2019-20 Ottawa Senators: What Went Right?

For all of the negativity surrounding the Ottawa Senators’ 2019-20 season, there are certain aspects that point to the franchise turning a corner. A few significant storylines grabbed the attention of those in Ottawa, and there is reason to be excited about the future in Canada’s capital.

The Erik Karlsson Trade

Back in September of 2018, Ottawa officially committed to the rebuild when they traded captain and two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks. At the time, the package received was somewhat underwhelming for who was then one of if not the best offensive defensemen in hockey.

Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks, Oct. 9, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Senators received Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers, a conditional 2020 first-round draft pick, and a conditional 2019 second-round pick. Tierney and DeMelo were roster players on a Sharks team that made the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but were not significant assets. Norris, who was the Sharks’ 17th-overall pick in 2017 had some potential, but was not a top prospect at the time. Balcers was picked in the fifth round in 2015 had a productive 2017 season with the Sharks’ AHL affiliate.

Josh Norris, NHL Draft, San Jose Sharks
Josh Norris had a fantastic NCAA and International career before going pro. (courtesy United States Hockey League)

The real question mark lied in the two draft picks. The first-round selection was based on whether or not the Sharks made the playoffs in the 2018-19 season. If they did not, the pick was to be pushed to 2020, and luckily for the Senators, it was. What was unexpected is how far the Sharks fell in just two seasons. In 2019-20, the Sharks fell to last in the Western Conference, and the pick went to the Sens. Even with the Senators losing the draft lottery, they will be selecting third and fifth in the 2020 Draft, giving the franchise the possibility to select two franchise-altering players.

Related: THW 2020 Mock NHL Draft: We Pick the Top-15

As for the players acquired, DeMelo was shipped out to the Winnipeg Jets after a productive season and a half with Ottawa. Tierney has been a good part of a transitioning team, with 85 points over his 152 games in Ottawa, and still has room to grow. Norris has turned into an intriguing prospect who dominated the AHL in the 2019-20 season, winning the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award for the AHL’s rookie of the year, alongside being named to the AHL first all-star and rookie teams. Balcers has been a great AHL player and has seen some success with Ottawa in limited action.

Rudolfs Balcers Ottawa Senators
Rudolfs Balcers, Ottawa Senators 2019 development camp (Courtesy Ottawa Senators)

For many, the Karlsson trade represented a low point in the most recent Senators’ struggles. While the trade did not happen this season, the assets that were received came into their own. With the fruits of the trade’s labor finally coming to fruition and the Senators coming out as the clear winners, the 2019-20 season can be looked at as a clear win for that reason alone.

Prospects Taking the Next Step

The Senators’ record of 25-34-12 was to be expected for a team that was still in the midst of a complete and total rebuild. When you look beyond the NHL club’s win total and dive deeper into the individual players on the roster, you see that several took massive steps forward, even more so when you include the Bellville Senators. Brady Tkachuk built on his fifth-place finish for the Calder Trophy last season and was very productive. Head coach D.J. Smith learned to trust him, and he saw improvements in nearly all of his statistics, including his possession numbers.

Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Many second-year players go through slumps, but Tkachuk proved he wouldn’t be a one-season wonder, recording his second-straight 20-goal season. He was going to surpass his rookie season goal, assist and point totals if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Bellville, a few Senators’ prospects were incredible all season and were rewarded with, albeit brief, call-ups to the NHL. Three Senators finished in the top-ten in the AHL points race. Norris was fourth in league scoring with 61 points, followed closely by Drake Batherson, who had 54 points in only 44 games. Sitting just one point behind him was Alex Formenton, who was also very impressive. When you include the other fantastic prospects in Bellville like Vitaly Abramov, Logan Brown, Erik Brännström and Balcers, Ottawa has a strong group of prospects that could make the jump to the NHL as early as next year.

Related: Focusing in on the Senators’ Promising Forward Prospects

The whole team in Bellville was turning heads and had the remainder of the season been played out, the Senators were a favorite to win the Calder Cup. When the season was canceled, they were fourth in the AHL, and were primed for a deep run. Running a franchise is more than just the NHL product, and the minor league team passed with flying colours.

Stockpiling Draft Picks

Ottawa made the choice around the trade deadline to ship out expiring assets and stockpile picks for an incredibly deep 2020 draft. It began with Demelo, after he was traded to the Jets for a third-round pick. It was speculated that he could have gotten more, based on the Montreal Canadiens trading Marco Scandella for a second and a conditional fourth on the same day. However, any pick in the top three rounds in a historic draft is valuable.

More importantly than the minor deals the Senators made all season are the first-round picks they own in 2020. When they dealt Jean-Gabriel Pageau on deadline day, they acquired another third-round pick in the first round alone. Adding three players with that talent level alone pushes forward the rebuild even more. The Senators also own four second-round picks in the 2020 draft and three more in 2021. If the Senators choose to trade up in either draft or acquire some more talent, those picks are prime trade bait.

Related: 2020 NHL Draft: Bell’s Top 155 Final Rankings

When you look at teams that had stretches of dominance in the salary cap era like the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins, they all had the 3-5 year windows of adding draft capital. The Penguins and Blackhawks in the early to mid-2000s, and the Kings later in the decade. Their rewards came later with multiple Stanley Cup victories after gaining franchise level talent through the draft. The Senators have been following their lead, and the 2019-20 season was another step in the right direction.

Another Season Of Progress

Overall, the 2019-20 Senators’ season was not perfect, but it was a season that saw success in the most important aspects of the rebuild. It also gave the team hope for the future, and having the confidence and backing of the fan base is vital for the success of a smaller-market team. As the team moves forward, this season will be looked back on as a stepping stone towards the next era of Senators hockey.

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