Amidst the reflections of Paul MacLean and Bryan Murray on Tuesday, the Ottawa Senators find themselves toeing a very encouraging line. With two consecutive playoff appearances in the bag in a ‘rebuild’ scenario under MacLean, a young team heads forward into the 2013-14 season with two objectives in mind: develop and win.
Surely the yin-yang dynamic of this isn’t lost on anyone who keeps tabs on the NHL.
The challenges of development and ‘winning now’ are perpendicular to one another. To develop youth requires minutes to play them. To win now requires veterans with a skillset and wherewithal that extend beyond the grasp of even the most talented young players. The balance between the two is not easily struck.
Looking at championship teams like the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks underscore that tenuous balance. For every Crosby, Malkin or Letang in 2009 was a Guerin, Fedotenko or Gonchar. Toews, Kane and Keith were stars in 2010 but the presence of Hossa, Madden and Campbell were necessary for their success.
It goes without saying that the above veterans were, or still are, very good NHL hockey players. It is, however, that combination of skill and experience that endears players of that ilk to Stanley Cup success. Every team hits points where they need those who have been there and done that to shed light on how to get a job done.
The Sens will soon enter a time of decisions to be made and that balance will need to be struck. With a big and boisterous crowd of prospects waiting outside the roster, waiting to get in, tangible development within an already young team will be indicative of where there this team travels next. Are they on track to continue their ascent up the Eastern Conference or will they plateau in the middle of the pack?
The good news is tough decisions are a good problem to have. To borrow (yet another) exasperated cliché: the cream will rise to the top. Eventually players who have earned their claim on a deep roster will take hold of their place and those who have fallen out of the queue will have the opportunity to pursue their career elsewhere, bringing assets back to Ottawa in return.
Such is life in the NHL and professional sport at-large. When the process is handled properly, a championship becomes closer and closer.
For proof one needn’t look further than the current edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, two now-heralded members of the 2013 squad after being smaller pieces in 2009, were both acquired via trade when Pittsburgh had a surplus of bodies. Fast forward to today and we see the likes of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen. All keys in the Pens’ round two victory over Ottawa, all battle-tested veterans and, most important to this line of argument, all acquired when that surplus of depth and resources had reached critical mass.
The line of reasoning here has been an argument from the “Contending Teams 101” lesson plan: 1) Draft well. 2) Develop well. 3) Barter surplus. 4) Reap benefits. There is nothing groundbreaking here. Michael Lewis did not write this column.
What this is, however, is the signal the Sens are reaching the end of step two and slowly veering into the realm of step three. Not only has the development process been accelerated by playing the toughest competition available in two playoff appearances, there have been pleasant surprises along the way. Both MacLean and Murray expressed how unexpected the contributions of Eric Gryba and Jean-Gabriel Pageau were to a 2013 NHL playoff roster. Surprises happen and, in a worst-case scenario, can free up additional time for your real home run hitters to round into the form you envisioned on draft day.
For reference, the Sens had three first round picks in 2011 and only Mika Zibanejad has played games at the NHL level. That time to steep and develop for Stefan Noesen and Matt Puempel will pay off down the road as they transform from teenage junior hockey players to pro adults, even though quick turnover time from draft day to debut that has become the NHL’s new norm.
As we approach another draft, the talent pool will get a little bit deeper and the offers from the outside will begin trickling in. With the youth of this team, on the surface, looking poised to take that next step forward and push towards a Conference Finals berth, the potential -- and compulsion -- to go upgrade shopping will grow.
When Murray was asked about potential stars in the system, he offered this response:
“Oh I think there's a whole group of them. I'd be shocked if we don't have eight or nine that play in the NHL. They all won't play for Ottawa but I think there's probably eight or nine guys, and I'm just taking it off the top of my head, that will play in the NHL.”
Eight or nine and the NHL Draft is four weeks away.
If you’re looking for a post-mortem narrative from the 2013 Pesky Sens, it’s that quote above. A seven seed that knocked off the number two Montreal Canadiens in five games before running into a been-there, done-that powerhouse has reinforcements coming. A lot of them.
They may not be in the fold today, they may not even be in the periphery, but they will be on their way soon enough. Until then, it’s simply a matter of letting it grow. You can’t reap what you don’t sow.