While covering an event this past summer, I found myself on a couch with Washington Capitals center Michael Latta and Ottawa Senators left winger Mike Hoffman. It was THN prediction season, and Latta and Hoffman were curious about how we forecasted their teams to finish in 2015-16.
“Well, you’ll be happy,” I told Latta. “We have the Caps winning the East and reaching the Stanley Cup final.”
“What about us?” Hoffman asked.
Then, the awkward silence.
“Come on,” Latta said with a smirk. “Tell him. Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t hold back.”
I looked Hoffman in the eye.
“…We have you ninth,” I said. “Sorry man. You were eighth for a while, but when Pittsburgh added Bonino and Fehr, we had to flip-flop you.”
It was painful to tell a good young player we didn’t think his team was quite good enough to reach the big dance again, but it was how we felt at THN. The Sens were a sensational story last season but needed an inhuman run by goalie Andrew Hammond just to qualify for the playoffs on the final day. They had a promising future, and GM Bryan Murray did a great job re-signing youngsters Hoffman, Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad, but there wasn’t room to add much more to what was already a bubble team. We figured Ottawa would stay competitive but fall just short.
Here we are in December and the Sens look more than competitive. They’re 13-7-5, third in the Atlantic Division and one point out of second with a game in hand on Detroit. The Sens are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games. They took down the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night. Only the powerhouse Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens have scored more goals. All-world blueliner Erik Karlsson continues to be Erik Karlsson, and Ottawa has gotten outstanding individual effort from its top six forwards. Bobby Ryan is playing the best hockey of his career, almost to the point of becoming a Hart Trophy dark horse. Hoffman and Stone have not only proven last year’s breakouts were legitimate, but they have improved on the paces they set in 2014-15. Kyle Turris continues to hum along as one of the sport’s most underrated pivots. He and Stone have been point-per-game players for almost a full calendar year now.
So it appears Hoffman and Co. are poised to make THN chow down on roasted crow this spring. But beneath the extremely entertaining hockey to which Ottawa has treated us lie some alarming tendencies that suggest this team is what we thought it was during that awkward summer couch chat.