Photo Credit: Marc Desrosiers/USA TODAY SPORTS
Before we get into this, let’s make something perfectly clear: every fanbase has an awful vocal minority and the definition of what an awful vocal minority is will often change from person to person. Despite the fact that we’re all here for our mutual interest in a fantastic and entertaining sport, the slight differences in how we appreciate the game will always find a way in tearing us apart. Hell, we just watched this fanbase lose its mind about a few people being unfollowed on twitter and the event that kickstarted this rebuild was the blowback from the players not saluting the crowd after a game.
Maybe that’s because certain opinion sets are attached to other life philosophies. Maybe it’s just blind “I’m right, and those who disagree are wrong and are bad” chest thumping. But it happens everywhere, and sometimes, you’ll see it bleed over into arguments about other teams. One of the most obvious ones, at least over the course of these playoffs, has been the rise of the overly excited Ottawa Senators fan.
Drinking game: do a shot every time Mark Stone does something that would result in three days of discussion if Auston Matthews did it.
— Roman (@BadNewsJays) January 18, 2017
Now, as someone who screamed about the Leafs being a playoff team six months early, drinking out of a branded mug in a twitter display photo and rubbing it in whenever something someone told me was blatantly wrong previously came true after all, I can’t talk too much shit here. Certainly, those who don the red, black, and white sweaters in Ottawa and beyond have a lot of reason to be excited about defeating the odds. After all, this team is currently up 2-0 in the second round of the playoffs:
Given what we know about shot metrics, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Ottawa slips just a little more to be out of the playoff picture entirely on most occasions if you run this season a hundred times over with the exact same starting teams. While the gap between a good and a bad possession team is starting to become muddier and muddier as the years have progressed, the Senators sat pretty clearly on the side of bad for much of the year and made it into the playoffs four points clear of the line.
It’s no surprise, with that in mind, that most had them losing to the metric darlings in Boston. That, of course, didn’t happen; Ottawa pushed through in six games and are now mostly in control of a series against a New York Rangers team that fell off a cliff analytically as the season progressed.
— Liam Spicer (@liamspicer14) May 1, 2017
The divide now comes in the lesson learned from that. Now that the team has progressed, the long-term look, which is what these this type of research and evaluation tends to focus most on, seems to be thrown out the window. The Senators have prevailed through eight playoff games, which means that the Senators must be on the right track.
That seems to be a bit of a stretch; the Senators made a few swings to shore up their depth at and weeks prior to the trade deadline this year, and that’s helped, but there are questions as to how many will stay. Can they afford to keep Tommy Wingels (29) and Viktor Stalberg (31) next year? Will Alex Burrows still be able to contribute at a high level in his Age 36 season?
What about the rest of the team? Cody Ceci and Curtis Lazar were the only U23 players to play more than seven games for the team this year; Ceci was lacklustre on the blue line at best and Lazar was moved to Calgary after a putrid season. The entire core of the roster is already at plateau age or entering declining age. Will Craig Anderson put up elite numbers as a 36-year-old starter? Is there one more gear left in Erik Karlsson or is this (which, admittedly, is probably the best right-handed defenceman ever) the most we’ll see? Bobby Ryan, Derrick Brassard, Clarke MacArthur, Zach Smith, Dion Phaneuf, and Mark Methot will all be in the 30+ club by the end of next season.
Colin White, Logan Brown, Thomas Chabot and Filip Chlapik (who has had a breakthrough year) are all talented prospects but it would take a lot of optimism to say with definitive confidence that those four are enough to pull an already well-aged group into the next generation after this window that the team has already barely squeaked through. A look at their AHL affiliate doesn’t exactly get you giddy with excitement either; Nick Paul is the stand-out youngster at half a point per game in his Age 21-22 year, but after that, you’re still largely finding vets mixed with unproductive kids on a Binghamton team that ended up finishing 29th this year.
Even being speaking neutrally, it’s extremely difficult to look at the Senators and say “yes, this is a team I expect to compete for years on end”. It’s hard to feel bright about rest of the week, let alone the rest of the decade.
That does make them all the more endearing in a vacuum though. One of the beautiful things about playoff hockey is that, well, what matters over the course of 82 games gets thrown away at this time of year. Really, nothing matters; all you need is to have one or two more week and a half long hot streaks than your opponent, and then have it happen three more times.
Essentially, it’s a weighted coin toss or dice roll. But that means that any team that has an elite talent could see that player (or players) take over in a way that other teams can’t control. In Ottawa’s case, they’re perfectly situated to strike in a situation like this; their elite players are their goaltender (Anderson), who can help out from opening puck drop to final buzzer, and their top defenceman (Karlsson), who eats a ton of minutes and is their most dominant offensive player as well. As long as those two are rolling, and a few support players can have a breakout night or two, that can take you a long way.
The 2010 Montreal Canadiens can tell you all about that; their vet laden roster rode Jaroslav Halak and Mike Cammalleri to two giant-slayings before being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals. But it ended up being a mirage; the Habs doubled down on their success the next year, failed to pass the first round, and were left with a bit of a mess afterwards.
Staying topical to this website, the Leafs had a season similar to these Sens in 2013. Toronto dressed just two players on entry-level contracts (Nazem Kadri and a 26-year-old Leo Komarov) on a regular basis, made it into the playoffs on the back of a few hot sticks in a shortened season, and nearly pulled off an upset in the first round of the playoffs until it all fell apart in a traumatic ten or so minutes. That’s not to say that Ottawa will suffer a similar “Game 7” fate; but what that season gave the casual fanbase was the necessary smoke-and-mirrors to believe that things were all good in the long run, that Toronto had sufficiently stocked the cupboards at this point and were free to swing for the fences and capture the window now.
We know how that story ended. Granted, that Leafs team was likely worse than this Sens team, but the gist of it rings similar still.
Senators fans obviously don’t want to hear any of this right now, and it’s hard to blame them. I don’t think that a casual fan should sit at his or her chair and say “this is all pointless, we probably won’t be able to do this again next year”.
If anything the allure of the wacky and wild ride makes the Sens that much more fun right now. Despite everything I’ve said above, I want them to beat the Rangers. If the Penguins beat the Capitals, I’d prefer the Sens win that series. Heaven forbid they end up facing Anaheim or St. Louis in the final, I’d be more than happy for the rings to travel the five-ish hours north. After all, I’m a huge Karlsson fan, I love that Clarke MacArthur is healthy again, and even if Mark Stone isn’t actually Auston Matthews, he still kinda rules.
And of course, I get why there are people within the fanbase that are frustrated with the type of attention that their team is getting. People who don’t want to hop on their bandwagon, solely out of spite. People mocking the attendance struggles the team has had in this postseason. People who, despite the success of the team, would rather devote media hours to teams that are already on the golf course (though, you should be happy about this: most teams already have too much B-reel written about them). People who make tweets on team-branded accounts to make your team’s accomplishments all about th-
Reminder: Tongue-in-cheek topical tweets from the TLN account are not personal attacks on you and not damaging to your local sports team pic.twitter.com/3QQSXl0Eog
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 30, 2017
Yeah, okay, that’s another that’s on me. The point is, I get the frustration. The team is winning games, and they’re still being poked at as the next domino to fall, which is a real kick to the gut when the team is already a bit of a whipping child to the league-wide fanbase as it stands.
I’d say this, as someone who is completely an outsider here: You should enjoy every single second of this run. You don’t need the validation of an outside bandwagon for your team to matter to you. The factors that make them the underdog don’t matter in the present don’t outweigh the fun of them exceeding the expectation right now.
At the same time, the hockey reasons that people remain skeptical aren’t unfounded. Give them some consideration in the summer, whether or not the team loses the next four or they win the next ten. Don’t be so quick to assume that your team is the one true outlier, the one that has broken fundamentals hockey forever and has all the tricks necessary up their sleeves; fans of opponents aren’t kidding when they talk about seeing this story unfold before, and how it almost always ends poorly.
Obviously, everybody enjoys hockey differently, and I can’t and shouldn’t force you to perceive it in any specific way, but it seems like so much of the bickering we’ve seen in the past few weeks could be solved by dividing the short and long terms, and understanding that there’s a case to be made for simultaneous optimism and pessimism regarding Ontario’s last remaining playoff hope.