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The Ottawa Senators Have Started Rebuilding, But How Long Will The Process Take?

The Ottawa Senators began the rebuilding process on Thursday by trading veteran Mike Fisher. How long will it take for the franchise to return to respectability?

The Ottawa Senators have the NHL's worst goal differential at minus-62. They've also started the rebuilding process, dealing veteran Mike Fisher to the Nashville Predators on Thursday. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators have the NHL's worst goal differential at minus-62. They've also started the rebuilding process, dealing veteran Mike Fisher to the Nashville Predators on Thursday. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
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When the Ottawa Senators -- the second incarnation of them, at least -- entered the National Hockey League in 1992, they were bad. I'm talking really bad. Like, one-of-the-worst-teams-in-history bad. From that terrible inaugural season in which they won only a total of 10 games to the end of the 1995-96 season, in fact, the Senators won only 51 games out of 298 on the schedule. You don't need to know anything about math to understand how bad that is.

But following that 1995-96 season, it all got better in Ottawa. Jacques Martin was in his first full season as coach, Pierre Gauthier was in his first full year as general manager, and as a result, the team started winning. Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson led the way offensively as the Sens made the playoffs for the first time in their history.

After losing in the first round that year, the Senators would return to the postseason for the next decade-plus, including a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. After four years of inaugural futility, something that should be expected from an expansion team, the Senators were around to stay.

As a result, they've been a legitimate playoff team for most of their modern history. That is, until this year. The Senators are bad again, but that should be expected as well.

When you're just good enough to make the playoffs each season and you're drafting in the middle of the first round every year, you simply stay at that same level. Look at the players the Senators drafted in the first round from '98 to '07:

  • 1998: Mathieu Chouinard (15th overall)
  • 1999: Martin Havlat (26th overall)
  • 2000: Anton Volchenkov (21st overall)
  • 2001: Jason Spezza (2nd overall)
  • 2002: Jakub Klepis (16th overall)
  • 2003: Patrick Eaves (29th overall)
  • 2004: Andrej Meszaros (23rd overall)
  • 2005: Brian Lee (9th overall)
  • 2006: Nick Foligno (28th overall)
  • 2007: Jim O'Brien (29th overall)

There are some very nice players in there. Volchenkov and Meszaros remain good NHL defensemen, albeit in places other than Ottawa, and Havlat was a great pick at 26th overall. But how many of those guys, with the exception of Spezza who they traded up to select, are impact players who can carry a team?

When you're a middling team that's good enough to make the playoffs year-after-year, but not good enough to necessarily win it all, this is what happens. You pile up those nice-but-not-great players in the draft while missing out on the prospects at the top that have a shot at being great.

This can happen anywhere, but a place like Ottawa is even more susceptible to it. It's not exactly the top destination for the NHL's top-flight free agents, and that obviously has an impact as well.

So now, as the team has fallen off the proverbial cliff -- winners of just 17 of their 55 games, owners of the NHL's worst goal-differential at minus-62 and any other number of stats you could throw out to illustrate their futility -- it's a completely new phenomenon for fans of these Senators.

For the first time in their history, the Senators are rebuilding. While there was certainly a building process back in 1992 when the team first took the ice, it's different now. There's no luxury of that clean slate, since, you know, players are on the payroll now. The Sens are in the basement again and the only way to get out is to blow it up and start over.

That explosion started on Thursday when general manager Bryan Murray shipped Mike Fisher -- one of those good-but-not-great draft picks selected in the second round in 1998 -- to the Nashville Predators for two draft picks.

Mark Parisi at SB Nation's Silver Seven explained the deal in the simplest way possible:

Mike Fisher was my favorite player, so I'm especially heartbroken that he was traded.  Still, we were told the team would be rebuilding, even if that word wasn't used, and there's nothing more valuable to a rebuilding team than picks and prospects.  You can't get those without giving up something in return, and Mike Fisher was one of the few Ottawa Senators players with some trade value.     

Fisher likely won't be the only one to go, either. There will be more, as guys like Alex Kovalev and Spezza and Chris Kelly sit on the trade block, among others. It won't be fun, and the Senators and their fans are going to be in for the long haul here. They've never had to do this before, either, and that makes it all the more difficult.

So how long will they have to wait before the team returns to respectability? That much isn't known just yet obviously, but if the trade of Fisher to Nashville is any indication, it might take a while.

Consider that the teams prepped to buy these players the Sens are selling are all playoff-bound clubs looking to bolster themselves for the Cup run. Teams like that don't exactly have early-round picks, and the upcoming draft isn't exactly considered the deepest in NHL history. Ottawa will trade for picks and prospects at the deadline this year, but the value of those picks might not be all that high.

If the Senators want to climb back up sooner rather than later, then, they're going to have to do one of two things: poach away solid, already-developed prospects from other clubs via trade, or suddenly turn into the Detroit Red Wings scouting machine and draft star players at every point in the draft.