As Erik Karlsson fell to the ice in agony Wednesday night, you could almost hear millions of Senators fan voices crying out in terror before being suddenly silenced. Combined with Ottawa’s other catastrophic injuries – including Jason Spezza (back) and Jared Cowen (hip) – Karlsson’s lacerated Achilles tendon has put the Sens behind a massive eight-ball in terms of making the playoffs.
But Ottawa fans shouldn’t ball up into the fetal position and/or attempt to sue Matt Cooke (who injured Karlsson on a reckless play) for emotional duress just yet. Many people rightfully are expecting the Sens’ season to quickly be accompanied by a flushing sound effect, but you need only look at other teams, or the Senators’ recent history, to see one disastrous year doesn’t necessarily condemn an NHL team to extended suffering.
By this time next season, Ottawa easily could be right back in the post-season mix.
To not believe this is possible is to ignore what happened to the Senators just two years ago, when Ottawa finished in fifth in the Northeast and 13th in the Eastern Conference. That same season, the New Jersey Devils finished 11th overall and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996. But last year, the Sens were right back in the post-season and the Devils finished the year as Eastern Conference champions.
Those aren’t the only examples of NHL teams that follow up a year gone abysmally wrong with one that inspires great hope for the future. In 2006-07, the Philadelphia Flyers followed up a playoff appearance with a 22-48-12 campaign that put them dead last in the league. But out of that mess came the No. 2 overall draft pick (James van Riemsdyk) and the very next year, Philly made it all the way to the conference final. Similarly, the 2010-11 Devils wound up with the No. 4 overall draft pick and landed promising young blueliner Adam Larsson for their year of misery; and the Senators took Mika Zibanejad with the sixth overall selection that same year.
Both those teams took a short-term shot in the shorts, but both now can benefit for years because of it. That’s exactly what I’m expecting to happen this season in Ottawa, as well as in Philadelphia and Washington. It will be agonizing to be a fan of any one of those franchises for the next couple months. But when the draft rolls around and there’s a distinct possibility Seth Jones will be patrolling the blueline for the Flyers, or that Nathan MacKinnon will be wearing Washington or Ottawa colors in the very near future, I’m extremely confident their fan bases will say this current misery was worth it.
Indeed, if you’re a despondent Sens fan right now, doesn’t the idea of having MacKinnon as a replacement for Daniel Alfredsson when he retires send chills up your spine? If it doesn’t, you need a spine-check.
With the parity in the league today – and especially in this shortened season – the difference between any team’s success and failure is thinner than ever. In many instances, player health can be the single-most important determinant of a franchise’s season. And as we all know, there is no controlling the bumps, bruises and breaks that are accumulated over the course of one game, let alone nearly 50 of them.
The easy thing to do for Senators fans is to wallow in their misery and dream up fan-lit revenge novels on what they’d like to do to Cooke. The smart thing to do is to grit their teeth, muddle their way through the next few months and envision how much better the future could be because of this awful turn of events.
Short-term pain, long-term gain. It’s not the way of the future in the NHL anymore – it’s the way of the present.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.