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Atlantic Review: Ottawa’s tank for Alexis Lafrenière is officially on

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s 2019 Atlantic Review in which we take a team-by-team look at the other seven teams in the Atlantic Division. First up, we have our complete screw-up of a younger sibling, the Ottawa Senators. 

It’s easy to forget that just two years ago the Sens were inexplicably one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Since Chris Kunitz fired a puck past Craig Anderson in double-overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, everything has gone wrong for Ottawa. Everything.

They went into 2017-18 with aspirations of contending with mostly the same group as the year before. Pierre Dorion figured that acquiring Matt Duchene would push the team over the hump, so he dealt Kyle Turris and a first-round pick to get him. Things quickly went sideways, Ottawa’s PDO bubble burst, and the Sens ended up finishing 30th in the league.

They opted to keep their 2018 first-round pick and give Colorado the 2019 first-round pick with hopes that they would be better in 2018-19. The Sens dealt captain Erik Karlsson prior to the start of the season for an underwhelming return and hung on to Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel until the trade deadline, hoping to avoid giving the Avs the best odds in the draft lottery.

The Sens predictably ended up finishing dead last in the league, but, thanks to the lottery, Colorado drafted fourth overall with their pick. Now, with virtually all of their veterans from their 2017 run gone, the tank for Alexis Lafrenière begins.

Mar 23, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) shoots the puck against New York Rangers in the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

What did they do this off-season?

Notable additions: Artem Anisimov, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Tyler Ennis, Connor Brown. 

Notable subtractions: Zack Smith, Cody Ceci, Magnus Paajarvi, Brian Gibbons. 

The big thing for the Sens this summer was helping the Leafs get out from under their difficult cap situation. Ottawa, much like they did with Dion Phaneuf a few years ago, graciously took on the problematic contract of a bad defenceman off the Leafs’ hands. I’d have expected Ottawa to weaponize their cap room in a more useful way than taking on five years of Nikita Zaitsev, but I’m not complaining.

In general, Ottawa kind of endeavoured to become Toronto Maple Leafs 2 this off-season, taking on Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown in that aforementioned trade while also signing Ron Hainsey and Tyler Ennis in free agency.

Beyond their puzzling trade that seemed to heavily favour the Leafs, most of Ottawa’s rebuild work came during the regular season. Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel were all dealt, netting the Sens a wealth of prospects and draft picks to rebuild with. They’ll now head into the season with a team comprised largely of youth with the ultimate goal of adding top prize Alexis Lafrenière at the 2020 draft.

The only real non-Leafs-related stuff the Sens did this off-season was swap Zack Smith for Artem Anisimov, which is actually a great deal for Ottawa. They rid themselves of a bad contract and brought back a useful, veteran player. The Sens also inked a key part of their long-term core, Colin White, to a reasonable six-year deal worth $4,750,000 annually.

How does this affect the Leafs?

The Sens were the punching bag of the Atlantic Division last year and they will be again this year. There’s actually a very good chance they’ll put up an even worse record than their 29-47-6 showing last season. If they managed to win just 29 games with players like Stone and Duchene there for most of the year, imagine how they’ll look without them for the entire season.

As bad as the Sens were, they managed to win three of four games against the Leafs last year. They even managed to lose two games to Ottawa after their trade deadline blow-up. Given how tight things are at the top of the division, winning all of the should-win games against the Sens could be the difference between the Leafs having home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and not. I mean, Boston went 3-0-1 against the Sens last year while Toronto went 1-3, so it literally was the difference.

Otherwise, let’s just enjoy the Sens being a disaster right now. It’s a wildly entertaining soap opera to watch from a distance, and, if the lottery balls end up in their favour next spring, this team that already features excellent young talent in Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk might not be bad for much longer.