Coming off a career best 80-point NHL season (in 77 games), Alfredsson played in Sweden for part of the lockout, then produced brand new career highs in goals (43), assists (60) and points (103) for the Senators in 2005-06, also in 77 games.
Consider the other forwards on that phantom 2004-2005 team, featuring winger Martin Havlat, just coming into his own with 31 goals the year before.
Centre Mike Fisher, following a serious elbow injury in 2003-04, recuperated in the Swiss League during the lockout and scored a career high 22 goals when the NHL went back to work.
Centre Todd White — a local product never fully appreciated here for his solid two-way game — scored 25 goals in 2002-03, the year the Senators lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in the late minutes.
Centre Antoine Vermette produced his first 20-goal season after the lockout (21 goals in 2005-06) and veteran Bryan Smolinski was slow as molasses in a Kanata winter, but provided important experience to a young group of forwards.
So, to review Ottawa’s (locked out) strength down the middle: Spezza, Fisher, Smolinski, White, Vermette (usually used on the wing). Not bad.
Other forwards included rugged winger Chris Neil, grinding and underestimated Vaclav Varada, and the sometimes effective Peter Schaefer, a 20-goal scorer in ‘05-06.
On defence, the Senators were arguably at their all-time best: Future Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, 26-year-old Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Wade Redden, 27 (before his game went south), Brian Pothier and veteran Greg DeVries.
In goal: Dominik Hasek, signed as a free agent on July 6, 2004, backed up by the promising Ray Emery.
To get a sense of how good Hasek could have been in 2004-05, consider he was just two years removed from a championship season with the Detroit Red Wings when the Dominator posted a 41-15-8 record with a 2.17 goals-against average. In the 2002 playoffs, Hasek was 16-7 with six shutouts and a 1.86 goals-against average.
Timing is everything when it comes to having limited access to a superstar. As any Senators fan will relate, Hasek played brilliantly for Ottawa in the months after the lockout (28-10-4, 2.09 goals-against, .925 save percentage), only to suffer a groin/adductor injury at the Turin Olympics in February of 2006, sidelining him for the rest of the NHL season. That left the rookie Emery to face the Buffalo Sabres in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Emery was OK, but the Senators never recovered from a 7-6 overtime loss in the opener on Ottawa ice.
In losing to Buffalo, while Hasek was practising but not game for a game, there was no appetite to bring the enigmatic goaltender back again. He went on to Detroit and won another Cup, in 2008, in a backup role at age 43. Chara, who didn’t have his best series versus the Sabres, jumped to the Boston Bruins as a free agent while general manager John Muckler re-signed Redden. The rest is local history.
Even though the 2006-07 Senators seized the Eastern Conference playoffs with style and ease, they were overmatched against the Anaheim Ducks, losing the Cup final in five games.
The Senators did not again threaten with that core group, ultimately shifting into a rebuilding program over the past two seasons. Most of Ottawa’s top players from 2004 are gone or past their primes.
Often, fans in Ottawa will cite the potential of that 2003 team, which might have reached the Cup final (against a less imposing Anaheim roster) if only the Senators hadn’t surrendered that late goal by Jeff Friesen.
Less talked about is how Ottawa fans were robbed of a chance to see the Senators at their all-time best in 2004-05. For my money, these were the Peak Senators — led by Alfredsson, still a kid at 31, a team coached by Bryan Murray, backstopped by Hasek, with Big Z on D.
Dany Heatley, acquired in a stunning 2004 summer trade for Hossa, was productive for the Senators, but Hossa was the more complete player.
While Emery played admirably in 2007 and Patrick Lalime was solid in the 2003 playoffs, neither could touch Hasek, a six-time Vezina Trophy winner and two-time Hart Trophy man, still remarkably agile at age 39 in 2004.
Lockouts come at a price. The last NHL lockout cost one team, perhaps the Senators, a Stanley Cup.