At what point does the pleasant surprise morph into the legitimate contender?
This will be the dilemma for the Ottawa Senators heading into the New Year, as they try to sort out whether to supplement or subtract from a group that has had a pretty remarkable run toward the mid-way point of the NHL schedule. After dropping five of six to start the season, the Senators rolled out a 16-9-4 record in their next 29 games.
Picked for last place by the Hockey News and other paid prognosticators, the Sens are sitting in eighth, part of a too-tight-to-call Eastern Conference cluster from sixth through 11th place.
So, where to from here?
The morning announcement that centre Peter Regin could be gone for the season is a reminder just how fragile contention can be. At the moment, the Senators are also missing top goal scorer Milan Michalek, though he is expected back soon from a concussion, and winger Jesse Winchester, also out with a concussion.
Considering the injuries being racked up by some teams, the Senators can count themselves lucky, overall, to have a completely healthy blueline at the moment, plus most of their forward ranks intact for the better part of the first half.
But if they were to suffer further losses to key personnel in January and February? The complexion of their season could change dramatically.
That’s why general manager Bryan Murray is giving his group a “day to day” status as far as contending or pretending, during what was supposed to be a building block year for the future.
“We have to play game by game almost and see where we are,” Murray says. “I watch our team now and I think we can compete with everybody. We haven’t been embarrassed except at the beginning of the year.”
There’s no law that says a team aiming to peak a few years down the road, can’t make the playoffs on the way there. In recent weeks, Murray has had the feeling that if this team could hang in until Christmas, “I thought our team would get better from that point on.”
It’s healthy to be in the thick of things with a young group, growing in confidence as it goes through the grind of a season. The organization is convinced the Calder Trophy run by several of these young players, including Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Zack Smith and Bobby Butler among others, has provided them with a hockey experience that has made them better NHLers.
The trick is to enjoy the ride without taking an eye off the ball – future excellence. It would be ludicrous to give up a good young player for a rental, for example.
“Our plan is to get good long term, but be competitive now,” Murray says. “That was the philosophy, or the approach we had going into the year, we wanted a group of guys that would try every night, be an entertaining group, but also know that we have a chance to grow.
“We know we have some real good young kids coming, and we’re not going to get away from that of course, but every year that goes by you try to be a playoff team if you can.”
The Senators feel they owe that much to grizzled vets like Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, players who have been good soldiers in the rebuild and deserve more playoff appearances.
Ottawa’s pleasant start helped convince Murray to trade defenceman David Rundblad for centre Kyle Turris, a player he has sought for months, and what serendipitous timing on the deal given the news on Regin. The hard luck Dane, on his way to a comeback season until recurring shoulder problems, had been penciled in as the No. 2 centre until Turris arrived this week.
The Senators believe Turris is more ready this season than Rundblad was, and here’s where it gets tricky – because the long term bet on the player is what matters. Murray says he will think about adding a piece in the New Year, if the Senators continue to be in the hunt for a top eight spot.
Phillips, for one, isn’t surprised that the Senators are competitive game after game.
“We’re a group with not a lot of experience, but we’re a group with a lot of ability, determination and a strong work ethic,” Phillips says. “That’s what has carried us through.
“If anything, I’m surprised by our consistency, we’re not riding waves like we were at the beginnng.”
The schedule is not always your friend. Like any player, rookie Senators defenceman Jared Cowen is anxious to get home to see his family for Christmas. With Ottawa playing in Carolina Friday night, likely arriving back in the Nation’s Capital well past midnight – Cowen will take a short nap then jump on a 6 a.m. flight Saturday to Saskatoon. The payoff — he has to be back on Monday for a 3 p.m. practice before the Tuesday game with Montreal. A short break, with no margin for error. “Hopefully the weather is OK for travel,” Cowen says.
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