For the better part of the last two years, the chic, sleek Buffalo Sabres have been held up by many as the NHL's model franchise. However, during the same period, the Sabres have twice been held up at the Conference final Â– and this year in particular, they've collapsed as swiftly and painfully as Bobby Orr's knees.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Sabres can't still follow through on their blueprint for Stanley Cup success in the very near future. But their premature coronation does speak to a short-sightedness among certain observers of the game.
The reality is that the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo's opponents in the 2007 Eastern final, is the team currently providing the best lessons for contending.
As the Sens are demonstrating, half the battle of solving a championship puzzle is having the patience to see it through. It's about not overturning the table in frustration, despite multiple, multi-season letdowns of the soul-crushing variety. Rather, it's about keeping a core of talent together, augmenting the lineup around them, and preparing to deal with the adversities bound to come their way.
In other words: Relax, depressed fans of the Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Atlanta Thrashers et al. As Led Zeppelin so aptly put it, your time is gonna come.
Â“At some point in the history of every successful franchise, there will be a time where there will be a real bad year, where you go out in the first round, where you don't meet expectations,Â” said Anaheim Ducks assistant GM David McNab. Â“And a lot of people will tell you (that) you have to make massive changes. But franchises that have been successful have avoided trading that star player or players, just because they had a bad year or playoffs.Â”
Sounds exactly like the positive predicament the Senators find themselves in right now.
Â“Ottawa this year is a classic example of responding positively to past adversities,Â” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson, whose team had its own share of major disappointments this post-season. Â“I think Detroit has also responded well to their failures the last couple years.
Â“In this business, what you find out Â¬Â– and we live this every day in the West(ern Conference) Â– is that the margin of error (between teams) is so fine, it really comes down to the details, and a lost detail can be a lost game, or a lost series.Â”
On more than one occasion, it would've been easy for the Senators to give in to the shrill voices and blow their roster completely to smithereens, especially after so many lost details and lost playoff series.
Had they listened to those cries, Daniel Alfredsson would be pasty-white-hot for another playoff team right now. Chris Phillips, Ray Emery and a host of other longtime Sens might not be around, either.
Certainly, Ottawa GM John Muckler deserves kudos for sticking to his much-critiqued guns and keeping the Sens' core intact. But as Wilson points out, that doesn't mean teams ought to stand pat regardless of how well or poorly they fared in the playoffs.
Â“Ottawa now is playing with more poise than I've ever seen them play with,Â” he said, Â“and look what they did after having some past challenges Â– they moved their No. 1 goalie (Dominik Hasek), their No. 1 defenseman (Zdeno Chara) and one of their best forwards (Martin Havlat). And now they're playing with more poise? It's fascinating.Â”
No matter how franchises build their rosters, one thing is a constant in championship equations Â– a willingness by management to undergo a dispassionate appraisal of the true value of a team's on-ice assets.
Â“There's no perfect way to put it all together,Â” McNab said, Â“but you have to evaluate your talent well enough to realize that when you have a good team, you have to keep a lot of that team together.Â”
Â“I'm positive Ottawa went through (the evaluation) process, which is all about open, honest analysis,Â” added Wilson. Â“That's a phase we're about to go throughÂ…(but) we will not lower expectations. We'll review the things we have to address, so when that opportunity comes again, we're ready for it.Â”
In an industry with no guarantees, McNab said, simply providing yourself with as many playoff opportunities is all you can ask for.
For the past decade, that is precisely what the Senators have done.
Â“Most people in this game realize how hard it is to get a good player or a good team,Â” McNab said. Â“The more times you give yourself a chance, odds are that eventually you'll have a year where everything comes together, where you get a few lucky bounces and avoid serious injuries, and you win.Â”
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