LOWER EXPECTATIONS

I USED TO BRAG ABOUT HOW SMART AND SUPPORTIVE SENS FANS WERE, BUT FOLLOWING THE JASON SPEZZA TRADE I’VE HAD TO RECONSIDER

     I like the Ottawa Senators. I really do. I never wanted to. When I moved to the nation’s capital my loyalty already belonged to the beleaguered Edmonton Oilers and at that time, the still infant Senators franchise was just about the only one in the NHL the Oilers could look down on (the Oilers were going through their first playoff drought, turns out it was just a warm up for the decade of despair Edmonton is currently mired in). The Sens weren’t just bad during those days; they were historically bad, setting records for sucking. Why would I want to that to myself? But despite my best efforts, the Sens grew on me and looking back, it isn’t unusual given the similarities between the two organizations. Both were small market Canadian teams, short on cash and unable to attract star players they both concentrated their efforts on building with young talent. The Oilers ended their playoff skid the same year the Sens earned their first (modern) playoff berth, both teams flirted with bankruptcy and relocation before the 2004-05 lockout, and Ottawa made it, all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007 after the Oilers fought and clawed their way there in 2006. When the Oilers missed out on the post-season (more often then not, I’m sad to say), I could follow the Sens and I was happy to see Ales Hemsky, who always got a bum wrap in Edmonton, get dealt to the Sens at last season’s trade deadline. I was hoping Ottawa would make a last minute push, grab the final playoff spot in the East and give Hemmer a well deserved taste of the post-season after the Oilers lengthy stay in the NHL’s basement (so much for that).
And I’ve defended Sens fans more times then I can count. I actually give Sens fans a lot of credit. Ottawa never should have been awarded their franchise over Hamilton in 1990. Canada’s steel town had a stronger bid, with a new NHL ready building in Copps Coliseum, a tonne of cash and was a hockey starved city that sat right in the middle of the most underserviced hockey market on the planet. Now I’m not a big conspiracy guy (even the grandest theory falls apart after the first brush with anything resembling logic) but outside of Hamilton’s bid being sabotaged by Toronto and Buffalo, I’ve often thought in the years since that awarding the Sens to Ottawa was the NHL’s attempts to pacify Canadian fans while putting a franchise in a market destined to fail and eventually relocate to an American one (and that was before Gary’s time, Bettman haters). Ottawa didn’t even have a building, and the Senators would share the Civic Centre (capacity 10,500) with the OHL Ottawa 67’s from 1992 until the then Palladium opened in the winter of 1996, there were legitimate questions surrounding Ottawa’s ownership group (Rod Bryden came on as an additional owner in the first year) as well as concern’s about the team’s financing (the original ownership group had to leverage real estate because they couldn’t afford the entrance fee). And the Senators were already behind the marketing eight ball since every hockey fan in the area was already loyal to either the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens (and the team’s epic badness made promoting them even more of a Herculean labour). Toss in multiple fiascos with Alexei Yashin and the bust that was Alexandre Daigle and it’s no small wonder that the Senators survived those dark years. In short Sens fans, in a market renown for being fickle with it’s sporting dollars, you came through. Big.
So that’s why I’ve been more then a little disappointed by some of what I’ve been reading and hearing following the Jason Spezza trade on Canada Day. Because while I’ve found plenty of it downright funny, the truth is history has taught to expect better from the Sens Army, and all chuckles aside, you’ve been disappointing me.
I used to think Sens fans were a little less delusional then the average hockey fan (many of my fellow Oilers fans, for instance), but I must confess that it’s been a treat reading all the claims that the Sens won this trade, or all the “analysts” claiming they’ll win it in the long run, or that the Senators are better off without Spezza. Lean in close Ottawa and listen up, when you traded Spezza and Ludwig Karlsson to Dallas for Alex Chiasson, prospects Alex Guptill and Nicholas Paul and a second round pick in 2015, you got worse. A lot worse. And it was only deepened when Ales Hemsky bolted to Dallas to join Spezza as a free agent. Alex Chiasson is a good player, (he wouldn’t be in the NHL if he wasn’t), but follow the math on this; the 23 year old forward had 13 goals and 35 points in 79 games last season (giving him career totals of 19 goals and 42 points in 86 games) to Spezza’s 23 goals and 66 points in 75 games. Chiasson went through 19 and 12 game scoring droughts and while Spezza was often bashed for his lack of defensive play, Chiasson was a team worst -21 on a playoff bound team that scored more goals than it allowed. And one word pretty much sums up the prospects Ottawa got in the deal: who? The most hardcore hockey pundit had to look them up and even Murray had to consult hand written notes during that day’s press conference because he knew next to nothing about them. That generally isn’t a good sign and there is a very good chance that neither player will ever see significant time in the NHL (and while we’re on the topic, I wouldn’t rush to invest too much in the idea that that Kyle Turris, who enjoyed a career season last campaign with 58 points, steps up and fills Spezza’s skates now that he’ll be facing the opposition’s top defenders-without Spezza, Kyle’s going to be seeing a lot more of Zdeno Chara this season).
The Spezza trade should concern Sens fans for other reasons as well, and now I’m drawing on my painful, tragedy-ridden experience as an Oilers fan here. The Sens traded Spezza’s seven million dollar cap hit (and four million actual salary) in return for Chiasson’s $866,000 annual salary, so this deal reeks as little more then a salary dump. According to CapGeek.com, before the Sens sign RFA goalie Robin Lehtner, Ottawa currently has the fourth lowest payroll in the NHL. Trust me, when a general manager says he’s building a “hard working, competitive team,” that’s code for “cheap,” and cheap teams don’t come within shouting distance of the Stanley Cup. And scoring by committee? That’s also code, for admitting that you don’t have a legit scoring threat on your entire roster.
That leads me to my second point: Sens fans need to toughen up because the next season or two are looking like they’re going be long ones. And right now, I gotta’ admit, I don’t know if you have it in you Sens Army. The last few years Sens fans have earned themselves a reputation for being less supportive then a broken training bra. Whenever the Sens hit hard times, the people whose job it is to sell tickets usually start spending a lot more time at the bar. I have no doubt there’ll probably be plenty of excuses for possibly lower ticket sales this season (poor economy, why would I support a bad team, ect. etc.), but keep in mind that struggling ticket sales isn’t a problem that other, technically smaller Canadian markets like Edmonton, Calgary or Winnipeg have to worry about. And those teams have played a combined 0 playoff games the past three seasons. While I hope I’m wrong, I have to say I just don’t see the same perseverance or intestinal fortitude in the current breed of Sens fan that I saw supporting a horrifically rotten team years ago.
Not all Sens fans are celebrating (about thirty fans held a Rally for Jason in downtown Ottawa in May, trying to convince the Sens to keep Spezza), but the ones celebrating Spezza’s departure and are working under the delusion that the Sens won this trade (seriously, that’s a knee slapper) have the loudest voices and are giving Sens fans at large a bad rep. One question that Sens fans really need to ask themselves is why in the past calendar year, Jason Spezza and longtime face of the franchise Daniel Alfredson, who played their entire careers wearing a Senators jersey, wanted to leave? Are Chris Neil and Chris Phillips, the only two Sens remaining from Ottawa’s 2007 Cup run, thinking twice about their place on the current roster? How does this bode for keeping Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, Marc Methot and Craig Anderson, all potential UFAs next July, in the nation’s capital? I have a feeling that Ottawa fans will have a lot of time on their hands this season to try and find the answers.

Shayne Kempton

P.S. All the very best to Bryan Murray on his fight with cancer. Thoughts and wishes go out to both him and his family.

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