Why was Ottawa so terrible for so long?

A newer hockey fan may flip through an old record book, see the astonishingly bad record of the early Ottawa Senators upon their (re-)admission to the NHL in 1992, and simply figure that they must have been trying to be that bad.

Ottawa’s first four seasons saw them put up records of 10-70-4 (24 points, a .143 point percentage), 14-61-9 (37 points, .220), 9-34-5 (23 points, .240), and 18-59-5 (41 points, .250).  If you’re keeping track at home, that’s 51-224-23, good for a .2097 point percentage.  In an 82-game schedule, that comes out to an average of 34 points, which would be (roughly) a 15-63-4 record.

Yes, Ottawa was terrible.  Yes, their best season had a .250 point percentage while their expansion brothers in Tampa Bay were making the playoffs for the first time.  Yes, Tampa Bay’s 249 points in those four years were one point less than double what Ottawa had.  All of this is widely known and doesn’t need reiterated just for the sake of doing it.  On this site, I analyze.  And so the question must be asked of who is to blame, and to what extent.

Let’s consider the reality of Ottawa in 1992.  They’ve gone through (read: bumbled) their way through the expansion draft, and turned up a lot of nothing.  I can and will assail the way that this draft was conducted and structured by throwing barbs at several different parties, but that will wait for another write-up.

Their team coming out of the expansion draft is really a lot of cast-offs who are either past their prime or never had a prime.  Several were serviceable players, several weren’t NHL-caliber at all.  The entry draft might turn up a handful of players, but might not and certainly not immediate help.  So in order to bolster the roster and the farm system, they hit free agency and get active.  Of course, free agency at this point is nearly non-existent, and they’re able to only scrape together a handful of players who are barely better than the expansion draft pickups.  Not to worry, the waiver draft is on the horizon, and that will provide one final chance to add someone’s 13th forward or 7th defenseman to your roster and probably go right onto the first line or first pairing.

The regular season begins, and the fact that you have a bad roster is evident.  You have a good defensive center who could be used to shut down the other team’s top line, but he plays on your first line because he’s also the best offensive threat on your team even though he’s never been more than a fourth-liner elsewhere.  Players who are third- and fourth-liners even on middling teams are drawing 15-18 minutes a night, and the actual third and fourth lines are barely AHL or IHL caliber.  Your team is getting swamped, you’re embarrassed, and obviously you need to do something to address the simple basic fact that you have a shortage of talent.

Any other team can get a short-term boost by calling up a player from the minors.  But your guys down there aren’t much better; they can’t crack this roster in the first place.  You crawl through possible free agents, but no one is willing to sign with a stunningly bad team.  You go digging on the waiver wire, but it’s pretty quiet and the couple of players that might make it on there are either way too high-priced or are even worse than what you have.

Before you know it, you’re neck-deep in quicksand.  It starts off with being in a bad situation, and anything that you can do to try to dig yourself (and your team) out of it is only pulling you in deeper.  And if you do nothing, you’ll simply slowly sink anyway.

There’s one option that’s missing in all of this, and that is the trade market.  It’s mostly non-existent because 3/4 of your roster has no value, and the rest of the remaining roster carries a disproportionately high value to you.  Trade your team’s top-scoring forward for a 4th-rounder?  No thanks.

You have one chip remaining: the future.  Teams give up on players all the time and simply want to move on from them.  But why would an existing team waive them when they know full well that Ottawa could use them right now and be willing to pay for the privilege of taking on someone who’s going nowhere?

The first such trade that Ottawa made was in November 1992, sending a 5th-round pick to the Rangers for Dave Archibald.  In March, a 4th-rounder was sent to Winnipeg for Dmitri Filimonov.  (GM Mel Bridgman was fired shortly after this trade).  An 11th-rounder was sent to the Rangers for Robert Burakovsky.

This is actually remarkable restraint that was shown by Ottawa.  Several of the teams from the first wave of expansion from 1967-74 were more than happy to sacrifice enormous parts of their future for a short-term improvement that couldn’t possibly last.  Montreal was most notorious for raiding the futures of the new teams, banking on the deep Canadiens’ farm system being able to provide marginal players who could boost the expansion teams at a mere cost of future draft picks.  They made a trade in 1968 that netted them California’s 1st-rounders in both 1968 and 1970, and another one at the same time that sent a goalie (Gerry Desjardins) to the Kings for their 1st-rounders in both 1969 and 1972.  California would re-acquire a 1st-rounder in 1970 from Montreal by relinquishing their 1971 1st, which the Canadiens would use to take Guy Lafleur.  This practice of existing teams acquiring the futures of the expansion teams for a pittance lasted for the better part of a decade, and frankly it’s a borderline miracle that any of these expansion teams ever went anywhere positive.

What saved some of them was exactly what would save Ottawa: time, circumstance, and the draft.  Ottawa turned up Alexei Yashin in their first draft; although his name is a dirty word in some areas, Yashin was an exceptional center whose career was undone for reasons unrelated to his play on the ice.  The second draft brought them Alexandre Daigle, who, although he never fulfilled his enormous promise, was a solid player and was traded for an excellent package of picks and players.  The third draft brought them Radek Bonk, Stanislav Neckar, and (above all) Daniel Alfredsson.  1996 brought in Chris Phillips, Andreas Dackell, and Sami Salo.  Being able to find and develop players like these will go a long way toward improving your team.

In addition, time was needed.  The Senators were hastily assembled, and a new offseason and new season could bring the chance for new acquisitions that would reinforce the team.  Maybe one of those afterthoughts could unexpectedly step in, whether a 6th-round pick like Alfredsson or a free agent like Steve Larouche.  (If you’re a Sens fan and you read that last sentence, you may well have just bolted upright in your chair and said, “That’s the guy!  I couldn’t remember his name, but that’s the guy who had a hat trick and another three-point game in that short callup and then was never heard from again!”)

I can look back with some sympathy at Ottawa in their first few years.  They legitimately got screwed by some unfortunate circumstances, a lot of which was beyond their control.  However, this doesn’t excuse some rather baffling actions and inactions that would have gone a long way early on.  Their relative inaction with the 1993 expansion draft is a tough call; they could have acquired a handful of very valuable actual NHL players by giving up an asset to an existing team that was going to lose them for nothing anyway.  Their actions in Phase II of the 1993 expansion draft are, to me, inexcusable.  Maybe there was a plan for everything, maybe not; I just know that the passive nature in which they seemed to do a lot of things, almost like they’d rather have had the issue and the excuse instead of doing something to get better quickly, is infuriating.  (There is another essay upcoming about Phase II)

A lot of things went into why Ottawa was as bad as they were early on.  A significant amount of it is detailed in Roy MacGregor’s book Road Games: A Year In The Life of the NHL.  Its primary focus is the Senators from their rebirth through the end of their first year, and it’s an excellent read that covers many different topics.