|Senators general manager Bryan Murray addresses the media on locker cleanout day for the team's players at Scotiabank Place. The Sens will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96.
It will be their summer of what might have been.
Five long months to reflect on a season that started out with so much promise but ended in the bitter disappointment of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1996. Surely, there was no escaping that reality as the Ottawa Senators cleared out their lockers earlier today at Scotiabank Place and headed home to begin what will be the longest off-season many of them have ever seen.
"It's hard not getting ready (for the playoffs)," said veteran defenceman Chris Phillips
who, until now, had been a part of the chase for Lord Stanley's mug in every season that he's worn a Senators uniform. "It's my first time having to go through that and it's hard."
Added centre Jason Spezza
: "It's a different year for us and we're not used to this. It doesn't feel good packing up your gear early, that's for sure."
Though the Senators ranked among the better teams in the National Hockey League over the past 10 weeks of the season – they went 19-12-4 under head coach Cory Clouston – it was a case of the proverbial too little, too late. Ottawa dug itself a 15-point hole in January and couldn't draw any closer than seven the rest of the way.
The end result? A 36-35-11 record, their lowest point total (83) since 1997-98 and an 11th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The way they finished down the stretch, knocking off some of the National Hockey League's top teams and being competitive with the best of the best ... well, that'll make watching the playoffs that much tougher.
"It's a little bit of a double-edged sword," said Clouston. "The better we played, the more frustrating it was, because we realized we weren't going to be in the playoffs. When we started to beat teams that are in the playoffs ... you'd feel good about a win but then you'd feel almost angry afterward because you realize that we're not in the playoffs, we should be in the playoffs and the way things went in the first part of the season put us behind the eight-ball.
"We just ran out of time."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson
agreed, saying "it's going to be tough watching playoff hockey, no question. I think that's when it really will sink in that we're not there."
Clearly, there will be plenty of time to reflect over the summer months. Judging by what he heard from numerous players during their exit interviews today, Senators general manager Bryan Murray said this is a group that quickly wants to erase what it is feeling right now.
"For (the next) five months, the message is fairly obvious," said Murray. "It may be the greatest opportunity and the greatest lesson learned ever. To a man, they all feel that we're a good hockey team, a contending team that didn't contend. That we had a dreadful first part of the year, that there was a great deal of frustration and disappointment.
"In my point of view, they have to leave here understanding the commitment that we expect of them, that we can't live with what happened here again."
There is a general sense that, under Clouston's direction, a solid foundation has been laid for a return to the playoffs next season. That with a few roster tweaks, this could quickly become a contending team again.
"We're not in a rebuilding mode," said Alfredsson. "I think the whole organization (believes) we're not that far off. That's why it's still so frustrating. We're going to watch the (playoff) games starting Wednesday and we know we can beat a lot of those teams.
"Unfortunately, we didn't have a good enough start to put ourselves in that position. Hopefully, we can do that next year."
""It's a little bit of a double-edged sword. The better we played, the more frustrating it was, because we realized we weren't going to be in the playoffs. When we started to beat teams that are in the playoffs ... you'd feel good about a win but then you'd feel almost angry afterward because you realize that we're not in the playoffs, we should be in the playoffs and the way things went in the first part of the season put us behind the eight-ball. We just ran out of time." - Cory Clouston
Said goaltender Alex Auld
: "The last couple of months, we played at a level that we feel that, if we had played that way all season, we'd probably be one of the top seeds in the East. That's where everybody from ownership and management on down believes this team should be."
The strong finish has provided the right kind of hope for the off-season.
"It definitely helps, the way we played the last little while," said centre Mike Fisher. "Going into the summer, being a lot more confident and knowing we're a good team. Being a little bit frustrated watching other teams play and knowing if we were (in the playoffs), the way we played the last little while, we probably could have done some damage."
Clouston believes any rebound must start with a good start.
"The guys are excited, they're eager to get back here," he said about the positive vibe the team is taking into the off-season. "There are a lot of guys that are bitter and disappointed that they're going to be watching teams play (in the playoffs) that we feel we're as good as. The difference is, they proved it for a full season. We only proved it for maybe 30, 34 games."
Call if a safe bet, too, that nobody in the Senators dressing room is going to take the playoffs as an automatic addition to their schedule.
"You learn how hard it is to win every night and that you can't take anything for granted," Spezza said when asked about the lessons learned by this playoff miss. "You can't take the playoffs for granted. You have to be ready every night."